A full understanding the Old Testament requires not only knowledge of the text itself, but also of the culture out of which it came; however, if we are limited to the Old Testament to understand its culture, then a full understanding of the Old Testament is not possible. We need, instead, additional sources of information to provide the context. Numerous archaeological and historical resources are available for this, but perhaps the most interesting are the ancient artifacts uncovered at Ras Shamra in Syria on the Mediterranean coast.
Beginning in 1929, archaeological digs at Ras Shamra have produced a wealth of cuneiform tablets from what has been determined to be the ancient city of Ugarit. These tablets, along with the ruins of buildings and other artifacts, shed a clear light on the culture of the Old Testament as life in Ugarit appears to have been similar to life among the Hebrews. This can be concluded from the temporal and spacial proximity of the two cultures, the similarity of their physical environment, and the similarity between ancient Hebrew and the language of the Ugarit cuneiform tablets.
Ugarit was destroy approximately in 1200 B.C., just centuries prior to the settlement of the Hebrews in Canaan, and while this might seem like a long time from a modern perspective, the pace of cultural change in the ancient world was very much slower than the pace of change in modern times. Linguistically, Ugaritic is nearer to Hebrew than any other middle eastern language. Consequently, we can conclude that the cultures are likely to be more closely tied to one another than the culture of the Hebrews is to any other known contemporary or near-contemporary culture.
Like the Hebrew's Hebron, Ugarit was a small city state that expanded to become a small buffer state between two ancient superpowers. Both maintained this status for several centuries. Ugarit appears to have been more cosmopolitan than Israel, probably due to its role as a regional trading center.
The Ugarit tablets provide a wide variety of information about life in Ugarit, including its religion. Three deities are prominent in the texts: El, Baal, and Dagon. It is noteworthy that the world "el" is used in biblical texts to refer to God, as in for example, "Elohim" and "Bethel" (house of God). Furthermore, the character of Baal appears strikingly similar to Yahweh. Both are, for example, sky gods who made their earthly homes in sacred temples within a city or cities; however, the Hebrews made a transition possiblty from polytheism through henotheism and finally to monotheism. All three gods mentioned in the Ugarit tablets are mentioned in the Old Testament, indicating a direct connection between the writers of the Old Testament and the writers of the Ugarit tablets.
Beyond making these sorts of connections, Peter Craigie's Ugarit and the Old Testament gives close analyses of some of the Ugaritic texts, showing their similarity to certain biblical passages, particularly Psalm 29, Psalm 104, Amos 7:14-15, Deuteronomy 14:21, Exodus 23:19. Craigie also suggests that the Hebrews were not unique in understanding themselves as having a "covenant" with their god, but that this relationship was common in Canaan's religious milieu. Craigie also provides an interesting glimpse into Ugarit in its own right, describing its most prominent buildings, libraries, languages, populations, and commercial relations with the Egyptian and Hittite empires. Furthermore, Ugarit's access to the Mediterranean made it an important commercial gateway between Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations.
Ugarit and the Old Testament provides a very interesting -- though brief -- tour of the discoveries of Ras Shamra and their significance. It leaves the reader hungry from more.