Third in a series
In the Ten Commandments, God (who identified Himself as Yahweh or “I am”) commanded the Israelites not to worship any gods but Him. Yet the Israelites were tempted to worship the gods of the peoples around them.
By far, the most common false god worshipped by Israel and its neighbors was Baal, this worship beginning even before the Israelites entered the Promised Land (Numbers 25:1-2). In fact, there were many Baals, often linked to a certain locality. There are many people and places named after Baal. “Baal” means master, possessor (of a certain location or a certain group of people), and husband. Sometimes Israelites used “Baal” to refer to Yahweh since He was their master and husband, which created much confusion. Baal was sometimes called Baal-zebul (Lord of the high place), which faithful Israelites mocked as Baal-zebub (Lord of the flies, 2 Kings 1:2). By New Testament times, Baal-zebul was considered to be “Lord of the devils” or Satan (Matthew 12:22-29).
Because there were so many Baals, it is difficult to definitively identify the nature of Baal. Perhaps the clearest picture we have is of Baal Melqart, the god of Tyre, whose worship Jezebel brought to Israel when she married King Ahab, subsequently the most evil of Israel’s kings (1 Kings 16:29-33). Baal was often considered a fertility god, the “husband” of Asherah, whose joint worship included sexual practices, often with temple prostitutes. Baal would impregnate Asherah (the earth) with rain and thus produce good crops, a vital need in an agricultural society. This is the significance of the prophet Elijah’s contest with the hundreds of prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). Those prophets used a variety of rituals and techniques in a vain attempt to induce Baal to send rain to end a three-year drought (1 kings 18:25-29). They failed, while Elijah’s simple prayer to Yahweh produced abundant rain. Yahweh defeated Baal on a mountaintop near Baal’s home territory and also defeated Baal at what Baal’s prophets claimed was his unique power. It is interesting that Elijah mocked Baal as possibly being away or asleep or indisposed (1 kings 18:27). As a humanoid god, Baal was subject to human limitations; unlike Yahweh, he was not omnipresent and was part of nature rather than its creator and controller.
A clearer picture of Baal emerges in Jezebel’s actions in 1 Kings 21. Ahab wanted a vineyard belonging to a man named Naboth, but Naboth refused to sell it. Ahab was despondent, but Jezebel took action. She set up a conspiracy to have some men lie and say that Naboth had cursed God and the king. Naboth was stoned to death, and Ahab took the vineyard. As a worshiper of Baal, Jezebel saw nothing wrong with lies, theft, and murder. She had no interest in truth, having already rejected the evidence from the Mount Carmel contest showing that Yahweh is the true God. Baal was a god of power and violence (perhaps akin to the Roman war god Mars). He was there to help people get what they wanted, a god of the selfish and greedy. Worship of Baal taught the concept that “might makes right,” overriding truth, morality, and justice.
The worship of Baal has faded into history. Yet many people today follow a philosophy of selfishness and greed, discarding truth, justice, and morality in pursuit of their own selfish desires. Career criminals are a prime example, but many other people share the same attitude while avoiding the risks involved in overt criminal behavior. Greed and selfishness are endemic in our society.