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Religious Connections Between the Ancient East and West Fertile Crescent

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Readers are told that the study of the history of religions should aim "to reconstruct religion on the basis of its extant remains: belief through texts, cult through material culture" (Dever, 1987). As noble as this sounds, it does not adequately describe the process of discovering an ancient religion. If we try to reconstruct religious belief only through their texts (ignoring how they worship) or cult only through material culture (ignoring their ritual texts), what we find may be something other than what they believed and practiced.

The study of religion needs, when possible, to take both of these approaches into question—we need to study both texts and cultic practices. Of course, the text does create for us a narrative and a history, providing us an advantage of better understanding why certain practices were performed. Sometimes, though, the great majority of evidence lies with either texts or material culture. Instead, and although ancient religions can be quite complex, the reader can begin with an understanding that religion is the service to and the worship of the divine through the attitudes, beliefs, and practices, altogether, of the worshipper (Hess 2009: 15)—religion is holistic. Of course, studying ancient Levantine religion is problematic from the start.

Ancient Levantine Religion and Culture

When one thinks of the earliest times in the ancient Levant, one normally thinks of the Semitic Canaanites and the various tribes related to them, but the Canaanites were not likely the aboriginal inhabitants. From an archaeological perspective, there is a major cultural shift at the beginning of the Early Bronze Age from the culture before (Schoville 2004: 162). From a biblical perspective, Canaan was a son of Ham (Gen. 10) not Shem. Assuming the biblical text to be accurate, a possible explanation may be that the Semitic Canaanites moved into the land at the beginning of the Early Bronze Age. In fact, this may be a fulfillment of the Genesis 9 curse upon Canaan, where Shem (and Japheth) was said to be masters of Canaan and his descendants. The eventual outcome of the Hamitic Canaanites is uncertain, but perhaps they were absorbed by the Semites.

The basis of Canaanite religion at the beginning of the Early Bronze Age was El-centered, as per theophoric evidences. In Urgaritic texts, El is the chief god (Gray 1957: 115). El is somewhat different than other ancient deities in that he is described as an aged, wise, and kindly creator god (Hess 2007: 97; Smith 2002: 2). Of note is the fact that El is the creator of all things, and father of the gods and of humanity (Robinson 2010: 28; Tasker : 58). While there are other gods, El is the chief and stands out from the other, lesser, gods in that he has no nature-centered symbolism (i.e., storm, sea, death, etc.). The closest nature-centered symbolism for El would be the image of the Bull or perhaps his abode, the mouth of the river as per the Baal Cycle. Thus, El is a different kind of god.

It is to this that Abraham enters into Canaan. Note the differences between the biblical attitude toward Canaan before and after the Israel’s bondage in Egypt. After, God tells the Israelites to push the Canaanites out of Canaan, but before, the reader of the Biblical text finds Abraham’s interactions in a more positive light. Abraham makes deals with Canaanites (Gen. 23:17), fights alongside Canaanites (Gen 14:24), and even worships with Canaanites (Gen. 14:22). Of particular interest to the subject at hand is that, in Genesis 14:22, after Melchizedek offers a blessing upon Abram by the name of El Most High, Abram responds by raising his hand in a vow to Yahweh, El Most High, Creator of Heaven and Earth, a phrase reminiscent of one used in the Phoenician Inscription of Aztiawadd which describes El as the creator of created things (Gray 1957: 33).

The question of whether or not Abram worshipped El, the Canaanite god, is important to the discussion. From the Biblical text, it is obvious that Abram worshipped Yahweh, who is clearly identified, but some scholars equate the “El Most High” (אֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן) with El of the local population (e.g., Smith 2002: 213). On the converse, other scholars (e.g., Hess 2007: 97-98) adamantly deny the identity of Yahweh with El. In the opinion of the current writer, there is no problem with ascribing El to Yahweh. Just because Abram may have worshipped El does not also mean that he worshipped, or even believed in, the rest of the Canaanite pantheon. El simply appears to be an original Semitic god, as per early textual evidence (Gray 1957: 120). These include the Ras Shamra texts (dating to around 1200 BC; rarely used in the appellative, Cross 1997:13), as well as Theophoric evidences in the Execration Texts of Egypt (dating to around 1900 BC). Within the biblical text we have an example of elohey (אֱלֹהֵ֥י), a common noun, used to define El (אֵ֖ל) a proper noun (Gen. 33:20). Even in East Semitic languages, we find El as a proper noun. For example, El appears in the earliest Old Akkadian texts without case ending, as use of the divine name (Cross 1997: 13).

As noted above, the use of El as a proper noun is not problematic. Whether or not Abram worshipped El, the Canaanite god, is not in question. What is important is to note that El, the Canaanite god, was worshipped in Canaan at that time and that Abram was aware of that fact, even using the language of “el” in his own worship. This does not mean that Abram was worshipping foreign gods. It is obvious that he was worshipping Yahweh.

In this writer’s opinion, El was likely not “an” early Semitic god but “the” earliest Semitic God, the God of Shem. This helps to explain the Canaanite dichotomy before and after the Egyptian sojourn. Abram was with relatives—fellow Semites. Abram was called by the God of the Semites. From future biblical texts, it is clear that the purpose of this calling was to bring about a more pure form of worship, culminating in the person of Jesus in the New Testament. The clash with the Canaanites comes only after Egypt, and for a very specific reason.

Mesopotamian Religious Influence in the Levant

Between approximately 1900 BC and 1825 BC, religion in Canaan went through a major shift. Theophoric names in the Egyptian Execration Texts give evidence of this. In the first set, dating to ca. 1900 BC, theophoric elements in names are El-centered (Gray 1997: 119). In the second set, theophoric elements in names are Baal-Hadad-centered, thus showing the earliest attested appearance of Baal in Canaan (Oldenburg 1969: 68, 144, Gray 1997:119). This shift had taken place in part due to East Semites migrating to the west.

As noted above, the divine name of Hadad (cf., West Semitic: Hadda, Haddu, Hadad; Akkadian: Adad, Addu; Syro-Palestinian: Ba`lu, Ba`al, in Schwemer 2007: 125) had taken theophoric root in some of the names of rulers in Canaan by 1825 BC, as evidenced in the Execration Texts. How long Baalism was in the Southern Levant before this date is unknown, but one can at least assume that Baalism had not yet become popular by 1900 BC.

For clarity, in an Ugaritic text where Baal’s sister Anat is looking for him, Baal is equated through parallelism with Hadd (Hadad):

… Baal in his house,

The God Hadd in the midst of his palace?

The lads of Baal make answer:

Baal is not in his house,

[The God] Hadd in the midst of his palace.

Baal scoops [his hands] full,

The God Had [his] fin[gers] full. (Pritchard 2016: 142)

Like Kothar, whose home is in Egypt (Smith 2004: 46; 1994: 182), Baal (Hadad) was considered an outsider (Smith 2003: 34). A second millennium letter from Mari equates Hadad with Baal. In the letter, the prophet Nur-Sin quotes Hadad as giving a weapon to Zimri-Lim with which Hadad had used to fight against Sea (Smith 2002: 94), a clear correlation to the Baal myth where Baal had fought Yam, god of the sea. It seems that as Hadad moved farther westward, he was identified according to his perennial ecological attributes. Of course, to say that Hadad is Baal is to step too far. The adaptation and translation of deities from one city to the next always allowed for changes depending on the socio-economic climate of the new location. Eventually, he came to be known as Baal-Hadad, and then finally as Baal (Green 2003: 284), thus the storm god known well in the biblical text. Important to the present study is the origin of Baal. If not from Canaan, then where?

The most likely candidate for the origin of the spread of Baalism to Canaan is Mari, where Baal was called Addu. Addu is attested from Mari continually from the Early Dynastic Period (Schwemer 2007: 156). Having noted the comparison of storm god v. sea god above, it is interesting to note that one of the theophoric names given to Marduk contains Adds (Malāmāṭ 1998: 17), though this name could have been added later.

Addu joins Dagan and Itur-Mur at the top of the pantheon in Mari (Schwemer 2007: 156). There is debate as to which deity was the true chief god of Mari (Itur-Mur seems to have the linguistic correlation; Schmidt 1996; 40), but textual evidence suggests that Dagan was the chief deity of the region (Day 2010: 89). The earliest firm attestation of Dagan dates back to ca. 2350 BC (Day 2010: 88). Of note is that although Dagan appears throughout the west, in fact Ugarit had a temple to Dagan, he does not appear in the extant mythology (Tsumura 2005: 126). Dagan’s name does appear, but in relation to another deity, Baal.

Baal is called the son of Dagan eleven times in the Ugaritic texts (Oldenburg 1969: 46). Baal once in the Baal Cycle calls El his father (Curtis 2005: 135; Ayali-Darshan 2013:651; Smith 1994:91), but in that same text he is also called the son of Dagan, again showing his outsider status (Smith 1994: 293). This Baal Hadad (Addu) likely migrated from Mari near or during the establishment of the Lim dynasty. There is a high degree of continuity between the former Shakkanakku dynasty and that of the Amorite period (Wossink 2009:31), so it is possible that absorption of deities occurred at that time. Additionally, due to its high trade status, Ugarit likely sought trade early on with the Amorites in Syria, and through them even farther; this trade no doubt brought the national Amorite god to Ugarit (Gray 1957: 161).

One possible problem with this theory is that a temple to Hadad existed in Aleppo in Pre-Sargonic times (Schwemer 2007: 162), contemporaneously with the Mari cult. Of course, the Hadad of Aleppo could have also stemmed from Mari. Whatever the case, Hadad did appear to be a Semitic deity to a point. The provenance of Hadad is unclear, but the evidence still stands that Hadad did not enter into the land of Canaan until ca. 1825 BC.

Interestingly, the god Itur-Mer of Mari is possibly an ancient storm god (Schmidt 1996: 40), likely the later manifestation of the more ancient Mer (Green 2003: 63). Itur-Mur is mentioned during the Sargonic Period in south Babylonia, but afterward is not mentioned outside of the Mari region (Green 2003: 63). He survived alongside Addu up until the middle of the second millennium BC, when he declined in popularity (Green 2003: 63). It is possible that this early non-semitic deity may had been the precursor to what Addu/Hadad/Baal would eventually become.


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Ayali-Darshan, N.

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Day, J.

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Hess, R. S.

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Oldenburg, U.

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Pritchard, J. B.

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Robinson, J.

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Schwemer, D.

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Schmidt, B. B.

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Smith, M. S.

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Tasker, D.

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Wossink, A.

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