Canaanite Religion

This article appears by permission of Blackwell Publishing. The definitive version is available at

Religion Compass 1/1 (2007): 61–92.

K. L. Noll
Brandon University
Copyright © Blackwell Publishing 2006


“Canaanite religion” is a controversial term because the Bible and some religious scholars distinguish between Canaanite and Israelite religions. However, biblical and archaeological data suggest that Israelite religion was one local variety of the larger, regional Canaanite religion. Canaanite religion is the religion of all peoples living on the eastern Mediterranean seaboard prior to the Common Era. The gods and the myths in this region display some stable characteristics, yet evolved new details and changing divine relationships throughout ancient times. At the center of Canaanite religion was royal concern for religious and political legitimacy and the imposition of a divinely ordained legal structure, as well as peasant emphasis on fertility of the crops, flocks, and humans.

I. Sources for the Study of Canaanite Religion

ANCIENT SOURCES. Archaeological excavations have exposed Canaanite household religious shrines, personal religious artifacts such as amulets, rural religious shrines, large urban temples with public altars, ritual utensils and divine statues, as well as documents. Religious documents from ancient Canaan range from stone inscriptions to personal correspondence on broken pottery. In one important case, an archive of ancient clay writing tablets has been recovered. These tablets from a city called Ugarit contain poetic narrative myths, lists of the gods, and descriptions of rituals. The Bible is another significant literary resource, as well as texts from various sites such as Emar. Although the ancient literature is valuable, almost all ancient peoples were illiterate and therefore did not read these documents, which were composed by and for the wealthy. The documents depict the religious beliefs and rituals of the upper classes, and it is difficult to know how far down the social ladder such beliefs and rituals extended. The beginning student is especially encouraged to consult two bibliographical sections at the conclusion of this article: “Ancient texts in English translation” and “Reference works.”

RESEARCH METHODS. Any investigation of religion, regardless of historical period or geographic focus, requires attention to questions of research method. Although the religious participant usually believes that religion derives from a supernatural or sacred reality, religion is, primarily if not exclusively, a social phenomenon, and can be investigated using all the tools available from the social sciences, biological sciences, humanities, and historical studies. The essential element in any academic study of any religion is a self-conscious neutrality that shows no favoritism toward any religious worldview, and this is accomplished by the application of the same set of evaluative criteria to every religion. These criteria necessarily rest on the values established by the academic community, as explained by Noll (2001a, pp. 31–82). The beginning student is especially encouraged to consult the bibliographical section “General introduction to the study of religion.”

II. Controversial Questions: Who Was a Canaanite? What Is Canaanite Religion?

Almost every aspect of Canaanite religion is controversial among historians. Probably, it would be more satisfactory to speak of Syro-Palestinian religion rather than Canaanite religion. Be that as it may, the positions taken in this article will be disputed by some researchers. Therefore, two of the most controversial questions must be addressed at some length: Who was a Canaanite? What is Canaanite religion?

WHO WAS A CANAANITE? The ancient label “Canaanite” was not an ethnic designation or a means of personal identity. In the modern West, a person might identify herself as an American in one context, a New Yorker on another occasion, or a Long Islander in another situation. In ancient times, rough equivalents to the latter two of these designations were common, but not necessarily the first (Noll 2001a, pp. 140–6). There was no nation-state in the ancient world, travel for most people was severely limited, and a peasant’s loyalties to a geographically distant king were not necessarily articulated as part of personal or community identification (Lemche 1998b, p. 31). Ethnicity is not a question of biology or political allegiance; rather it is a publicly negotiated corporate identity involving shared values, shared stories, and sometimes a shared metaphysics (Noll 1999, p. 43; Zevit 2001, pp. 89–90). Although most historians understand this issue, they nevertheless manage, at times, to talk past one another when assessing ancient evidence dealing with the identity of the Canaanite peoples (Lemche 1991, 1996, 1998a; Na’aman 1994, 1999; Rainey 1996; Zevit 2001).

In the ancient texts, “Canaan” refers to land, not ethnic groups and not culture, and “Canaanite” designates a person who is from the land of Canaan (cf. Ezek. 16:3). The land of Canaan appears to have been, loosely, the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean. Any communities in the region known now as southwestern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, western Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority might be designated Canaanite by an ancient scribe (Tammuz 2001). For example, a royal inscription from Egypt describes Israel as one of several peoples defeated by Pharaoh Merneptah when he conquered the land of Canaan (Pritchard 1969a, p. 378). It is no surprise that material objects, temple structures, artistic styles, and other cultural artifacts are relatively uniform over a vast expanse of real estate larger than the region usually designated Canaan and therefore provide no foundation for distinguishing Canaanite from various ethnic identities (Levy 1998 provides an excellent overview; see also Finkelstein 1988; Finkelstein & Na’aman 1994; Bloch-Smith & Nakhai 1999; contra Zevit 2001, pp. 84–85).

In some periods, “Canaan” was a political term. It designated the northeastern portion of the Egyptian empire, the precise borders of which could fluctuate depending on the politics of the day (Rainey 1963; Pitard 1987, pp. 27–80; Redford 1992; Na’aman 1994, 1999; Finkelstein 1996; Tammuz 2001; Goren, Finkelstein & Na’aman 2003). At times, the Egyptians designated all their northeastern holdings Canaan (equivalent to another term, Hurru) while at other times “Canaan” designated the southern portion of this region more specifically. In later times, “Canaan” came increasingly to designate the coastal regions also called Phoenicia. “Canaanite” could become a very loosely defined ethnic term among people who had migrated from Phoenicia to the western Mediterranean.

The etymology of the word “Canaan” is entirely uncertain and not particularly useful to this question (Tammuz 2001, p. 532). The final consonant is a suffix, and the other consonants could derive from a verbal root meaning “to bend” or, more likely, from a root meaning “purple-dyed” cloth. The latter, though disputed by some linguists, suggests the word originated with trade in luxury goods, and might be echoed in the Greek root for “Phoenicia,” meaning “dark red.” The commercial interpretation of the root is interesting because, in a few cases, the Bible uses the same root to specify a “merchant” (e.g., Proverbs 31:24). It is possible that this commercial sense of the word was primary in the minds of those who first used “Canaan” to designate a land that stood between the major population centers of the ancient Near Eastern world. Canaan was a land bridge for merchants and armies on the move (Redford 1992, p. 192; Noll 2001a, pp. 108–11). If this speculation has merit (and it must be stressed that the etymology of “Canaan” is not certain), the use of this linguistic root might have originated among the elite classes who oversaw trade routes and who thought of the region primarily in terms of its economic utility. This perspective and the word associated with it would not have been shared by peasant farmers, some 90 percent of ancient Canaan’s population. (For an alternate hypothesis on the origin of the word “Canaan,” see Tammuz 2001, pp. 532–3.)

Ancient writers seldom designated their own communities Canaanite (Lemche 1991, 1996, 1998a). Among the people living in the land of Canaan, more localized identification no doubt was common. The Bible, for example, speaks of many ethnic groups (Israelites, Jebusites, Philistines, Girgashites, Hivites, etc.) but, with a few exceptions, these are impossible to differentiate in material remains uncovered by archaeologists (Noll 2001a, pp. 136–69). A few of these terms preserve faint memory of migrant groups, such as Philistines whose ancestors arrived from Greece. But evidence of migration is not evidence of ethnos, and the data suggest that any newcomers to Canaan assimilated rather easily into the local culture (Noll 2001a, pp. 149–54).

The name “Israel” makes an excellent example of the difficulties associated with Canaanite identity. This word suggests an unselfconsciously Canaanite worldview, since “Israel” means “El strives” (or perhaps “El is just”; cf. Margalith 1990), designating the bearer of the name as one who affirms the Canaanite god El, as in Genesis 33:20. If the Bible’s claim that the Israelites were non-Canaanite migrants to Palestine preserves any genuine memory, then obviously the name provides no evidence for this, nor does archaeology provide unambiguous ethnic data (Noll 2001a, p. 163; compare Zevit 2001, pp. 113–21, and Brett 2003). Moreover, trace data in the Bible (e.g., Yithra the Israelite in 2 Samuel 17:25 MT; see Noll 1999, p. 41 note 32) and ancient inscriptions (such as the Moabite stone’s reference to Gadites as a non-Israelite people; see Noll 2001a, p. 169 note 17) suggest that only some of the people now known as the ancient Israelites called themselves Israelites. The biblical texts were edited at a late date to create the false impression of a unified pan-Israelite ethnos (Noll 1999, 2001b). Thus, it is best to view Canaan as a geographic term and to define Israel as a limited ethnic or political identity within Canaan (Zevit 2001, p. 116 note 50). An Israelite was a Canaanite who was attacked by Pharaoh Merneptah somewhere in or near the Jezreel valley (Noll 2001a, pp. 124–7), or a Canaanite who was a subject of the kingdom called Israel, or a Canaanite who identified with the cultural memory of that kingdom after it ceased to exist.

In conformity with ancient use of the term, this essay defines a Canaanite not as a member of an ethnic group but as any person who lived during the Bronze (especially later Bronze) and Iron Ages on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean. Because the material cultural continuity of the region reaches more widely than the borders of Canaan as reconstructed by modern scholars, and because the term itself could identify a variety of specific regions or no specific place at all, it is best to treat as Canaan the entire Syro-Palestinian corridor, roughly from the modern Anatakya-Aleppo region in the north to Elat-Aqaba in the south. The Bronze Age is defined as ca.3200–1200 BCE, and the Iron Age follows the Bronze Age and includes the Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, Persian, and Greek encroachments into Canaanite land, ca.1200–160 BCE.

WHAT IS CANAANITE RELIGION? The concept of Canaanite religion is a difficult one since it is very likely that the ancient peoples we call Canaanite were not aware that they were religious. The modern English word “religion” has no equivalent in ancient Canaanite languages and an etymological discussion of its roots will not profit this discussion. In modern popular culture, a religion can be defined in many ways, causing the publishers of standard dictionaries no end of headaches as they attempt to keep up with ever-changing cultural assumptions. Among the academics, each school of thought produces its own definition of religion (Glazier 1999; Braun & McCutcheon 2000; Hinnells 2005). All such definitions would have been regarded as irrelevant by an ancient people whose lives involved an integration of worldview, ethos, and the struggle for existence in an environment indifferent to their presence.

There are aspects of Canaanite life that we moderns would recognize as religious, however we may define it. For purposes of this article, the list of behaviors enumerated by Ziony Zevit, if modified slightly, offers a workable framework for analysis (Zevit 2001, pp. 11–3). Religion in an ancient Near Eastern context consisted of (1) acknowledgment of a supernatural reality usually defined as a god or gods, (2) reverence for objects, places, and times considered sacred, that is, separated from ordinary objects, places, and times, (3) regularly repeated ritual activities for a variety of purposes, including ritual magic, (4) conformance to stipulations alleged to have been revealed by the supernatural reality, (5) communication with the supernatural through prayer and other activity, (6) experience of feelings described by participants as awe, fear, mystery, etc., (7) integration of items 1–6 into a holistic, though not necessarily systematic, worldview, and (8) association with, and conformity of one’s own life priorities to, a group of like-minded people.

This constellation of attributes is not meant to be a definition cast in stone but is best treated as “a working hypothesis that enhances one’s ability to perceive” (Noll 2001a, p. 57 note 3). The reader is encouraged to refine, modify, or abandon the hypothesis as his or her own research develops. The student of Canaanite religion should keep another thought in mind as well: although it is safe to say that almost all ancient Canaanites were religious in some degree, one should not construct a fable of the “pious ancient” (Morris 1987, pp. 1–4). Just as people in modern society vary in the degree to which they commit themselves to a religious life, so also there were people in the ancient world whose lives might seem, to a modern observer, remarkably secular. This topic is beyond the scope of this article, but has been treated elsewhere (Noll 2001a, pp. 238–43).

A second and more significant problem with the concept of a Canaanite religion brings us back to the question of whom to include under the rubric “Canaanite.” The biblical distinction between Israelite and Canaanite religion is uncompromising, which implies that not all the religions practiced in the land of Canaan were Canaanite religions. Biblical authors like the writer of Deuteronomy 7 exhort Israelites to destroy Canaanite religious objects, temples, altars, and even worshipers. According to that book, the shunning of Canaanite influence reached deeply into Israelite society. An Israelite who is caught worshiping a god other than Yahweh of Israel is to be executed (Deuteronomy 17). Even the genuine miracles or true prophecies of one who worships a god other than the Israelite god are crimes punishable by death (Deuteronomy 13).

Is the biblical distinction between two religions – Canaanite and Israelite – accurate or artificial? Influential religious scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries proclaimed it accurate (consult the extensive review of scholarship in Thompson 1992; cf. Hillers 1985). However, as religiously neutral researchers have become more prominent, the assessment of the Bible’s claims has changed (del Olmo Lete 1994, p. 265; van der Toorn 1998, p. 13). The most common view among researchers today is that biblical writers polemicized against aspects of Israelite religion that they did not accept, and their rhetorical attacks on “foreign” religion masked their real target (e.g., Greenstein 1999; M. S. Smith 2002, p. 7).

Archaeological data reveal that the peoples of ancient Canaan shared material culture and patterns of daily behavior, including religious behavior. Although a few scholars still claim otherwise, we cannot, from the dirt of Syria-Palestine, distinguish Israelite from other Canaanite religious practices (Noll 2001a, pp. 140–64). This is not surprising; identical environment and culture results in very similar religious experiences and behaviors. One should not expect archaeological data to betray an Israelite religion that is significantly distinctive from its Canaanite context (Dever 1987; Thompson 1992; Handy 1995; Niehr 1995, 1999; Becking 2001; Dijkstra 2001b; Vriezen 2001).

Likewise, careful study of the Bible demonstrates that the distinction between “false” Canaanite religion and “true” Israelite religion is so superficial that one doubts whether most ancient readers of these texts were impressed by the excessive rhetoric of biblical prophets (Noll 2001b; cf. Thompson 1995 for discussion of the historical circumstances of this rhetoric). Any religion’s god is the invention of those who worship that god. Societies with many gods invent a specialist for each human need. Societies that prefer only one god invent a general practitioner who can meet all these needs. In all cases, the purpose of a god or set of gods is to provide a counterintuitive – and therefore strangely compelling – foundation for the prevailing morality and customs of the society. The worshipers commit to these counterintuitive gods because they alleviate existential anxieties, rationalize a moral order, and ground their commitment in something seemingly more lasting than the whim of personal convenience (Atran 2002, pp. 263–80). Therefore, one cannot reasonably expect biblical religion to look very different from its environment, which was the source and author of its morality and customs.

An example of biblical polemic against “false” Canaanite religion illustrates the point. The book of Kings tells a story in which a prophet named Elijah pits the Israelite god Yahweh against a Canaanite god named Baal (1 Kings 18). The reader has no difficulty imagining the bewilderment of the people who, in verse 21, respond to Elijah’s challenge with silence. Ancient sources demonstrate that both gods control the weather, ride on clouds, defeat mythical beasts that symbolize the chaotic floodwaters threatening the earth, and rule as divine king. With smoke pouring from his nostrils, Psalm 18’s god rides a beast called a cherub (a divine lion with oxen hooves, eagle’s wings, and a human head) to rescue his human king. Psalm 29’s god convulses the earth with his thunderous voice and sits enthroned over the chaotic floodwaters while minor gods sing his praises. The irony in the story of Elijah was not intended by the ancient author but is evident to a religion researcher: Elijah seeks to differentiate himself from those with whom he shares almost every aspect of his own worldview. It is what he shares with the worshipers of Baal – not just meat sacrifice for a weather god who acts miraculously but also the worldview in which such a god becomes necessary – that most troubles Elijah. Because Yahweh and Baal are distinguishable in name only, the narrated miracle that allegedly falsifies one and affirms the other is trivial. “The radically ‘other’ is merely ‘other’; the proximate ‘other’ is problematic, and hence, of supreme interest” (J. Z. Smith 2004, p. 253; see also Greenstein 1999, pp. 57–8).

In spite of these facts, religious scholarship continues to posit some kind of distinction between Israelite and Canaanite religions. In its more subtle form, theologians depict a Canaanite people who gradually stripped away Canaanite religious elements to construct a monotheism embodied in a Torah of Moses that allegedly reflects greater ethical consciousness than earlier Canaanite polytheism (e.g., Gnuse 1997). In less subtle manifestations, theologians assert that biblical religion is distinctive because it speaks of a covenant between its god and the people of Israel, thus defying the royalist ideologies of Canaan in which a covenant exists between a god and a king (e.g., Mendenhall 2001). Most egregious are popular publications aimed at pious readers. These often rely extensively on Canaanite evidence to describe Israelite religion, and yet never attempt to clarify the relationship between Israelite and Canaanite religion. Instead these theological “histories” presume their readers know and accept biblical claims about the alleged theological superiority of Israelite piety (e.g., King & Stager 2001, p. 352 and passim; Miller 2000, pp. 47–62 and passim).

These theologians invest the concept of distinctiveness with a value judgment, asserting or implying that biblical religion is superior to the inferior Canaanite cultural context from which it emerged. Comparison, however, need not involve such value judgments. If a case could be made that Israelite religion is distinctive with respect to other Canaanite religions, it would also be the case that those other Canaanite religions are distinctive with respect to Israelite religion (J. Z. Smith 1990, 2004). To date, Ziony Zevit provides the best religiously neutral defense of the thesis that Israelite and Canaanite religions are truly distinct, in The Religions of Ancient Israel (2001), and that volume is recommended to the reader. However, in this writer’s view, Zevit’s analysis relies almost entirely on subtle distinctions he believes he can discern in the material cultural remains while ignoring larger and relatively obvious ideological uniformity in the ancient sources (Zevit 2001, pp. 84–85, 89–121 and passim). Like Elijah in 1 Kings 18, Zevit ignores the radically other and elevates the proximate other to the level of “problem.”

Methodologically, it is best to approach “biblical religion as a subset of Israelite religion and Israelite religion as a subset of Canaanite religion” (Coogan 1987, p. 115). This idea of a subset is hardly a recent innovation. As early as 1670, Benedict de Spinoza had correctly surmised that the Torah of Moses is the fragmentary literary remnant of a public behavior code typical of ancient Near Eastern societies (Spinoza 1951, pp. 57–80). Subsequent research confirms his intuition (Morton Smith 1952, pp. 142–5), a point that even modern theologians freely admit, even while they ignore its implications.

A brief look at biblical Deuteronomy illustrates this methodological approach. The book is hostile to “other gods,” yet conforms to Canaanite depictions of Baal (e.g., Deuteronomy 33:26–29) and presents a Canaanite patron, who is “god of gods, lord of lords, the great god/El” (10:17). The book’s concept of covenant derives its literary form and language from ancient Near Eastern international treaties (Weinfeld 1972, pp. 59–157), but also derives its theological content from ancient divine patronage (as discussed in section 3, below). Deuteronomy appears somewhat distinctive because its covenantal relationship exists between a god and a people rather than between a god and a king who represents a people, a point stressed by theologians (e.g., Mendenhall 2001). This shift of emphasis reflects editing of the text during the historical circumstances of the Babylonian and Persian eras, when the early Jewish community no longer had a king and therefore rearticulated its traditional understanding of covenant (see also Isaiah 55:3, cf. Van Seters 1999). This redefinition does not amount to repudiation of antecedent religious strategies, but rather a reaffirmation of them.

The religion of the Bible is distinctive from all other Canaanite religions in one sense: it survived to become a stone in the foundation of a more complex religion, rabbinic Judaism, while other Canaanite religions gradually faded away (Noll 2001a, pp. 304–11). But the Bible’s religion is not qualitatively different from other Canaanite conceptions of the divine. No ancient Canaanite would have dissented from the Bible’s affirmations that the divine realm created the earth and intervenes in it, that the divine is interested in the welfare of humans, receives worship and sacrifice from humans, and is careful to exact retribution for human behavior. Had Deuteronomy named its god Baal rather than Yahweh, it would not have made any difference, for “the polemic of Deuteronomy is akin to the polemic between sixteenth century Protestants and Catholics whose worldviews were largely identical, not the difference between, say, a Catholic and a Sartrean existentialist, whose worldviews are fundamentally opposite” (Noll 2001b, p. 14). Israelite religion is not Canaanite religion if, and only if, Protestant religion is not Christian religion, Conservative Judaism is not Jewish religion, and Shi’ite Muslims do not practice Islamic religion.

Therefore, this essay treats Israelite and biblical religion as “an outgrowth of and part of Syro-Canaanite religion” (Wright 2004, p. 178). Clearly there are differences of emphasis between these religious types. The Bible attributes all divine activity to one god by eliminating the names of the divine specialists that this one god has replaced. Nevertheless, the other gods of Canaan can be discerned just below the surface of the biblical text. In a few cases, even the names of those Canaanite gods have not been erased from the Bible.

III. The Key Element of Canaanite Religion: Divine Patronage

The government of ancient times was royal. A king employed a class of professional warriors (the aristocracy). Together, king and noblemen ruled the peasants (farmers and artisans) and slaves. Their food and drink came from taxes in kind imposed on the commoners. In return, they protected the peasants during crises.

This political system was also the common religion of the ancient world. The gods chose the kings, marched to war with the armies, provided the laws that the kings enforced, and demanded that the kings rule righteously. The ritual offerings demanded by the gods were the taxes that fed royal bureaucracies, the priests, and armies.

In Canaan and beyond, royal monuments attest to the piety of kings who are the beloved ones of their gods. The divine Lady of Byblos, for example, chose Yehimilk to be king of Byblos, and he restored temples for his goddess as well as the god Baal-Shamem (Pritchard 1969a, p. 653). Zakkur, king of Hamath, was chosen by this same Baal-Shamem to be king of Hadrach (Pritchard 1969a, pp. 655–6). In some cases, the king was also a priest, such as Tabnit, king of Sidon, who was priest of the goddess Astarte (Pritchard 1969a, p. 662).

The religious politics of antiquity can be called “divine patronage” (Noll 2001a, pp. 207–15, 265–8). In most cases, it worked this way: a human king owed his authority to one god, his divine patron. Other gods were subordinate to, and partners with, the divine patron, just as the aristocracy and the commoners were expected to be subordinate to, and supportive of, the human king. On occasion, this divine patronage was more complex. A king whose political realm expanded over time might be chosen for royal office by one patron god in one locale and another patron god in another place. In other situations, a patron god might have a spouse who occupies a position of relatively equal or greater authority vis-à-vis her divine husband, or her position might be very clearly subordinate to the male patron god, though no less significant to the functional patronage of the human king.

For his part, the human king was expected to serve the gods by serving the kingdom, bringing righteousness, peace, and well-being to the people over whom he ruled. In southeastern Turkey, King Azitiwada was chosen by Baal and brought “every good, and plenty to eat, and well-being” to his people. He assures us that, with the aid of Baal and the gods, he “shattered the wicked,””removed all the evil” from his land, and became like a “father” to other kings “because of”– as he not-so-humbly affirms –”my righteousness and my wisdom and the kindness of my heart” (Pritchard 1969a, pp. 653–4). The tale of King Solomon’s vision at Gibeon, where he receives wisdom from his god, articulates this royal theology (1 Kings 3).

When a king failed in his responsibility, the divine patron punished him and his kingdom, often by sending a military enemy against his own king and people. King Mesha of Moab affirms that the patron god had punished the land of Moab during the reign of Mesha’s predecessor, though this same god has saved the land under Mesha’s military leadership (Pritchard 1969a, pp. 320–1). The biblical god also punishes the land for the disobedience of its kings throughout the books of Kings and Chronicles. Frequently, a patron god sent a human messenger called a “prophet” to warn the king and his noblemen, and sometimes the people as well, of their holy obligations. A number of ancient sources give evidence of these prophets, including the royal archives of Bronze Age Mari and Iron Age Assyria (Nissinen 2003), not to mention biblical prophets, as can be seen, for example, in Jeremiah 22 (cf. Parker 1993; Grabbe 1995, pp. 66–118; Ben Zvi & Floyd 2000).

It should be noted, however, that the righteousness demanded by a patron god was dictated by the prevailing prejudices of the day. In any religion, morality is a reification of the needs of a society. If the religion is theistic, those needs are formulated as divinely revealed instruction. In reality, Canaanite society itself dictated what the patron god required, what the patron god defined as just, and who the patron god favored. Although patron gods routinely used foreign armies to punish the sins of their own people, at the end of the day, a divine patron’s loyalties were never in doubt. When King Mesha of Moab fought in the name of his god Kemosh, he subjected his enemies to herem, a ritual slaughter of every man, woman, and child required by the god himself (Pritchard 1969a, pp. 320–1). Likewise, the biblical god demands uncompromising slaughter on the battlefield, sometimes amounting to genocide (e.g., Deuteronomy 20). When King Zakkur of Hamath fought enemy armies, he turned naturally to his patron, Baal-Shamem, never doubting that Baal-Shamem was on his side:

I lifted my hands to Baal-Shamem.
Baal-Shamem answered me,
Baal-Shamem spoke to me through prophets and heralds;
Baal-Shamem said,
“Fear not! I am he who made you king.
I stand with you;
I deliver you from all these kings who lay siege against you.”
(Noll 2001a, p. 210).

The morality of the divine patron can seem very foreign to modern sensibilities. For example, since ancient Near Eastern society was patriarchal, treating women as subordinate to men, it follows logically that the divine patron also treated women this way. A biblical example illustrates the point (Noll 2001a, pp. 213–4). In 2 Samuel 11–12, King David covets another man’s wife, takes her, and later kills the husband when the woman becomes pregnant. According to the story, the patron god, Yahweh, is angry, but not because David has raped and murdered (Noll 1999, pp. 35–6). Yahweh expresses disgust that David has taken the wrong man’s wife, for he, Yahweh, is eager to give David the wives of other men if David desires them (12:7b–8). As punishment for David’s sin, the woman’s child shall die and another man shall rape several of David’s other wives (12:9–14). The moral values of Canaanite culture are clearly on display in this tale: the divine patron punishes a man by killing a child and orchestrating the rape of other women. The divine patron protects the property of males by violating or destroying the property of other males. Religious morality is a by-product of social prejudices.

The four ranks in human society – royal, noble, peasant, and slave – were mirrored by four tiers of gods (Handy 1994; M. S. Smith 2004, pp. 101–5). At the top stood the divine patron and sometimes his spouse. In the second rank were the cosmic gods, who ruled aspects of the natural realm such as the storms that fertilized the land, the lights in the sky, the endlessly chaotic sea, the vast earth, and the eternal underworld. On the third level were the gods who assisted with practical aspects of daily life, such as gods of craftsmanship, gods of childbearing, and the family ancestors who had become gods after death. The lowest rank of the gods, corresponding to slaves in human society, were the messengers. The Greek word for “messenger” is angelos, and this is the origin of the English word “angel.”

This hierarchy of the gods is called by some scholars “henotheism.” It is a very short step from this idea that one god is the divine patron and others are subordinate to him, to the notion that one god is truly god and any other supernatural beings are merely creatures at his command. Biblical religion differs from other Canaanite henotheisms by making this one short step. The gods of the middle two ranks – cosmic gods and gods of daily life – have been eliminated from much (but not quite all) biblical poetry and narratives, usually leaving only the divine patron and his many angels. A similar process in which the patron god absorbs the names and functions of the gods who occupy the middle two tiers is observable in Mesopotamia (e.g., Ashur, god of Assyria) and Egypt (e.g., Amun-Re, god of the New Kingdom) (M. S. Smith 2002, p. 10).

This divine hierarchy and the political-social realities that generated it constitute the key element in all forms of Canaanite religion. The remainder of this article is a description of particulars that fit within the framework of divine patronage. From the perspective of the elite classes, the higher gods played a more significant role, providing the ruling classes with religious and political legitimacy and the imposition of a divinely ordained legal structure. Surely this aspect was not lost on the lower classes either, but their daily needs focused on those gods who could provide for the fertility of the crops, flocks, and humans. Thus, any individual, from king to nobleman to commoner to slave, might find his or her way up or down the hierarchy of the gods, seeking those gods who were most significant to present circumstances.

IV. The Evolution of the Gods of Canaan

The names of the gods of Canaan and their place in the divine ranks differed from place to place and from human generation to generation. At Bronze Age Ugarit, the highest god was called El, but the highest god at the Iron Age city of Sidon was named Eshmun, and in Iron Age Moab it was Kemosh. Even in one place at one time there are many inconsistencies. At Ugarit, the lists of the gods and the lists of offerings to the gods do not entirely correspond with one another (Pardee 2002, p. 12). Also, the myths of Ugarit seem unrelated to these lists of gods. For example, Dagan, who was honored with one of the two major temples of Ugarit, is mentioned frequently in ritual texts but never plays a role in Ugaritic myths. Likewise, Mot, who plays a role in the myths, never received worship or ritual sacrifice at Ugarit.

The myths of Canaan were in perpetual flux as well (Korpel 1998, p. 93). No stories of the gods remained unchanged through the centuries. At Ugarit, variant versions of the same myth appear in the texts of contemporary scribes. In one place, the god Baal defeats Yamm, god of the chaotic sea (in a Ugaritic text that scholars call KTU 1.2.iv.1–32; see, for example, Wyatt 1998; cf. Parker 1997). In another passage, the goddess Anat defeats Yamm (KTU 1.6.ii.31–36), and fragmentary texts suggest still other variants of this myth (e.g., KTU 1.133).

The perpetual flux of Canaanite myth is echoed in the Bible. For example, the Bible’s Yahweh battles the god of the sea, as does Ugarit’s Baal. Both the scribes of Ugarit and the authors of the Bible call the sea god by two names, Yamm (”sea”) and Nahar (”river”). In both texts, Yamm has a sidekick, a divine beast that Ugaritic scribes called Lotan, but the Bible names Leviathan in some passages and Rahab in others (KTU 1.3.iii.40–42; 1.5.i.1–3; see Job 26:12–13 as well as Psalms 74:14 and 89:10). The Bible also echoes Ugaritic myth when it portrays the highest god as creator of the earth. At Ugarit, El is the creator who lives at the source of the great rivers (KTU 1.4.iv.20–24). The Bible’s creator god does not live at the source of the rivers, but instead places his first humans there and visits on occasion (Genesis 2–3). Even when the Bible rejects a Canaanite deity, the god influences biblical myth. El’s wife at Ugarit is called Athirat and she gives birth to seventy sons, who are the other gods of Ugarit (KTU In the Bible, each kingdom has its own god (Micah 4:5) and there are seventy kingdoms in the world (Genesis 10), but Athirat, whose name has become Asherah, has been rejected as a goddess (1 Kings 15:13; 2 Kings 23:4) (J. Day 2000, p. 24).

The personalities and specialized activities of the Canaanite gods also remained in perpetual flux. One god might usurp the activities – and even the name – of another god. At other times, one god might divide into his or her several characteristics, becoming multiple gods with similar names.

There are many examples of this process of divine fusion and fission. Baal (which means “Lord”) can be called by his personal name Hadad (or Adad), which means “Thunder”; Baal Zaphon (”Lord of the North Mountain”); or Baal Shamem (”Lord of the Sky/Heavens”). At times, each of these names designates a distinct god, and some ancient lists of the gods could include as many as seven Baals (M. S. Smith 2002, p. 76). In other situations, Baal could merge with another god. For example, Melqart (”King of the City”) later becomes known as “the Baal of Tyre” (J. Day 2000, p. 75). Biblical authors tell of similar divine changes. In Genesis 33:20, Jacob declares before an altar, “El is the god of Israel.” Later, this god tells Moses that he was known at one time as El-Shaddai (”El of the Mountains”), but now he prefers Yahweh, which probably means “He who is” or “He who creates” (Exodus 6:2–3).

The goddesses of Canaan present perhaps the most complex cases of fusion and fission. Canaan was a land of three major (and many minor) goddesses. Two of the major goddesses were Anat and Astarte. In the Bronze Age, they are distinct individuals, but by the final centuries BCE they have merged into a goddess called Atargatis. The third of these great goddesses was the previously mentioned wife of the high god El who was known as Athirat, Ashirta, or Asherah. The common linguistic root to her several names was the ancient word for “place.” She is the personified sacred place of El, but she becomes a mother of the gods and a co-worker with her husband. Athirat is not the only sacred space to become a deity. The Semitic phrase beth-el means “house of El,” a label for a temple. Eventually, a god called Bethel emerged. Later still, a goddess who was worshiped in Bethel’s holy place became a divine aspect of his holiness and so she was called Anat-Bethel. With the appearance of this new compound name, Anat-Bethel has become an independent goddess and should not be confused with either Anat or Bethel, who are the conceptual sources from which she sprang. In some cases, the language of the ancient texts can be very confusing. For example, one Phoenician document speaks of the goddess Astarte, who is “in” the Asherah of the god Baal-Hammon (Hadley 2000, p. 13). In this case, the Asherah might be a sacred place, the temple of Baal-Hammon, and not a goddess, though one suspects that she is both the temple and a goddess, within whom Astarte now resides.

V. Significant Gods of Canaan

In spite of the constant flux among them, a few features of the major gods were stable throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. Above all, the concept of divine patronage as discussed in Section III was a constant. Therefore, the gods of Canaan can be arranged in a four-tier hierarchy: patron gods, cosmic gods, gods of daily life, and slave gods (or messengers).

Gods of the first and second tiers

1. El
Ugarit seems to have been the domain of the high god El, sometimes called “Bull El” (e.g., KTU 1.2.iii.21; 1.4.iii.31), who created the cosmos and oversees his creation with wisdom and benevolence. Sometimes El creates by word of mouth, at other times by forming creatures from clay, and in some instances by having sexual intercourse with his goddess Athirat (Korpel 2001, p. 130). El is an elderly god who delegates the role of divine patron to an underling, the mighty storm god Baal. According to one version of the myth, Baal was not El’s first choice for divine king, but when Baal proved his mettle by defeating El’s beloved son, the god Yamm, El rewarded Baal’s bid for power (KTU 1.1–1.4). Even though El does not seem to have a primary temple at Ugarit, he remains central to Ugarit’s pantheon and ritual life. He seems to remain the power behind the divine patron’s power and to rule by the strength of his personality. The Ugaritic texts depict an endearing old god with a jolly nature, as when he sees his wife Athirat approaching:

Behold, El saw her.
He opened his mouth and laughed.
He propped his feet upon the footstool.
He twiddled his fingers.
(KTU 1.4.iv.27–30)

Athirat describes her husband this way:

You are great, El, you are wise!
Your hoary beard instructs you indeed!
(KTU 1.4.v.3–5)

As at Ugarit, many regions of Canaan knew a highest god named El. Inscriptions from the Iron Age contain a blessing by “El, creator of the earth” (Miller 1980; cf. Genesis 14:19, 22). Another Iron Age site in the southern desert called Kuntillet Ajrud bears a plaster wall inscription featuring El. The legible portion of the damaged and fragmentary text reads:

When El shines forth . . . ,
the mountains melt . . . ,
[To] bless Baal in the day of war,
the name of El in the day of war . . .
(G. I. Davies 1991, p. 82; cf. Dijkstra 2001a, p. 24).

Since the phrase “name of El” stands in poetic parallelism to “Baal,” it seems that the El of this poem has merged with Baal and adopted his attributes (melting mountains). Moreover, in this poem “El shines forth,” which is usually a characteristic of the Canaanite sun god, Shaphash or Shemesh.

Some scholars believe that El decreased in popularity during the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Ages (Niehr, 1995; Korpel 2001). According to this view, the dominance of Baal-type gods in the inscriptions of the Iron Age suggests that Baal (especially Baal-Shamem) had usurped El’s position as highest of the gods, and as the most common divine patron in the Syro-Palestinian corridor. There is evidence in a city called Ekron to suggest that Baal appropriated El’s wife Asherah in the Iron Age (see below). Nevertheless, in a few parts of Iron Age Canaan, El continued to be significant. A religious shrine in the Jordan River valley, called Deir Alla, yielded a very fragmentary inscription about a prophet named Balaam son of Beor (Hackett 1980; cf. Num. 22–24). El and a group of gods called the Shaddai gods are featured in the plaster-wall epigraph. Probably, this combination of El and Shaddai gods is related in some manner to the biblical name for god, El-Shaddai (Lutzky 1998). The Bible’s frequent equation of its god Yahweh with Canaanite El demonstrates that El had not lost his significance for at least some Iron Age Canaanite groups.

2. Athirat/Ashirta/Asherah
El’s wife, Athirat, Ashirta, or Asherah, gave birth to seventy gods and nurses the human royal heirs at her breast (KTU; cf. KTU 1.10.i.3–4; 1.15.ii.28; 1.23). Although sometimes disputed, the root of her several names probably means “place” (but cf. Margalit 1990). Frequently she is also called Qudshu (”holy place”; but cf. Cornelius 2004), and she might have emerged from the personification of El’s temple. A poem from Ugarit praises El and Athirat together and seems to present Athirat as the personification of El’s benevolent nature, “the grace of El, the support of El, the peace of El” (KTU 1.65).

In spite of her relationship to El, Asherah appears to have enjoyed an independent career. At an Iron Age Philistine city called Ekron, west of Jerusalem, storage jars in the sacred precinct are designated “for Asherah” and “holy according to the statute of Qudshu.” Apparently, a temple inscription gives Asherah-Qudshu an additional personal name and prays that she will bless and protect both the king of Ekron and his land (Gitin, Dothan & Naveh 1997). The king of Ekron received taxes, which were religious offerings brought to the temple, in conjunction with the god Baal (Gitin & Cogan 1999). All these data from Ekron suggest that this city honored a divine pair, Baal and Asherah (perhaps a city god and his personified holy place?), and the female held the primary authority, having revealed statutes, divine holy law (Noll 2001a, p. 247). The reference to a “statute” of the goddess (or a statute of her holy place) is very suggestive, since this Semitic word is also used by the Bible to refer to the statutes of Moses, the biblical Torah. It seems reasonable to conclude that Ekron’s Asherah revealed divine ordinances much as did Jerusalem’s Yahweh, whose holy place was also the source of Torah (e.g., Isaiah 2:3 = Micah 4:2).

An image from Ugarit depicts Athirat nursing the royal heirs of the city (though this is disputed by some, cf. Cornelius 2004, p. 100). In other images, she can be a goddess standing on a lion, sometimes nude, sometimes also holding serpents, signs of healing and fertility. At Ekron, where the storage jars are dedicated “for Asherah,” archaeologists found a silver medallion depicting a goddess who stands on a lion (Burns 1998). Other times, Asherah is a tree of life, with an ibex standing on each side of her (Hadley 2000; cf. Keel & Uehlinger 1998). The Bible remembers this iconography with disgust, and Deuteronomy 16:21 even demands that Israelites never “plant an Asherah” (a holy tree or wooden post representing a tree) near the altar of Yahweh. The biblical prohibition exists because some Israelites were happy to include Asherah in their worship. Archaeologists recovered several Hebrew inscriptions in which the reader receives a blessing from Yahweh and from his Asherah (Dijkstra 2001b, p. 117, 122; cf. Hadley 2000; Schmidt 2002; and see KTU 1.43.13), and 1 Kings 16:33 describes an Israelite king who plants an Asherah in his royal temple. Much later, biblical writers seem to have demoted (and domesticated) Asherah by transforming her into a personification of divine wisdom (see, especially, Proverbs 8 and Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira 24). Even in this manifestation, the original imagery of Lady Wisdom/Asherah was not lost. Wisdom is, after all, El’s primary trait, and Asherah seems to be, at Ugarit at least, the personification of El’s traits. Even biblical Proverbs preserved the imagery that Deuteronomy scorned. According to Proverbs 3:18, Wisdom is a “tree of life.”

3. Baal/Hadad/Adad
The god called Hadad or Adad (”Thunder”) is also called Baal (”Lord”), Prince Baal (biblical “Baal Zebul”), or the Cloud Rider, among many other epithets. He was the storm god who brought or withheld fertility for the land (cf. KTU 1.101). As such, he was one of the most popular gods of Canaan, where agriculture was the primary occupation.

Because he was a young, strong god, many Iron Age kings identified Baal, especially in the form Baal-Shamem (”Lord of the Sky/Heavens”), as their patron deity. One of the two primary temples at Bronze Age Ugarit was dedicated to Baal, and a prayer from Ugarit praises him as the one who protects the city gates from enemies (KTU 1.119.26–36). Ugaritic myth tells of Baal’s battle for supremacy against the god Yamm, “Sea” (KTU 1.1–1.2), and the subsequent building of Baal’s palace on top of Mount Zaphon, the source from which the earth receives its fertility (KTU 1.3–1.4). Even though Baal earned his status as patron by defeating the chaotic god of the sea, his status and his palace are affirmed by Ugarit’s high god El. That myth in various versions survived to Greco-Roman times. Daniel 7 presents the Cloud Rider replacing the chaotic beasts from the sea and receiving dominion from an elderly, El-like god. The biblical author borrowed his imagery from the old Baal myths, but has demoted Baal to a symbol for the Jewish people, who receive the kingdom from their god (Daniel 7:27).

An interesting myth of Baal tells of his battle with the god Mot, whose name means “death” (KTU 1.5–1.6). The storm god is defeated by Mot and dies, descending into the underworld. Later, Baal’s sister Anat defeats Mot and rescues Baal (KTU 1.6.ii.26–27). The myth is an allegory for the agricultural season. The god of storm arises during his proper season. A number of historians see these myths of Baal as the catalysts for later religious innovations. Baal’s death and resurrection is viewed by some as the origin for later beliefs about dying and rising savior gods and belief in life after death (J. Day 2000, pp. 116–27). Baal’s defeat of Yamm, the sea god, is thought by some to be the origin of the later tale of Israel’s exodus through the Red Sea (compare Isaiah 51:9–10) (Kloos 1986).

4. Anat and Astarte
Anat is the young, wild virgin goddess, who is also known as “the Lady of the high heavens” (KTU 1.108). She appears sexually compelling (though not, perhaps, sexually active) and bloodthirsty in battle (P. L. Day 1992). In one passage, Anat is described butchering soldiers on the battlefield and adorning herself with their body parts:

She hung heads on her back;
she attached palms to her sash.
She waded knee-deep in the blood of soldiers;
Thigh-deep in the gore of warriors.
(KTU 1.3.ii.12–15)

This behavior from a sexually appealing goddess reverses Canaanite society’s patriarchal norms, in which males do the fighting and women are sequestered in private quarters to “protect” their sexuality. Or perhaps, Anat represents the military subculture in Canaanite society, where foremost on the minds of young male soldiers are love and war (Wyatt 1999, p. 541). It is interesting to note that the label “son of Anat” was an honorific title coveted by warriors. One such “son of Anat” is mentioned in the Bible (Judges 3:31) and another was inscribed on the rim of a bowl at Ekron (Gitin, Dothan & Naveh 1997, pp. 13–14).

Astarte is a more enigmatic figure. She is the evening star, the planet Venus at sunset. (A lesser-known counterpart is the male deity Astar, the morning star, the planet Venus at dawn.) Astarte, like Anat, represents love and war, though myths never depict her as the wild rebel Anat is represented to be. At a Syrian city called Emar, she is “Astarte of battle” (Fleming 1992). Often, artwork depicts Astarte standing on, or riding, a horse. At Ugarit, she is sometimes called “Astarte, the name of Baal” (e.g., KTU, which might suggest that she is a manifestation of Baal or otherwise related to him. In the Iron Age, Astarte is paired frequently with a manifestation of Baal, and she receives the title “Astarte of the splendorous heavens” (Pritchard 1969a, p. 662).

Anat and Astarte received titles associating them with the heavens. In this, they were not unique. Athirat and other ancient Near Eastern goddesses received similar titles in very many ancient texts. Therefore, it is not certain which goddess the Bible remembers as “the Queen of Heaven” in the story of Jeremiah 44. Because the goddess in that chapter receives baked cakes, which seems to have been a feature of the Mesopotamian version of Astarte (called Ishtar), the vast majority of researchers identify Jeremiah’s Queen of Heaven with Astarte. A few see some manifestation of Anat (e.g., van der Toorn 1998, p. 17). In any case, Jeremiah 44 suggests that goddess worship remained popular in the southern portion of Canaan throughout Israelite times. This is also suggested by ubiquitous clay goddess figurines in the archaeological record (Kletter 2001). It is said that Jeremiah himself was from a village named for a goddess, Anathoth (literally “Anats,” a plural form; see Jeremiah 1:1).

5. Other Gods of the Second Tier
There were other second-tier gods, and space does not permit a discussion of each. Some of these are known well by name but not by deed. For example, an extremely widespread and popular god was Dagan, a god of rain and grain (and sometimes the father of Baal; e.g., KTU 1.2.i.18–19;–24). At Ugarit, Dagan is featured prominently in sacrificial rites (e.g., KTU 1.162). Yet, in spite of much textual evidence (and a major temple dedicated to him in each of several cities), there is little by way of myth to illuminate us about him.

Another significant second-tier god was Resheph, keeper of the gate to the underworld, through which the sun passed each evening (KTU 1.78). Canaanite people needed to remain on good terms with Resheph, lest he lash out with an epidemic of plague, his most common weapon. As an underworld god, Resheph is associated with the dead, but other gods of the dead are known, particularly Malik (or Molek) and Raphiu. Scholars frequently claim that the biblical god has nothing to do with the dead, but that is not quite accurate. Biblical Yahweh has appropriated the attributes of a god of the dead in several texts. Yahweh performs the role of Resheph when he sends a slave-god to strike the Assyrian army with plague in 2 Kings 19 (cf. 2 Samuel 24 and Habakkuk 3), and the god who appears in a whirlwind to Job has surrounded himself not with Baal’s storm attributes, but with the desiccating winds of the hot desert, a motif more typical of an underworld god (M. S. Smith 2004, p. 99).

It is interesting to note that the Bible’s god is called Yahweh Sabaoth (”Yahweh of the [divine] armies;” e.g., 1 Samuel 4:4); at Ugarit, Resheph bore this title, Resheph Sabai (Resheph of the [divine] Army; KTU 1.91). This divine army, or heavenly host, was associated with the stars of the night sky (e.g., Isaiah 34:4; Job 38:7; Luke 2:13–14). They were divine warriors equivalent to the human aristocracy, and their warfare is described in Judges 5:20.

Two additional second-tier gods ruled the sun and the moon. The sun god was called Shaphash (female) or Shemesh (either female or male). The moon god was usually called Yerach, but another moon god was Sheger. Biblical storytellers transformed Shemesh the sun god into a folk hero named Samson (Hebrew shimshon; the name means something like “sunny”). His long hair is strength itself, like rays of the sun. A woman whose name means “of the night” (Delilah) cuts his hair and makes him weak (J. Day 2000, p. 162). In other places, the sun and moon gods remain “real” gods for biblical authors. For example, in Joshua 10, the Hebrew warrior prays to his divine patron, Yahweh, and commands the two lesser gods to stand still in the sky until a battle is complete. They comply.

Gods of the third and fourth tiers

Many gods populated the third tier of the Canaanite pantheon. Ugarit’s god of craftsmanship bore a double name, Kothar-and-Hasis (perhaps he was originally two deities). Also, the seven goddesses of childbirth at Ugarit were called the Kotharat. In many parts of Canaan, a small Egyptian god named Bes was also popular because he protected women during childbirth and the household against demonic spirits. The Rephaim were deceased men who had become gods. At Ugarit, the underworld god Raphiu seems to preside over a banquet on behalf of dead kings who have become gods (KTU 1.108; 1.113). Kings were not the only humans who could become minor gods at death. Heads of households and other important males received this distinction. The Bible describes the dead prophet Samuel as a “god” in 1 Samuel 28:13. Household gods were Teraphim. These seem to have been the deified heads of households, the patriarchs. Most people, incidentally, expected no afterlife for themselves. Canaanite and biblical religion have very little to say about life after death for commoners, women, or slaves. The few texts that speak of a universal afterlife were composed at very late dates (e.g., Daniel 12).

The gods of the lowest tier, the messengers or angels, were relatively anonymous, although a handful are mentioned by name in ancient texts. Later, as biblical religion gradually banished the gods of the second and third tiers, leaving only the one high god, Yahweh, biblical writers became more interested in the angels. In the last two centuries BCE, books such as Daniel were composed, in which individual angels received personal names and more complete personalities, such as Michael and Gabriel.

VI. Rituals and Daily Life

Religion at three levels of society
It is difficult to reconstruct religious practice among the commoners (roughly 90 percent of the population) because they were illiterate and left no records, though glimpses can be seen through archaeological artifacts and the texts composed by the upper classes.

The texts often betray efforts by the elites to interfere with village life and religion. Villages in the kingdom of Ugarit had their own temples, but surviving records show the gods and priests of those outlying shrines were subordinate to Ugarit’s divine patron and the royal priests in the city (Nakhai 2001, p. 123). The Bible displays a similar desire to control the pious behavior of villagers from the royal center (e.g., Deuteronomy 12), though it is not certain to what extent these policies were enforced (Fried 2002; Na’aman 2002).

A simple diagram would show three levels of religious experience in a Canaanite community (Noll 2001a, pp. 257–68). For the king and his aristocracy, the divine patron and his cosmic retinue were central. The righteousness that the patron god demanded was identical to the morality of the prevailing culture combined with the needs of a government. Therefore, the patron god’s revealed law code was similar to the ethical commands among the Ten Commandments in the Bible, coupled with a body of case law providing judicial oversight of society (e.g., the book of Deuteronomy).

At the level of villages and extended families, the divine patron remained a significant part of daily religious experience, but primary attention was paid to the gods who helped with practical aspects of life and issues raised by social interaction. Agricultural festivals marked the seasons of the year, and the gods were called on to guarantee fertility of the crops, flocks, and human wombs. Practical wisdom, such as that reflected in the biblical book of Proverbs, governed daily interaction. The state might try to co-opt aspects of village religion by regulating seasonal festivals or limiting the veneration of local gods, as can be seen at Ugarit or in the Bible.

A third significant level of religious experience took place within the nuclear family and its household. Ancestral gods were venerated, family tombs received offerings, and household gods protected against misfortune or evil. At this family level, the king’s divine patron was acknowledged (especially at tax time), but usually the patron god was not the center of pious attention. For that reason, a government code might attempt to interfere, as in Deuteronomy 26:14, where the male head of household who brings his tax offering to the temple must swear that he has not given the divine patron’s share of the crop to his own ancestral gods. The limited success of royal interference in local and family religious life can be seen in the cry of frustration in Jeremiah 11:13: “Your gods have become as many as your towns, O Judah!”

Sacrificial offerings
Many urban temples and rural shrines have been excavated throughout Canaan, and the Ugaritic texts as well as the Bible are especially helpful to a study of religious behavior. They display significant similarities even though they were composed centuries apart and at opposite geographic ends of Canaan. This overlap suggests a commonality of religious culture from Bronze to Iron Ages throughout the land of Canaan. Nevertheless, there are some interesting minor distinctions. For example, the Bible stresses blood as the source of life (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:23), but Ugaritic ritual texts do not (del Olmo Lete 2004, p. 41).

In the ancient world, temples existed primarily to receive and process food offerings. The temples also stored the king’s wealth and served as a rudimentary bank, but from the perspective of the commoners (who never saw that wealth) the sacrificial activities were the primary events of any temple. Some offerings were voluntary. More often than not, however, the offerings were taxes owed to the god and the priests, who represented the king and his bureaucracy.

At Ugarit, records suggest that the temples controlled much of the agricultural economy (Wyatt 1999, p. 563). The tax system, organized as ritual offerings, regulated the distribution of meat, cereals, wine, oil, cloth, metal, and incense, as well as the production and trade of votive figurines and other handcrafted items. Fragmentary evidence from other sites shows similar economic control exerted by the temples. At Bronze Age Lachish, for example, inscriptions on bowls designate their contents as “harvest tax” (Nakhai 2001, p. 149; cf. the Ugaritic tax receipt for Baal, KTU 4.728). These taxes were paid in kind, not coin (which had not yet been invented). The offerings can be identified by chemical analysis of residue on altar surfaces and in storage jars. They included wheat, barley, grapes, and olives, the primary crops of the region. Wheat and barley were eaten; olives were harvested for their oil (which fueled lamps, moisturized skin, and was made into soap); and grapes provided the primary beverage.

Almost all domestic animals were slaughtered at a temple by priests as part of a religious ritual. Some of the meat was offered to the god in thanksgiving, but most was consumed by people, and very little was wasted. Large quantities of meat were consumed by the upper classes, which included the priests. The average peasant ate meat only rarely, usually at festival times. The portion of a meat sacrifice offered to a god differed from place to place, and sometimes differed according to the type of sacrifice that was offered. Analysis of the temple trash at Bronze Age Lachish and at an Iron Age temple on the slopes of Mount Carmel suggests that, in many cases, the right foreleg of an animal was the god’s portion (see Leviticus 7:32) (Nakhai 2001, p. 147, 174).

The temple’s altar was usually quite large and located in an open-air courtyard. Commoners rarely or never entered the temple building, which was the priests’ special privilege. But they could witness the altar sacrifices and any ceremonies associated with it. If hymns were sung as part of these rituals (as suggested by votive figurines with musical instruments and by the biblical book of Psalms), these songs and any processionals or dances probably took place in the courtyard. A peasant who brought an animal for sacrifice could only watch the sacrifice and receive, in the end, some roasted meat.

Paying taxes was just one of the reasons for sacrifice to the gods. Most Canaanites also believed the sacrifices fed and clothed their gods (Pardee 2002, p. 226). The Bible refers to the offerings as food for the biblical god (e.g., Leviticus 3:11), and there is ancient evidence to suggest that clothing was draped over divine images. For example, the Bible narrates the religious innovations of King Josiah, such as the destruction of “the compartments of the holy ones, which were in the temple of Yahweh, where the women wove garments for Asherah” (2 Kings 23:7).

At a deeper theological level, the sacrifices had additional meanings. Comparison of Ugaritic ritual texts and the Bible illustrate this deeper level. The Bible speaks of an autumn festival in three stages: first, celebration of the new year (Rosh HaShanah); second, a day of repentance for sin, divine forgiveness, and animal sacrifice (Yom Kippur); and third, a week of celebration for the grape harvests (Tabernacles). These rites, described in Leviticus 23 and elsewhere, were given religious meaning by relating the rituals to the legend of Moses and the exodus from Egypt, but their agricultural foundation is evident (Noll 2001a, pp. 262–3). Together, they constitute a fall harvest celebration, and each portion of the celebration finds its counterpart at Ugarit. That city’s week-long harvest festival (similar to Tabernacles) preceded a new-year’s observance that involved a ritual for the well-being of the Ugaritic people, in which human sin was atoned and ritual sacrifices offered, very similar to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur (KTU 1.40; 1.41; 1.87; cf. Pardee 2002, pp. 56–8; del Olmo Lete 2004, p. 154).

Humans were supposed to obey the moral precepts of the gods, but were not expected to be able to do that perfectly. Therefore, in divine mercy, ritual sacrifice provided communion between the divine and human. Careful study of the Bible demonstrates that the Yom Kippur sacrifice was not what achieved divine forgiveness for sin. Rather, human repentance and righteous lifestyles were the requirements for forgiveness (e.g., Micah 6:6–8). The ritual sacrifice was a purification rite, a kind of cleansing ceremony needed because sinfulness had defiled the holy temple and its furnishings. The blood is spilled not for the sinners, but for the temple and its altar (see, for example, Leviticus 16).

Relationships between people and their god were the foundational meaning of the most common sacrifices. At Ugarit, evaluation of the ritual texts demonstrates that two sacrifices were far more common than all others combined. Of these two, one accounted for five times more animal sacrifices than the other, and thus accounted for the overwhelming majority of all animal sacrifices (Pardee 2002, p. 255). This most common sacrifice was a “peace offering.” The second most common was the “burnt offering.” The peace offering was, in essence, a fellowship dinner. The animal was sacrificed and a portion offered to the god, while the bulk of the meat was consumed by the worshipers. The name of the offering implies its meaning – it created peace among worshipers, and peace between worshipers and their god. The word “peace” meant more than the absence of strife; it designated wholeness and well-being for the community. The burnt offering was an animal that was given entirely to the god with no meat remaining for the human participants. It was wholly burnt, transforming it into smoke that rose up to the god’s abode. This type of offering represented food for the god, but it was also a thanksgiving for blessings.

Sacred sexual rites?
In an ancient agrarian society, fertility of the crops, of the flocks, and of humans were the central concerns. The gods provided reassurance for these things (as in Haggai 1:2–11). It is alleged that sacred magic was performed in some ancient societies to ensure the fertility of land and wombs. Many historians have hypothesized that women (and sometimes men) were employed at temples to perform sacred prostitution with worshipers as a way to induce the gods to have sex with one another and thus to fertilize the natural world (Albright 1940; Bright 2000). Much of the evidence for this hypothesis is unconvincing. It was not uncommon among the ancients (particularly of the Greco-Roman era) to slander others with charges of base sexual practices, and if one eliminates passages of this kind, the textual evidence for ritual sex nearly vanishes, though a handful of passages from ancient Greece might remain of interest for historians of that culture (MacLachlan 1992). With respect to ancient Canaan, the Ugaritic gods sometimes have sexual relations in the myths (e.g., KTU 1.4.v.38–39; 1.5.v.18–22; 1.11; 1.12; 1.23; 1.24), but none of these tales gives the impression of serving as a ritual outline for human sexual relations in a temple, and one passage unequivocally rejects any ritual that “shames” a woman, though the exact nature of the shaming is obscure (KTU 1.4.iii.15–24).

The primary evidence adduced for Canaanite sexual magic comes from the Bible. Two passages represent the entire case for ritual sex, and all other biblical texts alleged to refer to sexual rites depend on these two passages: Deuteronomy 23:18 and Genesis 38:21–22. A brief look at each passage reveals that neither refers to sacred prostitution (Noll 2001a, pp. 259–61).

Deuteronomy 23:18 asserts, “There shall not be a Qedeshah from the daughters of Israel and there shall not be a Qadesh from the sons of Israel.” The next verse (19) prohibits using prostitution money to pay a religious vow (Goodfriend 1995; cf. van der Toorn 1994, pp. 93–101). This led many interpreters to conclude that a Qadesh and a Qedeshah were temple prostitutes. Although many English Bibles continue to mistranslate these words, no ancient biblical author believed that the Canaanites or anyone else was having sex in their temple services (Oden 1987, pp. 131–53; Hackett 1989; Bird 1997a; cf. Bird 1997b, pp. 75–94, 397–419). Prophets often speak of idolatry as “prostitution,” but their graphic sexual language is metaphorical (e.g., Jeremiah 3:2–5; Hosea 4:14), as is their preference for an image of divine sexual abuse (Nahum 3:5–6). By contrast, Deuteronomy 23:18 merely prohibits employment of minor temple functionaries. Throughout the ancient Near East, a Qadesh was a male holy one, and a Qedeshah was a female holy one (see, for example, KTU 1.112). They were low-level servants who assisted in ritual and performed menial tasks associated with the upkeep of a temple. In Mesopotamia, there is evidence that these unmarried individuals became sexually promiscuous in ways that had nothing to do with religious observance (compare 1 Samuel 2:22), which might be the reason for Deuteronomy’s pragmatic decision to do away with the office of the “holy one” entirely (cf. Dijkstra 2001c, p. 182).

It is claimed that Genesis 38 equates the Hebrew word for “prostitute” with the word “Qedeshah” but that is not the case (contra Gruber 1992, pp. 17–47). In this story, a man named Judah has sex with a woman he believes to be a prostitute, but later discovers to be his daughter-in-law. When he propositions her, he agrees to send payment later. The story claims that Judah is concerned about his reputation, so it is no surprise that when he sends payment, he tries to disguise the reason for his payment. His servant asks the local villagers for the Qedeshah, not the prostitute. If the reader equates the two words, the creative humor of the tale is lost. In ancient Canaan, a Qedeshah might receive payment connected to (nonsexual) services in the local temple. Judah’s servant tries to fool the villagers into believing that he seeks to make an honorable payment (Noll 2001a, pp. 259–61).

Human sacrifice?
Human sacrifice took place in Canaanite religion on certain occasions. Egyptian relief sculptures, the Bible (e.g., 2 Kings 3), and other sources suggest that, under the duress of military crisis, human sacrifice was offered to the divine patron of the besieged city (Spalinger 1978). Likewise, inscriptions and the Bible agree that a practice called herem took place in some wars. This was the slaughter of all prisoners of war as a sacrifice to the victorious god (see, for example, 1 Samuel 15; cf. Lloyd 1996). These sacrifices took place only during times of war.

In modern Tunisia, Sicily, and Sardinia, archaeologists have found evidence for another kind of human sacrifice: mass graves of young children, and a stela that depicts a priest offering an infant before a deity (J. Day 1989; Heider 1985). Most scholars conclude that these children were victims of regularly occurring ritual sacrifices. Some researchers disagree and suggest that, since infant mortality rates in premodern times were very high (sometimes as many as one in three babies died before the second birthday), these mass graves and the related images were from religious rituals to comfort mourning parents. One might note that Christians in medieval Europe sometimes buried infants and young children in a location near the church baptistry, thus creating a mass children’s grave. This alternative viewpoint has not convinced the majority of researchers, who continue to interpret the evidence from the western Mediterranean as the remains of a religiously sanctioned method of population control.

The western Mediterranean is far from Canaan. The evidence from Tunisia, Sicily, and Sardinia is relevant to a discussion of Canaan only because many of the peoples in those regions were descendants of people who migrated from Canaan. Many scholars believe that they took the practice of child sacrifice with them from Canaan. If that were the case, infant sacrifices could have been a regular part of Canaanite religion. This possibility cannot be ruled out. However, no evidence suggests that such practices took place in Canaan, so the immigrants may have developed their religious rites after they arrived in their new homelands.

Several kinds of human sacrifice are mentioned in the Bible. First, it categorically denounces infant sacrifice to the god Molek in Leviticus 20:2–5 and elsewhere. Second, the Bible accuses some people of offering human sacrifices to Baal, as in Jeremiah 19:5. Third, a few biblical passages imply that sacrifice of the first-born male child was offered to Yahweh, the biblical god. Most explicit are Exodus 22:28–29 and Ezekiel 20:25–26. The former demands infant sacrifice to Yahweh, and the latter declares that Yahweh commanded the sacrifice to punish Israelites for their sins.

These biblical passages are difficult to evaluate. As was seen in Section V, Molek was a god of the dead who presided over the mute nonexistence of the underworld, but there is no clear evidence that he received human sacrifices. A god named Baal-Hammon was part of the ritual sacrifices in the western Mediterranean, but the Canaanite Baal does not seem to have received regular child sacrifices, and the biblical testimony that Yahweh once received these offerings is bewildering. To date, there remains no archaeological evidence to corroborate any of the biblical passages, though many biblical scholars are convinced that the evidence from the western Mediterranean confirms biblical testimony (Heider 1985; J. Day 1989).

Other Canaanite rituals
Many religious rituals that took place in temples, villages, or homes are not mentioned in the surviving texts. In other cases, rituals mentioned in the texts are too obscure to say much about them. Tantalizing hints appear. For example, at Ugarit, the king apparently performed “contemplation rituals,” in which he gazed upon an image of a god, then offered an animal’s snout and neck, with some silver and gold (Pardee 2002, pp. 72–7). We have no idea what this rite was intended to accomplish.

Some rituals were not connected to formal sacrifice in temples. Divination and magic were not uncommon (Pardee 2002, pp. 127–66). Priests might examine the liver of a sacrificial animal, study the stars and planets, or examine the nature of a newborn with a birth defect, to determine what the immediate future holds. Magical incantations were formulated to protect against serpents and scorpions, those who gossip, or those who use black magic to inflict the “evil eye.” One Ugaritic text seems to offer a ritual to cure sexual impotence.

Particularly important to the Canaanites were rituals honoring the dead. In a largely illiterate, agricultural society bound to family and tradition, veneration of one’s ancestors was no mere formality. The family tomb was, in a sense, a deed of property ownership, and the patriarchs of previous generations were gods who watched over the family and protected them (Noll 2001a, pp. 90–91, 262). Among the royals, the deceased kings bestowed legitimacy on the present king (Pardee 2002, pp. 192–210). All these concerns were celebrated ritually at Ugarit (e.g., KTU 1.108; 1.113; 1.161). The Bible contains passages in which elites complain about the necromancy and mourning rites of the commoners (e.g., Isaiah 8:19; Leviticus 19:27–29).

The Marzeah feast mentioned at Ugarit and in the Bible (KTU 1.114; 3.9; Jeremiah 16:5; Amos 6:7) has been the subject of speculation and misunderstanding. Some scholars have held that the feast was a banquet for the dead and perhaps involved ritual sex. For example, some interpret the narrative of Numbers 25 as a Marzeah, a cult of the dead (cf. Psalm 106:28), and a sexual rite (Spronk 1999, pp. 147–8). The story in Numbers 25 involves a wedding (or perhaps a marriage bed), not a sexual rite, and a manifestation of Baal as a god who honors the dead (Baal-Peor), but it is not described as a Marzeah feast. By contrast, a Marzeah at Ugarit was a legally enfranchised organization with a treasury and regularly paid dues. It was a social club that would meet for wine and a meal, not a family cult of the dead, and if there was sexual activity (which is by no means certain), it was not religious in nature. Usually a god presided over the feast and received a wine offering, but this formal gesture was the only religious element in the event (Pardee 2002, pp. 184–5, 217–8, 234). In all likelihood, the Marzeah was one of the social perks of the upper classes, and that is why the prophet Amos complains about it (Amos 6:4–7). A scribe at Ugarit uses a tale of the god El collapsing at his Marzeah feast after drinking too much as a parable to introduce a recipe for sobering a drunk (KTU 1.114; see Pardee 2002, pp. 167–70).

VII. Conclusion

The religion of Canaan was not an exotic, otherworldly phenomenon. The Canaanites worked hard to survive on a land that was not easily domesticated. Their gods assisted them in every aspect of their daily efforts. Even the religious specialist, such as the priest, the king, and the prophet, relied not on esoteric revelations from mystical realms, but on the practical guidance of gods who understood the precarious existence that was normal life in the ancient Near East.

Short Biography. K. L. Noll is a historian of ancient Near Eastern culture and religion. In the classroom, he encourages the student to step back from personal religious commitments temporarily in order to evaluate all religious traditions evenhandedly. Noll publishes books and essays dealing with the compositional history and formation of the Jewish Bible, and the history of the many Israelite religions. His textbook, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction (Continuum, 2001), provides a general introduction for college undergraduates and first-year seminary students. Noll’s most recent publications argue that the biblical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings were not constructed as a work of history, but rather as an anthology of story and poem loosely arranged in an artificially chronological sequence. Noll has taught for several Christian seminaries as well as Penn State University’s Mont Alto campus. He now teaches at Brandon University, Manitoba, Canada. He holds the PhD from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.


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General introduction to the study of religion (recommended for beginning students)
Atran, S, 2002, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Braun, W & McCutcheon, RT, eds., 2000, Guide to the Study of Religion, Cassell, London.

Dennett, DC, 2006, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Viking, New York.

Glazier, SD, ed., 1999, Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook, Praeger, Westport, CN.

Hinnells, JR, ed., 2005, The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, Routledge, London.

Morris, B, 1987, Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Smith, JZ, 1990, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Smith, JZ, 2004, Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Ancient texts in english translation (recommended for beginning students)
Dalley, S, ed., 2000, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others, Rev. ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Foster, BR, 1993, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 2 vols, CDL Press, Bethesda, MD.

Hallo, WW, ed., 1997–2003, The Context of Scripture, 3 vols, Brill, Leiden.

Murnane, WJ, 1995, Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt, SBL Writings from the Ancient World 5, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta.

Nissinen, M, with CL Seow and RK Ritner, 2003, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, SBL Writings from the Ancient World 12, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta.

Pardee, D, 2002, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit, SBL Writings from the Ancient World 10, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta.

Parker, SB, 1997, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, SBL Writings from the Ancient World 9, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta.

Pritchard, JB, ed., 1969a, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. with supplement, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Pritchard, JB, 1969b, The Ancient Near East in Pictures, Relating to the Old Testament, 2nd ed. with supplement, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Singer, I, 2002, Hittite Prayers, SBL Writings from the Ancient World 11, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta.

Wyatt, N, 1998, Religious Texts from Ugarit: The Words of Ilimilku and His Colleagues, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield.

Reference works (recommended for beginning students)
Coogan, MD, ed., 1998, The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Oxford University Press, New York.

Davies, PR & Rogerson, J, 2005, The Old Testament World, 2nd ed., Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY.

Freedman, DN et al., eds., 1992, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols, Doubleday, New York.

Johnston, SI, general ed., 2004, Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Kuhrt, A, 1995, The Ancient Near East, c.3000–330 BC, 2 vols, Routledge, London.

Levy, TE, ed., 1998, The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land, Leicester University Press, London.

Noll, KL, 2001a, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction, Sheffield Academic Press, London.

Noll, KL, 2001b, ‘The Kaleidoscopic Nature of Divine Personality in the Hebrew Bible’, Biblical Interpretation: A Journal of Contemporary Approaches, vol. 9, pp. 1–24. Links

Sparks, KL, 2005, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature, Hendrickson, Peabody, MA.

van der Toorn, K, 1998, ‘Currents in the Study of Israelite Religion’, Currents in Research, vol. 6, pp. 9–30. Links

van der Toorn, K, Becking B & van der Horst PW, 1999, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2nd ed., extensively revised. Brill, Leiden.

Watson, WGE & Wyatt, N, eds., 1999, Handbook of Ugaritic Studies, Brill, Leiden.

Wyatt, N, 2005, The Mythic Mind: Essays on Cosmology and Religion in Ugaritic and Old Testament Literature, Equinox, London.