Baalism: The icky religions we find in ancient Israel.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 February

Why’d the Hebrews keep falling into Baalism? They did it for the nooky.

Baal /bɑ'ʕɑl, commonly mispronounced 'beɪ.(ə)l/ n. The title of various middle eastern gods.
2. Lord, master, sir, husband.
[Baalim /bɑ.ʕɑ, Baalism /ba'al.iz.əm/ n.]

The main competitors to the ancient Hebrew worship of the LORD were various middle eastern gods which tended to be called by their word for “master.” In Hebrew and Aramaic that’d be bahál; in Arabic and Ugaritic bahl, Amharic bal, Akkadian Belu, and in English it takes the form “Baal.”

Most people assume “Baal,” like “God,” is a proper name instead of a title. It’s not. Every major god was called “Baal.” There were multiple Baals in the middle east and ancient Canaan, which is why the bible refers to them as bahalím/“Baals” (KJV “Baalim”). Jg 2.11, 1Sa 7.4, 1Ki 18.18, 2Ch 17.3, Jr 2.23, Ho 2.13 Rather than refer to these gods by their proper names, middle easterners respectfully called them “lord,” much as we do with YHWH. They used the word bahál—and the Hebrews used its synonym adón, arguably because everybody else was using Baal.

In fact it may startle you to discover even the LORD was sometimes called Baal. Seriously. After David ben Jesse became king over all the Israeli tribes, he fought Philistia at Baal Perachím, and the reason the place was called that name was ’cause… well, I’ll just quote the bible.

2 Samuel 5.18-21 KWL
18 Philistines came, and occupied the valley of Refahím/“Shadows.”
19 Asking the LORD, David said, “Do I go out against the Philistines? Do you put them in my hand?”
The LORD told David, “Go out: I put, put the Philistines in your hand.”
20 David went to Baal Perachím. There, David struck them down. He said:
“The LORD broke through my enemies before my face, like water breaks through a levee.”
Hence this place’s name is Baal Perachím/“Lord of Breakthrough.”
21 The Philistines left their carved idols there,
and David and his men took them away.

We all know David was no Baalist. He didn’t name the site for any of the Canaanite or Philistine gods; he meant his God, YHWH. But he used the title Baal to refer to him. I know; it’s weird.

It’s why we find Hebrew place names, even people, whose names have some form of “Baal” in them. They didn’t necessarily mean Canaanite gods; they often meant the One God. Like David’s warrior Behalyáh of Benjamin, 1Ch 12.5 whose name literally means “YHWH is Baal.” Like Saul’s son Ešbahál 1Ch 8.33, 9.39, and Jonathan’s son Meriv-bahál. 1Ch 8.34, 9.40 You might know these men better as King Ishbosheth 2Sa 2.8 and Mephibosheth. 2Sa 4.4 It’s believed the bible’s editors pulled the “Baal” from their names and replaced it with bošet/“shame[ful]”—sorta their mini-commentary about that word.

’Cause after a point, God got really tired of people calling him “Baal.”

Hosea 2.16-17 KWL
16 The LORD reveals: “That day will come when you call me ‘my husband’
and not call me ‘my Baal’ anymore.
17 I pluck the Baals’ names from your mother’s mouth.
Don’t recognize me by that name anymore.”

God wanted the very word removed. And for good reason. If the LORD is simply Baal-YHWH to you, just another one of the interchangeable Baals in the world, it’s way too easy to mix up our good, benevolent, patient, loving LORD with some other god who isn’t always good, is kinda selfish, impatient, unloving, and otherwise unlike the One God. Like that horny reprobate Zeus in Greek mythology, a god whom the ancient Greeks called “good” only because they were sucking up to him.

Which brings up the reason the Baals were so popular. When people read the bible and don’t know its history, they often wonder why on earth the Hebrews kept falling into Baalism. What was it about these gods? The LORD can speak; why’d they regularly keep falling for gods which can’t?

Two words: Ritual sex.

Oh that got your attention, didn’t it? But yep, that’s what hooked the Hebrews. Nu 25.1-3 Ancient pagans quickly discovered if they made sexual activity part of their worship practices, they’d hook dedicated followers. It’s precisely why the LORD and his prophets regularly compared Baalism to adultery and prostitution: Jg 8.33, Ho 2.13 That’s literally what it was.

Ugaritic statue of “Baal”; the one which kinda looks like an angry Christmas elf. Wikimedia

The many Baals.

If you’ve ever looked up Baal in a bible dictionary, sometimes you’re gonna read basically what I’ve written here—that most of the ancient middle eastern gods were called Baal, and which of the many “Baals” the Hebrews probably meant. But I’ve found many bible dictionaries (and pastors) tend to over-oversimplify, blend all the different mythologies in Canaan together, and claim Baal’s “a Canaanite god”—not several.

In the oversimplified version, Baal’s the husband of Ashtoreth, the son of Dagon—if not the son of El—and out of pure popularity evolved into the Canaanite king god. As for illustrations, they go with the skinny bronze idol with the pointy hat and thunderbolt, based on an idol found in Ras Shamra, Syria—ancient Ugarit.

Thing is, the clay tablets found with the idol tell about the Ugarits’ chief god, Hadád. That’s who they meant by Baal. But we wanna know what the Hebrews meant by Baal. Not what some tribe 325 kilometers to the north believed.

So. To begin, we gotta go even further south, to Moab.

The Moabites were also Hebrews; descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot. Ge 19.37 It’s likely they initially followed the LORD same as Lot, back when he was sober. Balaam ben Beor, though a mercenary prophet who worked for the Moabites and Midianites (also Hebrews; descended from Abraham Ge 25.2), did follow the LORD. Nu 22.8 The Moabites and Midianites did recognize and value this about him. Nu 22.7 But by the time the descendants of Israel reached Moab, the people of Peor had adopted the Canaanite weather god Hadád.
A neo-Babylonian depiction of Hadád, using his divine axe to mangle the heck out of his divine trident. CreationWiki
Yep, same god as in Ugarit. This was the “Baal of Peor” (KJV “Baalpeor”), the first Baal the Israelis had ever encountered… and they didn’t handle things well at all, getting immediately mixed up in Hadád’s temple prostitution.

Hadád was the god of the skies, rain, storms, and fertility. He was also known as Baal-Šemáyim/“lord of the skies,” although over time Baal-Šemáyim evolved into Baal-Šamem, a different weather god who was considered Hadád’s father, and also controlled the sun.

Various scholars are pretty sure Hadád is the only Baal we find in the bible. Partly because it makes the contest between Elijah, and Baal’s prophets, 1Ki 18.21-40 way more dramatic. After all, if Elijah called down a drought 1Ki 17.1 in defiance of the weather god, and later called down fire from the sky in defiance of the weather god, man does that stick it to Hadád.

Thing is, this defiance of Hadád didn’t appear to affect the Israelis any. Drought notwithstanding, they were still of two minds as to whether to follow their Baal or the LORD. 1Ki 18.21 A drought would’ve entirely discredited Hadád… but it turns out the Baal of Ephraim wasn’t actually Hadád. Whole different god, whose myths informed the Hebrews it specialized in other stuff.

So which god was this? Baal of Ephraim, introduced to northern Israel by King Ahab ben Omri, 1Ki 16.32 was actually the Assyrian war god Ašur.
Ašur, depicted in what’s supposed to be a feather robe. But I guarantee you various nutjobs are convinced that’s a spaceship. Wikimedia
Ašur was the city which evolved into the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrians had made a god of their city. Sidón was a vassal state of Assyria, and Ahab, who’d married the Sidonian king Ethbaal’s daughter Jezebel, 1Ki 16.31 had imported their god as well.

Because Ašur was a relatively new (and invented) god, he didn’t actually have a mythology. So the Assyrians borrowed all the myths of the Sumerian king-god Enlil—including Enlil’s wife Ninlil. Ašur wasn’t a fertility god at all; definitely a war god. However, Ahab also imported Sidón’s other popular god, Aštart (KJV “Ashtoreth,” Akkadian “Ishtar”), a fertility goddess. 1Ki 18.19 If you worshiped Ašur, Aštart was part of the package.

That’d be the main two Baals. And of course there are assorted other Baals found in the bible.

  • Baal-Berit was Berit, a god found in judges-era Shechem. Jg 8.33, 9.4 We know nothing about it, other than that the author of Judges disapproved of it.
  • Baal-Zevúv (KJV “Baalzebub”) 2Ki 1.2 was the god of Ekron, Philistia. Properly it was called Baal-Zevúl, zevúl meaning “[heavenly] dwelling.” Ha 3.11 But the Hebrews, just for fun, swapped it for zevúv/“gnat” or “fly,” and it stuck. In Aramaic, the word zevúl means “dung,” so in Jesus’s day they went back to calling it Baal-Zebul (Greek Veëlzevúl, KJV “Beelzebub”) Mk 3.22 and the Pharisees used it as a euphemism for Satan. Lk 11.18
  • Bel was a Babylonian idol found in the apocrypha’s 14th chapter of Daniel, also known as Bel and the Dragon. Likely this god was Marduk (KJV “Merodach” Jr 50.2), the neo-Babylonians’ patron god. In the story, Daniel proved Bel’s priests were falsely making it look like Bel ate its sacrifices, when really it was the priests and their families. So the king of Babylon had ’em whacked. Da 14.1-22 NABRE Incidentally, Nebuchadnezzar’s head eunuch changed Daniel’s name to Bel-tešach’chár (KJV “Belteshazzar”) Aramaic for “Bel protects [the] king.” Da 1.7
  • Baal-Hamón is a city. Sg 8.11 Bible dictionaries figure it just means “lord of many,” but in fact it’s originally named for Baal-Hamón, the main god of Carthage, which was derived from the Egyptian sun god Amon-Ra.

The icky Baals.

Whether the local Baal specialized in war or weather, as I said, one of the things which got the Hebrews to follow it was the ritual sex. Many pagan religions had incorporated these practices in order to legitimize illicit sexual activity, and entice followers. Still do.

The worship of Ašerah in particular. She was Aštart’s sister in one mythology; mother in another; Hadád’s wife in another (and—disturbingly, blasphemously, and probably connected with those rogue temples in Dan and Bethel—the LORD’s wife in one archeological find). Ašerah was a fertility goddess, worshiped in groves of trees—or, when there were no trees convenient, a circle of poles. In these groves, her priests and priestesses had sex with worshipers so as to represent, and encourage, fertility. The priests were slaves bought for the purpose. The term for them was qadóš or qedeša/“holy one,” which the KJV preferred to render “whore,” Dt 23.17 considering the context.

After all, they didn’t do it for free. You paid their head priests for your “acts of worship.” But since the LORD never mandated any ritual sex whatsoever, what else could you call ’em?

If you lean in a polytheistic direction—lots of gods, with the LORD one out of many—you might have no trouble worshiping the LORD on the holidays he mandated, namely Sabbath, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. The rest of the year, you can worship the local Baal on all its holidays, and have all the sex you could afford. Straight, gay, with adults, with children; didn’t matter, all allowed. And you could claim to your spouse it technically wasn’t adultery: It was worship. Worship all the gods; hedge your bets… and gratify your urges.

You see the problem. The LORD considered this prostitution Ex 34.15 adultery, Jr 5.7 and an abomination. 2Ki 23.13 Considering the sexual activity involved in Baalism, the LORD wasn’t speaking metaphorically.

Bible commentators tend to assume Baalism was either gone, or rare, by the time of the New Testament. Despite the reference to Baal-Zebul, they figure Greco-Roman paganism had largely taken over: Whenever the Greeks visited different provinces, they insisted Baal was the same as Zeus, and got the locals to adapt their temples accordingly. But this didn’t actually eliminate Baalism: It was simply practiced under new names. The only thing which disappeared was the middle eastern title Baal. It was replaced by the Greek title Kýrios/“master,” and that’s what the Baals became. Hence Paul was able to point out there were a whole lot of gods and Kýrioi in the world. 1Co 8.5 But we have only one God, and one Lord Jesus. 1Co 8.6

Greco-Roman paganism disappeared as Christianity spread, and with it the ritual sex part of religion. Neo-Pagans have brought it back, and some of it is practiced (but maritally) in some sects of Hinduism. Prostitution and human trafficking is largely secular—and sad to say, still exists; just underground, illegal, and hopefully one day gone.

And competitors to the LORD are always still around. Watch out for them.