The patriarch Abraham is known as the father of the world's three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For centuries his faithfulness to one god at a time when people worshiped many deities has been regarded as a monumental break with the society around him. However, an archaeological discovery known as the Ugaritic texts is opening a window onto a different cultural context for Abraham's story than biblical historians first supposed.
The Records of Ugaritic Texts
In 1929, a French archaeologist named Claude Schaeffer found an ancient palace at Ugarit, known today as Ras Shamra, near Latakia on Syria's Mediterranean coast. The palace spread over two acres and stood two stories tall, according to The Biblical World: An Illustrated Atlas.
Even more exciting than the palace was a large cache of clay tablets found at the site. The writing on them and the texts themselves have drawn study for nearly a century. The tablets were named the Ugaritic texts after the site where they were unearthed.
The Language of the Ugaritic Texts
The Ugaritic tablets are noted for another significant reason: they aren't written in a cuneiform known as Akkadian, the common language of the region from 3000 to 2000 B.C. Instead, these tablets were written in a 30-character type of cuneiform that also has been named Ugaritic.
Scholars have noted that Ugaritic resembles Hebrew, as well as the Aramaic and Phoenician languages. This resemblance has led them to categorize Ugaritic as one of the precursor languages that influenced the development of Hebrew, an important find for tracing the history of the language.
Religion expert Mark S. Smith in his book Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century, categorizes the Ugaritic texts as "revolutionary" for biblical history studies. Archaeologists, linguists, and biblical historians have pored over the Ugaritic texts for nearly a century, trying to understand the world they chronicle and its possible influence on the story of Abraham found in Genesis Chapters 11-25.
Literary and Biblical Parallels in the Ugaritic Texts
In addition to language, the Ugaritic texts show many literary elements that have made their way into the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Among these are images for God and twin sets of statements known as parallelisms such as those found in the biblical books of Psalms and Proverbs.
The Ugaritic texts also contain detailed descriptions of Canaanite religion that Abraham would have encountered when he brought his extended family into the area. These beliefs would have shaped the culture that Abraham encountered.
Most interesting among these details are references to a Canaanite god named El or Elohim, which translates loosely as "the Lord." The Ugaritic texts indicate that while other gods were worshiped, El reigned supreme over all the deities.
This detail relates directly to Genesis Chapters 11 through 25 that encompass Abraham's story. In the original Hebrew version of these chapters, God is referred to as El or Elohim.
Links From the Ugaritic Texts to Abraham
Scholars think the similarity of names shows that the Canaanite religion may have influenced the name used for God in Abraham's story. However, based on the ways they interact with humans, the two deities appear quite different when the Ugaritic texts are compared to Abraham's story in the Bible.
- Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century by Mark S. Smith (Baker Academic 2001).
- The Biblical World: An Illustrated Atlas (National Geographic 2007).