THE GODS OF CANAAN
The land of Canaan supported a vigorous race of people prior to the conquests of the Hebrews. Such were the Phœnicians and the Aramæans (Syrians), who gave the world an alphabet and whose language, Aramaic, became for a while the common tongue of the Near East. This was the language of Galilee during the lifetime of Jesus.
These natives of Canaan with their settled culture, urbanized prosperity, and sophisticated religion made a profound impression on the uncouth Hebrew invaders of their homeland. Although the worship of Yahweh was to prevail, the effect of the elaborate Canaanite mythology on Judaism was quite profound. What is, in fact, Hebrew scripture to modern eyes is in many cases modified Canaanite literature. For example, the Song of Solomon is a revised poetic narrative about the annual death of Tammuz, god of vegetation, and his restoration to life and remarriage to Astarte, goddess of fertility, in the springtime. The very Temple of Jerusalem was designed by Canaanite artisans, and it incorporated features of the other temples of the land. The influence of this literature on the Bible can be likened to the Homer in Milton, the Virgil in Dante, or the Hellenic threads in the fabric of the New Testament.
Such being the case, it becomes essential to a proper understanding of the Bible to know as much about the indigenous inhabitants of Canaan as possible.
Previously, this was not possible, because before 1929 the religion of the Canaanites was only sketchily defined by indirect references in the Bible. It was in that year that French archæologists uncovered the scriptures of that religion in the ruins of the ancient coastal town of Ugarit near Damascus. And these relatively recent findings of archæology have radically altered theological approaches to the Old Testament.
The Bible of Baal had its stories of the exploits and amorous adventures of that god and how he interacted with other divinities of earth, sea, and sky. The battles and victory hymns of Baal were so widely known in Canaan that they came to be echoed in the telling of the wars and psalms of Yahweh. Although the task is far from complete, it is now possible to reconstruct the essentials of the Canaanite religion, and once more mankind can hear the gods of Canaan speaking from the dust.
It is entirely fitting that the Canaanite religion be designated as “Baalism,” because that god was the head of the pagan pantheon and supreme in the worship of the people. (By analogy, the religion of the Hebrews was “Yahwism.”) Baal was a bull god, a mighty aurochs yearling (“golden calf”). He was the son of Dagon, god of vegetation, and grandson of El, the creator of the world and father of all the gods. El’s throne was said to be located at the mountainous source of the two great rivers of Mesopotamia. El’s wife was Ashera, the great mother of the gods. Her worship involved erecting cultic poles or pillars. (Part of the instructions of Moses to the Hebrews who took Canaan was to cut down all these asherim.) Baal’s sister was Anath, a cow goddess, and his cousin was Astarte, the evening star (or planet Venus). Both of these goddesses conducted love affairs with Baal, as was characteristic of all ancient mythologies, wherein amorous liaisons represented the unions of cosmic forces and the divine acts that made for fertility on the earth. Ashera, Astarte, and Anath were sometimes unified in the minds of the common folk and worshiped as one goddess under the combined name Ashtaroth.
In Ugaritic literature the proper name Baal was used to designate the weather god who, like the Babylonian god Marduk, overthrew the personified primordial Sea and thereby established orderly rule over nature. He was god of the North, northern storms, sea storms, and the wet season of the year. Because of the importance of weather to the agricultural Canaanites, Baal displaced the worship of the people from El, the creator god, to himself.
The name Baal means “owner,” “lord,” or “husband” and, as such, was not originally a proper name. A man was baal to his wife, the proprietor of a business was the baal (boss), and an innkeeper was baal over his establishment. Thus every deity that had jurisdiction over a territory or tract of land was the baal of that location. Every city, clan, and nation in and around the land of Canaan had their own baal. The chief baal of Tyre was Melcarth. The baal of Syria was Rimmon, but his more common name was Hadad - an adaptation from Adad, the Babylonian thunder god. The baal of Moab was Chemosh, and that of Ammon was Moloch. Other baalim mentioned in the Bible were Baalpeor, Baalzephon, Baalberith, Baalshamem, and Baalzebul (Beelzebub in the New Testament).
Representations of Baal depicted a young warrior wielding a war club and a flaming spear (lightning). As a conqueror of the Sea, he was shown treading on water. In animal form he was worshiped as the divine Bull (“golden calf”), and he often retained the horns, ears, and tail of that animal even when shown in human form. The kilt and dagger of Baal were usually those of the Hittite warriors who were the recognized masters of warfare in those days. His beard, however, was after the fashion of the Canaanites or the Pharaohs, since the Hittites wore no beards. The war club was reminiscent of the weapon no doubt used by Yahweh to crush the heads of Leviathan (Ps. 74:13-15).
In one sense, Yahweh was the Baal of the Hebrews, and that identification is occasionally given in the Bible. The name Bealiah in 1 Chron. 12:5 means “Baal is Yahweh.” Beeliada (1 Chron. 14:7) was also known as Eliada (2 Sam. 5:16). Baal-perazim: “Lord of Breaking Through” in 2 Sam. 5:20 referred to Yahweh’s helping David win a victory. Also, David kept the Ark of the Covenant for a while in a town called Baaljudah (2 Sam. 6:2).
That was before Elijah came on the scene. By common consent the greatest Hebrew prophet, Elijah was a man who lived up to his name: “God is Yahweh.” With him there could be no compromise with Baal worship. Where others were willing to accept at least partial allegiance to the local baalim of their neighbors, especially when rain was needed for their crops, Elijah set himself on a collision course with paganism. Unfortunately, the queen of Israel at that time was Jezebel (“Baal Unites”), daughter of the king of Sidon and an ardent devotee of Baal worship. The land was tainted by her presence, for when she had married Ahab of Israel, he had permitted her to bring along her priests and all the trappings of her heathen worship (1 Ki. 16:31).
Elijah would have none of this. Taking the monotheistic message of Moses as his mandate, this bold spokesman for Yahweh dared to strike at the very heart of Baal worship - the god’s power to make rain. Elijah said in effect, “With the help of Yahweh, I, a man, am stronger than Baal. At my word there will be no rain for three years. At my word I can prevent the lightning stroke of Baal, and only I can call down lightning (“fire from heaven”) to immolate a sacrifice that is drenched with water.”
In making these bold statements Elijah knew that his life was on the line. And so, when he won these contests, he claimed the forfeiture of the lives of all priests of Baal, just as his own would have been taken. Such violence was the accepted standard of the day.
After Elijah, the use of the common word baal in the Hebrew language became unacceptable. In repudiating the religion of the Canaanites, everything associated with paganism was to be purged out of Israel. It was at this time that the word adonai (“lord”) came to be used in place of baal. In some cases the word bosheth (“shame”) was substituted for the baal-element in a proper name. At first Gideon was called Jerubbaal (Jud. 6:32), but later he was identified as Jerubbesheth (2 Sam. 11:21). And Ishbaal became Ishbosheth (2 Sam. 2:8). Still, even in modern Jewry, the honorific title of one of the greatest of their rabbis was Baal Shem Tov (“Lord of the Good Name).
In history books one can read about the Punic Wars, when the might of Rome was challenged by the north African city of Carthage. The army and navy of this Phœnician colony almost succeeded in wresting control of the Mediterranean from Rome. If this had happened, that whole area would have fallen to the dominion of Baal. (It is significant that the brilliant commander of the forces of Carthage was Hannibal, whose name means “Grace of Baal.” His brother and partner in arms was Hasdrubal, “He Whose Help is Baal.”)
In archæological digs in Israel and the old site of Carthage one of the horrifying things that emerges is whole cemeteries full of the bones of sacrificed infants. It is no wonder that God called out prophets to preach the overthrow of this bloody faith. And it is to Elijah that much of the credit for saving his nation from Baalism must go.
Elijah’s continuing preeminence in Israeliste esteem is evidenced by the custom of simply citing “Moses and Elijah” when referring to the Law and the Prophets, the Scripture as a whole. Centuries after their deaths, it was these two who appeared and spoke with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. (Also it is likely that these two were the heavenly “men” who appeared with Jesus at His ascension.) In John’s Revelation, chapter 11, it is again these two worthies who appear one last time to forecast the end of the world. Even to this day at Passover time the Jews still set out a “cup of Elijah” on the Seder table, so that he may visit them and announce the coming of Messiah. (Thus the oratoria “Elijah” composed by Felix Mendelssohn, is a fitting tribute to such a magnificent personality. Mendelssohn, a German Jew whose family converted to Christianity, created this masterful composition the year before his death in 1847.)
This overview of Baalism is not a complete treatment of the polytheistic religion of Canaan, and so the following supplemental material contains a treatment of each major Canaanite deity individually. There follows after that a modern paraphrase of related scriptures of the original people of the Promised Land.