Sunday, 3 July 2011

Yahweh and Ba'al

In the Canaan region around the time of the beginning of the Old Testament, the prevalent religious system involved the worship of Ba'al, (or Bel).  Ba'al creeps into the narrative quite frequently.  Notably you may remember the story of Elijah challenging the prophets of Ba'al to a rain-making match (1 Kings 18) and having beaten them he had them slaughtered.  Friendly chap!

Ba'al was seen as a god of fertility and Yahweh as a god of war.  The Israelites  liked to keep one foot in both camps at least up to the (alleged) time of the exile (if it ever really happened).  You might ask what it was that was 'wrong' with Ba'al worship. says "The chief evil arose from the fact that the Ba'als were more than mere religious fantasies. They were made the symbols of the reproductive powers of nature, and thus their worship ministered to sexual indulgences, which it at the same time legalized and encouraged" 

So immediately you can see why the priests of Israel would like to remove Ba'al from their culture.  How could they offer anything that satisfied basic human nature as well as this.

You might ask what happened to Ba'al if he was successful for all this time.  Ba'al worship was taken by the Phoenicians to North Africa, where he was worshiped by the Carthaginian peoples. His name was incorporated into that of the great Carthaginian general Hannibal who so successfully made life difficult for the Romans with his war-elephants. Ba'al's cult came to an abrupt end with the Roman sack of Carthage in 146 B.C. 

Other gods appear throughout the Old Testament too, making it seem that this barbaric, illiterate part of the bronze age middle-east was inundated with supernatural beings.

Why have I picked Ba'al out of them?  Because Ba'al seems not only to have been Yahweh's most tenacious rival in the Old Testament, but he also plays a starring role in the next chapter of my wanderings through the mysteries of OT times.  

The people of neighbouring Ugarit worshipped a god called Ba'al, and their texts that predate the Old Testament.  

More from Ugarit in the next post . . .

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