The most prevalent religious system in the immediate Canaanite context of Israelite culture was the worship of Ba‘al. A network of mythical stories that attempted to explain in narrative the nature of the physical world supported this religious system. As with most myths, the entire story is complex, varying in details and emphasis between peoples. The basic features, however, are fairly simple. Ba‘al religion revolved around the cycles of nature necessary for survival and prosperity in the ancient world, primarily growing crops or raising livestock, as well as the growth of human populations. Not surprisingly, in an arid and agriculturally marginal area of the world the fertility of land and crops played a large role in Canaanite world view. Also as expected, water was a major element of the myth and its images. Likewise, in an environment where human existence was often precarious for a variety of reasons human fertility was an important concern, not only for survival, but also due to the fact that people were one of the most important resources.
What we know of the basic elements of the Ba‘al myth actually comes from two groups of texts. The Babylonian creation hymn, Enuma Elish, describes a great battle among the gods, primarily between Marduk, the champion of the gods, and Tiamat, the primeval ocean or the "deep." Sometimes Tiamat is portrayed as a great serpentine beast, the dragon of chaos or the dragon of the sea. Marduk overcame Tiamat and her forces and after splitting her body into two parts, made the sky, stars, sun, and moon from one half, and the earth from the other. From the blood of Tiamat's defeated husband Kingu, one of the lesser gods, Ea (Enki) then created humanity to be servants of the gods so they would never have to work again. Marduk continued to bring order into the chaos caused by Tiamat, setting each of the astral deities in their place in the heavens and establishing the cycles of nature. Marduk continued to bring order into the chaos caused by Tiamat, setting each of the astral deities in their place in the heavens and establishing the cycles of nature.
This theme of a cosmic battle among the gods personifies the struggle for life. It describes the annual renewal of the earth in springtime; it is a myth of the cycle of seasons. This cosmic battle was not understood as a historical event of the past, but occurred anew each year and was reenacted in cultic ritual. Marduk represents the forces of order, the coming of spring with its renewal of life and the end of the reign of the chaos and death of winter. Marduk is the spring sun that gives life and renewed energy to the earth. Tiamat represents those forces that threaten human existence, the threat of a disordered world in which springtime never comes. The ancient theme of an original primeval ocean that threatens to break out and engulf the world in killing salt water is also seen in Tiamat. Creation, in Babylonian thinking, was an ongoing struggle between order and chaos, a way of thinking no doubt related to the uncertainties of life in the ancient world.
The second group of texts come from Ugarit, in northern Syria. They are chiefly concerned with the emergence of Ba‘al as the leader of the gods. Basically, Ba‘al was the storm god, the bringer of rain, and thus fertility, to the land. There was rivalry among the gods and a struggle erupted between Yamm, the sea, and Ba‘al, the rain. With the help of his sister Anat, the goddess of war, and Astarte, the goddess of earth and fertility, Ba‘al defeated Yamm, and his cohorts, Tannin, the dragon of the sea, and Loran (or Lothan, cf. Isa 27:1), the serpent with seven heads. The gods began to build a magnificent house for Ba‘al so that he could be at rest and provide abundant rain for the earth. But Ba‘al was challenged by Mot (or Mut), the god of death and the underworld. Mot temporarily triumphed and Ba‘al disappeared into the underworld. Anat and Shapash, the sun god, found Ba‘al, brought him back to life, and restored him to his house.
This series of stories is even more clearly, especially in its details, an agrarian myth personifying the cycle of rainy and dry seasons of the Middle East. Like the Enuma Elish, these texts deal with the danger inherent in drought and ensuing famine. The disappearance of rain in the dry season (Ba‘al’s descent into the underworld) portended catastrophe if it did not return in the Spring.
But this myth is more explicitly concerned with fertility, specifically cast in terms of human sexuality. Worship of Ba‘al involved imitative magic, the performance of rituals, including sacred prostitution, which were understood to bring vitality to Ba‘al in his struggle with Mot. It takes little imagination to see the connection between the human sexual act and rain watering the earth to produce fruit. It is interesting to note in passing that the biblical traditions use these same agrarian images of being fruitful or barren to describe vitality in human beings.
The emphasis here is not on the order of the world, but on the necessity of rain. The needed water cannot be the unrestrained water of flood or the lifeless salt water of Yamm (the Sea). It must be life-giving rain, falling at the proper time. Ba‘al is often portrayed as "Rider of the Clouds," and described in imagery associated with storms and meteorological phenomena, including clouds, thunder, lightning, and hail. The myth gives assurance of some stability in the physical world, assisted by humans in their service to the gods, that would allow continued human existence.
While we have no surviving Canaanite religious texts, the accounts of Ba‘al worship in the Old Testament correspond closely to the existing versions of the Ba‘al myth and what we know of religious practices in surrounding areas. The influence of this religious system on Israel can hardly be overestimated. Contrary to how some statements in the biblical traditions are often understood, the problem that faced Israel through most of its history was not that the people totally abandoned Yahweh for the worship of Ba‘al. Rather the problem was syncretism, the blending of Yahweh worship with Ba’al worship.
Yahweh has been experienced as a God of power, the God who fought Pharaoh, who parted the Reed Sea, who led the Israelites through the desert, who parted the Jordan, who brought them into the land by toppling the walls of Jericho and routing the Canaanite and Philistine armies. This led to the idea that Yahweh, the God of the patriarchs, was a powerful warrior God, the God of the desert who could be counted on to march in with his heavenly armies in times of crisis. However, as the Israelites settled into the land, they encountered the fertility cult of Ba‘al. They were easily convinced that while Yahweh may be God of the desert and God of battles and God of power, it was Ba‘al who was in charge of the more mundane aspects of everyday life, such as rain and crops and livestock.
The Israelites never abandoned the worship of Yahweh. They simply added the worship of Ba‘al to their worship of Yahweh (called syncretism). They had one God for crises and another god for everyday life. The actual worship of Ba‘al was carried out in terms of imitative magic whereby sexual acts by both male and female temple prostitutes were understood to arouse Ba‘al who then brought rain to make Mother Earth fertile (in some forms of the myth, represented by a female consort, Asherah or Astarte).
When crops were abundant, Ba‘al was praised and thanked for his abundant rain. It is in this context that drought had such impact throughout the biblical traditions. Not only was lack of rain a threat to survival, it was also a sign that the gods of the Ba‘al myth were unhappy. It is this context that the "contest" between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al carries such significance. The issue is really who controls the rain, Ba‘al or Yahweh.
Hosea suggests and Jeremiah graphically depicts the debauchery and excesses that developed in the worship of Ba‘al. Because of the sexual overtones of Ba‘al worship, it was easy to use the metaphor of adultery or prostitution to describe the problem that such syncretism raised for Israel. The prophets are consistent in condemning Ba‘al worship as a sign of being unfaithful to their covenant relationship with Yahweh. It is also in this context that the idea of Yahweh being a "jealous" God comes into play (see God as a "jealous" God). The idea here is not an emotional or arrogant dimension, but rather simply an assertion that if God alone is God, as the shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 asserts, then they cannot worship both Yahweh and Ba‘al.
It is likely in response to the Ba‘al myth that Israelites eventually developed their profound doctrine of creation. If Yahweh were to be the only God, then he had to fulfill the role taken by the gods of the Canaanite pantheon. The primary revelation of God for the Israelites was in the exodus. From this experience they could easily work backward to understanding that the same God who created them as a people was the Creator of the world in which they lived. Or, to express this idea from the opposite perspective, Ba‘al worship was a denial that God was really the creator and sustainer of the world. It is from this perspective that many of the names and titles carried by Ba‘al were taken over and transformed to apply to Yahweh (for example, "rider of the clouds" in Psalm 68:4). That was simply a theological way for the Israelites to say that whatever the Canaanites claimed that Ba‘al did, it was actually Yahweh who did those things (see Speaking the Language of Canaan).
The Israelites struggled with Ba‘al worship until the time of the exile, especially in the more agrarian areas of the northern Kingdom of Israel (also due to some degree to its official establishment as a state religion in the North for a time during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel, c. 850 BC). However, as Jeremiah makes clear, it was a recurring problem in the Southern Kingdom as well. Largely due to Jeremiah’s insistence that the nation would fall because of its lack of commitment to God exemplified in its dabbling in Ba‘al worship, the problem faded after the return from exile in 538. While there were traces of it later, Ba‘al worship was never again the problem that it was prior to the Exile. The Judaism that emerged after the exile in the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah was passionately monotheistic, and has remained so ever since. In fact, it was partly that passion for monotheism that arose from the purge of Ba‘al worship from their corporate consciousness that caused Judaism to have problems accepting Jesus as the Son of God. For many faithful Jews, that sounded too much like a return to a polytheistic syncretism. That was one lesson that they had learned well.
This is an expanded section from the paper Speaking the Language of Canaan: The Old Testament and the Israelite Perception of the Physical World