Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Mark S. Smith, The Rituals and Myths of the Feast of the Goodly Gods of KTU/CAT 1.23: Royal Constructions of Opposition, Intersection, Integration, and Domination (SBL Resources for Biblical Study, 51; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006). Pp. xvii + 201. Paper, US$24.95. ISBN 1-58983-203-5.

Over the past decade Mark S. Smith has been providing the necessary lead into a resource that has largely been overlooked by students of both the Bible and Ugaritic literature, namely, commentaries on the Ugaritic texts. He began this undertaking in 1994 with the publication of the first volume of his commentary on the Ugaritic Baal Cycle. The present volume, on the much more concise text KTU 1.23, takes Smith into new territory. This contribution will surely be a necessary entry-point for future scholars of this intractable text. This brief study is divided into three main parts: Introduction and Text, Commentary, and General Interpretation.

Smith begins his exploration by explaining his rationale and method for dealing with this single-tablet text. He notes the vexed attempts to sort out the mythic and ritual elements of the text, the recurrent reconstruction of a “sacred marriage” in the material, and the roles of death and destruction within it. His approach to interpreting the material may be broadly labeled “anthropological.” After providing a physical description of the tablet containing the text and a brief history of scholarship on it, Smith provides a new translation in parallel with the transcribed Ugaritic. For his work on collating the text he wisely made use of the excellent photographic archive of the West Semitic Research Project. Following this required starting point, he moves into the commentary proper in part two.

Following lines scored across the tablet, as well as reasonable sense units, Smith divides the disparate text into manageable parts in order to provide commentary. Characterized by his usual encyclopedic use of primary and secondary material, this section justifies Smith's translation and lays the groundwork for his general interpretations. This section is also the main body of the book and is what looks to biblical scholars most like a traditional “biblical” commentary.

The third part of the book, General Interpretation, addresses in two sections what the text is not (a “sacred marriage”), and what it is (an intersection of genres and cultural codes). Final conclusions are offered and a bibliography, subject, author, and textual citation indices round out the monograph.

For those familiar with Smith's other works, this book will fit in with his general outlook regarding Ugaritic materials. Interestingly, Smith does take a stab at a few daring translations: “guys” for ǵzr in line 17, Shapshu “braiding” branches in line 25, and, following Marvin Pope, “love staff” for El's penis in line 44. Given the semantic sphere for ǵzr, “guys” does seem to be within the range, but is quite colloquial for a text involving religious ritual, a most formal genre. One thinks of the disciples in the Christian tradition being referred to liturgically as “the boys,” and the sense of discomfort becomes palpable. Overall, however, Smith does an able job justifying his translation in the commentary section. At several points, and this may simply be due to the intractable nature of the text, Smith simply lays out the possibilities without making a strong case for his choice of words. The resulting sense of tentativeness would be well-suited to many biblical commentaries, and given the difficulty of this particular text it is appropriate. In the course of the commentary some interesting concepts regarding the Ugaritic divine world emerge: there are two classes of gods—El's astral family and the earth-bound destroyers, and the idea, not original with Smith, that this text reflects a time when El (and probably Athirat) was (were) young. This was the period of theogony as opposed to the semi-retired existence El seems to present in the Baal Cycle. Regarding the former observation, the reader is prompted to wonder how “Dawn” and “Dusk” are “astral” deities. The phenomenon is caused by the apparent motion of the sun. For the citizens of Ugarit, however, evening and morning are not directly astral, but rather the result of the movement of an astral body. “Light” seems to have its own realm not entirely fixed to astral bodies. Attempts to classify the “pantheon” at Ugarit in various ways have failed to find a strong consensus, but Smith's suggestion, although it does not cover the entire divine world, is worthy of serious consideration. Smith notes that text 23 is unique among the Ugaritic tablets; all the more reason to be cautious with sweeping categories.

Smith himself shows finesse in this regard when it comes to ritual and mythological sections in the tablet. His effort to take the text on its own terms is mostly effective, if complex. His rejection of a “sacred marriage” aspect of the text is well-founded. There is some confusion as to whether the ritual and mythological sections both contain sexual encounters; however, the category of hieros gamos, regardless, simply does not fit the material. In his assertion that the text represents “Intersecting Genres and Cultural Codes,” Smith interacts with the text in a decidedly etic way. It is difficult to imagine even an ancient priest thinking of this text as a “binary” exploration across two spatial zones in the fall interchange period. It is, however, at precisely this intersection between etic and emic, between ancient thought and post-modern thought, that necessary disjunctures must occur. Smith is to be applauded for taking the uncertain steps into this hazy realm in the hopes of gaining a clearer view of the nature and purpose of text 23.

Steve A. Wiggins, Piscataway, NJ