People

Baal by Debra Scoggins Ballentine

Why do biblical authors blame disasters on the Israelites and Judeans worshipping Baal? After Israelites attend a feast honoring Baal of Peor, Yahweh is so angry that he sends a plague that kills 24,000 people (Num 25, Deut 4:3, Ps 106:28, Hos 9:10). According to the book of Judges, Yahweh lets enemies defeat the Israelites multiple times, delaying their possession of the promised land, because they have honored Baal and other gods. Even the fall of Samaria, capital of ancient Israel, and the destruction of Jerusalem are partially blamed on the people honoring Baal (2Kgs 17:5-18, 2Kgs 21:1-16, 2Kgs 24:2-4). Was Baal really that popular?

The covenant between Israel and Yahweh demands the people’s complete loyalty to Yahweh (Deut 5:6-7, Deut 6:1-9, Exod 20:2-3, Exod 34:14). Yet about 60 passages accuse them of disloyalty through honoring Baal. If you take these accusations at face value, you might conclude that Baal was more popular than Yahweh. However, it is not that simple. Biblical authors actually use the term Baal for various gods: Baal of Peor (Num 25, Deut 4:3, Ps 106:28, Hos 9:10); Baal of Tyre, who was either Melqart or Baal Shamem (see the stories of Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel throughout 1Kgs 16-22); and Baal of Ekron (2Kgs 1:2). Most references to Baal are less specific, suggesting that the name refers to the local prominent god. Eighteen times, authors reference gods generically as “baals.” For example, Jer 9:10-16 says that Yahweh will destroy Jerusalem and scatter the people because they “have gone after the Baals.”

How can Baal be so many gods? Actually, the word “baal” means “master” or “lord.” (The Hebrew pronunciation is BAH–ahl.) Inscriptions throughout Syria-Palestine show that this title denotes several specific gods. Likewise, Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, was called “Lord Marduk,” or Bel in Akkadian. Hos 2:16-17 indicates that even Yahweh formerly might have been called Baal. Only biblical authors develop a negative connotation for Baal, by associating this title with “foreign gods” (Judg 10:6). What do these authors accomplish by giving Baal a bad rap?

When biblical authors slander Baal, they do so to protect Yahweh’s reputation. In laments about the destruction of Jerusalem, neighbors mock the people: “Where is their god?!” (Ps 79:10, Ps 115:2, Joel 2:17). This raises the question: was Yahweh defeated along with his people? Biblical authors fend off this charge by blaming destruction on the Israelites and Judeans themselves. If they honored Baal, they violated their covenant commitment of exclusive loyalty to Yahweh, who then punished them. This theological apology uses Baal to vindicate Yahweh.

In fact, Baal is far more interesting than biblical authors indicate. From Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.E.) Ugarit, we have stories that Baal Haddu fought his way to divine kingship, beating out the sea-god Yamm. He even defeated Mot, the god of death! Mid-first-millennium treaties invoke the Phoenician storm-god Baal Shamem, who ensures that kings abide by their agreements or else suffer his wrath. It is certainly worthwhile to read about these captivating gods in other ancient Near Eastern sources. The biblical view of Baal is skewed to prevent any other storm-god from stealing Yahweh’s thunder.

Debra Scoggins Ballentine, "Baal", n.p. [cited 26 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/baal

Contributors

Debra Scoggins Ballentine

Debra Scoggins Ballentine
Assistant Professor, Rutgers University

Debra Scoggins Ballentine is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Rutgers University, where she teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions. She is particularly interested in how ancient Near Eastern, including biblical, authors use traditional stories about their gods to promote new political, social, and religious ideas. Her book, The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition, is currently under contract with Oxford University Press.

The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

The Mesopotamian language, written on cuneiform, that was used by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires.

"Master of Heaven": a major deity in Phoenicia and Syria in the first-millennium BCE.

The stage of development during which humans used copper or bronze weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 3300 to 1200 B.C.E.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

The people of the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom of Judah/Judea.

A Babylonian deity who becomes the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, as recounted in the Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish.

The patron deity of the Phoenician city of Tyre, mentioned in Phoenician inscriptions.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

A Canaanite city-state on the Mediterranean coast in what is today western Syria. Ugarit was at its peak as an important regional center in the 15th to 13th centuries B.C.E., during which time it developed its own system of writing (an adapted cuneiform alphabet) and a rich collection of literary texts, many of which bear remarkable similarities to some biblical texts.

A Canaanite deity, literally meaning "Sea," who is defeated in battle with Baal in Canaanite myth.

Num 25

Worship of Baal of Peor
1While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab.2These invited the people to the ... View more

Deut 4:3

3You have seen for yourselves what the Lord did with regard to the Baal of Peor—how the Lord your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of ... View more

Ps 106:28

28Then they attached themselves to the Baal of Peor,
and ate sacrifices offered to the dead;

Hos 9:10

10Like grapes in the wilderness,
I found Israel.
Like the first fruit on the fig tree,
in its first season,
I saw your ancestors.
But they came to Baal-peor,
an ... View more

2Kgs 17:5-18

Israel Carried Captive to Assyria
5Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria; for three years he besieged it.6In the ninth year of Hoshe ... View more

2Kgs 21:1-16

Manasseh Reigns over Judah
1Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign; he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Hephzibah.2He ... View more

2Kgs 24:2-4

2The Lord sent against him bands of the Chaldeans, bands of the Arameans, bands of the Moabites, and bands of the Ammonites; he sent them against Judah to destr ... View more

Deut 5:6-7

6I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;7you shall have no other gods before me.

Deut 6:1-9

The Great Commandment
1Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that yo ... View more

Exod 20:2-3

2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;3you shall have no other gods before me.

Exod 34:14

14(for you shall worship no other god, because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God).

Num 25

Worship of Baal of Peor
1While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab.2These invited the people to the ... View more

Deut 4:3

3You have seen for yourselves what the Lord did with regard to the Baal of Peor—how the Lord your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of ... View more

Ps 106:28

28Then they attached themselves to the Baal of Peor,
and ate sacrifices offered to the dead;

Hos 9:10

10Like grapes in the wilderness,
I found Israel.
Like the first fruit on the fig tree,
in its first season,
I saw your ancestors.
But they came to Baal-peor,
an ... View more

1Kgs 16-22

1The word of the Lord came to Jehu son of Hanani against Baasha, saying,2“Since I exalted you out of the dust and made you leader over my people Israel, and you ... View more

2Kgs 1:2

2Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria, and lay injured; so he sent messengers, telling them, “Go, inquire of Baal-zebub, the g ... View more

Jer 9:10-16

10Take up weeping and wailing for the mountains,
and a lamentation for the pastures of the wilderness,
because they are laid waste so that no one passes through ... View more

Hos 2:16-17

16On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, “My husband,” and no longer will you call me, “My Baal.”17For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mout ... View more

Judg 10:6

Oppression by the Ammonites
6The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, worshiping the Baals and the Astartes, the gods of Aram, the gods ... View more

Ps 79:10

10Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants
be known among the nations before our eyes.

Ps 115:2

2Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”

Joel 2:17

17Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage ... View more

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