Baal or Ba`al (Hebrew בעל lord or owner) (plural: Ba`alim or Baalim) is the generic name given to any of various local or national "gods" in Canaan, Phoenicia (and its famous Northern African colony-city of Carthage), Syria, and rarely, Philistia. That name appears often in accounts of backsliding on the part of the Israelites at various times in their history. This name never appears in accounts treating the history of the Jewish people during and following the Exile.
Deities Known by This Name
In the context of the religious practices of the ancient Near East, Baal can mean either:
- A "deity" local to a particular city-state or region. Such a "deity" brings fertility, and thus his celebration is inherently sensual.
- A specific national god. Among the Ammonites he is called Moloch; among the Moabites, Chemosh; among the Syrians, Hadad; in Tyre, Melqart (although Hadad might also be in view); in Carthage, Baal-Hammon, which could be the same as the Philistine god Dagon or the Greco-Roman god known as Cronus or Saturn.
Baal is supposed to have had a mate, named Asherah, whose cult included prostitution as a religious observance, an indication of how sensual the cults of both these gods were.
Conventions of Baal worship
The chief conventions associated with the cult of Baal, and with the parallel cult of Asherah, are:
- The high place, typically on a hill where people would burn incense to this god or cut themselves so that they bled profusely. The high place was also a venue for:
- An altar for an animal sacrifice (or occasionally a human sacrifice, especially in the case of Moloch)
- A carved or engraved wooden pole, often called a grove in the King James Version. This is not a stand of trees. It is, rather, a pole with carved images on it--a direct violation of the Second Commandment against the making of graven images.
Worship of Baal in Israel
Sadly, the Israelites succumbed repeatedly to the allure of this basically sensual religion. The Bible describes Baal-worship among the Israelites even before they crossed into the Promised Land. The cult of Baal arose repeatedly during the era of the Judges--and in one famous case, Judge Gideon destroyed a Baal altar and cut down the nearby Asherah pole and nearly lost his life as a result. Judges 6:1-32
Baal worship nearly died out in the early years of the United Kingdom--but with the Division of the kingdoms, Baal worship was not long in coming back. Jeroboam I laid a foundation for this by fashioning two golden calves for the people of the Northern Kingdom to pray to. Decades later, the House of Omri made Baalism (specifically the worship of the Tyrian version of Baal) the official religion until General Jehu took over as king and systematically purged the kingdom of all Baalists. Nor was the Southern Kingdom immune, for Athaliah, an Omride princess, married the future King Jehoram and introduced him to Baal as well.
Unhappily, the double cult of Asherah and Baal did not stay suppressed. The House of Jehu died out, and Baalism returned and lasted, with varying strength, until the Fall of Samaria in 723 BC (or 721 BC).
The Southern Kingdom saw a number of reformers who made varying attempts, some of them half-hearted, to stamp out these cults in their kingdom. The two most successful were Hezekiah and Josiah, each of whom took the specific step of "throwing down the high places." Other kings would often destroy altars of Baal and cut down Asherah poles--but leaving high places in place was an often problematical compromise. By destroying even the high places, Hezekiah and Josiah, more than any other kings of Judah, showed that they were serious.
Following the Exile, Baal worship disappeared; the returnees never took it up again.
- The Myth of Baal
- Baal in the Encyclopedia Mythica
- Baal in the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Wikipedia:Baal Baal by Wikipedia