According to the biblical narrative, the worship of Baal or “Lord” was the primary threat to the exclusive worship of YHWH during Israel’s life in the land of Canaan. From their first contact with Canaanite peoples, the Israelites are portrayed as irresistibly drawn to this polytheistic and iconolatrous cult. At Peor in the Transjordan they intermix with the local inhabitants and begin to worship the Baal of Peor. Hosea describes their change in cultic loyalties as almost instantaneous, “But they came to Baal of Peor and consecrated themselves to a thing of shame” (Hos 9:10). Similarly, soon after having settled in the promised land, a new generation arises after the generation of the conquest had passed on, and they, the Dtr author alleges, “did what was evil in the sight of YHWH and worshiped the Baals; they abandoned YHWH, the god of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them” (Jdgs 2:12).
Throughout the rest of the Dtr narrative the conflict between the non-native YHWH worship and the indigenous Baal cult is played out, with the Baal cult always seeming to have the upper hand. Aside from a few notable attempts to ensure rigorous aniconic (i.e. without cult statues) and/or exclusive worship of YHWH, the worship of Baal is presented as pervasive and deeply entrenched in popular practice. In pre-monarchic times the Israelites repeatedly lapse into worshiping the Baals, the anti-normative functioning for all practical purposes as if it were the normative. Then during the era of the divided monarchies the Baal cult is alternately promoted and opposed by royal and prophetic/priestly figures (cf. 1 Kgs 16:31; 22:53; 2 Kgs 10:26-28; 11:18; 21:3; 23:4-5). Although this historiographic construction may give the impression that Baal worship was confined to certain periods or merely sponsored by certain royal individuals or families, some passages in the Dtr history and especially the anti-Baal rhetoric in the prophetic books of Hosea and Jeremiah indicate that it was far more well-established and widespread. They describe Baal worship as though it were endemic to the northern and southern kingdoms, something engaged in by Israelite cultures as a whole from the earliest of times (2 Kgs 21:15; Hosea 11:2; 13:1; Jer 2:20). The Dtr author speaks in generalizing, all-inclusive terms of “Israel” having followed the Baalistic practices that the “kings of Israel” had introduced and of “Judah” having followed the practices that “Israel” had introduced (2 Kgs 17:8, 19). The author of Jeremiah specifies that the Baal cult was practiced by kings, officials, priests, and prophets (2:26), as well as the people as a whole (7:9; 11:13, 17), and further implies that it was a long-held intergenerational tradition, since those who worshiped the Baals were doing “as their ancestors have taught them” (9:14). He even admits that “from our youth,” or in other words from the beginning of Israel’s life in the land, “the shameful thing has devoured all for which our ancestors have labored, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters” (Jer 3:24), which can only be a reference to Baal as the object of cult sacrifice.
Ultimately, rampant Baal worship is credited as the primary cause of Israel and Judah’s destruction and exile (2 Kgs 17:7-20; 21:10-15). Hosea states that Ephraim “became guilty through Baal and died” (13:1), while the Dtr author claims that Israel and Judah’s iconolatrous worship of Baal provoked YHWH to such extreme anger that he banished them from his presence (2 Kgs 17:20). Based on the Dtr author’s assessment that all Judean kings subsequent to Josiah “did what was evil in the sight of YHWH, just as all [their] ancestors had done,” the effects of Josiah’s efforts to eradicate Baal worship seem to have been short-lived. The Judean cult quickly returned to the status quo ante, which continued uninterrupted until the final days of Judah’s independent national existence. The author of Jeremiah dramatically depicts the prophet prophesying just prior to the capture of Jerusalem that when the Babylonians come and set fire to the city, they will burn “the houses on whose roofs offerings have been made to Baal” (Jer 32:29).
So what was this ancestral Baal cult that both Israel and Judah are said to have engaged in throughout their history in the land? When the biblical authors speak of Baal worship, what cultic reality do they have in mind? Are they referring to the cult of a specific deity, perhaps a deity that we would recognize by another name?
The biblical authors have left few clues that would help us understand the Baal worship they fulminate against. Their rhetoric is spare and elusive, often obscuring more than it reveals. Only rarely do they provide specific information about the cult, preferring instead to speak of it obliquely and pejoratively in the stereotyped and highly symbolic language of apostasy (e.g. prostitution). Furthermore, their usage of the name Baal to designate the deity or deities they condemn is highly ambiguous. As used by the biblical authors, the name is not actually a proper name, but an appellative. When used in the singular and prefixed by the article, the term refers to a particular Baal (i.e. “the Baal”). However, when used in the plural, the term appears to function as a generic reference to certain categories of deities (i.e. the Baals, the Baals and the Asherot, the Baals and the Astartes). The implication of this usage is that the identity of Baal is not explicit, but can only be determined from context.
Nonetheless, when we examine the various references to Baal in the HB as a whole, it becomes clear that there are basically two categories of Baal. The first is foreign Baal worship, which is attested mainly for the premonarchical period and sporadically elsewhere. This includes:
- The Baals and the Astartes (Jdgs 2:13: 10:6, 10; 1 Sam 7:4; 12:10), which are defined as “the gods of the peoples who were all around” (Jdgs 2:13); “the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines” (Jdgs 10:6); and “foreign gods” (1 Sam 7:4).
- The Baal of the Elijah narrative is portrayed as foreign (1 Kgs 18-19:18). The conflict between YHWH and Baal takes place at Carmel at the boundary between Phoenicia and Israel and the prophets are described as following foreign customs (1 Kgs 18:26-29). Although this Baal is once associated with Asherah, this is clearly a later scribal addition.
- Baal-zebub is said to be the god of Ekron (2 Kgs 1:2).
The second category an indigenous Israelite Baal worship (Jdgs 3:7; 6:25-32; 8:33; 1 Kgs 16:31-32; 22:53; 2 Kgs 3:2; 10:18-28; 11:18; 17:16; 21:3; 23:4-5; Jer 2:8; 2:23; 7:9; 9:14; 11:13, 17; 12:16; 19:5; 23:13, 27; 32:29, 35; Hos 2:8-17; 11:2; 13:1; Zep 1:4). This Baal, which can be referenced both in the singular and the plural, is shown to have been continually worshipped by Israelites, is never ascribed an explicit foreign origin, and is generally associated with Asherah and other Israelite cultic features. From a religious-historical perspective, this Baal should be differentiated from the foreign Baals described above. Although the biblical authors have tried to conflate the different Baal forms and obscure the distinction between them, most of the references to Baal worship in the biblical text seem to have in view a native Israelite Baal cult.