Elijah and Elisha undertake to battle the false idol God, Baal, on behalf of Yahweh. The Bible frequently presents them in conflict with Baal. For this reason, I’ve named this sermon series, Battle of the Gods. But how much do we really know about Baal, besides the fact that he was an idol? I thought I’d use this post to shed some more light on this Canaanite deity.
Baal, is a general name that simply means “lord”. Some of the early Israelites even had “baal” as part of their name, meaning. For example, in the genealogy found in 1 Chronicles 9:39-40 one of Saul’s sons is named Esh-baal and Jonathan’s son is named Merib-baal. Elsewhere, these men go by the names Ish-Bosheth and Mephibosheth, respectively. Apparently the biblical authors were writing years later after the name baal had lost its generic meaning and was only associated with idol worship, so they gave these men a nick-name rather than include “baal” in their name.
The details of Baal worship and his place in the mythological story vary from location to location and from century to century, but the basic story is consistent. The most complete description of the Baal mythology is found in the Baal cycle tablet discovered at Ugarit (in modern Syria). Baal is not the supreme deity in the Caananite pantheon. That honour goes to El. (Again the generic meaning of this name is “god” and is reflected in all the El names given to Yahweh, eg. Elohim, El-Shaddai.) Baal is the son of El. He is the storm God.
Most pagan mythology serves the purpose of explaining natural events. Because the ancient Canaanites were largely an agrarian culture their mythology reflects the seasonal variations such as the spring rains and the dryness of summer. There’s a pretty good summary of all this on this website and a more detailed discussion on this Wikipedia page. But I’ll give my own summary here too.
As I mentioned earlier, Baal is the god of the storm. This means he provides the rain. Sometimes rain and wind can be destructive, at these times Baal is in a battle with another god, Yam, the sea god, and Yam has the ascendency. The floods and winds eventually subside because Baal wins the battle with Yam. Eventually Baal sends the appropriate rains and dews conducive to fertile crops and bountiful harvests.
At other times, particularly in the Near East, there are extended periods with no rain. Canaanite mythology explained drought by telling the story of a battle between Baal and Mot, the god of death. After being insulted by Baal, Mot trapped Baal in the underworld, thus preventing him from sending rain to the earth. Eventually Anat, Baal’s wife and sister, tracks down Mot and slices him in two with a sword and grinding him into little pieces. This frees Baal and restores fertility to the land.
The outline of this story looks like this:
- AUTUMN: unpredictable weather/floods as Yam gains ascendency over Baal.
- WINTER/SPRING: Rain falls regularly as Baal is in control and builds himself a palace with a window from which to send the rain. (I didn’t tell that story)
- SUMMER: No rain falls as Baal is captured by Mot. In years of severe drought this stage is extended until the rains eventually come.
- That’s Baal mythology in a nutshell. Does it raise any questions for you? Let me know and I’ll see if I can find the answers for you.