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The Ancient Semitic Language of Ugaritic

Regarding the discovery of Ugaritic, here is how one scholar tells the beginning of the story:

“In the spring of 1928, a farm worker was plowing some land on the Mediterranean coast of Syria … The tip of his plough ran into stone just beneath the surface of the soil; when he examined the obstruction, he found a large man made flagstone. He cleared away the earth, raised the stone, and beneath it he saw a short subterranean passageway leading to an ancient tomb … Though he could not have known it at the time, the agricultural worker had opened up more than a tomb on that spring day; he had opened a door which was to lead to extraordinary discoveries concerning ancient history and civilization … ” (Taken from Peter Craigie, “Ugarit and the Old Testament.”)

The above tomb was not the source of our Ugaritic texts. Rather, the discovery of the tomb led to further excavation at a site nearby and that is where our texts were found. This area was called “Ras Shamra” by the Arabs. Note that in 1928, Syria was not yet a country. It was governed by the French, under a League of Nations mandate. It was the French who decided to investigate further, after the initial discovery of the tomb. The nearby bay was called “Minet el-Beida” in Arabic. This means “White Harbor.” Ancient Greek texts had referred to a harbor called “Leukos Limen” White Harbor. Perhaps, this was what had now been found.

The further excavations arranged by the French revealed that the site had a long history, beginning in the Neolithic period (7000 to 5250 BCE). The settlement reached its peak in the Late Bronze Age (14th-13th centuries BCE). The texts found date from this period. (This is the early Biblical period.) Due to its lack of military strength, it seems from the archaeological record that the site fell into the hands of the Egyptians, around 1400 BCE and then to the Hittites, around 1350 BCE. The site seems to have been destroyed by the Sea Peoples, in approximately 1200 BCE. With the exception of a few small occupancies in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, the site was never occupied again.

The place name “Ugarit” is found in the texts. That is why scholars decided to call the place “Ugarit” and the language “Ugaritic.” Such a place had been mentioned in other ancient texts, but its location had not been known. Over 1000 texts were discovered. Some were in Akkadian, Sumerian, Hittite and Hurrian. But many were in an unknown writing system.

Scholars were able to decipher the unknown writing system fairly quickly. (The way they deciphered it was by assuming that the language was a Semitic one and then making further assumptions consistent with that.)

An unusual thing about this Semitic language was that it was written in cuneiform. Although Akkadian was also a Semitic language written in cuneiform, it had hundreds of characters. This language only had 30 letters. Each letter in Ugaritic is only a consonant. So, we do not know how the vowels in their words were pronounced. (It was later understood that three of the 30 Ugaritic letters were not original, so Ugaritic originally only had 27 letters. Early Arabic had 29 letters. Based on this, scholars believe that the original hypothesized Semitic language, Proto-Semitic, had either 27 or 29 letters. In our 22 letter Hebrew alphabet, some of those letters have disappeared and two letters have coalesced into one. I have written about this previously.)

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Now I will give a few examples of how Ugaritic helped to shed light on difficult words in Tanach:

זבלון: At Genesis 30:20, we have: “This time my husband יזבלני, for I have born him six sons; she named him ‘Zevulun.’” What is the meaning of יזבלני?

Most had understood the root זבל to mean “to dwell,” and translated the phrase as “my husband will dwell with me.” They took this approach to the root זבל because it seemed to perhaps have a “habitation” meaning at Kings 1, 8:13 and Chronicles 2, 6:12. There “zevul” follows the word “beit.” In contrast, in Akkadian, our root meant “to carry” and, perhaps, implied “to lift up.” But scholars did not feel compelled to accept these as meanings of the Hebrew root, because Akkadian is not that closely related to Hebrew. But then Ugaritic was discovered, and Ugaritic is closely related to Hebrew. There זבל had the meaning of “lift up.” Also, their word for “prince” uses this same root.

Therefore, the correct translation at 30:20 seems to be “my husband will exalt me.” See the translation in the JPS commentary. (Daat Mikra mentions this as a possible translation.) Also, we can now suggest that the meaning of “beit zevul” at Kings 1, 8:13 and Chronicles 2, 6:12 is “exalted house.”

מלאך: Based on its four-letter structure with an initial “mem,” our early Jewish grammarians (i.e., time of the early Rishonim) could suspect that the root of this word was לאך. But they were not sure. Also, there was no verb לאך in Tanach, so they could not know what the word fundamentally meant. There was a cognate in Arabic to לאך and it meant “to send.” But our sources from Arabic are not earlier than the seventh-century, long after the period of Tanach.

It was discovered that Ugaritic had a cognate to לאך which had the meaning “send.” See Encyclopaedia Judaica 2:957. Thus, a מלאך is one who is “sent.”

יפח: This word appears three times in Tanach: Psalms 27:12, Proverbs 14:25 and Habakkuk 2:3. (Mandelkern puts 14:25 in the פוח entry, not the יפח entry.) We all know the word from Psalms 27:12 (“LeDavid Hashem ori”): “False witnesses are risen against me, ויפח chamas.” The usual translations here were always something like “breathe violence,” based on the suggested roots נפח and פוח. The comment in the Soncino on 27:12 (1945) understood it to mean “utter words to injure an innocent man,” without any citation to Ugaritic and, probably, just from the context. But it is parallel to עד in this verse and at Proverbs 14:25.

It turns out that the root יפח means “witness” in Ugaritic. The entire phrase—with the word חמס—means something like “malicious witness.” We already have “eid chamas” at Exodus 23:1, Deuteronomy 19:16 and Psalms 35:11. The “witness” meaning fits in Habakkuk 2:3 as well.

בערבות רכב (Psalms 68:5): This phrase describes God. A statement in the Talmud understands “aravot” as heaven. But based on Ugaritic, a strong argument can be made that this phrase means: “rides the clouds.” See my “Roots and Rituals,” pages 140-143 for a full discussion and see also the Daat Mikra to this verse. The phrase may be a metaphor for “controls the rainfall.”

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Not only are the meanings of the words in Ugaritic and Hebrew similar, the world of myth and legend inhabited by their peoples are similar as well. Much has been written about this. As one example, three verses in the book of Ezekiel mention an individual named דנאל. See, e.g., Ezekiel 14:14, where he is listed with Noach and Job, who are not Israelites. A figure named “Danel” is found in Ugaritic literature. We now realize that Ezekiel is probably not referring to our Jewish “Daniel,”but to this other figure. See Encyclopaedia Judaica 5:1274.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He would like to thank Zvi Weissler for donating him the book: “Ugarit and The Old Testament” (1983), upon Zvi’s making aliyah many years ago.

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