Coogan, Michael D. and Mark S. Smith, eds. Stories from Ancient Canaan. 2nd ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012. Pp. x + 180. Paper. $25.00.
Context is king. It’s a simple yet profound statement. A word has any number of possible meanings and any given one is determined by the words that surround it (at least at the written level; the meaning of a spoken word can be discerned by paying attention to body language, tone, inflection, etc.). But context refers to more than mere words and the words that surround them; it has reference to situations and circumstances that form the setting for any given event. One of the biggest hindrances to the interpretation of texts, especially ancient texts, is the lack of context. There are just some things that the original readers/hearers of an ancient text would have taken for granted that modern readers have to work extra hard to uncover.
This is why the study of comparative literature becomes so vital for the student of Scripture. When we gain an understanding of the social and historical situations that the biblical characters existed in then we gain a greater understanding of what it was that God was saying to and through them. So while it’s paramount to understand the beliefs and practices of Israel throughout her history and the Church throughout hers, it’s also quite important to learn about the beliefs and practices of those people who surrounded Israel and the Church.
This is where volumes like Stories from Ancient Canaan come into play. They give the interested student an entry into the broader world in which the people we read about in the Hebrew Scriptures lived. The editors/translators Michael D. Coogan and Mark S. Smith inform us in the introduction that “[w]hile accurate, readable, and inexpensive versions of Mesopotamian and Egyptian religious literature are available, a similar edition of the principal Canaanite texts does not exist. This book is intended to fill this gap” (ix).
The introduction gives the reader a nice bit of textual, social, historical, religious, and linguistic context regarding the texts to follow. Here we learn about the discovery of baked clay tablets with inscriptions on them at Ugarit; the Ugaritic pantheon of which El was head; the similarity in language between these texts and the biblical texts; the manner in which these texts provide a sympathetic rather than hostile accounting of ancient Canaanite beliefs; etc.
The translated texts included are Aqhat; The Rephaim, Kirta, Baal, The Lovely Gods, and El’s Drinking Party. The translation of each text is preceded by a helpful introduction to orientate the reader to what follows. Throughout the translation itself we’re met with several textual notes that sometimes inform us about scribal notes in the original texts but mostly about the condition of the tablets on which these texts were written, often describing their damage and offering educated guesses as to what the missing or illegible portions would have said.
Having never seen the first edition of this volume I’ll have to take the editors at their word that they’ve made improvements in this one. Coogan and Smith have certainly succeeded in their goal of filling the gap that exists with regard to readable and inexpensive editions of ancient Canaanite literature. As to the accuracy of their translations, I’ll have to take it on faith that they know what they’re doing. I’ll leave it to scholars of the original languages to critique them on that point.
I’m quite satisfied with this volume as it stands. One could hope for a bit more information with regard to text critical issues but this isn’t intended to be a critical edition and what we do get is comparable to what we find in many popular English translations of the Bible. So really, apart from the discovery of more texts or the advancement of our knowledge of the original languages, I don’t see any real room for improvement. I can recommend this collection of texts to students of the Bible without hesitation. It will help them to gain a deeper familiarity with what they’re already familiar with.