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BAAL, a Semitic word, which primarily signifies lord, owner or inhabitant,and then, in accordance with the Semitic way of looking at family and religious relations, is specially appropriated to express the relation of a husband to his wife and of the deity to his worshipper. In the latter usage it indicated not that the god was the lord of the worshipper, but rather the possessor of, or ruler in, some place or district. In the Old Testament it is regularly written with the article, i.e. "the Baal"; and the baals of different tribes or sanctuaries were not necessarily conceived as identical, so that we find frequent mention of Baalim, or rather "the Baalim" in the plural. That the Israelites even applied the title of Baal to Yahweh himself is proved by the occurrence of such names as Jerubbaal (Gideon), Eshbaal (one of Saul's sons) and Beeliada (a son of David, 1 Chron. xiv. 7). The last name appears in 2 Sam. v. 16 as Eliada, showing that El (God) was regarded as equivalent to Baal; cf. also the name Be‛aliah, "Yahweh is baal or lord," which survives in 1 Chron. xii. 5. However, when the name Baal was exclusively appropriated to idolatrous worship (cf. Hos. ii. 16 seq.), abhorrence for the unholy word was marked by writing bōsheth (shameful thing) for baal in compound proper names, and thus we get the usual forms Ishbosheth, Mephibosheth.

The great difficulty which has been felt by investigators in determining the character and attributes of the god Baal mainly arises from the original appellative sense of the word, and many obscure points become clear if we remember that when a title becomes a proper name it may be appropriated by different peoples to quite distinct deities. Baal being originally a title, and not a proper name, the innumerable baals could be distinguished by the addition of the name of a place or of some special attribute. Accordingly, the baals are not to be regarded necessarily as local variations of one and the same god, like the many Virgins or Madonnas of Catholic lands, but as distinct numina. Each community could speak of its own baal, although a collection of allied communities might share the same cult, and naturally, since the attributes ascribed to the individual baals were very similar, subsequent syncretism was facilitated.

The Baal, as the head of each worshipping group, is the source of all the gifts of nature (cf. Hos. ii. 8 seq., Ezek. xvi. 19); as the god of fertility all the produce of the soil is his, and his adherents bring to him their tribute of first-fruits. He is the patron of all growth and fertility, and, by the "uncontrolled use of analogy characteristic of early thought," the Baal is the god of the productive element in its widest sense. Originating probably, in the observation of the fertilizing effect of rains and streams upon the receptive and reproductive soil, baalism becomes identical with the grossest nature-worship. Joined with the baals there are naturally found corresponding female figures known as Ashtārōth, embodiments of Ashtōreth (see Astarte; Ishtar). In accordance with primitive notions of analogy, which assume that it is possible to control or aid the powers of nature by the practice of "sympathetic magic" (see Magic), the cult of the baals and Ashtārōth was characterized by gross sensuality and licentiousness.

The fragmentary allusions to the cult of Baal Peor (Num. xxv., Hos. ix. 10, Ps. cvi. 28 seq.) exemplify the typical species of Dionysiac orgies that prevailed. On the summits of hills and mountains flourished the cult of the givers of increase, and "under every green tree" was practised the licentiousness which in primitive thought was held to secure abundance of crops (see Frazer, Golden Bough, 2nd ed. vol. ii. pp. 204 sqq.). Human sacrifice (Jer. xix. 5), the burning of incense (Jer. vii. 9), violent and ecstatic exercises, ceremonial acts of bowing and kissing, the preparing of sacred mystic cakes, appear among the offences denounced by the Israelite prophets, and show that the cult of Baal (and Astarte) included the characteristic features of heathen worship which recur in various parts of the Semitic world, although attached to other names.

By an easy transition the local gods of the streams and springs which fertilized the increase of the fields became identified with the common source of all streams, and proceeding along this line it was possible for the numerous baals to be regarded eventually as mere forms of one absolute deity. Consequently, the Baal could be identified with some supreme power of nature, e.g. the heavens, the sun, the weather or some planet. The particular line of development would vary in different places, but the change from an association of the Baal with earthly objects to heavenly is characteristic of a higher type of belief and appears to be relatively later. The idea which has long prevailed that Baal was properly a sky-god affords no explanation of the local character of the many baals; on the other hand, on the theory of a higher development where the gods become heavenly or astral beings, the fact that ruder conceptions of nature were still retained (often in the unofficial but more popular forms of cult) is more intelligible.

A specific Baal of the heavens appears to have been known among the Hittites in the time of Rameses II., and considerably later, at the beginning of the 7th century, it was the title of one of the gods of Phoenicia. In Babylonia, from a very early period, Baal became a definite individual deity, and was identified with the planet Jupiter. This development is a mark of superior culture and may have been spread through Babylonian influence. Both Baal and Astarte were venerated in Egypt at Thebes and Memphis in the XIXth Dynasty, and the former, through the influence of the Aramaeans who borrowed the Babylonian spelling Bel, ultimately became known as the Greek Belos who was identified with Zeus.

Of the worship of the Tyrian Baal, who is also called Melkart (king of the city), and is often identified with the Greek Heracles, but sometimes with the Olympian Zeus, we have many accounts in ancient writers, from Herodotus downwards. He had a magnificent temple in insular Tyre, founded by Hiram, to which gifts streamed from all countries, especially at the great feasts. The solar character of this deity appears especially in the annual feast of his awakening shortly after the winter solstice (Joseph. C. Apion. i. 18). At Tyre, as among the Hebrews, Baal had his symbolical pillars, one of gold and one of smaragdus, which, transported by phantasy to the farthest west, are still familiar to us as the Pillars of Hercules. The worship of the Tyrian Baal was carried to all the Phoenician colonies. His name occurs as an element in Carthaginian proper names (Hannibal, Hasdrubal, &c.), and a tablet found at Marseilles still survives to inform us of the charges made by the priests of the temple of Baal for offering sacrifices.

The history of Baalism among the Hebrews is obscured by the difficulty of determining whether the false worship which the prophets stigmatize is the heathen worship of Yahweh under a conception, and often with rites, which treated him as a local nature god; or whether Baalism was consciously recognized to be distinct from Yahwism from the first. Later religious practice was undoubtedly opposed to that of earlier times, and attempts were made to correct narratives containing views which had come to be regarded as contrary to the true worship of Yahweh. The Old Testament depicts the history of the people as a series of acts of apostasy alternating with subsequent penitence and return to Yahweh, and the question whether this gives effect to actual conditions depends upon the precise character of the elements of Yahweh worship brought by the Israelites into Palestine. This is still under dispute. There is strong evidence at all events that many of the conceptions are contrary to historical fact, and the points of similarity between native Canaanite cult and Israelite worship are so striking that only the persistent traditions of Israel's origin and of the work of Moses compel the conclusion that the germs of specific Yahweh worship existed from his day. The earliest certain reaction against Baalism is ascribed to the reign of Ahab, whose marriage with Jezebel gave the impulse to the introduction of a particular form of the cult. In honour of his wife's god, the king, following the example of Solomon, erected a temple to the Tyrian Baal (see above). This, however, did not prevent him from remaining a follower of Yahweh, whose prophets he still consulted, and whose protection he still cherished when he named his sons Ahaziah and Jehoram ("Yah[weh] holds," "Y. is high"). The antagonism of Elijah was not against Baalism in general, but against the introduction of a rival deity. But by the time of Hosea (ii. 16 seq.) a further advance was marked, and the use of the term "Baal" was felt to be dangerous to true religion. Thus there gradually grew up a tendency to avoid the term, and in accordance with the idea of Ex. xxiii. 13, it was replaced by the contemptuous bōsheth, "shame" (see above). However, the books of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah (cf. also Zeph. i. 4) afford complete testimony for the prevalence of Baalism as late as the exile, but prove that the clearest distinction was then drawn between the pure worship of Yahweh the god of Israel and the inveterate and debased cults of the gods of the land.

Bibliography.—W. Robertson Smith, Relig. Semites, 2nd ed. pp. 93-113 (against his theory of the introduction of Baal among the Arabs see M. J. Lagrange, Études d. relig. sem. pp. 83-98). For the reading "Baal" in the Amarna tablets (Palestine, about 1400 B.C.) see Knudtzon, Beitr. z. Assyriol. (1901), pp. 320 seq., 415; other cuneiform evidence in E. Schrader's Keilinsch. u. Alte Test. 3rd ed. p. 357 (by H. Zimmern; see also his Index, sub voce). On Baal-Shamem (B. of the heavens) M. Lidzbarski's monograph (Ephemeris, i. 243-260, ii. 120) is invaluable, and this work, with his Handbuch d. nordsemit. Epigraphik, contains full account of the epigraphical material. See Baethgen, Beitr. z. semit. Religionsgesch. pp. 17-32; also the articles on Baal by E. Meyer in Roscher's Lexikon, and G. F. Moore in Ency. Bib. (On Beltane fires and other apparent points of connexion with Baal it may suffice to refer to Aug. Fick, Vergleich. Worterbuch, who derives the element bel from an old Celtic root meaning shining, &c.)


Source: 1911 Encyclopedia.