Baal and the fertility cults (Hosea 2)

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Illustration: Baal, Canaan’s bloodthirsty fertility god

The worship of the Canaanite storm god Baal was an object of singular condemnation by Hosea and other prophets. The vehemence of the prophetic condemnation of the cult reflects just how extensive and pernicious the problem was. We learn about Baal first through Biblical texts. Examples include:

  • Numbers 25 (the narrative of Baal of Peor, showing the prominence of sacred prostitution within the cult)
  • 1 Kings 18 (the contest involving Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, illustrating the popularity of the Baal cult and its use of self-laceration for demonstrating devotion to Baal)
  • Hosea 2 (2:8 indicates that the people associated Baal with prosperity, and 2:16-17 suggest that many people identified Baal and Yahweh almost as one and the same)

We can also learn a great deal about Baal from ancient texts in the form of cuneiform tablets, especially those from Ugarit and Phoenician inscriptions. The hymns and epic poems of Ugarit provide us with something of the “theology” of the Baal cult.

The basic meaning of the word baal is “lord”, and this appropriately suggests Baal’s importance in Canaanite religion. He was called “prince Baal (Lord) of the earth”. Although the god El was nominally the supreme deity in Ugaritic mythology, Baal purportedly exercised a direct role in ruling the pantheon and effectively supplanted El. Baal’s consort (partner) is usually identified as the goddsss Anat, although sometimes another goddess, Ashera, assumes that role. Baal was declared kings after having supposedly defeated the god Yam (“sea”) in battle. In another myth he was slain by the god Mot (“Death”), but with the aid of Anat he revived and defeated Mot.

Not only was Baal exalted as a chief deity, but he also functioned specifically as the Canaanite storm god, the “rider of the clouds”. The birth of healthy offspring and the staving off of famine were major concerns in the ancient Near East, and consequently fertility took on religious significance. In Egypt the god Osiris was identified with the Nile and its perennial flooding – the basis of Egypt’s agricultural life. In Mesopotamia the cult of Tammuz and his consort, Ianna, represented the power of fertility and included the practice of sacred prostitution.

For Israel – an agrarian society situated in a dry climate – the veneration of a god who could send rain proved to be an irresistible enticement. One Canaanite myth attributed agricultural fertility to the “rain of Baal”. Hosea 2:5 indicates the acceptance of Baal’s role at every level of life: “food” and “water” for sustenance, “wool” and “linene” for material goods and “oil” and “drink” for cultic rituals or personal luxury. Although sacred prostitution was not a part of every fertility cult, Israel incorporated this aspect as well (4:10-14), and the sexual temptation of the cult proved too much for many Israelites to withstand. The situation was exacerbated by an enormous number of local shrines where “the Baals” were worshiped under various titles (such a Baal Peor, Baal Hammon, Baal Zaphon, Baal of Lebanon of Baal of Sidon; see 2:13, 17). This phenomenon is attested by the wide variety of representation of Baal in Phoenician inscriptions.

The fact that the Israelites identified Baal with Yahweh is telling. Although Baal worship, viewed from a distance, was obviously horrendous, those who were involved in it were so influenced by the dominant culture that they remained convinced that they were devout and orthodox followers of the Lord – when they were all the while worshiping Baal.


 

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