The wide-spread and primitive Semitic root ("ba'al") may be most nearly rendered in English by "possess." The term "Ba'al," therefore, which is usually explained as meaning "lord," is properly "possessor" or "owner," and is so used in a great variety of applications in common Hebrew speech. Thus we read of the "ba'al" of a house, of land, of goods, of a woman (that is, as a husband). It is also generalized so far as to be a mere noun of relation. Thus a "ba'al of dreams"is a dreamer; a "ba'al of anger" is an angry man; a "ba'al of wings" is a bird; a "ba'al of edges" is two-edged; "ba'alim of a covenant" are allies; "ba'als of an oath" are conspirators. Further, a "ba'al" may be the owner of animals (Isa. i. 3; Ex. xxi. 28 et seq.), but not of men as slaves or subjects, for the phrase in Isa. xvi. 8, the "ba'alim" of the nations, implies dominion over regions rather than over people. "Ba'al" in Hebrew is therefore essentially different from "adon," which implies personal sway and control. When any divinity is called "ba'al" or "a ba'al," the designation must be understood to imply not a ruler of men, but a possessor or controller of certain things. On the other hand, the Assyrian (Babylonian) "bēl," originally the same word, implies especially lordship over men, though it is also, as in all north-Semitic languages, used as a mere noun of relation. In Arabic "ba'al," as applied to persons, is confined to the meaning of "husband." (see image) Ba'al as a Sun-God.
The question as to the origin of the Worship of Ba'al among the Hebrews can only be settled by tracing it among the Semites in general and especially among the Babylonians. Here the name (Bel) is that of one of the earliest and most honored of national deities. Bel was the special god of Nippur, perhaps the oldest of Babylonian cities. Nippur was in the earliest known times a religious center, and the prestige of Bel was so great that when the city of Babylon became supreme his name was imposed upon that of Merodach, the patron deity of the capital, who was thenceforth known as Bel-Merodach or simply Bel (compare Isa. xlvi. 1). There is, however, nothing to show that Bel was a universal object of Semitic worship before he became the god of Nippur. Moreover, Nippur, like other Babylonian cities, had its own local deity under whose auspices the city itself and its temple were founded, and who seems to have received the name Bel, "lordly, dominant," by reason of the renown and influence of this central shrine.
This, however, will hardly account for the place held by Bel in the Babylonian pantheon, where he appears as the god of the earth, distinguished from Anu, the god of the heavens, and Ea, the god of the lower world. Bel seems to have been honored on similar grounds in Lagash in southern Babylonia, and it is reasonable to suppose that it was a combination of the several leading cults of such Bels that led to the unification indicated in the position of the great Babylonian Bel. It appears probable that it was the gradual assimilation of cities and petty states that raised the leading local deities to national prominence. Thereafter other influences, sacerdotal, theological, and administrative, cooperated to make a favorite cult predominant. Bel, accordingly, became a distinct national god, with a proper name, at an early date, though at a comparatively late stage of religious development.
In Palestine such a degree of syncretism in Baal-Worship was never attained. There were several reasons for this, the chief of which was that political combination of any sort was difficult in that singularly diversified region, so that each city-state among the Canaanites retained its own special divinity with its separate and independent shrine. Yet when any community came to exert a wide influence, as did the city of Tyre, the worship of its deity extended among the dependent cities and might even be adopted elsewhere by virtue of alliances, political or matrimonial, on the part of the rulers of the respective states. Such, for example, was the occasion of the degradation of worship in Israel in the time of Solomon (I Kings xi. 1 et seq.) and of Ahab (I Kings xvi. 31 et seq.).
The passage last cited is suggestive. There it is stated that Ahab "took as a wife Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians, and he went and served the Baal and worshiped him; and he set up an altar to the Baal in the house of Baal which he had built in Samaria." It is hardly likely that the passage embodies a reference to a god Ba'al whose worship was common throughout Palestine, for "the Baal," according to the context, does not necessarily mean anything more than Melkart, the deity specially honored by the Phenicians (Sidonians), and in fact it appears that there were many Ba'als in Palestine, each of whom stood on an independent footing (compare Baal-berith, Ba'alim, etc.). But Ahab had no occasion to aggrandize any one of these minor Ba'alim, since he did not regard them as at all serviceable.
To account for the worship of these Ba'alim we may refer to the usage of the word as a common noun. The supernatural powers most obvious to the imagination of primitive Semites were those which were supposed to supply their most pressing wants, such as the need of food and drink. Gatherings and settlements were made where the soil was most inviting; that is, where it was perennially productive. Such districts were regarded as being fertilized bydivine agency, and as each of them had its own divinity or demon as the "owner" of the soil, such a being was called its "Ba'al." The usage, having thus begun in agricultural settlements, was naturally transferred to the sites of cities, all of which were in any case founded under religious auspices. Hence the multiplicity of Ba'als; and hence the proper names of places which have "Baal" as the first element, such as Baal-hazor, Baal-hermon, Baal-meon, Baal-perazim, Baal-shalisha, Baal-tamar, andBaal-zephon. A second stage of development was reached when to the Ba'al of a place was assigned a more abstract character as a divinity of wider functions as Baal-berith, Baalzebub. A further step was taken when the name was used absolutely of a god Ba'al without qualifications, used, for example, in antithesis to Yhwh and as the second element in names of persons, in such forms as Ish-baal ("Man of Ba'al") or Hannibal ("Favor of Ba'al").
It is not correct, therefore, to speak of Ba'al as being a universal Semitic deity, nor even as being the object of a common Canaanitish worship. On the other hand, it can not be said that there was no god Ba'al, as a distinct divinity among inland or maritime Canaanites, for later usage points clearly to the use of the word as a proper name without any definition whatever.
It would appear that the Hebrews first learned Ba'al-Worship from the agricultural Canaanites. Their life before the conquest of Canaan, whether lived in or outside of Palestine, was nomadic, and therefore kept them beyond the circle of religious associations promoted by the cultivation of the soil. After their settlement the Israelites began to live as did the people of the land, and with the new mode of industrial and domestic life came the example and the incitement of the religious use and wont that were inseparable from the soil. The stated festivals, in which the Ba'als of the land had drawn to themselves all the enthusiasm and devotion of an intensely religious people, were a part of the fixed order of things in Palestine, and were necessarily appropriated by the religion of Yhwh. With them came the danger of mixing the rites of the false gods and the true God; and, as a matter of fact, the syncretism did take place and contributed more than anything else to the religious and moral decline of Israel.
The noxious elements in such Ba'al-Worship were not simply the degradation of Yhwh and the enthronement in his place of a baseless superstition. The chief evil arose from the fact that the Ba'als were more than mere religious fantasies. They were made the symbols of the reproductive powers of nature, and thus their worship ministered to sexual indulgences, which it at the same time legalized and encouraged. Further, there was placed side by side with the Ba'al a corresponding female symbol, the Ashtoreth (Babyl. "Ashtar") and the relation between the two deities was set forth as the example and the motive of unbridled sensuality. The evil became all the worse when in the popular view Yhwh himself was regarded as one of the Ba'als and the chief of them (Hosea ii. 16). It was in northern Israel, where agriculture was more followed than in the southern kingdom, that Ba'al-Worship was most insidious and virulent.
The Book of Hosea speaks eloquently and pathetically of the moral and religious ruin which it wrought in the days just before the fall of the monarchy. It was to the Ba'als that the popular worship of the high places was paid; or, more frequently, to Yhwh Himself with Baalish rites. In the kingdom of Judah the inveterate evil was abated, if not at once quelled, by the concentration of all religious acts in Jerusalem and its Temple. More pernicious while it lasted than this popular inland Canaanitic cult was the elaborate official Ba'al-Worship of Ahab and Jezebel, above alluded to, which was finally rooted out by revolution and proscription (II Kings ix., x.). It had prophets by the hundred, as well as priests, and had the effect of virtually though not avowedly putting the religion of Yhwh under the ban. It was introduced into Judah by Athaliah, daughter of Jezebel; and its suppression there was also accompanied by a civil outbreak (II Kings xi. 4 et seq.). Ba'al-Worship did not play so great a part in the later religion of Judah as did the adoration of the heavenly bodies and related usages borrowed from Assyria and Babylonia. Yet the customs native to the soil lingered on till they were obliterated by the Exile.
Apart from the offerings of fruits from the earth and the firstlings of cattle, much is not known with regard to the rites of the popular Ba'al-Worship. Self-torture and mutilation characteristic of the Phenician type (I Kings xviii. 28) were probably absent from the simpler and freer usages of the primitive local observances. It is also doubtful whether the sacrifice of children, proper to the service of Molech, was ever a feature of inland Canaanitic Ba'al-Worship (Jer. xix. 5 is to be corrected by the LXX.). The shrines were little more than altars with the symbol of the Ashtoreth planted beside itthe sacred tree-stem or pole named from an old Canaanite goddess, Ashera, with whom Ashtoreth was identified. Near by sacred pillars were also often reared.
It has been already indicated that the Ba'al plays a great rôle in Canaanitic proper names. A curious phase in the history of the cult in Israel is shown in the substitution by later editors of (), "boshet," "the shameful thing," for Ba'al in such names as Ishbosheth and Mephibosheth; compare "Eshbaal," I Chron. viii. 33, and "Meribbaal," I Chron. ix. 40 (viii. 34). A name which could not be thus treated was "Bealiah" (I Chron. xii. 6 [A. V. 5]), which means "Jehovah is Ba'al." Bibliography: J.Jr.J.F.McC.
It is more than doubtful whether "Baal" appears in the Koran as a proper name. Five times it is used in the sense "husband"; once in the singular (sura xi. 75), and four times in the plural (suras ii. 228, xxiv. 31). Once it is used of a god (sura xxxvii. 125). In that passage, according to the interpretation of Ibn 'Abbas ("Lisan al-Arab," xiii. 62), a cousin of the prophet and the founder of Koranic exegesis (died 687), it is to be rendered "Lord." Sura xxxvii. 123-127 may be translated: "And verily Elijah was one of the divine messengers when he said to his people, 'Will ye not fear? Will ye invoke a Lord ["Ba'l"] and abandon the best of creators, God your Lord and the Lord of your forefathers?' But they gave him the lie; and they, verily, will be brought to judgment." There seems little doubt that Ibn 'Abbas' interpretation of "Ba'l," as equivalent to "rabb" (lord) or "malik" (possessor), represents the conception of Mohammed. It agrees with Arabic usage (see "Lisan al-Arab," l.c., and Lane, "Lexicon," p. 228 B.C.). But later Islam, with few exceptions, has united to interpret "Ba'l" as a proper name. One exegete has said that it meant any idol ("sanam") in general; another, that it was any deity except God. But for the great mass of Moslems, Ba'l was an idol of gold worshiped by the people of Bakk, a town in Syria, afterward called from it "Ba'lbakk" (Baalbek). It was twenty cubits high, and had four faces, and "devils" entered it and spoke to the people from it, according to the usual Moslem idea. This was in the time of Ahab and Jezebel; and Bakk was their capital. Others have held that it was in the time of Jonah; still others, that it was a woman whom the people of Bakk worshiped. For the later legend see Al-Tha'labi (died 1036), "Ḳiṣaṣ al-Anbiya," ed. Cairo, p. 142, and references above. See also Elijah in Mohammedan Literature.