Baal was one of the most widely worshiped gods in ancient Canaan *, where he was associated with fertility and rain. He was the son of El, the supreme god of the Canaanites, and the husband and brother of Anat, the ferocious goddess of war.
Fertility and Storm God. Baal is a common Semitic * word that means "lord" or "owner." The title was given to the local god of nearly every city in Canaan. Because of the importance of rain to life in the dry lands of the Near East, these local gods were usually associated with fertility and the cycle of wet and dry seasons. Baal developed into a single, widely known god, called Lord of the Earth and Lord of the Rain and Dew. Clay tablets found at the ruins of the ancient town of Ras es-Shamrah (in present-day Syria) contain a series of stories about how Baal became the rain god and gained power over the waters of earth.
According to the tales, Yam, the sea god, demanded that Baal be made his slave. He sent messengers to Baal, asking him to surrender, but Baal attacked the messengers and drove them away. Baal then fought with Yam and, using two magic weapons, defeated him and seized control of the waters. In the story, Yam represents the destructive nature of water: rivers and seas flooding the land and ruining crops and killing animals. Baal represents water's positive powers: rain and dew providing the moisture needed to make crops grow.
Baal's Battle with Death. Other myths about Baal relate to fertility and the cycle of the seasons. One such story tells of the battle between Baal and Mot, the god of death and infertility. After conquering Yam, Baal complained that he had no house like the other gods did. El agreed to let the crafts god Kothar build Baal a fine house. When it was finished, Baal held a great feast—but he did not invite Mot or send him respectful presents. Greatly insulted, Mot asked Baal to come to the underworld to dine. Although afraid, Baal could not refuse the invitation. The food served at Mot's table was mud, the food of death, and when Baal ate it, he was trapped in the underworld.
clay tablet baked clay slab inscribed with ancient writings
underworld land of the dead
While Baal was in the underworld, famine struck the earth, and El searched for someone to replace Baal. Asherah, the lady of the sea,
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
convinced El to give Baal's throne to her son Ashtar. But when Ashtar, the god of irrigation, sat on the throne, his feet did not even touch the floor. Realizing he could not fill Baal's place, Ashtar gave up the throne.
Meanwhile, Baal's wife and sister, the fierce goddess Anat, traveled to the underworld. After splitting Mot with her sword, she winnowed him with her fan, burned the pieces in a fire, ground them in a mill, and planted them in the ground. These actions brought Baal back to life. Later Mot was also restored to life, and the two gods again battled each other. In the end, the sun goddess Shapath separated them, Baal regained his throne, and the land became fertile again.
Like the story of Yam, this myth emphasizes the importance of rain to the land. Baal represents the fertility of spring rains, while Mot represents the drought of the summer months. The actions taken by Anat against Mot—splitting, winnowing, burning, grinding, and planting—are steps taken by farmers when they harvest wheat. They prepare it for use as food during the winter and sow it to create more crops the next year. By defeating the drought (Mot), the rains (Baal) renew the earth each year and allow life to flourish in the dry Near East.
Baal in Other Ancient Cultures. Worship of Baal was widespread in the ancient Near East. The clay tablets of Ras es-Shamrah date from about 1500 B . C ., and Baal was also popular in Egypt from about 1400 to 1075 B . C . In Mesopotamia, Baal was known to the Babylonians and Assyrians, and he was identified with their national gods Marduk and Ashur. The Greeks called the god Belos and identified him with Zeus *.
Like the other inhabitants of Canaan, the ancient Hebrews worshiped local gods called Baal and honored their children with names ending with baal —such as Ishbaal, the son of King Saul. In fact, the Hebrew god Yahweh appears to have shared many of Baal's characteristics.
In the New Testament of the Bible, Beelzebub is one of the names given to Satan by Jesus. In some places, he is Satan's main assistant rather than Satan himself. The name comes from Baalzebub, the name of the god of the Philistine city of Ekron. Baalzebub, which means "lord of the flies," is probably a distorted version of Baal, or "lord of the house." The origin of the word is unknown.
winnow to separate the chaff, or useless part, of grain from the part that can be used for making flour
cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
As the worship of Yahweh became more important, Baal took on a negative meaning for the Hebrews. In the 800s B . C ., a queen of Israel named Jezebel introduced a cult of Baal borrowed from the Phoenicians. She set up the cult as a rival to the official worship of Yahweh. Opposition to Baal grew so strong that over the next century the name Baal was replaced with the term boshet, meaning shame. In later texts, the name of Saul's son was changed from Ishbaal to Ishbosheth. Later still, Christians considered Baal to be a name for a devil.