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 20 Nov 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

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Deut 4:3

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Ps 106:28

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Hos 9:10

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2Kgs 17:5-18

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2Kgs 21:1-16

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2Kgs 24:2-4

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Deut 5:6-7

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Deut 6:1-9

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Exod 20:2-3

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Exod 34:14

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Num 25

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Deut 4:3

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Ps 106:28

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Hos 9:10

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1Kgs 16-22

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2Kgs 1:2

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Jer 9:10-16

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Hos 2:16-17

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Judg 10:6

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Ps 79:10

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Ps 115:2

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Joel 2:17

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