‘Once Upon a Time’ (iv) El and Baal


As I noted in my 1st post on this theme, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament contains many echoes of far older, interesting and amusing creation myths, flood stories and epic poems which, because used to train scribes, were widely spread in location and time across the ancient near east. The Hebrew writers/editors used a number of their ideas and themes, while altering them to reflect their own religious beliefs and distinctive viewpoints.

Let’s again remind ourselves that the Israelites were late arrivals in what we now call the middle east, where the civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia were already ancient. The archeological investigations of recent decades suggest that, although a small group may have escaped from Egypt, (but without the later embellishments of plagues and partings of sea), most of the Israelites were native Canaanites who, (for not yet fully understood reasons), had to move out of the coastal area and begin to settle in the central highlands. Needing to forge a distinctive identity, it’s quite possible that, joined by some Canaanite escapees from Egypt, they adopted their god Yahweh as well as their ‘exodus’ story, which became greatly elaborated in centuries of re-telling.

Originally, then, the Israelites were worshippers of the various Canaanite gods, and continued to be so, to the anger of those among them who began to favour worship of Yahweh alone. Until the discovery in 1929, (at Ugarit in what is now Syria), of tablets telling some of the stories about these gods, the only information we had was in the hostile diatribes found in the Hebrew Bible. So what now do we know?

The chief Canaanite God was El or Elyon. The Israelites retained these words, and applied them to their own god, although El was most often used in the plural form Elohim – perhaps an early instance of the ‘royal we’. El or Elyon was chair of a council of gods, who were given their spheres of delegated responsibility. There are two fascinating verses in Deuteronomy 32 in which we’re told that, “Elyon gave to the nations their inheritance .. Yahweh’s portion is .. Jacob” (another name for Israel). Here is a biblical allusion, then, to the chief Canaanite God’s sharing out of his ’empire’ among his under-gods, and to Yahweh is given the people of Israel. 

El had a wife called Asherah (associated with serpents and sacred trees) and archeological inscriptions have been found which refer to “Yahweh and his Asherah“. That’s why we hear, in 2 Kings 21, about a statue of Asherah being placed in Yahweh’s temple in Jerusalem and, in 2 Kings 23, about women weaving garments for her statue. Clearly, however, this was a marriage that didn’t last!

Although not the chief, the outstanding Canaanite god was Baal, the thunderbolt carrying storm god who brought the necessary rain for the spring revival of crops and fertility. He was called “the rider on the clouds“, and the same title is applied to Yahweh in Psalm 68:4. In Psalm 18, Yahweh “shrouded himself in thick rain clouds .. he thundered in the sky .. he shot many lightning bolts“. The giving of his 10 commandments on Mount Sinai was accompanied by thunder and lightning, fire and smoke. Yahweh was originally a storm god, like Baal.

But although the Israelite poets happily borrowed such themes from the stories about El and Baal, their prophets saw things very differently. In I Kings 18, the prophet Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest, to see which of their gods could send down fire to consume a sacrifice. In a scene to delight any movie maker, Baal’s prophets dance and yell out to him, even cutting themselves with swords and spears, but nothing happens. Elijah taunts them by suggesting their god is sleeping, or is in the toilet. He then pours a deluge of water on his own sacrifice, which greatly increases the impact when fire from Yahweh consumes it. Just to round things off, Elijah slaughters the 450 prophets of Baal – the hardest bit of work he’d needed to do that day.

The Hebrew Bible, then, can’t be properly understood and fully appreciated, without attention being paid to the traditional tales found among the peoples living before them, and around them, and which are, in any case, well worthy of such attention in their own right. All of these ancient clay tablets, papyruses and books are part of the rich treasury of world religion and literature.       

As I wrote in my 1st post on this theme, the Bible was written by humans, and reflects its surrounding cultures, whilst making its own distinctive contribution. This fact needn’t undermine anyone’s faith, but should deter us from selecting quotes to give ‘authority’ to our opinions about contemporary issues. The Bible is an important word, but not ‘the last word’. It needs to be freshly explored and understood by each succeeding generation.

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