Why Baal?

Why Baal? This simple question proves deceptively challenging to answer. Looking into historical evidence, it seems easy enough to describe the outlines of Baal worship–as a storm king, god of fertility and nature–but less easy to confidently explain what motivated the people of Israel, at any given point, to forsake YHWH for Baal (or alternatively, to repent and return to YHWH).

To be sure, we could offer a simple answer: Baal was understood to be responsible for rain, hence, for the harvest, hence, for the very basis of life itself. If so, it would have seemed only prudent to acknowledge Baal in this manner. If this belief was widespread, then the stewards of the covenant with YHWH would have focused on proving it to be false. While the eventual climactic confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal would have been a definitive demonstration of YHWH’s supremacy and Baal’s nullity, that was hardly the first or only such demonstration. Rather, the crossing of the Red Sea and the theophany at Sinai ought to have been enough to remind the Israelites of YHWH’s supremacy over storm and sea. In spite of these surely very memorable events, however, Baal worship continued to be appealing to the Israelites.

Apparently, then, it was very easy to forget these lessons from the Exodus, and “go with the flow” of the local fertility religion. But why would this be the case? It still seems like a tricky question–one that we could try to answer by means of comparing the milieu of the Judges with those of later periods, and trying to draw lessons from the comparisons between them.

To do that, we would need to make a few assumptions for a start. First assumption: there is enough common humanity between the Judges period and other periods, that their “Baal impulse” can be compared to similar impulses of other people. Second assumption: that Baal belongs to a category, i.e. “idols,” that can be defined in such a way as to capture the objects of such impulses in different times and places. Both of these assumptions could be debated. However, without making such assumptions, it seems difficult or impossible to try to answer the question.

About the first assumption: I assume the “Baal impulse,” i.e. idolatry, can be described with the commonly used expression of “making good things into ultimate things.”[1] Rain, harvests and fertility are good things in themselves. But somehow the idolatrous impulse wants to elevate them to the highest value.[2] If the choice is between acknowledging the supremacy of YHWH, creator of heaven and earth, and the promise of a successful harvest, then the common, natural human urge is to focus on the harvest.

But what does it mean to make a good thing into an ultimate thing? This amounts to asking: in extremis, in a situation of ultimate conflict or challenge, what is the one thing that means most to you? What is the one thing, that you will sacrifice all other things, to preserve: your family, your career, your enjoyment of the “good things in life,” your prestige and status, your self-image as a “good person,” etc.? That object of final ultimate value is what you are worshipping. This idea helps explain the sense of the various Hebrew verbs often translated “worship” in English: shachah (bow down), abad (work, serve), yare’ (fear). To what do you bow down, serve or fear?

Using this definition makes it much easier to see how the “Baal impulse” might manifest at different times and places. Back in the Iron Age villages of Canaan, it was easy to place ultimate value on harvest fertility. Later, having returned from the Exile, it was easy to place ultimate value on maintaining purity and separation, and directing exclusivist national pride toward defeating the wicked Romans. Today, it is easy to place ultimate value on career, family, status, prestige, moral self-worth, looks, attractiveness, etc… anything and everything you need to be a good, attractive, respectable person.

But, we modern people might ask, can’t we just have both? Can’t we value career, family and God? But, Ahab and Jezebel might have asked, can’t we just have both? A temple to YHWH over here, and an offering to Baal over there? Isn’t that the tolerant, pluralist, multicultural, enlightened, prudent, sophisticated thing to do?

In fact, it seems the Bible wants to tell us that is not possible—that at some point we will have to choose this day whom you will serve. There will come a point where we have to choose between advancing up the career ladder and loving our neighbors; between obeying God’s law and enjoying the maximum of wine, women and song; between enjoying comfort and security, and lifting the needy from the ash-heap.

*

Another way of presenting the problem arises from the apparent parallels between characterizations of YHWH and Baal, and their apparent motivations. It appears that the Bible makes this point: that YHWH is God, and Baal is not. As Chisholm concludes after reviewing many of these parallels:

YHWH is the incomparable warrior-king who controls the elements of the storm, defeats those who challenge his rule, exercises sovereignty over the sea and death. As incomparable king, YHWH alone possesses the right of Israel’s allegiance.
(Chisholm 2007)

This amounts to a necessary and sufficient reason to worship YHWH, and not Baal. It all seems so simple. So it follows that if the people are in fact worshiping Baal, they must have either disbelieved or not understood this proposition.

An interesting test case might be Psalm 29, which is commonly understood to reflect Canaanite influence (see Appendix). For all that the imagery of Psalm 29 may parallel Baal imagery, it nevertheless offers a conception of God that is Yahwistic not Canaanite. Specifically, Psalm 29 shows God as the supreme sovereign, seated in glory. As the supreme being, God unquestionably rules over all of creation. All that anyone else can do is “worship” and “ascribe … the glory of his name” (v. 2). And all that God has to do is speak, and his voice “thunders… breaks the cedars…makes Lebanon skip like a calf… flashes forth flames of fire… shakes the wilderness… strips the forest bare” (vv. 3-9). God doesn’t have to lift a finger, so to speak; there is no gap or interval between his utterance and its effects. His being and will are supreme.

By contrast, the stories about Baal show him, however mighty and awesome, as one among other agents in the cosmos, not the supreme sovereign whose word shapes reality. Baal has to fight against Yam, and fight against Mot—in fact, Baal is killed by Mot. Baal has to get approval from El to build his palace, and he has to lean on Anat to petition El for approval. The stories are exciting, but nothing about them suggests that Baal is supreme, the way that Yahweh is supreme.

What does this imply for worship? If one is worshipping Baal, the implication is that Baal is a powerful agent that one wants to have on one’s side, rather than on the enemy’s side. It implies that there are certain things that one can do to improve the chances of Baal fighting on one’s side. It also implies that there is no ultimate guarantee of any particular outcome. Baal might not fight on one’s side, and even if he does, he may not be successful.

The idea of Yahweh as supreme sovereign has quite different implications. It implies that God is ultimately in control of everything, and that in the final analysis, the outcome of events will reflect his will. It also implies that there is not anything that we could offer God to convince him to be on our side. What could we offer the supreme sovereign of creation? Rather, we might want to be on God’s side. Whereas Baal is engaged in various struggles of fighting, building, negotiating, etc., all that Yahweh ultimately has to do is speak and render a verdict. If Yahweh does choose to fight or otherwise act, that suggests that Yahweh has in mind a particular outcome, which would then be guaranteed.

Perhaps, then, the most salient difference between Yahweh and Baal might be in the type of worship that each one attracts. Both Canaanites and Israelites imagine their respective gods as powerful, mighty and worthy of worship. But the worshippers of Baal would focus on, first, persuading Baal to be on their side, and second, improving Baal’s chances of victory in his various contests. It would imply that luck and merit would both affect the chances for success of Baal and his people.  In contrast, the worshippers of Yahweh should want to be on his side, rather than conversely; and they ought to rest in the knowledge of his sovereign will. Their worship should focus more on ascribing Yahweh his glory, and singing his praise, than on worrying about the luck or merits of a particular outcome. Unfortunately, it does seem that Baal-type worship comes more naturally to people than Yahweh-type worship, even among the people of Yahweh. (If we learn anything from the Bible and from church history, we learn that…) Thus, Yahweh’s offers of forgiveness and invitations to repentance are quite welcome.


APPENDIX

 Psalm 29: The Voice of God in a Great Storm

A Psalm of David.

1 Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendour.

3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. 

5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox. 

7 The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
8 The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

9 The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’

10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.

11 May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!

(NRSV)

 

YHWH and Baal in Ps 29: interpretations

“The relation of this psalm, and a good many others, to the Syro-Palestinian tradition is roughly like that of Paradise Lost to the Aeneid and the Iliad. Virgil and Homer gave Milton a model, and a repertory of devices and topoi, with which he could frame a cosmic epic from his own monotheistic perspective, but he was not merely “transposing” the pagan epic poets into English. As to the address to the “sons of God” at the beginning of the psalm, it should be noted that these celestial creatures appear not infrequently elsewhere in the Bible (here they are beney elim; more commonly, they appear as beney elohim). They are best thought of as the flickering literary afterlife of a polytheistic mythology—God’s royal entourage on high, His famalia, as Rashi called them, invoking a Latin term that had entered Hebrew during the time of the Roman empire. Literal belief in them may have survived in popular religion but is unlikely to have been shared by the scribal circles that produced Psalms.” —Alter, Robert. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (Kindle Locations 2721-2729). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

“v. 11 sounds more Yahwistic than Baalistic … while v. 8 sounds like an allusion to Yahweh’s theophany at Sinai.” —John Day, Psalms (New York: T. and T. Clark, 1999), 42– 43.

“Thunderstorms were often taken by ancient peoples to be indications of divine revelation, and this text uses thunderstorm imagery in portraying divine power. It may be that portraying YHWH as the divine king with authority over all of creation provided a kind of polemic against Canaanite deities… The NRSV rendering of ‘heavenly beings’ reflects the common interpretation of the addressees in terms of an assembly of the divine council in the throne room of God, where the members of that council, the heavenly messengers, are called to the praise of YHWH. McCann proposes, however, that the opening call to praise is addressed to ‘the deposed gods of the Canaanite pantheon.’  These gods previously praised Marduk but are now called to the praise of YHWH.”   —Brueggemann, Walter and W. H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) (Kindle Locations 4073-4090). Cambridge University Press. Cf. J. C. McCann, Jr., “Book of Psalms,” in L. E. Keck et al. (eds.), The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4 (1996), 792.

“Many of the features of this psalm bear resemblance to Ugaritic poetry, raising the question of the relationship between the two. In the first place, the parallelism is highly repetitive, as in Ugaritic poetry. Secondly, the geographical references (Lebanon, Sirion [Mount Hermon] and Kadesh) are all in the north, even beyond the border of Israel. Thirdly, the reference to the heavenly beings (bĕnê ’ēlîm) is similar to the way in which Ugaritic texts refer to the divine assembly (bn ilm). The picture of the Lord enthroned as King over the flood (v. 10) is reminiscent of the Ancient Near Eastern mythic idea of the God of creation’s defeat of the god of the sea (see commentary). And, finally, the picture of God as the power of the storm evokes a connection with Baal, the storm god and primary deity of Ugarit (Canaan)… In the New Testament, Jesus is pictured as the anointed King (Messiah; Christ) who dominates the waters that represent chaos. He demonstrates his power and his glory by stilling the waters (Mark 4:35–41) and also by walking on the waters (Matt. 14:22–33). The book of Revelation pictures Jesus as defeating the beast that arises out of the sea (Rev. 13:1–10).” —Longman III, Tremper. TOTC Psalms (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) (Kindle Locations 2405-2412, 2449-2552). Inter-Varsity Press. Kindle Edition.

See also these arguments for Ps. 29 as a “Canaanite Psalm”:

  • Frank M. Cross, Jr., “Notes on a Canaanite Psalm in the Old Testament,” BASOR 117 (Feb. 1950), pp. 1921.
  • Aloysius Fitzgerald, “A Note on Psalm 29,” BASOR 215 (Oct. 1974), pp. 61-63.

 

REFERENCE LIST

Entries in bold text are especially useful resources.

Albertz, Rainer. 1994. A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period. 2 vols. Trans. John Bowden. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Albright, W. F. 1937. “Further Light on the History of Israel from Lachish and Megiddo.” BASOR 68 (December): 22-26.

Battenfield, James R. 1988. “YHWH’s Refutation of the Baal Myth through the Actions of Elijah and Elisha.” In Avraham Gileadi and Douglas R. Clark, eds. Israel’s Apostasy and Restoration: Essays in Honor of Roland K. Harrison. Grand Rapids: Baker. 19-37.

Beck, John A. 2003. “Geography as Irony: The Narrative-Geographical Shaping of Elijah’s Duel with the Prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18).” SJOT 17:2: 291-303. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09018320410001065

Brettler, Marc. 1989. “The Book of Judges: Literature as Politics.” JBL 108:3 (Autumn): 395-418. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3267111

Bronner, Leila Leah. 1968. The Stories of Elijah and Elisha as Polemics Against Baal Worship. Leiden: Brill.

Childs, Brevard S. 1980. “On Reading the Elijah Narratives.” Interp 34:2 (April): 128-137.

Chisholm, Robert B. 1994. “The Polemic against Baalism in Israel’s Early History and Literature.” Bib. Sac. 151 (July): 267-283.

______. 2007. “Yahweh versus the Canaanite Gods: Polemic in Judges and 1 Samuel 1-7.” Bib. Sac. 164 (April): 165-180.

Cross, Frank Moore. 1988. “Reuben, First-Born of Jacob.” ZAW 100:1 (January): 46-65.

Day, John. 1992. “Baal (Deity).” Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1. New York: Doubleday. 545-549.

_______.  2000. Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. Sheffield: JSOTSupp 265.

Dever, William G. 2005. Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.

Fensham, F. C. 1980. “A Few Observations on the Polarisation Between Yahweh and Baal in 1 Kings 17-19.” ZAW 92:2 (January): 227-236.
https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/zatw.1980.92.issue-2/zatw.1980.92.2.227/zatw.1980.92.2.227.xml

Frolov, Serge. 2011. “How Old Is the Song of Deborah?” JSOT 36:163.

Gray, J. “Baal (Deity).” 1962. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Habel, Norman C. 1964. Yahweh Versus Baal: A Conflict of Religious Cultures. New York: Bookman Associates.

Halpern, Baruch. 2009. From Gods to God: The Dynamics of Iron Age Cosmologies. Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Longman, Tremper III and Daniel G. Reid. 1995. God Is A Warrior. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Mayes, A. D. H. 1969. “The Historical Context of the Battle against Sisera.” VT 19:3 (July). 353-360.

Miller, Patrick D. 1973. The Divine Warrior in Early Israel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

_______ 2000. Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology: Collected Essays. Sheffield: JSOTSupp 267.

Olyan, Saul M. 1988. Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel. SBL Monograph 34. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Saint-Laurent, George E. 1980. “Light from Ras Shamra on Elijah’s Ordeal upon Mount Carmel.” In Carl D. Evans, William W. Hallo and John B. White, eds. Scripture in Context: Essays on The Comparative Method. Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press. 123-139.

Smith, Mark S. 2002. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. Second edition. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.

Stager, Lawrence E. 1985. “The Archaeology of the Family in Ancient Israel.” BASOR 260 (Autumn): 1-35.

______. 2003. “The Shechem Temple.” BAR 29:4 (July-August). Online.

Westermann, Claus. 1979. What Does The Old Testament Say About God? Atlanta: John Knox Press.

Yates, Gary E. 2008. “The Motif of Life and Death in the Elijah-Elisha Narratives and its Theological Significance in 1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 13.” http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/lts_fac_pubs/12

Zevit, Ziony. 2001. The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches. New York: Continuum.

FOOTNOTES

[1] I am not certain of the origin of this phrase, but I have heard Timothy J. Keller use it many times in his recorded sermons.

[2] C.S. Lewis has a helpful angle on this, quoted in Art Lindsley, “C.S. Lewis on Love” http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/CS_Lewis_on_Love

I think God wants us to love Him more, not to love creatures (even animals) less.  We love everything in one way too much (i.e. at the expense of our love for Him) but in another way we love everything too little….No person, animal, flower, or even pebble, has ever been loved too much—i.e. more than every one of God’s works deserve….
It is probably impossible to love any human being simply “too much.”  We may love him too much in proportion to our love for God; but it is the smallness of our love for God, not the greatness of our love for the many that constitutes the inordinacy….But the question whether we are loving God or the earthly Beloved “more” is not, so far as concerns our Christian duty, a question about the comparative intensity of two feelings.  The real question is, which (when the alternative comes) do you serve, choose, or put first?  To which claim does your will in the last resort yield?”

Paul states:

So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world… Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? (Gal 4:3,8-9)

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