Taking the “Ug” out of Ugaritic

by John Medendorp, co-editor-in-chief

Dr. Michael Williams with his upcoming book

While many of us here at seminary complain about how much work we have to do, many of our professors impressively balance rigorous teaching loads while also performing incredible feats of research and publishing. Michael Williams is a prime example of this incredible ability to do twelve things at once, and do them all well. Williams is Professor of Old Testament at CTS and the author of the forthcoming Basics of Ancient Ugaritic: A Concise Grammar, Workbook, and Lexicon, published by Zondervan and currently available for pre-order from several online retailers. This is his second book to come out in the past year, following How to Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens in January, also published by Zondervan. Kerux co-editor-in-chief John Medendorp sat down with Professor Williams earlier this week to ask him about his upcoming publication and the course associated with it. Here are the highlights of that dialogue.

Why Ugaritic?

The answer may seem obvious to some, but to many, the question is probably a pertinent one: why study Ugaritic? Hebrew seems dauntingly difficult enough, and to add another ancient Near Eastern (ANE) language on top of it that isn’t even written in the same alphabet seems to some like pulling teeth. Williams is enthusiastic about the language, however, precisely for the cultural insights that it gives us when we look at the Hebrew Old Testament: “Anyone who is in the field of Biblical studies who wants to know something about the larger world in which Israel existed usually starts with Ugaritic.” Ugarit was a city-state on the coast of the Mediterranean located directly east of the eastern tip of the Island of Cyprus. The city of Ugarit disappeared suddenly abound 1150 BC due to the influx of what historians call the “sea people,” of which the Philistines are a part, but a great library of cuneiform tablets has been preserved through the centuries, as the location of Ugarit was forgotten until the 20th century. “Ugarit is just north of the territory that Israel would have possessed,” Williams says, “and so it gives us a window into the culture that Israel was confronting right around the time that Israel was beginning to enter the land.  We have all kinds of library texts from Ugarit, which give us some indication of what the Canaanites were reading and what they believed, and there are all sorts of references to things that we find in the Bible.”

Map of the Levantine coast

The world that Ugarit brings to light introduces an important reality into our thinking: that Israel was not alone in the ANE world. That’s part of what Williams hopes to bring to light with this new book. “So often students at seminary, and anyone who reads the Bible, really, can fall into the trap of assuming—not even consciously—that Israel was the only nation that existed on the face of the earth at the time. Just reading the Old Testament and the things Israel experienced and did, we can’t really understand them without understanding what it is that they’re dealing with all around them: the other nations, the forces and influences impinging upon them, how they are responding…You can’t understand the last kings of the Kingdom of Judah, for example, until you understand the tremendous forces they were facing, with Egypt to their south and west and Assyria and Babylon to the north and east, and how Egypt and Assyria and Babylon were always fighting over this land that Judah occupied. So the kings were always playing this kind of political game, appeasing these giant forces, so they went back and forth. And in the midst of all this you have the prophets saying, ‘Hey! Trust the Lord!’ and it’s easy for us to say, ‘Yeah! What’s wrong with you? Haven’t you learned your lesson?’ But that’s like Jerry Falwel or some other religious leader today telling the president, ‘Hey! You should do this!’ ‘Well, thank you for your input I’ll certainly weigh that in with all of these other factors, but I’ve got these giant military machines on my border who are telling me to do something—’ They’re trying to preserve their nation! And that’s just one example, but anything that can help students, or anyone, get a broader perspective, understand the forces, influences, cultural trends that were affecting the people of God is good. It can help us understand what they experienced in dealing with those influences and how we should deal with similar influences today.”

Part of the great value of the findings at Ugarit are the insights it offers into Canaanite religious beliefs and practices. The gods Baal, Mot, Ashera, and many others mentioned in scripture are featured in the Ugaritic materials, and reading them offers us new and compelling insights which deepen our understanding of the biblical text. “For example, there’s the god Mot, the god of death, this Canaanite god—and of course, “mot” is the construct form for “death” in Hebrew, which we see in the Bible, and he’s the god of death in Ugarit—and one of the descriptions in the Baal and Anath epic describes Mot, it says that he has one lip that reaches to the stars, and one lip that reaches to earth, and a tongue that reaches to the heavens. Why? Because he swallows everything. So how cool is it, then, in the Old Testament, and picked up in the New Testament, where it talks about death, Mot, being swallowed up in victory? That’s pretty powerful. That doesn’t change the meaning, but it gives us a whole other depth of understanding: the great swallower is himself swallowed up by one more powerful than he. That’s fantastic!”

But the Israelites’ interaction with Canaanite culture isn’t just an interesting phenomenon that helps us better understand some words and concepts in the Bible, it also offers us a case study of the people of God interacting with a culture that is not always welcoming to the message of the gospel.  “The whole situation parallels anyone who is going into ministry today,” says Williams. “What do you have? You have Israel entering a new territory, bringing with them a whole worldview and religious belief system that was entirely different than that of the people they were confronting. So they have to ask themselves: what can we accept from the surrounding culture, what do we have to reject as antithetical to our whole belief system, and what can we accept sort of with modification?” It’s not just a simple either-or, an acceptance or rejection. There is a lot of gray area. “That’s exactly what Christians have to ask themselves when they deal with the surrounding culture. So it’s fascinating to watch how the Israelites negotiated those questions and to see what it means for us.” Williams gives a striking example: “Psalm 29, in the Bible, has an almost verbatim parallel in Ugarit. In fact, it seems to be an Ugaritic psalm that was just borrowed wholesale, and the Israelites replaced Baal’s name with Yahweh. So you could say, ‘Well they’re just copying,’ but it’s probably even more than that. It’s probably pejorative. It’s saying, ‘No, Baal is not the storm God. Yahweh is the storm God. Yahweh is greater than Baal.’ So that’s an example of a saying that they borrowed from the culture, but adapted, so that now it’s true.  It’s kind of ‘redeeming the culture’ as we would say today, but way back then.”

Need for a New Textbook

Williams has been teaching Ugaritic for several years now as a part of the new ThM program in ANE languages and literature, and feels that a new textbook was badly needed. “The textbooks that are out there now are very academic, beyond the capabilities of most students who are interested in the course. Normally students who take Ugaritic are planning to go on in ANE and Semitic world studies, and Ugaritic is their first entree into that world after Biblical Hebrew. So all they know is Biblical Hebrew, and maybe not so well, and they pick up a very academic textbook that has all sorts of linguistic terms and cognate language references—it’s just completely overwhelming.” Through this new textbook, which developed out of his Ugaritic course, Williams hopes to make the Ugaritic language more accessible to both students and faculty who are teaching the course. “What I’ve done for students throughout the years here at the seminary is to develop a grammar that links back to what they know from Hebrew, explains things in very clear terms without all the technical jargon, give them a lexicon, and a feature of this new textbook that is not found, surprisingly, in any other Ugaritic textbook, is a section with exercises for each lesson that helps students to exercise the grammatical structures that they learned in that lesson.” These exercises all come from the Baal and Anath epic, an actual Ugaritic text. “So as they go through the grammar, students will have the confidence that they are actually working with real Ugaritic and not just someone’s idea of what a Ugaritic sentence should look like.”

It’s a great read!

The new textbook includes accessible chapters that build on knowledge of Hebrew grammar, practice exercises, and a lexicon, as well as a very complete and up-to-date bibliography for further research, pointing to the academic textbooks and resources for current grammatical issues and scholarly debates. It is intended to serve as a stepping-stone to introduce students to the thought-world of ANE languages and semitic studies in an accessible way before they venture into other languages or comparative courses.

This more accessible textbook will be a boon for Old Testament  and ANE professors as well. “As you can imagine, in many seminaries courses like this are not very available, or at least not regularly available. So you either have to bring in a specialist or you have someone on the faculty who can teach it, but it’s not a part of their regular load, so it’s usually on request or something like that. So for these professors, their understanding of Ugaritic is not the sharpest and they aren’t up on the state of current debate of grammatical issues because they can’t keep up on all of the stuff, so for them to direct students to use these highly academic textbooks and feel confident that they’re giving students what they need so that it will serve them well is a huge challenge. This would serve them well because there are not only exercises, but there are answer keys and a lexicon and further reading that’s up to speed, so here it is, all conveniently laid out for them. It makes it extremely convenient for when they do offer these kinds of courses.”

The textbook is part of the “Basics” series published by Zondervan, which includes the Basics of Greek Grammar and Basics of Biblical Hebrew already used by the Seminary in other language courses. The textbook is intended to be a similarly “basic” introduction the the Ugaritic language and, more broadly ANE and Semitic studies, and for that reason is a welcome addition to scholarship.

Positive Reception

Reception for the book has been overwhelmingly positive. Williams says that before Zondervan agreed to publish the textbook they sent out a questionnaire to seminaries and academic institutions asking professors whether they would be interested in such a resource. “They got a very good response,” says Williams. “A large number of people expressed interest in this resource…I don’t imagine it will be on the New York Times bestseller list, but it is definitely filling a need. I started the project precisely because there wasn’t such a textbook when I was needing it.”

And Williams’ students have gotten some positive attention as well. “We had one MDiv student here who took these language courses for her electives and was able to get a full scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, which is extremely competitive because they have a four-year PhD program, and they pay the whole way for whoever they accept, along with a nice stipend. They had a couple of openings and had hundreds of people apply, and they narrowed it down to ten individuals and invited all ten to come visit the campus for a weekend to meet the professors and each other (which is kind of odd). But this one student who was here, our student who went there, she had used her electives to study Aramaic, Akkadian, Ugaritic, all of the ANE stuff and when she got there she found out that she was one of the few, if not the only one, of the ten who she was competing with who had studied any language other than Hebrew! And so, consequently, she got the PhD slot and now she’s finishing up her degree there.”

Although the course is a part of the ANE languages ThM, it is open to MDiv students as well, and Williams thinks that the study of Ugaritic is more broadly applicable than simply academic scholarship: “Studying these languages really prepares you for going on in that particular track, of course, but it would be helpful for any student who wants to get a picture of the world as it was in Israel’s time.”

Future Plans

At the end of the interview, I asked Professor Williams about his future plans, and whether he feels there are other areas in this field that could use some more introductory-level works. “After having two books come out in the same year I’m pretty much spent for awhile,” he laughs. He feels that the other ANE languages, such as Akkadian and Aramaic, already have sufficient resources that are accessible to students and professors, and the other courses in the area, such as comparative grammar and law, also have great resources. “I don’t have any ambitions to publish anything else in this area.”

But when Michael Williams says he is taking a break, what he means is that he will simply be very busy, and not insanely busy. He is currently serving on the NIV translation committee, and is chair of the New International Reader’s Version revision committee. He has about four other projects ongoing, including developing a year-long online Hebrew course that integrates Logos exercises along the way (“which is massive”), and, as always, teaches an overloaded course schedule. “I’m pretty much shot, so the idea of not having another major project for awhile is pretty appealing.” Of course, he means no new major projects.

After completing this article, I found out that Professor Williams also contributed a chapter to this book, published in September 2012.

Before I can reach over to turn off the recording device, he continues: “My wife has been after me for a while to republish my dissertation to be accessible to non-academics (I was going to say ‘normal people,’ well, I guess non-academics are normal people). It involves the whole idea of deception and how the book of Genesis is just full of stories of deception. Almost every story in Genesis surrounds deception, from the Garden of Eden, the deception that the serpent perpetrates against Adam and Eve, to the end of the Joseph story where Joseph deceives his brothers. Almost every narrative surrounds the theme of deception. So why is that the case? And how are we to understand deception? That’s what I wrote my dissertation on, very advanced, of course, and I’ve spoken on this here at the seminary once or twice. But I’d like to produce something that accessible to everyone that would help them understand not just deception in Genesis, but the Biblical view of deception as a whole. Is it always wrong? Is there anytime when it’s right? We see God perpetrating deception sometimes. What does that mean? Those kinds of questions fascinate me, but that’s not going to come out anytime soon.”

Michael Williams’ textbook will be available in print sometime before the Society of Biblical Literature Conference, which is scheduled for November 17-20, 2012. It is currently available for pre-order from several online retailers. You can also watch a video interview of Michael Williams, produced by Zondervan, on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7yjt27NGLI.