Reading Challenge #1: Stories from Ancient Canaan.

In three weeks I graduate with my BA in Classics and Religious Studies.  This fall I hope to begin an MA in Biblical Languages, in preparation for an eventual PhD.  The plan is to start part-time this fall then transition into full-time next spring.

I’m very excited.

For many years I have known I wanted to be a scholar.  When I realized I was called to biblical studies, it was like a sudden click.  I had been preparing for this for years without even realizing it.  (You’d think a couple years of Greek and Hebrew would have tipped me off…)  Mostly I am interested in looking at the Bible through the lens of intercultural and interreligious exchange and dialogue.  A weird part of me is considering focusing on intertextuality between the Bible and the Qur’an.

Anyway, as preparation, I’ve prepared a summer reading list of primary sources in the Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman worlds, Second Temple Judaism, and early Christianity.  Of course I plan to read the whole Bible. The list draws from graduate reading lists and other bloggers’ advice, especially Ben Blackwell and Michael Bird.  I’m using BookHabit and the Bible Companion App on my phone to track my reading.  As I read each book, I’ll post some thoughts on it here.

Book Review #1: Stories From Ancient Canaan, ed. Michael Coogan

51loCb-rcVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Coogan gathers here several stories discovered on 14th-century BCE clay tablets in cuneiform from Ugarit.  These stories tell us about the slaughter of Aqhat, King Danel’s son, at the hands of Anat, the goddess of love and war; King Kirta’s need to sire a son and the challenge his son later offers to his kingship; and the infamous Baal’s quest to become king of the gods over El.  Coogan translated these stories as a teaching text, so his introductions to each story really helped me understand the opaque cultural references and fill in some of the gaps of missing text from lost portions of each story.  Coogan is himself a biblical scholar, and his notes constantly make reference to biblical parallels.

A few things I got out of these stories:

  1. There are many literary techniques in common between ancient Israelite and ancient Canaanite writings.  Most important is parallelism, in which “a single idea is expressed in units of two or three lines … by repetition, synonyms, or antonyms” (15).  Some of the symbolic numbers in these stories, such as seven as a unit of time, also appear in biblical literature.
  2. Reading Canaanite literature helps us better understand some of the references to God in the Hebrew Bible.  Many of the titles for God in Israel were borrowed from Canaan.  For example, the title “El Shaddai,” which Coogan takes to mean “God of the mountain,” makes sense because the Canaanite El lived on a mountain.
  3. There are a lot of interesting thematic parallels regarding kingship between Israelite, Canaanite, and Greco-Roman literature.  For example, the storm-god Baal conquering the sky-god El and taking his primary position in the pantheon is similar to Zeus’ takeover of his father Kronos’ position as head god.  On the human level, King Kirta’s son Yassib challenged his father’s right to rule, claiming that he was incompetent and should step down.  This is similar to David’s sons Absalom and Adonijah trying to take over their father’s reign before his death.  This does not necessarily indicate direct literary borrowing, but points to common problems in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean in monarchy and succession.  Different cultures struggling with similar problems of power might come up with similar literary themes.

Reading this Canaanite literature gives us a glimpse of Baal, El, and Asherah, so maligned in the Bible, on their own terms.  Plus the stories are just really cool.

Next up: Hesiod’s Theogony!


One thought on “Reading Challenge #1: Stories from Ancient Canaan.

  1. Pingback: Reading Challenge #2: Hesiod’s Theogony. | Linguae Antiquitatum

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