BAAL . The name Baal (bʿl) is a common Semitic appellative meaning "lord" that is used as a proper name for the West Semitic storm god in ancient Near Eastern texts dating from the late third millennium bce through the Roman period. Identified as the warrior Hadd (or Hadad) in the Late Bronze Age texts from Ugarit, Baal is a popular deity in Syro-Palestinian or "Canaanite" religious traditions as a god of storms and fertility. Associated with kingship and oaths, his name appears as a divine witness to international treaties and as a common element in theophoric names. Baal was venerated in West Semitic religious traditions as a powerful god and patron of humanity for over two thousand years.
The character of Baal is most fully described in the Late Bronze Age archives of the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra), where he is the patron of the royal house and protector of the city. Archaeologists have recovered hundreds of mythological, epic, and ritual texts written in an alphabetic cuneiform script from this coastal site since its rediscovery in 1929. The Baal revealed in these texts is an aggressive and powerful warrior who vies for kingship among the gods. Frequent epithets for Baal in the Ugaritic texts include "Almighty Baal" (aliyn bʿl ), "the mightiest of warriors" (aliy qrdm ), "the rider of the clouds" (rkb ʿrpt ), and "the Prince, lord of the earth" (zbl bʿl arṣ ). He is the son of the grain god Dagan and the brother of the violent Maiden Anat. Baal dwells on Mount Saphon (spn ), identified with Jebel el-Aqra (Mons Casius in classical sources), the highest peak in Syria. From here he also controls the winds and storms at sea and acts as the protector of mariners.
As a god of the storm, Baal is depicted as both a divine warrior and the provider of natural fertility in the form of dew and rains. His presence in the heavens is manifested by dark clouds, roaring winds, peals of thunder, and bolts of lightning. Ugaritic myths depict Baal as victorious in battle against the primordial forces of Sea (Yamm) and Death (Mot). He is praised for his defeat of dragons or sea monsters called Litan the Fleeing Serpent, Tunnan, and the seven-headed Twisting Serpent. Baal's distinctive iconography portrays him as a bearded god, wearing a conical hat with two horns, brandishing a mace or battle-ax in his right hand and grasping lightning and thunderbolts in the left. As king (mlk ) of the gods, Baal rules the cosmos under the authority of El, the grey-bearded patriarchal leader of the divine assembly. Baal "reigns over the gods," "issues orders to gods and humans," and "satisfies the multitudes of the earth" with his fertilizing rains in Ugaritic poetry. The absence of Baal from the world results in "no dew, no downpour, no swirling of the deeps, no welcome voice of Baal" to break the sweltering heat, according to the Aqhat epic. Baal is also associated with the fertility of the herd, as is mythologically represented in two Ugaritic texts that describe his sexual intercourse with a cow, who then bears a son as his heir.
The myth of Baal's rise to sovereignty over the gods is narrated in the six tablets of the Ugaritic Baal Cycle, which encompasses three main sections. The elderly god El presides over the divine assembly, while a younger god is enthroned as the active king of the cosmos. As the son of Dagan, Baal has a conflicted relationship with El, who resists Baal's rise to power in preference for his own sons' claims to divine kingship. In the cycle's first episode, Baal contends with Yamm (Sea) for dominion among the gods. After defeating Yamm with the help of magic war clubs crafted by Kothar-wa-Hasis, Baal seeks permission from El to build a palace as a symbol of his divine kingship. Kothar, Anat, and El's own consort, Athirat, eventually support Baal in the political intrigue, and his palace is constructed in the second section of the Baal Cycle.
The third section of the Baal Cycle describes Baal's conflict with divine Mot (Death), who challenges Baal's kingship. Mot demands that the storm god "enter the maw of Death" and descend into the underworld. Baal immediately submits to Mot's authority, but the fragmentary text obscures the sequence of events at this point. It remains unclear if Baal actually dies and enters the dreary land of the dead. Regardless, the heavenly gods believe that Baal has died. Anat discovers a corpse "in the pleasant field of Death's Realm" (ysmt šd šḥlmmt ). There is a burial, copious ritual mourning, and funerary offerings by El and Anat in honor of the fallen Baal. After these events, El and the divine council unsuccessfully seek a replacement for Baal as the king of the gods. Meanwhile, Anat approaches Mot with a pitiful request to release her brother. When her pleas go unheeded for months, Anat violently attacks Mot, chops his body into pieces, and scatters his remains upon the fields for the birds to consume. After more broken text, El has an oracular dream of Baal's return to the earth in which "the heavens rain oil and the wadis run with honey" to relieve the parched furrows of the fields. Baal then returns to the divine assembly, defeats his enemies, and is again seated upon "the throne of his dominion." Later, "in the seventh year," Mot returns to challenge Baal's sovereignty, but the sun goddess Shapsh mediates between the rival gods and resolves their dispute in favor of Baal. The Baal Cycle concludes with the establishment of Baal's kingship over the heavenly gods, the earth, and humanity.
Scholars continue to debate whether Baal is appropriately described as a "dying and rising god" whose annual death and resurrection are cultically reenacted within a seasonal calendar. Certain West Semitic texts also hint at Baal's role in the revivification of the dead in a netherworld existence. Indeed, some scholars identify Baal as the leader of the Rephaim, the underworld shades of deceased kings, but no consensus exists among scholars on this issue. The Ugaritic myth of the voracious "Devourers" also narrates Baal's defeat and seven-year absence from the earth. The fragmentary character of the relevant episodes in the Baal Cycle precludes any definite conclusion, but perhaps Baal is most accurately described as a "disappearing god," similar to certain Hittite traditions. There is no compelling evidence for the ritual reenactment of Baal's annual death and resurrection in any ancient Syro-Palestinian source. Mot's absence for seven years in the Baal Cycle further argues against the alleged seasonal pattern of the conflict between Baal's fructifying rains and Mot's sterile rule during the heat of summer. Yet the seasonal aspects of the drama between the rain god and Mot cannot be denied. With their emphasis on fertility, death, and the politics of divine kingship, the myths of Baal represent the precarious balance of powerful forces at play in the natural, divine, and human realms. In many ways, Baal himself symbolizes the fragility of life, fertility, and political stability in a hostile cosmos.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Phoenician Baal appears as the most prominent divine rival to the Israelite god, Yahweh. Indeed, the two gods share many of the same qualities and epithets. Like Baal, Yahweh is depicted as a god of the storm who sounds his voice in thunder and sends lightning (Ps. 18:10–16). Yahweh is the rider of the clouds (Isa.19:1; Ps. 68:5), who dominates the sea (ym ) and vanquishes primordial dragons or sea monsters, including Tannin and Leviathan the Twisting Serpent (Ps. 74:13–14; Isa. 27:1; 51:9–10; Job 26:12–13). Yahweh is also responsible for human and natural fertility, including the "dew of the heavens and the fat of the earth, the abundance of new grain and wine" (Gen. 27:28).
Parker, Simon B., ed. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. Atlanta, 1997. Excellent and accessible English translations of the Ugaritic mythological texts.
Schwemer, Daniel. Die Wettergottgestalten Mesopotamiens und Nordsyriens im Zeitalter der Keilschriftkulturen. Weisbaden, 2001. See pp. 443–588.
Smith, Mark S. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, I. Leiden, 1994. The first volume of a projected three-volume commentary on the Baal Cycle.
Smith, Mark S. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2002. An excellent introduction with comprehensive bibliographic references to recent work.
Van der Toorn, Karel, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, eds. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2d ed. Leiden, 1999. See the entries by W. Hermann on "Baal," pp. 132–139, and J. C. Greenfield on "Hadad," pp. 377–382.
Neal H. Walls (2005)
The Hebrew Bible, the Baal cycle
Son of El
Baal (pronounced BAY-uhl) was one of the most widely worshipped gods in ancient Canaan (pronounced KAY-nuhn), the early name for present-day Israel and neighboring regions. Associated with fertility and rain, Baal was the son of El, the supreme god of the Canaanites, and the husband and brother of Anat, the ferocious goddess of war.
Baal is a common Semitic word that means “lord” or “owner.” The tide was given to the local god of nearly every city in Canaan. Because of the importance of rain to life in the dry lands of the Near East, these local gods were usually associated with fertility and the cycle of wet and dry seasons. Baal developed into a single, widely known god, called Lord of the Earth and Lord of the Rain and Dew. Clay tablets found at the ruins of the ancient town of Ras es-Shamrah (in present-day Syria) contain a series of stories about how Baal became the rain god and gained power over the waters of earth. These stories are known as the Baal cycle.
According to the myths, Yam, the sea god, demanded that Baal be made his slave. He sent messengers to Baal, asking him to surrender, but Baal attacked the messengers and drove them away. Baal then fought with Yam and, using two magic weapons, defeated him and seized control of the waters.
Other myths about Baal relate to fertility and the cycle of the seasons. One such story tells of the battle between Baal and Mot, the god of death and infertility. After conquering Yam, Baal complained that he had no house like the other gods did. El agreed to let the crafts god Kothar build Baal a fine house. When it was finished, Baal held a great feast, but he did not invite Mot or send him respectful presents. Greatly insulted, Mot asked Baal to come to the underworld , or land of the dead, to dine. Although he was afraid, Baal could not refuse the invitation. The food served at Mot's table was mud, the food of death, and when Baal ate it, he was trapped in the underworld.
While Baal was in the underworld, famine struck the earth, and El searched for someone to replace Baal. Asherah (pronounced ASH-er-ah), a fertility goddess, convinced El to give Baal's throne to her son Ashtar. But when Ashtar, the god of irrigation, sat on the throne, his feet did not even touch the floor. Realizing he could not fill Baal's place, Ashtar gave up the throne.
Meanwhile, Baal's wife and sister, the fierce goddess Anat, traveled to the underworld. After splitting Mot with her sword, she separated his pieces with her fan, burned the pieces in a fire , ground them in a mill, and planted them in the ground. These actions brought Baal back to life. Mot was later restored to life, and the two gods battled each other again. In the end, the sun goddess Shapash separated them, Baal regained his throne, and the land became fertile again.
Baal in Context
Worship of Baal was widespread in the ancient Near East. The clay tablets of Ras es-Shamrah, which relate the Baal cycle, date from about 1500 bce. Baal was also popular in Egypt from about 1400 to 1075 bce. In Mesopotamia, Baal was known to the Babylonians and Assyrians and was identified with their national gods Marduk and Ashur. The Greeks called the god Belos and identified him with Zeus (pronounced ZOOS).
Like the other inhabitants of Canaan, the ancient Hebrews worshipped local gods called Baal and honored their children with names ending with baal, such as Ishbaal, the son of King Saul. In fact, the Hebrew god Yahweh (pronounced YAH-way) appears to have shared many of Baal's characteristics.
As the worship of Yahweh became more important, Baal fell out of favor with the Hebrews. In the 800s bce, a queen of Israel named Jezebel introduced a cult of Baal borrowed from the Phoenicians. She set up the cult as a rival to the official worship of Yahweh. Opposition to Baal grew so strong that over the next century the name Baal was replaced with the term boshet, meaning shame. In later texts, the name of Saul's son was changed from Ishbaal to Ishbosheth. Later still, Christians considered Baal to be a name for a devil.
Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies
In the New Testament of the Bible, Beelzebub is one of the names Jesus gave Satan. In some places, he is Satan's main assistant rather than Satan himself. The name comes from Baalzebub, the name of the god of the Philistine city of Ekron. Baalzebub, which means “lord of the flies,” is probably a distorted version of Baal, or “lord of the house.” The origin of the word is unknown.
Key Themes and Symbols
In the story of Yam and Baal, Yam represents the destructive nature of water, as in rivers and seas flooding the land and ruining crops. Baal represents water's positive powers, including how rain and dew provide moisture needed to make crops grow. The myth of Baal and Mot emphasizes the importance of rain to the land. Baal represents the fertility of spring rains, while Mot represents the drought of the summer months. The actions taken by Anat against Mot, such as splitting, winnowing, burning, grinding, and planting, are steps taken by farmers when they harvest wheat. They prepare it for use as food during the winter and sow it to create more crops the next year. By defeating the drought, represented by Mot, the rains, represented by Baal, renew the earth each year and allow life to flourish in the dry climate of the Near East.
Baal in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Though some ancient examples of art and sculpture depicting Baal exist, the deity fell out of favor and was seldom depicted in recent times. The later Christian view of Baal as a demon or king of hell has become the most enduring image of the deity. Baal is represented as a demonic character in role-playing games such as Magic: the Gathering, and appeared as a character in the TV series Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007). Baal is also the title of a 1923 play by Bertolt Brecht, though the play's main character, also named Baal, is neither a god nor a demon but a murderous poet.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Baal was considered a very important god in the region of Canaan, in the arid Middle East. How do you think the geography and climate of this region helped to shape Baal's position and popularity?
Chief god of the Canaanites, son or grandson of the sky god el, and consort of Asera (Asherah). Baal was the most popular god of the Canaanite pantheon, since he was the administrator of divine favors, the high god El being treated as a shadowy and distant figurehead. In the mythology of ugarit, Baal was the champion of the gods in their fight against the sea Dragon Yam; when he killed
him, he was acclaimed king and hailed as Zabul, "the exalted lord of the earth," and Baal Samen, "lord of the heavens." He was likewise known as "the rider of the clouds" (an Old Testament title of Yahweh as well) and "the lord of the storm," whose voice was thunder. Thus, he was the god who controlled the rain. Since the Canaanites were entirely dependent on rain for the growth of their crops, they fervently sought the good will of Baal. Later he was identified with the storm god Hadad (Adad). In Akkadian, Baal was pronounced as Bel.
The Canaanite word ba’al (lord, master, owner, husband) was originally one of Baal's titles, but by the 15th or 14th century b.c. it was used almost exclusively as his proper name. Since Yahweh was the lord and master (and even husband) of His people Israel, the early Israelites often called Him ba’al;, but when they indulged in the fertility cult of the Canaanite Baal, this appellation for Yahweh was forbidden (Hos 2.18–19). Before this time many Israelite names were formed with ba’al as a title for Yahweh, e.g., Meri-Baal, a son of Saul (2 Sam 21.8) and a son of Jonathan (2 Sm 4.4); Ish-Baal, another son of Saul (1 Chr 8.33); and Baaliada, a daughter of David (1 Chr 14.7). Later scribes changed ba’al in some of these names to bōšct (shame). Place names were likewise formed with ba’al, e.g., Baala in northern Juda (Jos 15.9), Baal-Gad (Jos 11.17), Baal-Hermon (Jgs 3.3), etc.; but most, if not all, of these place names went back to the Canaanites, and their full form was probably as in Beth-Baal-Maon (house, i.e., sanctuary of the Lord of Maon; cf. Nm 32.38 with Jos 13.17).
The Old Testament (Jgs 2.11; 8.33; 10.10) speaks of Baals (in the plural), not because there were many different Baals, but because the same god was worshiped at different sanctuaries, e.g., at Baal-Phogor (Dt 4.3; Hos9.10) and at the temple of Baal-Berith (the lord of the covenant) in Shechem (Jgs 8.33; 9.4). The commingling of the Israelites with the Canaanites led to more and more religious syncretism. Even among the Israelites, Baal had his high places (Jer 19.5; 32.35), his altars (Jgs 6.25–30), his sacred stones (2 Kgs 11.18; 2 Chr 23.17), and his prophets (1 Kgs 18.19, 22). The struggle between Yahweh and Baal came to a climax under King Ahab of Israel and his wife jezebel, who built a temple in Baal's honor at Samaria and supported 450 of his prophets (1 Kgs 16.32). Elijah successfully challenged these prophets on Mt. Carmel (1 Kgs 18.20–40). Although almost eradicated by Jehu (2 Kgs 10.18–28), the cult revived and remained until the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (2 Kgs 17.10). Promoters of the Baal cult in Judah were Ahab's daughter Athalia, who was married to King Jehoram of Judah (2 Kgs 11.18), and King Manasse (2 Kgs 21.3). Although strenuously opposed by the Prophets Jeremiah (Jer 2.23; 11.13) and Ezekiel (Ez 6.4–6), the cult continued in Judah until the destruction of the Southern Kingdom. Many of the attributes of Baal are paralleled by those applied to Yahweh, and perhaps some of the Psalms were influenced by the cultic hymns of Baal worship [e.g., Ps 28(29)].
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 182–183. a. s. kapelrud, Baal in the Ras Shamra Texts (Copenhagen 1952). g. r. driver, Canaanite Myths and Legends (Edinburgh 1956). j. gray, The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament (Vetid Testamentum Suppl. 5; 2d ed. 1964). r. dus-saud, "Le Vrai nom de Ba’al," Revue de l'histoire des religions 113 (1936) 5–20.