Beyond Translation: Job and Isaiah at Ugarit? Part 2

In Part 1, I promised some Biblical examples of where translation alone fails to convey all the meaning an Israelite would have grasped. I’ve broken these examples into three fuzzy categories. baal

1) Israel is often described in the Torah as a “land flowing with milk and honey.” We probably all have milk and honey in our kitchen, yet not quite what is described here. In the Old Testament, milk doesn’t usually come from cows, and honey doesn’t come from bees. Cattle were primarily used for beef, while milk came primarily from goats, only rarely from cattle. Israelites didn’t raise bees, so honey was likely difficult to acquire. “Honey” was a boiled-down thick sweet syrup, usually made from dates or  some other fruit, though on rare occasion “honey” does seem to clearly indicate bee-honey. Israel, we might say then, was “a land oozing with chèvre and fruit-honey.”

2) Several times in Genesis 1, curious circumlocutions appear. There’s no mention of the sun or moon, but “greater light” and “lesser light.” Even though the account culminates in the seventh day, the Sabbath, there’s no mention of “sabbath.” And lastly, though we have the world bifurcated into water and dry land, the seas are mysteriously plural. All of these are explainable via polemical context. First, both the sun (shemesh) and moon (yareach) were also the names of those deities outside Israel, just as Ra designated both sun and sun-god in Egypt. We can see echoes of shemesh as the name of a (solar) deity in Israelite place names like bet-shemesh (Joshua 15:10), ir-shemesh (Joshua 19:41), and en-shemesh (Joshua 18:17), as well as in Sampson (shimshon). Genesis polemicizes against these deities; Not only are they creations, as opposed to co-creators as in some accounts, but their names are not even mentioned to avoid any hint of polytheism.

Similarly, the name for the sea (“yam”) was also the name of a prominent deity. Hebrew, as far as we can tell, did not have a full range of words for different-sized bodies as ocean, sea, lake, pond, puddle, etc. (think: Sea of Galillee), so it couldn’t simply substitute another term, but instead pluralizes to seas, yammim.

As for the sabbath, it seems that similar motivation may be the cause of its obvious absence in Genesis 1. However, upon further investigation, the support for this claim doesn’t rise to the same level as the others. I’ll bracket it until I can confirm or deny.

3) Here we come to shared background of cultural stories, the most Darmok-like category. One professor of mine described the texts from Ugarit as “the Old Testament of the Old Testament.” The New Testament assumes knowledge of Old Testament customs, laws, stories, etc. As it turns out, the Old Testament also assumes shared cultural knowledge, which modern readers lack. The discovery and decipherment of Ugaritic in 1928 began changing all that, and suddenly all kinds of allusions became clear.  Here is a summary of one example (and we’re really just dipping our toe in the ocean of this topic.)

Job, responding to God’s treatment of him, asks, “Am I yam or tannin, that you (God) should place a guard over me?” The KJV reads, “Am I the sea or a dragon…?” As noted above, yam was the name of a deity, namely, the sea deity at Ugarit, and represented several things, including chaos. Job 7:12 lacks the definite article, suggesting a proper name “Yam” instead of general reference to “the sea.” In the Baal epic, Yam is eventually defeated by Baal (the Ugaritic equivalent of Yahweh), and his power and influence are restrained, restricted, and guarded. These chaotic waters and their destructive power are sometimes represented by a great sea-monster, alternately known as dragon, serpent, Rahab, Leviathan, Behemoth, etc.

Generally speaking, the defeat of chaos/the waters results in order, creation, and the building of a temple for the deity. Allusions to this battle with chaos or Chaoskampf constitute Israel’s third creation tradition.  (We should acknowledge at this point, that this is reflected in Genesis as well, though with one important concept reversed. There are pre-existing waters, tannin are present, and God brings order out of chaos in creating the universe, and taking up residence and rest in his (cosmic) temple on the seventh day. However, in Genesis, there’s no battle, no conflict, no Chaoskampf, which is the emphasis elsewhere.)

Isaiah, Psalms, and other passages allude to an Israelite conception of a pre-creation battle with these figures, with God triumphant as king and the waters held at bay. The theme gets adapted as well to describe the destruction of Israel’s enemies (Egypt, etc.) as well as the apocalyptic end.  A small and random selection-

Isaiah 27:1 “On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.” The twisting serpent is named specifically at Ugarit.

Psalm 74: 12-17 “Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams.  Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun. You have fixed all the bounds of the earth;  you made summer and winter.” Note there the association between God’s conquering of the sea and creation.

Psalm 93:3-4 “The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring. More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the LORD!”

Psalm 89:9-12 “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them. You crushed Rahab like a carcass;  you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm. The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it—you have founded them. The north and the south—you created them;” Again, God’s taming of the waters is associated with creation.

Psalm 29:3, 10 “The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters…. The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.”

Revelation 12-13 with its imagery of the Dragon, the beast rising out of the sea, etc. as God’s primal enemy. My professor opined that Revelation actually has the clearest and most explicit Canaanite allusions out of all the Biblical passages.

Job and these other passages, then refer to a body of cultural knowledge shared between the Israelites and the Canaanites, but which we didn’t know about and therefore didn’t understand, until we discovered texts from Israel’s neighbors. These seem to be things Israelites had commonly known (and believed?), but translation alone failed because we lacked context.

Two notes and a caveat– At least one non-LDS scholar has suggested that the serpent in Genesis 2 is an echo of the chaos-enemy. Given the difficulty locating Satan within the Old Testament, that’s an interesting connection. Secondly, Dan Belnap has explored the Chaoskampf/Divine Warrior theme in the Book of Mormon, here. Lastly, I really feel like I’m giving this shallow treatment here, writing mostly from memory. I haven’t had a lot of time recently due to work, but this is an opportunity to hash out some ideas. Consider this a very very rough draft of, yes, the book I’m working on. I’ll also be going back to my last post to respond to comments.

17 comments for “Beyond Translation: Job and Isaiah at Ugarit? Part 2

  1. October 12, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Awesome. The LDS world needs your book, Ben. This context – especially the understanding of a more primitive and far more referenced creation narrative – really is key to making sense of much of the prophetic portion of the OT.

  2. Julie M. Smith
    October 12, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Very interesting. Thanks.

  3. DavidH
    October 12, 2011 at 11:52 am

    Terrific. What is the Old Testament to the Ugaritic texts? I assume they were also built on pre-existing shared cultural knowledge.

  4. October 12, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    This is great. A few weeks ago we read all of the scriptures that refer to the leviathan for scripture study at my 11-year old’s insistence. I can’t wait until he gets home from school so we can talk about this post.

  5. October 12, 2011 at 8:38 pm


  6. October 12, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    Leviathan is the alligator, Behemoth the hippopotamus (for the natural world analogues). Leviathan is generally not the same as Behemoth.

  7. Sam Brunson
    October 12, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    Ben, I wish I had something insightful to say in response to this. Since I don’t, thank you. The post is absolutely fascinating—I love the color it adds to the texts.

  8. Ben S
    October 12, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    Hmmm. Had to go hunting to make sure my memory hadn’t betrayed me.

    Behemoth only appears in Job, but is loosely equated with Leviathan there.

    “Despite frequent claims that Behemoth refers to one or another animal of the natural world, the Behemoth depicted in Job 40:15–24 (10–19) is best understood as a mythological creature possessing supernatural characteristics….From numerous references to Behemoth in postbiblical Jewish and Christian literature it is clear that the earliest understanding of Behemoth was as some sort of unruly mythic creature akin to Leviathan, which in the end only God can subdue.”- Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, “Behemoth”

  9. October 12, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Keep up the strong work, Ben.

  10. Ben S.
    October 13, 2011 at 9:56 am


    Some things were generally in the air, a shared world-view. Some things were transmitted from culture A to B. Some things may have developed simultaneously in different places. But ultimately we can only trace back traditions so far, and then we run out of texts. At that point, it’s speculative.

  11. October 13, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    This post has added a layer of meaning to my understanding of baptism:

  12. Chris O'Keefe
    October 13, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    In reference to the “milk and honey” example, is this one of those cases where understanding the referents changes the interpretation? A land of “milk and honey” is clearly intended to refer to a nice place, but is it a nice place that’s hard to get to (b/c chevre and fruit honey are still rare) or because they signify additional conditions? It seems like goat’s milk and date-honey wouldn’t be especially rare, and still signify “good things,” although I could imagine that it’s also invoking the kind of peaceful conditions you need to have the time to produce and enjoy milk and honey.

  13. Ben S.
    October 13, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Chris- The phrase carries the same tones of abundance and pleasantness. It’s just that when we hear milk and honey, our cultural conceptions differ. It’s the analogue to my “zimbu/marriage” idea in the first post. You may know how to translate something, “zimbu= marriage” but since cultures construe marriage differently (social roles? couple alone, or extended family? Partriarchal, matriarchal, other?), having nothing more than the translational equivalent of “marriage” leaves a contextual vacuum which we (incorrectly and unconsciously) fill from our own cultural conceptions. And sometimes that leads to serious misunderstandings, though not in the example I chose.

  14. lclayton
    October 14, 2011 at 8:47 am

    Actually the ancient Israelites almost certainly did raise bees. Recent discoveries of beehives massed on an industrial level at Tel Rehov, indicate honey production was well known in the Holy Land. The beehives date to the tenth-ninth century BC. Although Tel Rehov at that date may possibly have been pre-Israelite, it no doubt was controlled by Israel under the Omride dynasty a few years later. As Mazar, who directs the excavations at Tel Rehov indicates in his article, the scholars who have concluded that all honey mentioned in the bible was wild honey, will now have to rethink their conclusions.
    A very minor quibble to your excellent post.

  15. Kevin Barney
    October 14, 2011 at 9:18 am

    Great stuff, Ben.

  16. October 18, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    Ben, it just dawned on me that Jesus’ calming of the sea might have been viewed within this context. Is that possible?

  17. Ben S
    October 18, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    lclayton- Thanks! Interesting stuff.


    Yes, entirely :) Who controls the waters? Yahweh.

    Matt 8:27 “They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

    Mark 4:41 (Luke 8:25) They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

    I’m not aware of any LDS writing addressing this (I’ll stick it in a footnote), but there’s this paper in general.

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