The New International Encyclopædia/Baal

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BAAL, bā'al. A word common to the Semitic languages, and signifying owner or possessor. It is applied to the ordinary social conditions. The owner of a house or a field is its Baal, and similarly the husband is the Baal to his wife. From such a usage the term came naturally to be applied to the patron deity of a place to whom, in a measure, the place belonged, since he presided over its destinies. This application of Baal is particularly appropriate in the case of people who had reached the agricultural stage, and who would naturally ascribe the ultimate ownership of the fields to the local deity, whose favor was shown by a rich return from the soil. Hence Baal became, among Canaanites and Phoenicians, the general term designating a local deity; and the complement, added to the term, would indicate what particular Baal was meant. Thus we have a Baal of Tyre, of Sidon, of Mount Hermon, of Peor, of Meon, of the Lebanon, etc. Again, a Baal might be distinguished by some special attribute, and this would then be added to the term; as, e.g. Baal-Berith, ‘Baal of the Covenant,’ Baal-zebub, ‘Baal of flies,’ and the like; and, lastly, we find Baal as a general term for ‘lord,’ used as a honorific adjunct to the real name of a deity, — as Baal-Gad, Baal-Zephon, — in which cases Gad and Zephon are names of gods. There were thus as many Baals as there were towns, or sanctuaries, or objects which had a religious significance. Still it is natural that certain Baals should become more prominent than others, and it might even happen that one should become the Baal par excellence. Thus in Babylonia, through a chain of development which we need not dwell upon here, the deity of one of the most ancient cities (Nippur) became the Baal or Bel of Babylonia, and was known to later ages simply as Bel; and again, in the West, the Baal of Tyre, whose name was Melkart, assumed at one time such prominence that his worship was introduced among the Hebrews by Ahab, and he is sometimes referred to in the Old Testament simply as Baal.

Another and rather curious development taken on by the Baal idea was the dissociation of the deity from any particular place; and this gives rise to such cults as that of Baal-Hamon and Baal-Shamem, which acquire prominence among the Phœnicians and their offshoots. The former may be the personification of the sun-god, though this is not certain; the latter is the god who dwells in heaven, and bears analogies, therefore, to the Greek Zeus. In tracing the religious development of ancient nations in general, we must make allowance for this tendency to form conceptions of divine powers which seem to reach out into higher spheres. The Baal-worship among the Hebrews, of which we hear so much in the Book of Kings and in the Prophets, represents the adoption on the part of the Hebrews of the Canaanitish cults. In dispossessing the Canaanites, the Hebrews wished to assure themselves of the good-will of the numerous Baals; and since fertility of the soil was in the control of the Baals, as the Canaanites believed, the Hebrews, when they became agriculturists on Canaanitish soil, naturally took over the worship of the Baals at the various ancient sanctuaries of the land. In order to reconcile this departure with fidelity to the national deity. Jehovah himself was called Baal, and His name was thus associated with the cults at the altars and sanctuaries, which generally were erected on prominent spots, the so-called ‘high places,’ or in groves. With Elijah, a movement to purify Jehovah's worship of its foreign elements begins, which, taken up vigorously by the prophets of the Ninth and Eighth centuries B.C. leads to tentative attempts in Judæa, such as the reforms of King Josiah, to stamp out the Baal rites; but it is not until the new conditions brought about by the destruction of the southern kingdom that the hope of the Jehovists to establish Jerusalem as the only legitimate sanctuary of Jehovah is realized, and after the return of the exiles the worship is reconstructed on the lines laid down by such ‘purists’ as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.