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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > B > Baal, Baalim

Baal, Baalim

(Hebrew Bá'ál; plural, Be'alîm.)

A word which belongs to the oldest stock of the Semite vocabulary and primarily means "lord", "owner". So in Hebrew, a man is styled baal of a house (Exodus 22:7; Judges 19:22), of a field (Job 21:39), of cattle (Exodus 21:28; Isaiah 1:3) of wealth (Eccles, v, 12), even of a wife (Exodus 21:3; cf. Genesis 3:16). The women's position in the Oriental home explains why she is never called Bá'alah of her husband). So also we read of a ram, "baal" of two horns (Dan, viii, 6, 20), of a baal of two wings (i.e. fowl: Eccles., x, 20). Joseph was scornfully termed by his brother a baal of dreams (Genesis 37:19). And so on. (See 2 Kings 1:8: Isaiah 41:15; Genesis 49:23; Exodus 24:14, etc.) Inscriptions afford scores of evidence of the word being similarly used in the other Semitic languages. In the Hebrew Bible, the plural, be'alîm, is found with the various meanings of the singular; whereas in ancient and modern translations it is used only as a referring deities. It has been asserted by several commentators that by baalim the emblems or images of Baal (hámmanîm, máççebhôth, etc.) should be understood. This view is hardly supported by the texts, which regularly points out, sometimes contemptuously, the local or other special Baals.

Baal as a deity

When applied to a deity, the word Baal retained its connotation of ownership, and was, therefore, usually qualified. The documents speak, for instance, of the Baal of Tyre, of Harran, of Tarsus, of Herman, of Lebanon of Tamar (a river south of Beirut), of heaven. Moreover, several Baals enjoyed special attributions: there was a Baal of the Covenant (Bá'ál Berîth (Judges 8:33; 9:4); cf. 'El Berîth (ibid., ix, 46); one of the flies (Bá'ál Zebub, 2 Kings 1:2, 3, 6, 16); there also probably was one of dance (Bá'ál Márqôd); perhaps one of medicine (Bá'ál Márphê), and so on. Among all the Semites, the word, under one form or another (Bá'ál in the West and South; Bel in Assyria; Bal, Bol, or Bel in Palmyra) constantly recurs to express the deity's lordship over the world or some part of it. Not were all the Baals — of different tribes, places, sanctuaries — necessarily conceived as identical; each one might have his own nature and his own name; the partly fish shaped Baal of Arvad was probably Dagon; the Baal of Lebanon, possible Cid "the hunter"; the Baal of Harran, the moon-god; whereas in several Sabean Minaean cities, and in many Chanaanite, Phoenician, or Palmyrene shrines, the sun was the Baal worshipped, although Hadad seems to have been the chief Baal among the Syrians. The diversity of the Old Testament intimates by speaking of Baalim, in the plural, and specifying the singular Baal either by the article or by the addition of another word.

What the original conception was is most obscure. According to W.R. Smith, the Baal is a local God who, by fertilizing his own district through springs and streams, becomes its lawful owner. Good authorities, nevertheless, oppose this view, and reversing the above argument, hold that the Baal is the genius-lord of the place and of all the elements that cause its fecundity; it is he who gives "bread, water, wool, flax, oil, and drink" (Hosea 2:5; in the Hebrew text 2:7); he is the male principle of life and reproduction in nature, and such is sometimes honoured by acts of the foulest sensuality. Whether or not this idea sprang from, and led to the monotheistic conception of supreme deity, the Lord of Heaven, of whom the various Baals would be so many manifestations, we shall leave to scholars to decide. Some deem that the bible favours this view, for its language frequently seems to imply the belief in a Baal par excellence.

Baal-worship among the Gentiles

The evidence is hardly of such weight as to justify us in speaking of a worship of Baal. The Baal-worship so often alluded to and described in Holy Writ might, perhaps, be better styled, Çid-worship, moon-worship, Melek (Moloch)-worship, or Hadad-worship, according to places and circumstances. Many of the practices mentioned were most probable common to the worship of all the Baals; a few others are certainly specific.

A custom common among Semites should be noticed here. Moved, most likely, by the desire to secure the protection of the local Baal for their children, the Semites always showed a preference for names compounded with that of the deity; those of Hasdrubal ('Azrû Bá'ál), Hannibal (Hanni Bá'ál), Baltasar, or Belshazzar (Bel-sar-Ushshur), have become famous in history. Scores of such names belonging to different nationalities are recorded in the Bible, and in ancient writers, and in inscriptions.

The worship of Baal was performed in the sacred precincts of the high places so numerous throughout the country (Numbers 22:41; 33:52; Deuteronomy 12:2, etc) or in temples like those of Samaria (1 Kings 16:32; 2 Kings 10:21-27) and Jerusalem (2 Kings 11:18), even on the terraced roofs of the houses (2 Kings 23:12; Jeremiah 32:29). The furniture of these sanctuaries probably varied with the Baals honoured there. Near the altar which existed everywhere (Judges 6:25; 1 Kings 18:26; 2 Kings 11:18; Jeremiah 11:13, etc.), might be found, according to the particular place, either an image of the deity (Hadad was symbolized by a calf), or the bætylion (i.e. sacred stone, regularly cone-shaped in Chanaan) supposed to have been originally intended to represent the world, abode of the god; of the hammanim (very possible sunpillars; Leviticus 26:30; 2 Chronicles 24:4, etc.), and asherah (wrongly interpreted grove in our Bibles; Judges 6:25; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 17:10; Jeremiah 17:2 etc.), a sacred pole, sometimes, possible, a tree, the original signification of which is far from clear, together with votive or commemorative stelae (máççebhôth, usually mistranslated images), more or less ornamented. There incense and perfumes were burned (2 Kings 22:5; Jeremiah 7:9, 11:13, and according to the Hebrew, 32:29), libations poured (Jeremiah 19:13), and sacrifices of oxen and other animals offered up to the Baal; we hear even (Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; 32:35; 2 Chronicles 28:3) that children of both sexes were not infrequently burned in sacrifice to Melek (D. V. Moloch, A.V. Molech), and 2 Chronicles 28:3 (perhaps also 2 Kings 21:6) tells us that young princes were occasionally chosen as victims to this stern deity. In several shrines long trains of priests, distributed into several classes (1 Kings 18:19; 2 Kings 10:19; 23:5; Zephaniah 1:4, etc.) and clad in special attire (2 Kings 10:22) performed the sacred function; they prayed, shouted to the Baal, led dances around the altar, and in their frenzied excitement cut themselves with knives and lancets, till they were all covered with blood (1 Kings 18:26-28). In the meantime the lay worshippers also prayed, kneeling, and paid their homage by kissing the images or symbols of the Baal (1 Kings 19:18; Hosea 13:2, Hebr.), or even their own hands. To this should be added the immoral practices indulged in at several shrines (1 Kings 14:24; 2 Kings 23:7; cf. Deuteronomy 23:18) in honour of the Baal as male of reproduction, and of his mate Asherah (D.V. Astarthe, A. V. Ashtaroth).

Baal-worship among the Israelites

Nothing could be more fatal to a spiritual faith than this sensual religion. In fact, no sooner than the Israelites, coming forth from the wilderness, been brought into contact with the Baal-worshippers, than they were, through the guile of the Madianites, and the attractions of the licentious worship offered to the Moabitish deity (probably Chamos), easily seduced from their allegiance to Yahweh (Numbers 25:1-9). Henceforth the name of Beelphegor remained like a dark spot on the early history of Israel (Hosea 9:10; Psalm 105:28). The terrible punishment inflicted upon the guilty sobered for awhile the minds of the Hebrews. How long the impression lasted we are hardly able to tell; but this we know, that when they had settled in the Promised Land, the Israelites, again forsaking the One True God, paid their homage to the deities of their Chanaanite neighbours (Judges 2:11, 13 etc.). Even the best families could not, or did not dare, resist the seduction, Gedon's father, for instant, albeit his faith in his Baal seems to have been somewhat lukewarm (Judges 6:31), had erected an idolatrous altar in Ephra (Judges 6:25). "And the Lord, being angry against Israel, delivered them into the hands of their enemies that dwelt round about." Mesopotamians, Madianites, Amalecites, Ammonites, and, above all, Philistines, were successively the providential avengers of God's disregarded rights.

During the warlike reigns of Saul and David, the Israelites as a whole thought little of shaking Yahweh's yoke; such also was, apparently, the situation under Solomon's rule, although the example given by this prince must have told deplorably upon his subjects. After the division of his empire, the Northern Kingdom, first led by its rulers to an unlawful worship of Yahweh, sank speedily into the grossest Chanaanite superstitions. This was the more easy because certain customs, it seems, brought about confusion in the clouded minds of the uneducated portion of the people. Names like Esbaal (1 Chronicles 8:33; 9:39), Meribbaal (1 Chronicles 8:34; 9:40), Baaliada (1 Chronicles 14:7), given by Saul, Johnathen, and David to their sons, suggest that Yahweh was possibly spoken of as Baal. The fact has been disputed; but the existence of such a name as Baalia (i.e. "Yahweh is Baal", 1 Chronicles 12:5) and the affirmation of Osee (ii, 16) are arguments that cannot be slighted. True, the word was used later on only in reference to idolatrous worship, and even deemed so obnoxious that bosheth, shame, was frequently substituted for it in compound proper names, thus giving, for instance, such inoffensive forms as Elioda (2 Samuel 5:16), Yerubbesheth (2 Samuel 11:21, Hebr.)., Isboseth (2 Samuel 2:10) and elsewhere, Miphiboseth (2 Samuel 9:6; 21:8); but these corrections were due to a spirit which did not prevail until centuries after the age with which we shall presently deal.

Achab's accession to the throne of Israel inaugurated a new era, that of the official worship. Married to a