Baal Worship, a Perpetual Problem in Ancient Israel

February 7, 2020

A primary distinction between Israel and all the other nations was embodied in the first two commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” (Ex. 20:3,4). Idolatry in its varied forms, with many gods, permeated the ancient world. Even though a nation or region might have its own “special” deity, the belief that there were many other gods was universal. The premise that there is but one true God, and all others are false, surely made Israel unique as a nation.

But unfortunately, the nation of Israel often looked to the nations round about them, and were thereby influenced in many ways instead of holding fast to their relationship with YHWH.

The god Baal. Hecht Museum. Photo ©Leon Mauldin.

In the biblical period of the Judges we read, “and they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They forsook the LORD and served Baal and the Ashtoreths” (Judges 2:12-13). Our photo of Baal seen here was taken at the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa, Israel (as well as the other photos included in this post).

You will notice that our biblical text also includes the “Ashtoreths” which would essentially be the female counterpart to Baal. The New Revised Standard renders, “They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes.” This deity, Astarte, was also displayed at the Hecht Museum.

Astarte, Phoenician Fertility Goddess. Hecht Museum. Photo ©Leon Mauldin.

The Baal worship that was seen in the period of Judges repeated itself throughout the period known as the Divided Kingdom. In the chapter that tells of the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel, the Bible says, “They abandoned all the commandments of the LORD their God. They made for themselves molded images– even two calves– and an Asherah pole. They worshiped the whole heavenly host and served Baal” (2 Kings 17:16, CSB).

H. F. Vos has the following basic information about Baal:

Name of the most prominent Canaanite deity. As the god of fertility in the Canaanite pantheon (roster of gods), Baal’s sphere of influence included agriculture, animal husbandry, and human sexuality. The word Baal occurs in the OT in combination with other terms, such as place-names (Baal-peor, Hos 9:10; Baal-hermon, Jgs 3:3), or with other adjuncts as in Baal-berith (Baal of the covenant, Jgs 8:33). Use of the name in connection with a local place-name may indicate a local cult of Baal worship.

Baal worship became prominent in the northern Kingdom of Israel during the days of King Ahab (9th century BC) when he married Jezebel of Tyre, a city in Phoenicia (1 Kgs 16:29–33; 18:19–40). It later infiltrated the Kingdom of Judah when Athaliah, daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, married King Jehoram of Judah (2 Kgs 8:17, 18, 24–26). Places for worship of Baal were often high places in the hills consisting of an altar and a sacred tree, stone, or pillar (2 Kgs 23:5). The predominantly urban Phoenicians built temples to Baal; while Athaliah was queen of Judah, even Jerusalem had one (2 Chr 23:12–17) . . .

the Canaanites engaged in orgiastic worship that included human sacrifice as well as sexual rites (Jer 7:31; 19:4–6). Sacred prostitutes evidently participated in the autumnal religious ritual.  Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 239).

I mentioned the fall of northern kingdom of Israel above in our 2 Kings text. Jeremiah was a prophet in the days of the next biblical period, Judah Alone. From his writings we see that unfortunately, many in Judah did not learn from the example of God’s displeasure of Israel’s worship of Baal. This false system was also perpetuated in Judah, even including the sacrifice of their children (as noted above by Vos): “They have built places here for worship of the god Baal so that they could sacrifice their children as burnt offerings to him in the fire. Such sacrifices are something I never commanded them to make! They are something I never told them to do! Indeed, such a thing never even entered my mind!” (Jer. 19:5, NET).

Not only were there the larger images that would be housed in temples or otherwise displayed for public worship, but smaller, “household” gods and goddesses were common.

Astarte, Household Fertility Goddess, 8th century BC. Hecht Museum. Photo ©Leon Mauldin.

We have previously posted on Baal worship here and here.

We close with the words of Jesus, “You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve” (Mt. 4:10).

(Click images for larger view).