- This article is a discussion of Baal the deity; for Baal as a Christian or Jewish demon see Baal (demon) and for the Stargate SG-1 character see Baal (Stargate).
Baal (בַּעַל / בָּעַל, Standard Hebrew Báʿal, Tiberian Hebrew Báʿal / Báʿal) is a northwest Semitic word signifying 'The Lord, master, owner (male), husband' cognate with Akkadian Bēl of the same meanings. The feminine form is Phoenician בעלת Baʿalat, Hebrew בַּעֲלָה Baʿalāh signifying 'lady, mistress, owner (female), wife'. The words are not used in reference to relationship between a superior and an inferior or of a master to a slave. The words are often used as titles for various gods and goddess either in a phrase to indicate the deity is the Lord or Lady of a particular place or of a particular function, or standing alone as a more reverential way of referring to an important deity as 'The Lord' or 'The Lady'. But the words themselves have no necessary religious connotation.
From the Tanach: Genesis 14.13 ba‘alê bərît-’abrām 'lords of the covenant of Abram', i.e. 'holders of an agreement with Abram', i.e. 'confederates of Abram' or 'allies of Abram'; Genesis 20.3: bə‘ulat bā‘al 'lady of a lord', i.e. 'wife of a man'; Genesis 37.19: ba‘al haḥalōmôt 'lord of the dreams', i.e. 'the one who made himself important in his dreams' or simply 'the dreamer'; Exodus 21.3: ba‘al ’iššâ 'lord of a woman', i.e. 'married man'; Exodus 21.22: ba‘al hā’iššâ 'lord of the woman', i.e. 'husband of the woman'; Exodus 24.14: mî-ba‘al dəbārîm 'who (is) lord of matters', i.e. 'whoever possesses some matter', i.e. 'whoever has a problem'; Leviticus 21.4: ba‘al bə‘ēmmāyw 'lord in his people', i.e. 'man of importance among his people'; Deuteronomy 24.4: ba‘lāh hāri’šôn 'her lord the former', i.e. 'her former husband'; and so forth. But these should suffice to show the range of the words.
In medieval Judaism a rabbi who appeared to have supernatural powers was called a Ba‘al Shem 'Master of the Name' with no perception of any connection with Ba‘al as a title for a pagan god. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1678–1760) who founded the Hassidic movement was commonly known during his later life as Ba‘al Shem Tov 'Good Master of the Name' and is still commonly called by that title today.
Deities called Ba‘al and Ba‘alat
Because more than one god bore the title Ba‘al and more than one goddess bore the title Ba‘alat or Ba‘alah, it is often difficult to be sure which Ba‘al 'Lord' or Ba‘alat 'Lady' a particular inscription or text is speaking of.
Though the god Hadad or Adad was especially likely to be called Ba‘al, Hadad was far from the only god to have that title. The Ugaritic texts place the dwelling of Ba‘al/Hadad on Mount Zephon, so one can probably take as evident that references to Ba‘al Zephon in the Tanach and in inscriptions and tablets refer to Hadad. It is said that Ba‘al Pe‘or, the Lord of Mount Pe‘or, whom Israelites were forbidden from worshipping (Numbers 1–25) was also Hadad. In the Canaanite pantheon, Hadad was the son of El, who had once been the primary god of the Canaanite pantheon, and whose name was also used interchangeably with that of the Hebrew god, Yahweh.
Melqart, the god of Tyre was often called the Ba‘al of Tyre. 1 Kings 16.31 relates that Ahab, king of Israel, married Jezebel daughter of Ethba‘al king of the Sidonians and then served habba‘al 'the Ba‘al', the cult of this god continuing to be prominent in Israel until the reign of Jehu under who put an end to this cult (2 Kings 10.26):
And they brought out the pillars (massebahs) of the house of the Ba‘al and burned them. And they pulled down the pillar (massebah) of the Ba‘al and pulled down the house of the Ba‘al and turned it into a latrine until this day.
Does "the Ba’al" 'the Lord' refer to Melqart, as many think, or is it Hadad who was also worshipped in Tyre, or is it perhaps Ba‘al Shamîm 'Lord of Heaven' who was also worshipped in Tyre and often distinguished from Hadad? There is no certainty. Josephus (Antiquities 8.13.1) states clearly that Jezebel "built a temple to the god of the Tyrians, which they call Belus" which certainly refers to Melqart. But Josephus may be relying on likelihood rather than knowledge. The contest described in 1 Kings 18.1–45 between the "prophets of the Ba‘al" and the "prophets of the Asherah" on one side and Elijah as prophet of Yahweh on the other in the context of a drought might suggest that the question is partly about which god actually sends rain. Hadad is generally a rain god but Melqart is not known to be connected with bringing of rain. But so little is known of Melqart's cult that that reasoning is not decisive.
In any case Ahab, despite supporting the cult of this Ba‘al, remained at the same time also a follower of Yahweh. Ahab still consulted Yahweh's prophets and still cherished Yahweh's protection when he named his sons Ahaziah 'Yahweh holds' and Jehoram 'Yahweh is high'.
Ba‘al Hammon, the supreme god of Carthage is generally identified by modern scholars either with the northwest Semitic god El or with Dagon, neither of whom are normally called Ba‘al in the eastern Mediterranean, so far as is known.
Ba‘alat Gebal 'Lady of Byblos' appears to have been generally identified with ‘Ashtart although Sanchuniathon distinguishes the two.
Ba‘al as a divine title in Israel and Judah
Since Ba‘al simply means 'Lord', there is no obvious reason why it could not be applied to Yahweh as well as other gods. Perhaps it was. The judge Gideon was also called Jerubaal, a name which seems to mean 'Ba‘al strives' though Judges 6.32 makes the claim that the name was given to mock the god Ba‘al whose shrine Gideon had destroyed, the intention being to imply: "Let Ba‘al strive as much as he can ... it will come to nothing." Many doubt this explanation.
After Gideon's death, according to Judges 8.33, the Israelites went astray and started to worship the Ba‘alîm (the Ba‘als) especially Ba‘al Berith 'Lord of the Covenant'. A few verses later (Judge 9.4) the story turns to all the citizens of Shechem – actually kol-ba‘alê šəkem another case of normal use of ba‘al not applied to a deity. These citizens of Shechem support Abimelech's attempt to become king by giving him 70 shekels from the House of Ba‘al Berith. It is hard to disassociate this Lord of the Covenant who is worshipped in Shechem from the covenant at Shechem described earlier in Joshua 24.25 in which the people agree to worship Yahweh. It is especially hard to do so when Judges 9.46 relates that all "the holders of the tower of Shechem" (kol-ba‘alê midgal-šəkem) enter bêt ’ēl bərît 'the House of El Berith', that is, 'the House of God of the Covenant'. Was Ba‘al then here just a title for El? Or did the covenant of Shechem perhaps originally not involve El at all but some some other god who bore the title Ba‘al? Or were there different viewpoints about Yahweh, some seeing him as an aspect of Hadad, some as an aspect of El, some with other theories? Again there is no clear answer.
We also find Eshbaal (one of Saul's sons) and Beeliada (a son of David). The last name also appears as Eliada. This might show that at some period Ba‘al and El were used interchangeably even in the same name applied to the same person. More likely a later hand has cleaned up the text. Editors did play around with some names, sometimes substuting the form bosheth 'abomination' for ba‘al in names, whence the forms Ishbosheth instead of Eshbaal and Mephibosheth which is rendered Meribaal in 1 Chronicles 9.40. 1 Chronicles 12:5 gives us the name Bealiah (more accurately bə‘’alyâ) meaning 'Yahweh is Ba‘al'.
It is difficult to determinine to what extent the false worship which the prophets stigmatize is the worship of Yahweh under a conception and with rites which treated him as a local nature god or whether particular features of gods more often given the title Ba‘al were consciously recognized to be distinct from Yahwism from the first. Certainly some of the Ugaritic texts and Sanchuniathon report hostility between El and Hadad, perhaps representing a cultic and religious differences reflected in Hebrew tradition also, in which Yahweh in the Tanach is firmly identified with El and might be expected to be somewhat hostile to Ba’al/Hadad and the deities of his circle. But for Jeremiah and the Deuteronomist it also appears to be monontheism against polytheism (Jeremiah 11.12):
Then shall the cities of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem go and cry to the gods to whom they offer incense: but they shall not save them at all in the time of their trouble. For according to the number of your cities are your gods, O Judah; and according to the number of the streets of Jerusalem you have set up altars to the abominination, altars to burn incense to the Ba‘al.
Does this refer to other gods and one particular god, perhaps Hadad, who is especially "the Ba‘al"? Or does it refer to altars to burn incense to "the Ba‘al" to which each altar is raised, that is to as many different Ba‘al's as there were altars?
Multiple Ba‘als and ‘Ashtarts
One finds in the Tanach the plural forms bə‘ālîm 'Ba‘als' or 'Lords' and ‘aštārôt '‘Ashtarts', though such plurals do not appear in Phoenician or Canaanite or independent Aramaic sources.
One theory is that the folk of each territory or in each wandering clan worshipped their own Ba‘al, as the chief deity of each, the source of all the gifts of nature, the mysterious god of their fathers. As the god of fertility all the produce of the soil would be his, and his adherents would bring to him their tribute of first-fruits. He would be the patron of all growth and fertility, and, by the use of analogy characteristic of early thought, this Ba‘al would be the god of the productive element in its widest sense. Originating perhaps in the observation of the fertilizing effect of rains and streams upon the receptive and reproductive soil, Ba‘al worship became identical with nature-worship. Joined with the Ba‘als there would naturally be corresponding female figures which might be called ‘Ashtarts, embodiments of ‘Ashtart.
Through analogy and through the belief that one can control or aid the powers of nature by the practice of magic, particularly sympathetic magic, sexuality might characterize part of the cult of the Ba‘als and ‘Ashtarts. Post-Exilic allusions to the cult of Ba‘al Pe‘or suggest that orgies prevailed. On the summits of hills and mountains flourished the cult of the givers of increase, and "under every green tree" was practised the licentiousness which was held to secure abundance of crops. Human sacrifice, the burning of incense, violent and ecstatic exercises, ceremonial acts of bowing and kissing, the preparing of sacred mystic cakes (see also Asherah), appear among the offences denounced by the post-Exilic prophets; and show that the cult of Ba‘al (and ‘Ashtart) included characteristic features of worship which recur in various parts of the Semitic (and non-Semitic) world, although attached to other names. But it is also possible that such rites were performed to a local Ba‘al 'Lord' and a local ‘Ashtart without much concern as to whether or not they were the same as that of a nearby community or how they fitted into the national theology of Yahweh who had become a ruling high god of the heavens, increasingly disassociated from such things, at least in the minds of some worshippers.
Another theory is that the references to Ba‘als and ‘Ashtarts (and Asherahs) are to images or other standard symbols of these deities, that is statues and icons of Ba‘al Hadad, ‘Ashtart, and Asherah set up in various high places as well as those of other gods, the author listing the most prominent as types for all. The Deuteronomistic editor is as angered and sadened by worshipping of images as by worshipping other deities than Yahweh and wishes to emphasize the plurality of false deities as opposed to true worship of Yahweh at his single temple in Jerusalem as called for in the reforms of Josiah.
A reminiscence of Ba‘al as a title of a local fertility god (or referring to a particular god of subterraneous water) may occur in the Talmudic Hebrew prhases field of the ba‘al and place of the ba‘al and Arabic ba‘l used of land fertilised by subterraneous waters rather than by rain.
There is no single Semitic sun-god named Ba‘al
The hypothesis that there was a common Semitic sun-god named Ba‘al fell from favor in the 19th century as new archaelogical evidence indicated multiple gods bearing the title Ba‘al and little about them that connected them to the sun. A certain exasperation on that matter appears even in 1899 in the Encyclopædia Biblica article Baal by W. Robertson Smith and George F. Moore:
That Baal was primarily a sun-god was for a long time almost a dogma among scholars and is still often repeated. This doctrine is connected with theories of the origin of religion which are now almost universally abandoned. The worship of the heavenly bodies is not the beginning of religion. Moreover, there was not, as this theory assumes, one god Baal, worshipped under different forms and names by the Semitic peoples, but a multitude of local Baals, each the inhabitant of his own place, the protector and benefactor of those who worshipped him there. Even in the astro-theology of the Babylonians the star of Bēl was not the sun : it was the planet Jupiter. There is no intimation in the OT that any of the Canaanite Baals were sun-gods, or that the worship of the sun (Shemesh), of which we have ample evidence, both early and late, was connected with that of the Baals ; in 2 K. 235 cp 11 the cults are treated as distinct.
New findings and further scholarship in the following century have further confirmed these statements but the old meta-myth of the single Semitic sun-god Ba‘al lingers.
See also Ba‘al Hammon, Baal Peor, Ba‘al Shamîm, Beelzebub, Bel, Hadad, Melqart, Moloch
Last updated: 06-01-2005 22:37:56
Last updated: 08-17-2005 20:42:37