When God told the Jewish people “you shall have no other gods before me,” it is clear that He was aware that there were other gods. Not only that, the Jewish people would have a propensity to worship the gods of the people where they lived.
For mine Angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites: and I will cut them off. Thou shalt not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their works: but thou shalt utterly overthrow them, and quite break down their images. (Ex 23:23-24)
Nor was God disappointed in his expectations. From the Exodus until the Babylonian captivity, the Jewish people have a long history of turning to other gods, sometimesBaal remained silent, and Gideon went on to judge Israel forty years. while even continuing to worship the God of the covenant. Sometimes we read about these gods with little understanding of what they represented. Sometimes we might even be prone to worship what they represented, even if we don’t worship the idols themselves.
Of all the Canaanite gods, it seems the Israelites had the biggest problem with Ba’al (or Baal). In either the singular or plural forms, Baal is mentioned 80 times in the Old Testament, from the second chapter of Judges until the Babylonian captivity. A look at the god himself might, at least in part, explain their fascination.
The word itself simply means lord. As such it may be associated with any number of deities, such as the Baalberith (Jdg 8:33, 9:4) or the lord of Hammon (wealth) (SOS 8:11). The title appears in the name Beelzebub (Matt 12:24 et al), lord of the flies. It also appears in personal names, perhaps indicating they were followers of Baal, such as Belshazzar (Dan 5) or Jezebel (Isabella) the wife of Ahab (1 Kings 18).
To the Canaanites, Baal was associated with storms and fertility. While to some that may seem a strange combination, one must remember the geography of Canaan. Unlike Egypt, where agriculture was dependent on the annual flood of the Nile river, Canaanitic agriculture, and later Israelite agriculture, was dependent on the “early and late rains.” (Joel 2:23; Jas 5:7) A god who was associated with rain would also be associated with fertility. If the storms did not come in their seasons, there would be famine. He was also associated with the sun, and later incorporated into the Greek god Zeus.
Baal was often portrayed as a bull or a ram. As such, the Israelites made idols to Baal. The first such instance came shortly after the giving of the Law of Moses. When Moses spent forty days on Sinai, the people begged Aaron to make them gods. He took their earrings and made a golden calf. (Ex 32) Although the passage does not mention Baal, that god had gained prominence both in Egypt and Phoenicia, and may have been “your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” as referenced by Aaron. Later, Jeroboam set up golden cattle as the gods of the northern tribes of Israel, probably a further example of Baal worship.
While Baal is mentioned frequently throughout the Old Testament, three incidents stand out. The first involved Gideon. God told him to destroy his father’s altar to Baal, which he did at night, for fear of the people of the town. When what he did was discovered, the townsfolk demanded that Gideon be killed. Gideon’s father replied, “If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been broken down.” (Jdg 6:31) Because of this saying, Gideon thereafter was called by the name Jerubbaal, or “let Baal contend.” Needless to say, Baal remained silent and Gideon lived on to fight a famous battle against the Midianites and to judge Israel for forty years.
The most famous incident involving the priests of Baal can be found in 1 Kings 18. Elijah proposed a contest between himself (and God) and the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah employed by Jezebel. The terms of the contest were that each side would build an altar and call on their god to bring down fire to burn the sacrifice on the altar. In spite of everything the prophets of Baal could do (shouting, cutting themselves, enduring the sarcasm of Elijah), Baal remained silent. Elijah built his altar, had the wood and stones well-soaked with water, and prepared his sacrifice. Almost immediately on being called, God burnt the sacrifice, the wood, and even the altar. He then had the 450 prophets of Baal executed.
What many miss about this incident is what happened before and after. Israel was in the throes of a long drought. After the prophets of Baal were killed and his altar destroyed, a huge rainstorm came, effectively ending the drought. The whole point of the contest was that the God of Heaven was more powerful than the rain god of the Phoenicians.
The third incident came a number of years later, as recorded in 2 Kings 10. Jehu had assassinated his master, King Jehu, who was a son of Ahab. Then he had Jezebel killed. Then he said, “Ahab served Baal a little, but Jehu will serve him much.” (2 Kings 10:18) This was a ruse. He declared a worship at which all the prophets, priests, and worshipers of Baal were to attend. They all assembled in the temple to Baal. If the worship of Baal was so prominent, one wonders that they could all be gathered together, except that the temple complex to Baal in Ugarit was said to cover 10,000 acres, or 15.6 square miles. When everyone was gathered, he ordered the people to make sure that there were only Baal-worshipers present. Jehu stationed eight armed men outside. After the sacrifice was made, he ordered the soldiers to enter the temple and kill everyone in it. He then destroyed the altar and the building, and made it into a sewer.
While Baal is associated with fertility, his mother is more frequently mentioned in that respect in the Bible. She went by the names Asherah, Astarte, or Ishtar.
There is debate among scholars whether the word Asherah refers to a goddess or just a cult object. It appears that she was the mother goddess to the Canaanites. Over time, however, her significance was absorbed by Baal, but the altars to Baal were often accompanied by an object known as an Asherah.
Sometimes the Bible refers to the goddess or an image as being carved to represent the goddess. As seen earlier, Jezebel employed 400 prophets of Asherah. Manasseh went so far as to make a golden image of the images by the altars (2 Kings 21:7) and placed it in the Temple in Jerusalem. Asa deposed his mother from the title of Queen Mother because she made an image to Asherah (2 Chron 15:16). Because the word may also be translated grove, it is possible that she just set up an idol in a grove of trees.
The translators of the King James Version used the word grove, while most modern versions transliterate it as if it is a name. Several translations use the phrase “Asherah poles,” while others simply refer to asherim (in the plural).
Because Asherah was a major fertility goddess, later incorporated into the Baal cult, the usual representations were groves of trees. Some or all of these trees may have been carved into images of the goddess. In the case of the groves, a tree carved in the image of the goddess may have served as a living idol. Sometimes a tree may have been cut down and carved and then erected as a pole. “You must never set up a wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build for the LORD your God.” (Deut 16:21) (The King James Version follows the more accurate translation forbidding the planting of trees near the altar.)
Frequent mention, for example in 1 Kings 14:23 and 2 Kings 17:10, of the Asherim were associated with “every high place… and green tree.” This may indicate the extent of God’s view of the sin. Not only were carved images involved, but he had ordered that they were to worship in one location. “But in the place which the LORD shall choose in one of thy tribes, there thou shalt offer thy burnt offerings, and there thou shalt do all that I command thee.” (Deut 12:14) By setting up places of worship on all the high hills, and practicing the prostitution associated with the goddess there, the people were appropriating to themselves the right of determining where they worshipped. They were telling God that they knew more about worship than He did.
Of all the gods worshipped by the Israelites, Moloch/Molech may have been the cruelest. The name isA tree carved in the image of Asherah may have served as a living idol. a corruption of the Hebrew word for king. Baal may have been lord, but Molech was king of the gods.
Solomon erected a high place for Molech, “the abomination of the children of Ammon.” (1 Kings 11:7) Later it is clear that the god was worshipped at a place called Tophet in the Valley of Hinnom which ran beside Jerusalem. The valley was noted as a garbage dump and a place of perpetual burning. In this environment, the kings set up a special place of fire, called Tophet. Here they worshipped Molech in a cruel manner.
Human sacrifice was part of the worship of Baal, but not to the extent that it was practiced for Molech. Some scholars try to soften the idea, claiming that causing children to “pass through the fire to Molech” simply meant lighting two rows of fire and having the children pass between them. This is clearly not the view of Jeremiah.
And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. (Jer 32:35)
If sacrificing the children were not involved, then why would God tell Jeremiah that it was an abomination that even he could not conceive. Earlier he had used that same phrase concerning offerings to Baal which were clearly child sacrifices. (Jer 19:5)
The worship of Molech (and Baal) shows that man may even think up abominable things that God never considered. That makes one wonder whether in our pursuit of modern idols, or even in our corruption of worship in the church, whether we may come up with ideas that God would consider unthinkable abominations. Let us hope not.