The relationship between Canaanite religion and the religion of the Old Testament is discussed in two articles in earlier issues of CHRISTIANITY TODAY (Cyrus H. Gordon, “Higher Critics and Forbidden Fruit,” Nov. 23, 1959; Oswald T. Allis, “Israel and the Canaanites,” Feb. 1, 1960). There is another dimension to the discussion of Canaanite and Old Testament religion to which this article seeks to address itself. It is concerned with the value of knowledge of the religion of Canaan in providing a background against which the prophetic protest can best be understood.
Because the Hebrew language and the language of the Canaanites were sister tongues, and because the Hebrew people lived in the cultural setting of Canaan, it is not surprising that similar terminology should appear in the religious literature of both groups. Biblical scholarship, having survived the pan-Egyptian and pan-Babylonian theories, should be hesitant to endorse a pan-Canaanite interpretation of the Old Testament. There can be no doubt that Canaanite culture made a deep imprint upon the Hebrew way of life. The Old Testament makes it quite clear that at certain levels Hebrew religion assimilated characteristics of Ba’alism, but it also indicates that this syncretized religion was not considered to be the religion of Yahweh by the prophets. Amos called for a purified Yahwism. (The personal name for God, written YHWH in Hebrew, is believed by many scholars to have been pronounced “Yahweh.” The religion of the Hebrew people who worshipped Yahweh, therefore, may be termed “Yahwism,” to mark a clear contrast from those who worshipped Ba’al.) The treatment he received at Bethel from the hand of the priest Amaziah indicated that his condemnation of the syncretistic religion was not popular (Amos 7:10 ff.). Hosea’s words reveal that for many Yahweh had become identified with Ba’al (2:16), and he, too, called for a rejection of the Canaanite religion.
What was the nature of this religion against which the prophets protested? At this point the science of archeology and the discovery of the texts of the myth of Ba’al provide us with the information we need.
In 1929 a peasant plowing a field in northern Syria, near an inlet known as Minet al Beida (“White Harbor”), felt his plowpoint strike a rock. He cleared away the earth to remove the obstruction, and found it to be part of a stairway, which, upon further digging, was found to lead to a tomb. When news of the discovery reached the French authorities in the area, a thorough examination was made which indicated that the site was worthy of detailed investigation. In 1929 excavation was begun under the direction of C. F. A. Schaeffer. The site proved to be the ancient city of Ugarit, destroyed in the fourteenth century B.C.
Many artifacts of great importance were discovered, including Hittite and Egyptian materials, which indicated that the area had been controlled by the two nations at different periods in its history. The most significant discovery for Old Testament scholarship was a library, located between two temples—one dedicated to Dagon, a god generally associated with the Philistines in the Bible (cf. Judges 16:23; 1 Sam. 5:2–7; 1 Chron. 10:10); the other to Ba’al, the Canaanite fertility deity. Hundreds of clay tablets written in cuneiform, representing a language hitherto unknown to scholars, were found. When this language was deciphered, it was found to be related to biblical Hebrew in that it often used similar phrases and exhibited, in the poetic passages, the same parallelism so characteristic of Hebrew poetry. The most significant texts for our purposes were those setting forth the myth of Ba’al. According to the most probable arrangement of the tablets, the story of the loves and wars of Ba’al was somewhat as follows:
THE MYTH OF BA’AL
The myth began with the recounting of a violent battle between Ba’al, the storm god, and Yam, the god of the sea, to determine who should be lord of the land. Ba’al’s victory gave him lordship of the earth, while Yam was confined to his proper sphere, the sea. (See Prov. 8:29; Ps. 89:9; 95:5. Yahweh, as creator of the sea, is in control of it. He establishes its boundaries. There is no rival god of the sea.)
The victory feast which followed not only feted Ba’al’s prowess in battle but signalized his role as lord of the land. He was the god who gave fertility by providing rain to sustain life and promote growth. The fecund powers of Ba’al were central in Canaanite religion.
Later Ba’al encountered Mot, the god of aridity and death, and Ba’al was slain in the battle. With Ba’al dead, rain ceased to fall, the stream beds were dry, and Mot’s deathly power began to encroach upon the fertile lands.
Rites of mourning and mortification performed by El, the benign father-god, included the familiar dust and sackcloth. In addition El gashed (actually “plows”) his face, arms, chest and back, until the blood ran. It is quite clear from the texts that Ba’al was dead, and that the loss of his life-sustaining powers endangered all life.
Meanwhile Anat, Ba’al’s sister and mistress, also mourned his passing. Over hill and mountain (the high places) she conducted her rites of weeping and wailing. Ultimately she discovered that Ba’al had been slain by Mot. She met the god of death in battle, defeated him, and in some manner not explained in the texts in our possession, Ba’al was revived. With his return the rains came, the wadies flowed with water, and El, the father-god, was jubilant. Life power had been given to the parched earth.
It is quite obvious that the Ba’al myth was related to the seasonal cycle in Palestine. During the rainy season Ba’al was believed to be regnant. During the dry periods he was dead. The cultic ritual would naturally reflect and dramatize the myth. Because Ba’al and Anat engage in sexual relations in the myth, so did the worshipers of Ba’al promote fertility by imitating the divine pattern. In one scene Ba’al copulates with a heifer, and it is quite probable that bestiality formed part of the cult ritual. (See Dr. Allis’ comment in his article.)
While there is no guarantee that the religion of Ugarit was identical with the Ba’alism that confronted the Hebrews when they entered Canaan, certain aspects of the prophetic protest indicate that there may have been a close similarity. Therefore knowledge of the content of the myth is important. The prophets argued that Yahweh and Yahweh alone was both creator and sustainer of life, and that the recognition of Ba’al as the god who sustained life by the gift of rain was apostasy.
Perhaps the most dramatic biblical portrayal of the struggle between the religion of Yahweh and the religion of Ba’al is found in 1 Kings 17–19. According to 17:1 and 18:1–6 a severe drought, extending over several years, threatened the nation with starvation. Ba’al worshipers would naturally explain the lack of rain by references to the death of Ba’al. Elijah knew that the lack of rain was punishment resulting from the forsaking of Yahweh by his people (17:1). The contest on Mount Carmel was to determine which deity provided the rain.
The ritual acts of the prophets of Ba’al are similar to those recorded in the myth of Ba’al. As El gashed himself in mourning for the dead Ba’al, so did the prophets of Ba’al gash themselves (1 Kings 18:28). At noon, when the sun was at its zenith and the heat most severe, Elijah taunted the Ba’alists with their own mythology. Perhaps Ba’al was on a journey? According to the myth Elijah was correct, for Ba’al was in the underworld of death with Mot. Perhaps Ba’al was asleep? Again accurate, for according to the myth Ba’al was asleep in death. (The condition of sleep is often used as a parallel for death, cf. 1 Kings 1:21; 2:10; Ps. 13:3; Jer. 51:39, 57; Dan. 12:2, and so on.) In spite of their efforts the prophets of Ba’al failed. Ba’al was still dead.
After Elijah performed his ritual and Yahweh had answered by fire, the rains came (cf. 1 Kings 18:41–46). The point had been made. Yahweh, not Ba’al, sustained life, and gave or withheld the rains. The Life-Creator was also the Life-Sustainer.
The same emphasis on Yahweh’s gift of rain, fertility, and life appears in the writings of the eighth century prophets. For example, Amos 4:6–13 stresses the fact that Yahweh had demonstrated his control over life and death, his power to give and withhold the rains, but the people had not returned to him. Presumably they continued to attribute these powers to Ba’al. The people are warned to seek Yahweh and live (5:4) but not at Bethel, the site of the golden calf. Sacred prostitution is condemned by Amos (2:8).
The same conflict is reflected in Hosea where the people are accused of following the rituals of Ba’al (7:14–16). In addition the sexual motif of Ba’alism is apparent in some of Hosea’s condemnations (2:10–13; 4:14; 5:4). It is possible that the reference to men kissing calves in Hosea 13:2 refers to the ritual commemorating Ba’al’s association with the heifer.
Nor was the conflict resolved in the eighth century. The writings of Jeremiah, coming from the end of the seventh century and the beginning of the sixth make it quite clear that Ba’alism was flourishing in his day. The sexual motifs of Ba’alism are condemned (2:23 f.; 3:6 f.; 23:13 f). Yahweh’s control of the rain is proclaimed (10:12–16; 14:1–10). The ritual weeping for the dead Ba’al was being observed (3:21). Ba’alism was still the religion of the people, and the prophets of Yahweh were still engaged in a struggle with the leaders of Ba’alism.
Some scholars have emphasized the similarity in terminology of certain Psalms to that found in some of the Ugaritic writings. It is possible that in at least one of the Psalms proclaiming faith in Yahweh an implicit rejection of Ba’alism is to be found. Psalm 121 opens with a statement that the speaker is looking toward the hills. The hilltops were the traditional places for the location of Canaanite shrines or high places. The question is asked: “From whence does my help come?” implying “Is it from the high places that my help comes?”
In the proclamation of faith in the creator God which follows, the author makes it plain that Yahweh never slumbers or sleeps, as Ba’al did. He is not a god who is here today and gone tomorrow, a seasonal god, as Ba’al was. He is an ever-present God, who guards his worshipers day and night from all evil, and sustains their life. It is from Yahweh, not from Ba’al of the high places, that help comes.
If, as I suspect, this Psalm is not only a statement of faith but at the same time a tacit rejection of Ba’alism, we are indebted for this insight to the information obtained from the Canaanite texts coming from the excavation of Ugarit.
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingAfter Nashville, Moral Numbness Is Our EnemyShootings have become normal to the American public. But as Christians, we know better.
- From the MagazineJohn 3:16: So Loved, So FamiliarWe need fresh eyes for our faith’s basic teachings, no matter how long we’ve studied the Bible.简体中文繁體中文
- Editor's PickLiberty Appoints Retired General, Air Force Chaplain as New PresidentAlumnus Dondi E. Costin steps in to lead years after Jerry Falwell Jr.’s scandal.