Ba’al with raised arm, fourteenth-twelfth century B.C.E., found at Ras Shamra.
In the Bible, Baal (also rendered Baʿal) was an important Canaanite god, often portrayed as the primary enemy of the Hebrew God Yahweh. The Semitic word “baal” (meaning ‘”Lord”) was also used to refer to various deities of the Levant. Many of the Biblical references to “baal” designate local deities identified with specific places, about whom little is known. However, the term “Baal” in the Bible was more frequently associated with a major deity in the Canaanite pantheon, being the son of the chief god El and his consort Ashera (In some sources Baal is the son of Dagon, with El being a more distant ancestor; and Ashera is not always portrayed as his mother.). He is thought by many scholars to be a Canaanite version of the Babylonian god Marduk and identical with the Assyrian deity Hadad. In Canaanite lore, he was the ruler of Heaven as well as a god of the sun, rain, thunder, fertility, and agriculture.
The worship of Baal was prevalent in Canaan from ancient times (prior to the Israelite exodus from Egypt until well after the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E.). Baal worship was violently opposed by the Biblical prophets and several of the kings of Judah, who believed it was God’s will that Canaanite religion be completely eliminated from Judah and Israel.
The Story of Baal
While many “baals” were worshiped in the ancient Middle East, most readers are particularly interested in Baal as the enemy of the God of the Israelites. This section will look at the Canaanite sources regarding this Baal. The Biblical treatment of Baal will be dealt with below.
Among Baal’s titles were “Rider of the Clouds,” “Almighty,” and “Lord of the Earth.” He was the god of both fertility and the thunderstorm, as well as a mighty warrior, sometimes a sun god and the protector of crops and livestock.
The major source of our direct knowledge of the Canaanite Baal comes from the Ras Shamra tablets, discovered in northern Syria in 1958, which record fragments of a mythological story known to scholars as the Baal Cycle. Here, Baal earns his position as the champion and ruler of the gods. The fragmentary text seems to indicate a feud between Baal and his father El as background. El chooses the fearsome sea god Yam to reign as king of the gods. Yam rules harshly, and the other deities cry out to Ashera, called Lady of the Sea, to aid. Ashera offers herself as a sacrifice if Yam will ease his grip on her children. He agrees, but Baal opposes such a scheme and boldly declares he will defeat Yam even though El declares that Baal must subject himself to Yam.
With the aid of magical weapons given to him by the divine craftsman Kothar-wa-Khasis, Baal defeats Yam and is declared victorious. He then builds a house on Mount Saphon, today known as Jebel al-Aqra. (This mountain, 1780 meters high, stands only 15 km north of the site of Ugarit, clearly visible from the city itself.)
Lo, also it is the time of His rain.
Baal sets the season,
And gives forth His voice from the clouds.
He flashes lightning to the earth.
As a house of cedars let Him complete it,
Or a house of bricks let Him erect it!
Let it be told to Aliyan Baal:
‘The mountains will bring Thee much silver.
The hills, the choicest of gold;
The mines will bring Thee precious stones,
And build a house of silver and gold.
A house of lapis gems!’
However, the god of the underworld, Mot, soon lures Baal to his death, spelling ruin for the land. Baal’s sister Anat (possibly identified with Astarte) retrieves his body and begs Mot to revive him. When her pleas are rebuffed, Anat assaults Mot, ripping him to pieces and scattering his remains like fertilizer over the fields.
El, in the meantime, has had a dream in which fertility returned to the land, suggesting that Baal was not indeed dead. Eventually Baal is restored. However, Mot too has revived and mounts a new attack against Baal.
They shake each other like Gemar-beasts,
Mavet [Mot] is strong, Baal is strong.
They gore each other like buffaloes,
Mavet is strong, Baal is strong.
They bite like serpents,
Mavet is strong, Baal is strong.
They kick like racing beasts,
Mavet is down. Baal is down.
After this titanic battle, neither side has completely prevailed. Knowing that the other gods now support Baal and fearing El’s wrath, Mot finally bows before Baal, leaving Baal in possession of the land and the undisputed regent of the gods.
Baal is thus the archetypal fertility deity. His death signals drought and his resurrection, and brings both rain and new life. He is also the vanquisher of death. His role as a maker of rain would be particularly important in the relatively arid area of Palestine, where no mighty river such as the Euphrates or the Nile existed.
Baals and their Worship
Several deities bore the title “Baal” (Lord) and more than one goddess bore the title “Baalat” (Lady). Biblical references to baals associated with various places include: Baal Hazor, Baal Hermon, Baal Heon, Baal Peor, Baal Perazim, Baal Shalisha, Baal Tamar, Baal Zephon, and others. However, as early as the period of the Book of Judges, we find references to a more generalized sense of the term—Baal Berith—Lord of the Covenant. Thus, Baal was clearly conceived of in universal as well as place-specific terms. (Similarly, the God of the Israelites was conceived of as the God of the whole earth, the God Jacob, the God of the Hebrews, and the God of one specific mountain: Sinai.)
The deity opposed by the biblical prophets as “Baal” was usually a version of Baal-Hadad, the major deity of the Hittites, Syrians, and Assyrians. Baal-worship extended from the Canaanites to the Phoenicians. Both Baal and his consort Astarte were Phoenician fertility symbols. The “Baal” promoted by the Queen Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, is referred to as Baal-Melqart. Both Hadad and Melqart are found in lists of Phoenician deities, but it is difficult to know whether Jezebel’s form of Baal-worship differed much from the worship of Baal-Hadad.
Baal Hammon was the supreme god of the Carthaginians and is generally identified by modern scholars either with the northwest Semitic god El or Dagon, or the Greek Cronus. In Carthage and North Africa, Ba’al Hammon was especially associated with the ram and was worshiped also as Ba’al Qarnaim (“Lord of Two Horns”) in an open-air sanctuary across the bay from Carthage.
Baals were often worshiped in “high places” at which a priest or prophet of the local baal would offer various types of animal, vegetable, or wine offerings. The Book of Kings describes the prophets of Baal engaged in shaman-like ecstatic dances. (I Kings 18:26-28) This in itself does not seem dissimilar to the frenzied “prophecy” described of the early prophets of Yahweh:
As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines, flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person. (1 Sam. 10:5-6)
The prophets of Baal, however, are also described as engaging in self-mutilation, perhaps mimicking the mourning of Anat in the period between Baal’s death and resurrection.
She cuts cheek and chin.
She lacerates Her forearms.
She plows lake a garden Her chest,
Like a vale She lacerates the back.
“Baal is dead!”
Near or in larger towns, formal temples of Baal existed. In some cases, his worship seems to have involved ritual sex between a king or priest and a female priestly counterpart, symbolizing the union of heaven and earth, which brings on the blessing of rain and crops.
One of the main prophetic objections to Baal-worship was its association with ritual sex. That Babylonian religion involved ritual sacred harlotry is clear in the original sources, where it was associated with the goddess Ishtar. It is not unlikely that the Canaanite worship of Astarte (the consort of Baal and equivalent deity to Ishtar) also involved enactments of the “sacred marriage.” Israelites allegedly also participated in such rituals, as is indicated by the prophets’ denunciation of these practices. Even the Biblical origin story of the dominant southern tribe of Judah tells of the patriarch fathering twin boys through his daughter-in-law Tamar, who had disguised herself as a sacred harlot in the town of Timnah (Gen. 38:15-38). How widespread this practice was, and at what point the Israelite tribes began to think of it as something condemned by God, is hard to say.
Another issue is that of child sacrifice. The prophet Jeremiah indicates that infant sacrifice was offered to Baal as well as to other gods (Jer. 19:5). However, it seems to be more prevalent with other deities such as Moloch.
Israelite Opposition to Baal
Although in primitive times the Israelites shared many of the religious beliefs of their Canaanite neighbors, as the monotheistic idea developed, Baal became the chief villain of Israelite religion.
The Biblical version of Israel’s history introduces Baal during the time of Moses:
While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them (Numbers 25:1-3).
According to the biblical account, opposition to such an “abomination” is absolute. God orders the death of all those engaging in such practices. Intermarriage with Midianites is similarly forbidden, and a graphic description follows in which Phinehas, the son of Aaron, personally impales an Israelite man and his forbidden Midiante wife with his spear. The Midianites, as well as the Moabites, are now to be treated as mortal enemies.
As the Israelites settle in Canaan, the temptation of participating in local religious practices continues to lure them. The period of the judges is summarized as one in which “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs.” (Judges 3:7)
Things become even more problematic, however, during the reign of the King Ahab in the Kingdom of Israel. His Phoenician wife, Jezebel, introduces Baal worship in her court and attempts a purge of the prophets of Yahweh, who vehemently oppose Baal worship. The struggle reaches its climax in the dramatic struggle between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal for control of the high place at Mount Carmel. Baal’s prophets fail to produce a sign that Baal has accepted their sacrifice, while Elijah succeeds powerfully when Yahweh consumes his sacrifice with fire from heaven. Elijah then incites the onlookers to massacre all 450 of the Baal’s representatives (I Kings 18).
Over the next two centuries, several additional violent purges of Baal worship are mentioned in the Bible. A vehemently pro-Yahweh military commander named Jehu usurps Ahab’s throne with the blessing of Elijah’s successor, Elisha. The text declares that “Jehu killed everyone in Jezreel who remained of the house of Ahab, as well as all his chief men, his close friends and his priests, leaving him no survivor” (2 Kings 10:11). Jehu then proceeded to host “an assembly in honor of Baal,” stating: “Ahab served Baal a little, but Jehu will serve him much.” After luring priests, prophets, and other worshipers inside Baal’s temple, Jehu and 80 other soldiers massacre Baal’s faithful and burn his temple to the ground. The text approvingly concludes: “So Jehu destroyed Baal worship in Israel.” (2 Kings 10:28) However, Jehu does not go far enough in the mind of the author of Kings, in that he fails to destroy the unauthorized altars to Yahweh/El at Dan and Bethel.
Included in Jehu’s slayings is Jezebel herself. Yet, by a quirk of fate, Jezebel’s daughter Athaliah soon comes to power in the southern Kingdom of Judah. Reigning for six years, she tolerated a Temple of Baal in Jerusalem. The priests of the Temple of Yahweh, however, mount a coup against her and she is slain. She is replaced by her young grandson Joash, who has been raised secretly in the Temple of Yahweh while Athaliah ruled (2 Kings 11). Under the leadership of the priest Jehoiada, a pro-Yahweh mob destroys Baal’s temple and kills the chief priest of Baal, Mattan. The young king, who begins to reign at age seven, pledges that henceforth, the Kingdom of Judah will follow a policy of strict Yahwism with no toleration for Baal worship.
Despite these purges, Baal worship remained in practice both in Israel and Judah for some time to come. In the north, the prophet Hosea complained:
The more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. (Hosea 11:2)
And Isaiah 57 laments:
The idols among the smooth stones of the ravines are your portion;
they, they are your lot.
Yes, to them you have poured out drink offerings
and offered grain offerings.
In the light of these things, should I relent?
You have made your bed on a high and lofty hill;
there you went up to offer your sacrifices.
King Hezekiah of Judah (c. 716–687 B.C.E.) and other “good kings” mounted a campaign to tear down the “high places” in which deities such as Baal were worshiped. Hezekiah’s son Manasseh, however, allowed altars to Baal to be rebuilt. Dever (Did God Have a Wife?) and other archaeologists find evidence that the worship of Baal and Ashera flourished rather consistently among the common people, especially outside of Jerusalem, alongside of the Yahweh worship sanctioned by the Temple priesthood. By the time of King Josiah (640–609 B.C.E.), even the Temple of Jerusalem itself reportedly housed sacred prostitutes involved in the fertility cult associated with Baal and Ashera (2 Kings 23). Josiah purged the Temple of all vestiges of “pagan” worship. He also “did away with the pagan priests appointed by the kings of Judah to burn incense on the high places of the towns of Judah and on those around Jerusalem—those who burned incense to Baal… ” (2 Kings 23:5).
In the biblical view, however, Josiah’s reforms had come too late. God had already determined to punish Judah for her sins. Josiah was killed in battle against Pharaoh Neco II of Egypt, and the Babylonians soon besieged Jerusalem. The prophet Jeremiah reported Baal worship still common in his day (2:23; 7:9; 9:14; 11:17, etc.), while Ezekiel had a vision of pagan worship in the Temple itself before its destruction in 586 B.C.E.
The Bible considers that Israel’s destruction by the Assyrian empire in 722 B.C.E. and the later destruction of Judah by Babylon are both due to the failure to follow God’s command to completely eliminate Baal worship and other Canaanite religious practices.
Baal is not mentioned in the post-exilic Biblical writings. However, the apocryphal “Bel and the Dragon,” appended to the Book of Daniel in some versions of the Bible, tells the story of the prophet Daniel exposing the fraudulent practices of Babylonian Bel/Marduk-worship. Non-Jewish populations in Judea and Samaria in the period between 400 B.C.E. and the Common Era no doubt continued to worship Baal and his Greek or Roman counterparts. However, the Jewish identity was now firmly associated with monotheism of the Yahwist variety.
The Distinction Between Yahweh and Baal
It has been suggested by modern scholars that the Lord of the Hebrews and the Baal of the Canaanites may not always have been so distinct. Psalm 82:1 states: “God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the gods.” Many commentators believe this verse harkens back to a time when the Hebrew religion was not yet monotheistic. Some suggest that Yahweh and Baal were originally both thought of as sons of El, while others claim that the worship of Yahweh and Baal may once have been nearly indistinguishable.
The later prophets and temple priests condemned worshiping Yahweh in the “high places,” declaring that Jerusalem’s altar only was authorized. Yet earlier prophets, and even Elijah himself, offered sacrifices at these very high places. Similarly, the establishment of sacred pillars was condemned as related to the worship of Baal and Ashera. Yet the patriarch Jacob erected a stone pillar in honor of El at Bethel (Gen. 28:18-19); Moses set up twelve pillars at which sacrifices were offered at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24); and Joshua established a sacred pillar at Shechem (Josh. 24:26). Clearly then, the worship of Baal and Yahweh resembled each other more closely in the early days of Israel’s history but came to be more distinct through later prophetic teaching and priestly legislation.
Since Baal simply means ‘Lord,’ there is no obvious reason why at one time it could not be applied to Yahweh as well as other gods. Indeed, it is clearly the case that the Israelites did not always consider Baal and Yahweh worship incompatible. Several prominent Israelites bore “baal” names. The judge Gideon was also called Jerubaal, a name that seems to mean ‘Ba‘al strives.’ A descendant of Jacob’s firstborn son was named Baal (I Chron. 5:5). An uncle of King Saul (that is, a brother of Saul’s father, Kish) was also named Baal (I Chron. 9:35-39). One also finds Eshbaal (one of Saul’s sons), Meribaal (Saul’s grandson) and Beeliada (a son of David). 1 Chronicles 12:5 mentions the name Bealiah, meaning either Baal-Yahweh, or “Yahweh is Baal.”
After Gideon’s death, according to Judges 8:33, the Israelites started to worship a Baal Berith (“Lord of the Covenant”), and the citizens of Shechem supported Abimelech’s attempt to become king by giving him 70 shekels from the temple of Baal Berith (Judges 9:4). The scene involving this “Lord of the Covenant” appears eerily similar one described in Joshua 24:25 as involving a covenant with Yahweh. Judges 9:46 goes on to say that these supporters of Abimelech enter “the House of El Berith”—apparently the same temple earlier referred to as belonging to Baal. Thus, all three names—Baal, El, and Yahweh—refer to a Covenant Deity at Shechem; and possibly to one deity referred to by three different names. The fact that altars devoted to Yahweh, even in the Temple of Jerusalem itself, were characterized by horned altars could also indicate a carryover from more primitive days with El and Baal (both of whom were sometimes portrayed as bulls) were not worshiped on common hilltop altars with Yahweh.
It is also possible that some hymns which originally described Baal may later have been ascribed to the worship of Yahweh. Psalm 29 is thought to be an adaptation of a Canaanite hymn originally devoted to Baal.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
The God of glory thunders,
The Lord thunders over the mighty waters…
The voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning.
The voice of the Lord shakes the desert;
The Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord twists the oaks and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
Psalm 18 also describes the Hebrew God in terms that could easily apply to storm god Baal, the “Rider of Clouds.”
The earth trembled and quaked
and the foundations of the mountains shook;
They trembled because he was angry.
Smoke rose from his nostrils;
consuming fire came from his mouth
burning coals blazed out of it.
He parted the heavens and came down;
dark clouds were under his feet.
He mounted the cherubim and flew;
he soared on the wings of the wind.
He made darkness his covering
his canopy around him—the dark rain clouds of the sky.
Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced
with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
YHWH thundered from heaven
the voice of the Most High resounded
Thus it is quite plausible that in the minds of many Israelites the Lord Baal and the Lord Yahweh were two names for the same deity, an awesome God who thundered from on high and yet lovingly blessed them with rain to bring fertility and prosperity.
It is difficult to know to what extent the false worship so strongly condemned by the prophets may be merely the wrongful worship of Yahweh, but characterized as worship of Baal. For example, Jeremiah persistently reminds his hearers that various evil practices are something that “I never commanded, nor did it ever enter my mind” (Jer. 7:31; 19:5; 32;35). The implication seems to be that Jeremiah’s audiences believed these practices to be something which God wanted. In fact, the victorious judge Jephthah is recorded as offering his own daughter as a burnt sacrifice—a practice later condemned by Jeremiah—not to a Canaanite deity, but to Yahweh himself (Judges 11).
Regardless of how the people generally conceived of the relationship between Yahweh and Baal, the later Biblical prophets clearly sought to draw the distinction as starkly as possible. The author of Kings dramatizes the distinction by reporting the words of Elijah to those assembled on Mount Carmel: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). The story continues with the prophets of Baal failing almost comically, while Elijah’s God sends fire from heaven, and the people respond by killing the prophets of Baal. The lesson which the author intends for the reader could not be more clear.
The prophet Hosea put the issue more subtly when he declared:
I will allure her [Israel] and bring her into the wilderness, and I will speak tenderly and to her heart…. And it shall be in that day, says the Lord, that you will call Me ‘Ishi’ [my Husband], and you shall no more call Me ‘Baali’ [my Lord/Baal]. For I will take away the names of the baalim out of her mouth, and they shall no more be mentioned or seriously remembered by their name (Hosea 2:14-17).
The Demon Ba’al
Baal is sometimes seen as a demon in the Christian tradition. Early demonologists, unaware of Baal/Hadad or that “baal” could refer to any number of local spirits, came to regard the term as referring to one supremely evil personage. Baal was ranked as the first and principal king in Hell, ruling over the East.
During the English Puritan period, Baal was either equated with Satan or considered his main lieutenant.
While the Semitic high god Baal Hadad was depicted in various forms—a human, ram or a bull—the demon Baal (also spelled Bael) was said to appear in the forms of a man, cat, toad, or combinations thereof. An illustration in Collin de Plancy’s 1818 book Dictionnaire Infernal rather curiously placed the heads of the three creatures onto a set of spider legs.
Another version of the demon Baal is Beelzebub, or more accurately Baal Zebûb, which was originally the name of a deity worshiped in the Philistine city of Ekron (2 Kings 1:2). Baal Zebûb might mean ‘Lord of Zebûb’, referring to a now unknown place named Zebûb. However, it is also a pun—zebûb being a Hebrew noun meaning ‘fly’. Thus Baal Zebub was the “Lord of Flies.” Scholars have also suggested that the term was originally Baal Zebul, which means “Lord Prince.” In this scenario the name was deliberately changed by the worshipers of Yahweh to Baal Zebub (lord of the flies) in order to ridicule the worship of Baal Zebul.