A common Semitic word meaning “owner, lord, husband.” As “lord” it is applied to various Canaanite gods, such as the Baal of Peor (Num. 25.3) and the Baals (Judg. 2.11), which were largely local manifestations of the storm god Baal. Although the head of the Canaanite pantheon was El, Baal was the most important god because of his association with the storms that annually brought revival of vegetation and fertility. Baal is prominent in the great complex of fifteenth century BCE Ugaritic epics, where he is called son of Dagon and is named some 250 times, sometimes interchangeably with Hadad, the widely known Semitic storm god whose symbol, like Baal's, was the bull.
In art, Baal is depicted as the storm god Aliyan (“triumphant”) Baal, who holds a thunderbolt in one hand and swings a mace with the other. Baal is the champion of divine order over earthly chaos—over deadly drought, represented by the deity Mot (“death”), and the unruly forces of the sea (the god Yamm). The Ugaritic epics tell how Baal defeats these powers and wins the title “rider on the clouds” (the same title ascribed to the God of Israel in Ps. 68.4).
The theme of opposition to Baal worship runs throughout the Deuteronomic literature and the prophets. By the ninth century BCE, Baalism had deeply pervaded Israelite life. Personal names formed with Baal appear already in the time of the Judges (6.25–32). Even Saul and David had sons with Baal names (1 Chron. 8.33; 14.7). Intense conflict appeared with the introduction of the Baal of Tyre into Israel by Ahab's queen, Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal of Sidon (1 Kings 16.31–32; 18.17–19). Even as late as the time of Manasseh, altars to Baal were still among the appointments in the Jerusalem Temple (2 Kings 21.2–4).
Opposition to Baalism was led by Israel's prophets. The fertility rites associated with Baal worship corrupted the faith in Yahweh, and the myths undergirding them wrongly deified aspects of nature. The prophets endeavored to show Yahweh as a transcendent, universal God who provides rains and fertility yet who is no “nature god” trapped in unvarying seasonal cycles. Because agriculture was so vital and so precariously dependent on the weather, it became important to show that Yahweh, not Baal, was the one who rode the clouds, controlled the storms, and brought freshening rains (Pss. 29; 68.4, 9; 104.3). That the struggle against Baalism was finally successful is signalled by the replacement of the Baal element in some proper names by the word bōšet (“shame”; 2 Sam. 2.8; cf. Hos. 9.10).
David G. Burke