Baal Worship—The Battle for the Israelites’ Hearts
For nearly a thousand years, a battle raged for the hearts of the Israelite nation. Superstitious fear and sexual rites on the one hand fought against faith and loyalty on the other. This life-and-death struggle pitted the worship of Baal against the worship of Jehovah.
WOULD the nation of Israel cling faithfully to the true God, who brought them out of Egypt? (Exodus 20:2, 3) Or would they defect to Baal, the favorite god of Canaan, who promised to make the land fertile?
This spiritual battle, fought thousands of years ago, matters to us. Why? “These things,” wrote the apostle Paul, “were written for a warning to us upon whom the ends of the systems of things have arrived.” (1 Corinthians 10:11) The underlying warning of this historic conflict will be more meaningful if we understand who Baal was and what Baal worship involved.
Who Was Baal?
The Israelites came in contact with Baal when they arrived in Canaan, about the year 1473 B.C.E. They found that the Canaanites worshiped a multitude of gods who were not unlike the gods of Egypt, although they had different names and some different characteristics. The Bible, however, singles out Baal as the principal god of the Canaanites, and archaeological discoveries confirm his preeminence. (Judges 2:11) Although Baal was not the supreme god of their pantheon, he was the god who mattered most to the Canaanites. They believed that he had power over the rain, the wind, and the clouds and that he alone could deliver the people—as well as their animals and crops—from sterility or even death. Without Baal’s protection, Mot, a vindictive Canaanite god, would surely bring calamities down upon them.
Baal worship pulsed with sexual rites. Even the religious objects connected with Baal, like the sacred pillars and sacred poles, had sexual connotations. Apparently, the sacred pillars—rocks or hewn stones in the form of a phallic symbol—represented Baal, the male part of the sexual union. The sacred poles, on the other hand, were wooden objects or trees that represented Asherah, Baal’s consort and the female element.—1 Kings 18:19.
Temple prostitution and child sacrifice were other prominent aspects of Baal worship. (1 Kings 14:23, 24; 2 Chronicles 28:2, 3) The book The Bible and Archaeology says: “In the temples of the Canaanites there were male and female prostitutes (‘sacred’ men and women) and all sorts of sexual excesses were practiced. [Canaanites] believed that in some way these rites caused the crops and the herds to prosper.” That at least was the religious justification, although such immorality doubtless appealed to the fleshly desires of the worshipers. How, then, did Baal seduce the Israelites’ hearts?
Why So Attractive?
Perhaps many Israelites preferred practicing a religion that demanded little of them. In worshiping Baal they were spared the observance of the Law, such as the Sabbath and the many moral restrictions. (Leviticus 18:2-30; Deuteronomy 5:1-3) Possibly, the material prosperity of the Canaanites convinced others that Baal needed to be appeased.
Canaanite shrines, known as high places and located in wooded groves on spurs of mountains, must have formed an attractive backdrop to the fertility rites that were practiced there. Before long, the Israelites were not content with frequenting Canaanite sacred sites; they even built their own. “They too kept building for themselves high places and sacred pillars and sacred poles upon every high hill and under every luxuriant tree.”—1 Kings 14:23; Hosea 4:13.
But first and foremost, Baal worship appealed to the flesh. (Galatians 5:19-21) The sensual practices went beyond the desire for bountiful crops and herds. Sex was glorified. This is evidenced by the many figurines that have been unearthed, with exaggerated sexual features, depicting sexual arousal. Feasting, dancing, and music set the mood for licentious behavior.
We can imagine a typical scene in early autumn. In a striking natural setting, gorged by feasting and stimulated by wine, the worshipers dance. Their fertility dance is intended to awaken Baal from his summer inactivity so that the land will be blessed by rain. Round and round the phallic pillars and sacred poles they go. The movements, particularly those of the temple prostitutes, are erotic and sensual. The music and the audience drive them on. And likely, at the climax of the dance, the dancers repair to the chambers of the house of Baal for immoral relations.—Numbers 25:1, 2; compare Exodus 32:6, 17-19; Amos 2:8.
They Walked by Sight, Not by Faith
While such a sensual form of worship attracted many, fear also drove the Israelites toward Baal worship. As the Israelites lost their faith in Jehovah, fear of the dead, fear of the future, and a fascination with the occult led them into practicing spiritism, which in turn involved rites of the utmost depravity. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia describes how Canaanites honored the departed spirit as part of ancestor worship: “Feasts . . . were celebrated in the family tomb or at burial mounds with ritual drunkenness and sexuality (possibly involving incest) in which the deceased were thought to participate.” Taking part in such degrading spiritistic practices separated the Israelites more and more from their God, Jehovah.—Deuteronomy 18:9-12.
Idols—and associated rituals—also attracted those Israelites who preferred to walk by sight rather than by faith. (2 Corinthians 5:7) Even after seeing spectacular miracles at the invisible hand of Jehovah, many Israelites who had left Egypt felt the need for a visual reminder of him. (Exodus 32:1-4) Some of their descendants likewise wished to worship something visible, such as the idols of Baal.—1 Kings 12:25-30.
Who Was Victorious?
The battle for the Israelites’ hearts raged for centuries, from the time they arrived at the plains of Moab shortly before entering the Promised Land to the time of their deportation to Babylon. The advantage seemed to move back and forth. At times, the majority of the Israelites stayed loyal to Jehovah, but frequently they turned to Baal. A principal reason for this was their association with the pagan peoples around them.
After their military defeat, the Canaanites fought by more subtle means. They lived alongside the Israelites and encouraged their conquerors to make the gods of the land their own. Such courageous judges as Gideon and Samuel resisted this trend. Samuel exhorted the people: “Put away the foreign gods . . . , and direct your heart unswervingly to Jehovah and serve him alone.” For a time the Israelites heeded Samuel’s exhortation, and they “put away the Baals and the Ashtoreth images and began serving Jehovah alone.”—1 Samuel 7:3, 4; Judges 6:25-27.
After the reigns of Saul and David, Solomon in his later years began to make sacrifices to foreign gods. (1 Kings 11:4-8) Other kings of Israel and Judah did likewise and surrendered to Baal. Nevertheless, faithful prophets and kings, such as Elijah, Elisha, and Josiah, took the lead in fighting against Baal worship. (2 Chronicles 34:1-5) Furthermore, throughout this period of Israelite history, there were individuals who remained faithful to Jehovah. Even during the time of Ahab and Jezebel, when Baal worship was at its height, seven thousand refused ‘to bend their knees to Baal.’—1 Kings 19:18.
Finally, after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, there is no further mention of Baal worship. Like those referred to at Ezra 6:21, all ‘separated themselves from the uncleanness of the nations of the land, to search for Jehovah the God of Israel.’
Warnings From the Worship of Baal
Although the worship of Baal has long since disappeared, that Canaanite religion and today’s society have one thing in common—the glorification of sex. Enticements to immorality seem to be in the very air that we breathe. (Ephesians 2:2) “We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil,” Paul warns.—Ephesians 6:12, Phillips.
This “unseen power” of Satan promotes sexual immorality in order to enslave people spiritually. (John 8:34) In today’s permissive society, sexual abandon is not practiced as a fertility rite but, rather, as a way to find personal fulfillment or to do one’s own thing. And the propaganda is just as persuasive. Through entertainment, music, and advertising, sexual messages saturate people’s consciousness. God’s servants are not immune to this assault. In fact, the majority of those disfellowshipped from the Christian congregation are individuals who succumbed to such practices. Only by continually repudiating these immoral suggestions will a Christian remain chaste.—Romans 12:9.
Young Witnesses are especially exposed to danger, since many things they may find attractive are packaged with sex. To make matters worse, they have to resist the influence of other young ones urging them on. (Compare Proverbs 1:10-15.) Not a few have got into trouble, for example, at large gatherings. As in Baal worship in ancient times, music, dancing, and sexual allure make a heady mix.—2 Timothy 2:22.
“How will a young man cleanse his path?” asked the psalmist. “By keeping on guard according to [Jehovah’s] word,” he replied. (Psalm 119:9) Just as God’s Law commanded the Israelites to shun close association with the Canaanites, so the Bible alerts us to the dangers of unwise association. (1 Corinthians 15:32, 33) A young Christian shows his maturity when he says no to that which may be sensually attractive but which he knows is morally harmful. Like faithful Elijah, we cannot allow the tide of popular opinion to make our decisions for us.—1 Kings 18:21; compare Matthew 7:13, 14.
Another warning concerns loss of faith, “the sin that easily entangles us.” (Hebrews 12:1) It seems that many Israelites still believed in Jehovah, but they looked to Baal as the god who would protect their crops and supply their daily needs. Perhaps they felt that Jehovah’s temple in Jerusalem was too far away and that the keeping of his laws was impractical. Baal worship was so undemanding and convenient—they could even offer up smoke to Baal on their own housetops. (Jeremiah 32:29) Possibly, they drifted into Baal worship by just sharing in some of the rites or even by making offerings to Baal in the name of Jehovah.
How might we lose faith and slowly draw away from the living God? (Hebrews 3:12) We could gradually lose the appreciation we formerly had for meetings and assemblies. Such an attitude betrays a lack of confidence in Jehovah’s provision of spiritual “food at the proper time.” (Matthew 24:45-47) Thus weakened, we might loosen our “grip on the word of life” or even develop a divided heart, perhaps succumbing to materialistic pursuits or immorality.—Philippians 2:16; compare Psalm 119:113.
Holding Fast to Our Integrity
No doubt about it, today a battle is being waged for the heart. Will we stay loyal to Jehovah or become sidetracked by the loose living of this world? Sad to say, just as the Israelites gravitated to disgusting Canaanite practices, some Christian men and women today have been enticed to commit shameful acts.—Compare Proverbs 7:7, 21-23.
Such a spiritual defeat can be avoided if, like Moses, we ‘continue steadfast as seeing the One who is invisible.’ (Hebrews 11:27) True, we have to “put up a hard fight for the faith.” (Jude 3) But by remaining loyal to our God and to his principles, we can look forward to the time when false worship will disappear forever. Just as the worship of Jehovah prevailed over Baal worship, so we can be sure that soon “the earth will certainly be filled with the knowledge of Jehovah as the waters are covering the very sea.”—Isaiah 11:9.
[Picture on page 31]
Ruins in Gezer of sacred pillars used in Baal worship
[Picture Credit Line on page 28]
Musée du Louvre, Paris