Canaanite and Phoenician gods were known as Baals, or Baalim (the plural form of Baal in Hebrew; Judg 2:11; 10:10; 1 Kings 16:31). Goddesses were known as Ashtaroth (plural of Ashtoreth; Judg 2:13; 1 Sam 7:3-4; 12:10) or Asherim (plural of Asherah; 1 Kings 15:13; 18:19; 2 Kings 23:4). The word baal was a common Hebrew word meaning ‘master’, ‘husband’ or ‘owner’. When the Israelites entered Canaan and found that the local people believed every piece of land had a god as its ‘owner’, baal developed a particular use as a proper noun. It became the title or name of the god of the land, whether of the land as a whole or of a particular area of land. In some cases the local Baal took its name from the locality (Num 25:3; Deut 4:3), and in other cases a locality was named after the Baal (Josh 11:17; Judg 3:3; 2 Sam 5:20, 13:23). A locality may also have been named after the Ashtaroth (Josh 12:4).

Characteristics of Baal worship

Baal and his associate goddesses were gods of nature who, according to popular belief, controlled the weather and had power to increase the fertility of soil, animals and humans. Since Israelites knew Yahweh as creator of nature and God of all life, they readily fell to the temptation to combine the Canaanite ideas with their own and so worship Yahweh as another Baal (Hosea 2:5-10; 4:7-10). This identification of Yahweh with Baal was probably also influenced by the fact that Yahweh was Israel’s husband and master (Heb: baal). The Canaanites liked to carry out their Baal rituals at sacred hilltop sites known as ‘high places’. This name was later applied to all places of Baal worship, not just those in the hills (2 Kings 14:4; 17:9,32; 23:13; Jer 17:2-3; 32:35). Among the features of these high places were the sacred wooden or stone pillars known as Asherim (plural of Asherah, the goddess they represented) (Deut 12:3; Judg 6:25-26; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 10:27; 17:10; 21:3,7; 23:6; Isa 27:9). Israelites had often gone up into the hills to worship God (Gen 22:2; Exod 17:8-15; 24:12-18; cf. 1 Sam 9:12-14; 10:5,13) and in Canaan they easily fell to the temptation to use the local high places in their worship of Yahweh. These disorders would not have arisen if the Israelites had, from the beginning, obeyed God’s command and destroyed all the high places in the land (Num. 33:52-53; Deut 12:2-3; 1 Kings 3:2; Jer 2:20; 3:6; Hosea 4:13). Prostitutes, male and female, were available at the high places for fertility rites. These were religioussexual ceremonies that people believed would persuade the gods to give increase in family, herds, flocks and crops (1 Kings 14:23-24; Jer 13:27; Hosea 4:10,14; 9:1-3,11-14; Amos 2:7-8). The people were also guilty of spiritual prostitution. Since the covenant bond between Israel and Yahweh was likened to the marriage bond, Israel’s association with Baal and other gods was a form of spiritual adultery (Isa 1:21; Jer 13:27; Hosea 1:2; 2:5,13; 4:12; Micah 1:7).

God’s judgment on Israel

Baal worship was a problem in Israel throughout most of the nation’s Old Testament history. It began soon after the people entered Canaan (Judg 2:11-13; 3:7; 8:33; 10:6,10) and resisted repeated attempts at reform by various leaders. It remained firmly fixed in Israel’s national life up till the captivity, when God’ inevitable judgment fell (1 Sam 7:3-4; 1 Kings 15:9-14; 22:51-53; 2 Kings 17:7-18; 18:1-4; 21:1-3; 23:26-27). Possibly the most dangerous period during this history was the reign of the Israelite king Ahab and his Phoenician wife Jezebel, who attempted to make Phoenician Baalism the official religion of Israel (1 Kings 16:31-33). This form of Baalism, under the lordship of the Phoenician Baal deity Melqart, was a greater threat to Israel than the local Canaanite Baalism. To meet the threat, God raised up the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Their ministry preserved the faithful through the crisis and led to the eventual removal of Phoenician Baalism. It was wiped out by Jehu’s ruthless purge in the north, and by a similar, but less bloody, purge in the south (1 Kings 17-22; 2 Kings 1-11; see ELIJAH; ELISHA; JEHU). Local Canaanite Baalism, however, was not removed. Israel’s persistence in Baal worship was the chief reason for God’s judgment in finally destroying the nation and sending the people into captivity (2 Kings 17:7-18 ; 21:10-15; Jer 9:12-16; 11:13-17; 19:4-9). The time in captivity broke Israel’s relationship with Baalism. When the nation was later rebuilt, Baalism was no longer a serious problem (Ezek 36:22-29; 37:23). People were so determined to avoid any link between Baal and Yahweh that they refused to use the word baal when referring to God as their husband or master. They used the alternative word ish (Hosea 2:16-19). By New Testament times Jews had developed a thorough hatred of idolatry in all its forms (see IDOL, IDOLATRY).

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