Basics of Ancient Ugaritic: A Concise Grammar, Workbook, and Lexicon

December 18, 2013 — Leave a comment


Michael Williams, Basics of Ancient Ugaritic: A Concise Grammar, Workbook, and LexiconGrand Rapids: Zondervan, November 2012. 144 pp. Paperback, $49.99.

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Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy!

Michael Williams is Professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary and a member of the NIV Committe on Bible Translation. He has written several books, 1 and I guess he has come to that point in his scholarly career where writing a textbook on Ugaritic seemed like the thing to do.

Ugaritic is an interesting development in Old Testament studies. For one, we didn’t even know about it until the 1920’s (13). It is an older language than Hebrew, so learning it helps shed light on the ancient Near East background as well as some Hebrew linguistic conundrums.

That being the case, it’s kind of hard to nail down a market for this book. The only people who know anything about Ugaritic are people who a) are in seminary or b) graduated from seminary. I knew about it because I was super interested in ancient Near East studies before going to seminary, and I had my eye on the class while I was there. However, I didn’t have time in my class schedule to actually take the Ugaritic class, and since I wasn’t a doctoral student in Old Testament, I wasn’t required to either. All of this is to say that the people probably most interested in learning Ugaritic are in an environment where they can actually take a class on it.

But maybe, just maybe, there are some people like me who are interested enough to buy a book on it so they can get some fundamentals, even if they don’t plan on necessarily mastering the language. That’s probably where this book fits in.

First off, it’s very slim. While it is a textbook on an ancient Near East language (and includes workbook exercises), it is barely over 100 pages. Granted it is over-sized (9×11.5), but still. The opening chapter covers Ugarit (the ancient geographical location) in a nutshell. You know, its brief history, it’s language, it’s stories. Then, in the second chapter, you learn the alphabet, only to then go on a whirlwind tour of nouns (chapter 3), adjectives (chapter 4), prepositions (chapter 5), pronouns (chapter 6), verbs (chapter 7), moods (chapter 8), infinitives (chapter 9), thematic stems (chapter 10), weak verbs (chapter 11), adverbs (chapter 12), and finally, miscellanea (chapter 13). The appendices start on pg. 105, and the noun chapter began on pg. 30, so that gives you an idea how concise it is.

Now, I’m not an Old Testament scholar, but less an ancient Near East scholar. So I can’t really tell you how this book stacks up against other Ugaritic textbooks. However, I do subscribe to JETS, and in the Koowon Kim’s review (56/2, 2013), he notes a couple of shortcomings:

  • The vowel system is not introduced in chapter 2, though he uses vocalized transliterations in later chapters
  • The discussion of particles is almost entirely omitted
  • Some of the grammatical features included are perhaps too controversial or irrelevant to be included in such a short treatment
  • Only vocalized transliterations are used, though it is wiser to include consonantal ones alongside them since that prepares you to actually read Ugaritic
  • The author incorrectly states that you cannot tell which nouns are diptotes (39), although there is somewhat of a consensus that you can

For most people reading this review, I’m not sure how much of the above matters, but since I came across it, I wouldn’t to include it since it’s not something I could actually evaluate on my own. I did think it a bit odd that only transliterations were used, but this also makes the volume accessible to a wider number of interested readers. One of the hardest parts of Hebrew was getting used to reading the different script. Had I just been using transliterations, it certainly would have been easier, but I imagine I would have been shortchanged in the long run. For the type of student picking up a book like this, there might not be a long run to Ugaritic study, so this might not be a problem. But, it could be a detriment to this book being adopted as a textbook in seminaries that are looking to add a class in the Old Testament department (I’m assuming existing classes are set on their choice of a grammar).

On the whole, I will probably dig into this more when I have the time and see if can’t get my feet a little wetter when it comes to Ugaritic. The workbook is helpful and Williams offers students a good amount of reading and translating. If you’re a serious student of the Old Testament, and maybe already have some Hebrew under your belt, this could be a good way of flexing your linguistic muscles. If you didn’t have the time or money to take the class in seminary, this could be a good substitute if you’re willing to sit down and invest the time.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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