An Ugarite prayer for a city under siege (Psalm 65)

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Illustration: The temple of Baal at Ugarit

In the ancient Near East warfare was frequent and often came close to home. Thus it is not surprising that religious texts from the ancient world often include prayers for victories over enemies. Psalms such as Psalm 65 reflect this tendency: David either prayed for victory for himself or for Jerusalem.

A Ugaritic text gives us insight into how followers of Baal sought the aid of their god in times of war. This text is known as RS 24.266 (“RS” stands for “Ras Shamra”, the place at which the Ugaritic tablets were discovered).

The nature of the Ugaritic prayer text

This text has two parts:

  • A prose portion describes how the rituals for seeking Baal’s help against enemies were to be conducted. Among other stipulations, the instructions include directions about the appropriate dates for such ritual prayers, as well as about which animals were to be offered on those dates.
  • A poetic portion provides the prayer that was to be recited. It appeals for Baal to protect the walls of the city and devotes considerable attention to promises by the people to make various sacrifices to Baal if he would defend the city during a time of war. Some scholars suggest that the prayer includes a promise to make a human sacrifice to Baal, but the text is unclear and more likely denotes an animal sacrifice.

The value of the Ugaritic prayer text

This text is helpful for Biblical readers for several reasons:

  • I illustrates the fact that ancient texts could be quite complex, containing both prose ritual instruction and poetic liturgy. Biblical scholars sometimes argue that a passage containing both prose and poetry must have been written by at least two authors. This wrongly assumes that ancient writers never produced complex texts: We see clear evidence in the Ugaritic texts that they did.
  • The content of the Ugaritic prayer, calling for help from one’s god, is parallel in David’s prayer for Zion in Psalm 65. The Ugaritic text is older than the Biblical psalm, indicating that there is no reason to suppose that the psalm and prayers should be treated as late compositions (many reject the idea of Davidic authorship for the psalms and argue that these sophisticated prayers and liturgies must have come from a very late date). If such prayer-texts existed prior to David’s time, there is no reason to think they could not have existed during this period-
  • The Ugaritic text reminds us that the enemies the psalmist faced were not metaphors for spiritual struggles but flesh and blood foes who sought to kill the Israelites and destroy their cities. The Ugaritic prayer is clearly about real warfare.
  • The theological content of the Ugaritic prayer over against the Biblical psalms is illuminating. In the Ugaritic text Baal is to some extent bribed with promises of bounteous sacrifices. Such an approach is explicitly rejected in the Bible (e.g. 51:16-19). Instead, the psalmist appeal to God’s righteousness and covenant faithfulness, as in 65:4-5. No one can buy off the God of the Bible!


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