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Biblical authors reduce Baal to a generic term for “other gods” and accuse the chosen people of honoring him, in order to vindicate Yahweh for disasters.

Bronze figurine of Baal from Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit)
Bronze figurine of Baal from Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit)

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

    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.