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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Stories from Ancient Canaan" 2nd Edition

TITLE: Stories from Ancient Canaan, Second Edition
AUTHOR: Michael D. Coogan and Mark S. Smith
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, (160 pages).

Written by two experts in the studies of Ugaritic literature, this book offers readers a unique insight into the world of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and biblical times, in particular, in the Old Testament contexts. After three decades since the first edition, the editors and translators have updated this book with more new material and improvements. The main additions have been the last two chapters, "The Lovely Gods" and "El's Drinking Party." These labels seem to be a marked departure from ancient languages denoted in the earlier chapters. For instance, there is "Aqhat" written on three tablets that tell the story of the son of Danel. Three tablets tell the story of "Rephaim" which relates the inter-relationships between the living and the dead. The story of "Kirta" tells of a king's urgent search for a successor, an heir, and gives precious insights into the frenetic focus on fertility and the rites that accompany it. Six tablets tell the story of the military god, "Baal," on the power struggles between Baal and Death, El's son. One is given a fascinating insight into the world of gods and goddesses in Canaanite lands. In "The Lovely Gods" which is written in one tablet, and comprises a prescriptive part (rituals) as well as a mythic (stories) part. There are stories of feasting among the gods, rituals of death, song, and even a part on cooking! What is interesting is how one feast brings together all the different deities. Through the feasting, there are allusions to over-consumption, famine, and the dangers of infertility and lack of food. The final chapter on "El's Drinking Part" is admittedly very fragmented. It shows the difficulty not only on translating ancient texts, but trying to interpret them accurately. Finally, the glossary and the glossy pictures provide another way for readers to appreciate the ancient literature.

My Thoughts

Ancient literature like the Ugaritic types are often written in tablets of clay. Due to the age of the tablets, not everything is legible. Much of the content has been lost and unable to be deciphered. It makes me more appreciative of the modern technologies that we have, and how easy it is to preserve, to duplicate, to distribute, and to study modern literature. Despite the best technology, we are still dependent on human interpretation to make sense out of ancient literature like the Ugaritic texts. Here, we rely heavily on the expertise of the editors to make the best sense out of it. I see three benefits in reading this book.

First, it gives Bible readers a fresh insight into the Old Testament times, and how the Israelites live in Canaan land. There are several passages of Scripture that the authors identified, and used the Ugaritic background to illuminate the meaning of Scripture, For instance, Baal's battle with Death makes Baal paranoid about windows (cf: Jeremiah 9:21).

Second, the book shows us how closely the ANE use the stories of gods and goddesses to reflect human living. Kings at that time are synonymous with a central figure of not only political and social leadership, it is also religious. Kings have a special way to interact with the gods, making them extremely powerful and influential in the lives of the people.

Third, the overwhelming interest in fertility rites helps us to understand why there is a highly acute survival instinct of people in the ANE. People fight hard to survive. They take agricultural and fertility rites very seriously. They know that food and heirs are keys to survival not only of their families, but for their civilization. The Ugaritic literature contains something that we in the modern world have frequently taken for granted.

There are a lot more lessons to learn. It goes to show how nuanced the stories can be. Perhaps, one of the biggest lessons learned is this. During the time of the ANE, people see the political, social, technological, the religious, and all walks of life as one unit, undivided. We in the modern world have dissected life into far too many components under the principle of secularization. While the Ugaritic literature may appear in fragmented forms, perhaps, the modern world may want to consider whether our world is even more fragmented, albeit in different ways.

This very unique book will supplement studies of ancient texts.

Ratings: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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