As long as the Israelites lived among a large Canaanite population, Baal, the principal god of the native peoples loomed large in Israel’s religious life. The name Baal means “Lord” and may imply any sort of lordship. For the Canaanites it indicated Baal’s lordship over the land.
Baal, unlike Yahweh, was part of a family of gods. The high god and creator was called El, a name that means simply “god.” Baal was the son of the grain god, Dagon, and came to be the principal god through his mighty works, related in the mythology of the Canaanites. His exploits are known to us principally through a series of inscribed clay tablets that were discovered in the Canaanite city of Ugarit, also known as Ras Shamra. The stories make Baal a heroic deity intimately linked to the stability of life and the fertility of the land. In a society in which the great majority of the people were farmers and herders, their lives dependent upon agriculture, it is not difficult to understand the attraction of a god such as Baal.
One story told how Baal came to be king among the gods by standing against the threat of chaos in the world, as symbolized by the waters of Sea and River. Even the gods in the Council of El were intimidated by the threatening waters, but Baal in a titanic battle overcame Sea and River, confined them to their proper place, and restored order to the world. Thus Baal gained an “eternal kingship” and “dominion forever.” Through the gods struggles, the Canaanites expressed the mystery of the life cycle.
Myths such as this one, together with the attendant celebrations and sacrifices, held a fascination for many Israelites. The Book of Judges repeatedly indicts the people because they “serve the Baals; and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers.” In periods such as the reign of Ahab and his wife Jezebel, the worship of Baal was the state-supported religion of Israel.
But it was the attractiveness of the Canaanite religion that threatened the worship of Yahweh and made the prophets of Yahweh implacable enemies of Baal and his related deities. Elijah stood against Baal on Mount Carmel, Jeremiah, shortly before the Babylonian exile, warned that “as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to burn incense to Baal.” The prophets warned against the immorality of the fertility cult. They warned against the materialism and corruption of Canaanite religion, as well as its lack of concern for the welfare of the needy. But most of all they warned that Israel was being untrue to her covenant with Yahweh to “have no other gods before me.”
The very competition between the two faiths, however, led Yahweh’s worshipers to praise him with descriptions that adapted and challenged those long attributed to Baal. Thus Yahweh is described in Psalm 68 as he “who rides upon the cloud,” a designation usually reserved for Baal. Psalm 82 even goes so far as to make a confrontation of the gods explicit. The threat of Baal to the worship of Yahweh continued until the fires of the Babylonian exile finally purged the Canaanite deity from the heart of Israel.
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