Archeology and the Religion of the Canaanites -- By: Merrill F. Unger

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 107:426 (Apr 1950)
Article: Archeology and the Religion of the Canaanites
Author: Merrill F. Unger


Archeology and the Religion of the Canaanites

Merrill F. Unger

The religion of the Canaanites is a subject of considerable importance to Biblical studies. From the patriarchal age till the period of the divided monarchy, and later, the religious life of the Canaanites had its significant repercussions on the history of the Hebrews. Hence it was natural for the writers of the Old Testament to give some account of the Canaanite paganism that surrounded them. The critical tendency has been to minimize the accuracy of the Biblical representation of Canaanite religious practice, and to view it as highly colored by bias and prophetic intolerance.

The inflexibly stern attitude of Israel’s God against Canaanite cultic practice and its devotees has been subjected to severe strictures on moral grounds. However, greatly increased knowledge of Canaanite religion as a result of the discovery of the religious epic literature at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) on the north Syrian coast (1929–1937) has authenticated the Old Testament representation and fully confirmed the depth of depravity of Canaanite cults. The evidence of archeology justifies the seemingly harsh attitude of the Bible. In the light of further proof of the degeneracy of Canaanite paganism, Israel’s God and Israel’s prophets are relieved of the charge of an “immoral severity” in ordering the wholesale extermination of its cult and its devotees.

I. The Character of the Canaanite Pantheon

Less than a quarter of a century ago our knowledge of Canaanite religion was narrowly circumscribed. Besides that which could be gleaned from the Bible and the Greek and Roman authors, factual material was practically confined to the abstract of Phoenician mythology which Eusebius

drew from Philo of Byblus. Philo was a native Phoenician scholar, who not far from 100 A.D. wrote a “Phoenician History” called “Phoenician Matters” (Phoinikiká). According to Porphyry and Eusebius, Philo got his facts from an earlier Phoenician named Sanchuniathon, whom W. F. Albright dates sometime between 700 and 500 B.C.1 Sanchuniathon in turn drew upon the much earlier account of a certain Hierombalus, who collected his material at Berytus under King Abibal, who is said to have flourished before the Trojan War.

As in the case of the Old Testament account, the abstract of Phoenician mythology which Eusebius drew from Philo used to be considered in critical circles as largely an invention of the latter, possessing little value as an independent source of information for Canaanite religion. The Ras Shamra religious texts, however, have vindicated both Philo an...

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