Echoes of the Baal Cycle in Scripture

“You crushed the heads of Leviathan”

It is axiomatic that the timeless message of Scripture had a special relationship to the challenges of the specific age in which God’s word first entered the world.  For much of the Old Testament until the exile, the main religious “competitor” to Yahweh was the pagan deity Baal.  Understanding something of Baal is useful background to both events and written material.

Passages like Hosea 2:16-17 suggest either some in ancient Israel were confused as to the distinction between Yahweh and Baal or were happily polytheistic – to the chagrin of Yahwehists.  This ambiguity as to which deity was responsible for what events seemingly lies behind the wordplay in Hosea 2:16-1 (NET)

“At that time,” declares the Lord, “you will call, ‘My husband’; you will never again call me, ‘My master.’ [a word play Ba’li on the deity Ba’al] For I will remove the names of the Baal idols from your lips, so that you will never again utter their names!”

This follows the people in Hos 2:5, 8 thinking Baal gave them agricultural blessings rather than Yahweh.  The God of Israel intended to remove this ambiguity and alter religious language to avoid future boundary-crossing.

In the Old Testament Yahweh specifically claims powers traditionally associated with Baal as well as his titles.  We also see examples of how beliefs associated with Baal are used by the Old Testament to express Yahweh’s primacy.  Why God would do so is a question worth reflecting on.

Who was Baal and how do we know?

There are two main sources of knowledge about Baal.  In the 1920’s we discovered thousands of tablets about the Canaanite culture in Ugarit dating to 1,400BC (and earlier).  Elba is another major site, found in 1964 but the material is older, dating to 2,350 to 1,600BC1.  The finds at Ugarit are the primary non-biblical source of information on Baal.  The information (which appears to have been replicated throughout Canaan) has:

greatly illuminated our understanding of the world of the Hebrew Bible and the Semitic languages. For these reasons, the city of Ugarit is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.2

Baal’s story is told through a couple of epics, the most important being the Baal Cycle.  Unfortunately we do not have the entire Cycle but what we have is briefly summarised below (based on Gerald III’s summary3):

  • El, the creator god wants to retire and selects his son Baal to succeed him, to the chagrin of Baal’s brothers Yammm (the sea/chaos god) and Mot (the god of death).
  • Yamm threatens the divine council of gods, terrifying them, and challenges Baal.
  • Baal with a little help from magic clubs defeats but doesn’t kill Yamm.  
  • Depending on how different tablets are understood, at the same time Baal killed the dragon Litan, the ally of Yamm.  This would align with the Mesopotamian myths of the god Marduk defeating the sea goddess Tiamat and her demon assistants.  
  • Baal is enthroned as the chief deity and is eventually granted permission to build a palace by El.  Baal invites all the gods to a feast in the new palace.
  • Mot the god of death refuses to come and threatens Baal who ultimately surrenders.
  • An attempt is made to trick Mot with a dead heifer disguised as Baal.  The attempt fails and Baal is killed.  Drought follows in Baal’s absence4
  • Baal’s sister (and consort?) Anat cuts herself in distress with stones and knives5 and then goes to Mot to release Baal.  Mot won’t relent so Anat fights Mot and cuts him into pieces, throwing his remains on the ground/to the birds
  • Mot and Baal are brought back to life and fight again but call it off and Baal resumes his throne.
Baal figurine from Syria, 1400 BCE

Baal reigned as the chief god over the Canaanite divine assembly of gods.  He was the storm god, the bringer of rain/fertility with the power of thunder and lightning.6 His voice (thunder) shook the earth, as we see attested in the mid 1,300 BC letters from regional Canaanite rulers reporting back in flattering terms to Pharoah:

Who [referring to Pharoah] gives forth his cry in the sky like Baal, and all the land is frightened at his cry7

He is depicted in imagery as holding his two clubs and having a helmet with bull’s horns (pointing to his power and association with the bull)8

Baal motiff from a tomb near Sidon9
Baal holding thunder club and lightning10

Elijah and Mount Carmel revisited

Elijah’s activities were fashioned to attack the Baal myth.  In 1 Kings 17:1 Elijah’s declaration that:

As certainly as the Lord God of Israel lives (whom I serve), there will be no dew or rain in the years ahead unless I give the command.…

was a direct challenge to Baal, who each autumn brought the storms and necessary rain11.  The rain testified to Baal’s life, drought reflected Baal’s death or absence.

After three and a half years of the public failure of Baal to bring the rain, Elijah sets up the contest on Mount Carmel.  In doing so he targets more of the Baal’s myth eg:

  • The contest features a bull (1 Kings 18:23) – a symbol of Baal and one linked to Baal’s previous conflict with death.  
  • Each deity was challenged to bring down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:24).  The term, while used of fire is also used of lightning (eg Exod 9:23-24, Psa 18:13-15, Psa 148:8 see also TDOT12).  Lightning is a core power of Baal the storm god.  
  • Elijah’s mocking – that Baal is away or asleep (1 Kings 18:27) echoes the Baal Cycle episode when the god was away in the underworld, asleep.  Hence the prophets, like Anath and even El had to rouse him.
  • The prophets of Baal proceed to cut themselves to show their dedication/devotion (and some would say desperation) just as Anat cut herself in sorrow for Baal (and perhaps also hoping their blood on the soil would eventually bring Baal back just as Mot’s blood did?) (note in Zech 13:6 wounds between the hands (ie the chest) is a tell-tale sign of a false prophet)

To cap off Yahweh’s victory, not only does lightning burn up the altar and sacrifice but He sends the rain (1 Kings 18:44) – completing the demonstration that Yahweh rather than Baal was the lord of rain – and the right deity for Israel.

Who was the Rider on the Storm?

Baal had the title of the “Rider in Clouds”13 (which opened the door to calling him the first rider on the storm – but I won’t), a natural title for a storm god.  The Israelites, who controlled Canaan well after the Baal culture is established, attribute this very same title to their God (Yahweh). Eg Isa 19:1 (NET)

Here is a message about Egypt: Look, the Lord rides on a swift-moving cloud and approaches Egypt

Yahweh not Baal is the cloud rider claims Isaiah.  More extensive appropriation of Baal language appears in Psalm 68.  The author in describing Yahweh’s superiority attributes a wide range of qualities, not all of which are associated with Baal.  However there is clearly Baal like titles and powers described in the following verses of Psalm 68:4

4 Sing to God! Sing praises to his name! Exalt the one who rides on the clouds! For the Lord is his name! Rejoice before him!

7   O God, when you lead your people into battle, when you march through the desert, (Selah) 8 the earth shakes, yes, the heavens pour down rain before God, the God of Sinai, before God, the God of Israel. 9 O God, you cause abundant showers to fall on your chosen people. When they are tired, you sustain them,

33 to the one who rides through the sky from ancient times! Look! He thunders loudly. 34 Acknowledge God’s power, his sovereignty over Israel, and the power he reveals in the skies!

Either via a deliberate polemic takeover or by the absorption of common religious language and ideas, the Baal story is impacting Scripture.

Psa 29 – Cultural appropriation or repurposing?

Psalm 29 has striking similarities to Baal language, so much so that it was commonly suggested this was a repurposed Baal hymn:

The recognition that this psalm is a Yahwistic adaptation of an older Canaanite hymn to the storm-god Baal is due to H. L. Ginsberg, “A Phoenician Hymn in the Psalter,” in Atti del XIX Congresso Internazionale degli Orientalisti (Roma, 1935), pp. 472–76. Ginsberg’s observations of thirty years ago have been corroborated by the subsequent discovery of tablets at Ras Shamra and by progress in the interpretation of these texts. Virtually every word in the psalm can now be duplicated in older Canaanite texts.14

Some find this conclusion daunting and conservative scholars tend to read the opening expression of the palm “Ascribe to the Lord” as a command to give the proceeding Baal-like qualities and praise to Yahweh instead of to Baal, while acknowledging the abundant allusions to Canaanite mythology, eg Craige’s comments below:

it is clear that there are sufficient parallels and similarities to require a Canaanite background to be taken into account in developing the interpretation of the psalm, but it is not clear that those parallels and similarities require one to posit a Canaanite/Phoenician original of Ps 29.…the general storm image of battle has been subtly transformed into a taunt-like psalm; the praise of the Lord, by virtue of being expressed in language and imagery associated with the Canaanite weather-god, Baal, taunts the weak deity of the defeated foes, namely the Canaanites. Thus, the poet has deliberately utilized Canaanite-type language and imagery in order to emphasize the Lord’s strength and victory, in contrast to the weakness of the inimical Baal.15

Elements of the psalm which reflect Baal elements are as follows:

Psalm 29 verse:Psalm Content (NET)Link to Baal
1“Sons of gods”, or in Hebrew “the sons of El” Baal presided over the gods, the sons of El, in the divine council
3“The voice of the LORD”.  Seven times this psalm will talk about the powerful voice of GodBaal’s voice is associated with thunder as per the below tablet extract:Baal opened a rift in the clouds; his holy voice Baal gave forth; Baal repeated the is[sue of] his lips. At his h[oly] voice the earth quaked; at the issue of his [lips] the mountains were afr[aid]. The ancient [mountains] were afraid; the hills of the ear[th] tottered. The enemies of Baal took possession of the forests, those hating Hadd [another Baal title]the flanks of the mountain.16
3…over the water; the majestic God thunders, the Lord appears over the surging water” God’s power is firstly seen in dominion over the sea.  Baal came to his throne by first defeating Yamm the sea god.
6Lebanon and Sirion used as place namesLebanon is obviously north of Israel’s borders.  Sirion is the “Sidonian name of Ḥermon”17  The place and name point to an origin north of Israel. 
7The Lord’s shout strikes with flaming fire Thunder followed by lightning – all very Baal
9…Everyone in his temple says, “Majestic! After defeating Yamm, Baal was given his palace/temple and honoured by the minor deities
10The Lord sits enthroned over the engulfing waters, the Lord sits enthroned as the eternal king Once again, the enthroned of Baal follows his ascendancy over the chaos sea forces of Yamm.

Whatever the conclusion on the first purpose of the composition, it is hard to ignore the use of Baal ideas in the psalm.

Destroying the heads of Leviathan

The Baal Cycle contains a dragon monster called Litan or Tannin (see Day18 on KTlf1 1.3.III.40).  Baal defeats the dragon as part of his conflict with Yamm the sea god.

The Babylonian epics have a similar but different account where Marduk (the chief god) defeats the Tiamat (the sea) and her demons.  There are some missing sections from the Baal Cycle so we don’t have the entire record, but overall there are differences to the Babylonian epic.  Marduk creates the world after killing his dragon opponents but in Canaan El is the creator god, Baal doesn’t undertake creative activity from what we know.  As scholars have noted the two epics have differences and the connotations may vary even if the tropes are similar.19

In the Hebrew Bible there are a number of references to sea monsters/dragon creatures.  Typically they were referred to as Leviathan but also as Tannin and occasionally as Rahab.

Isa 27 has wording which at very least draws on the Litan/Baal stories:

Isa 27:1 NET 
At that time the Lord will punish with his destructive, great, and powerful sword Leviathan the fast-moving serpent, Leviathan the squirming serpent; he will kill the sea monster When you killed  Litan, the Fleeing Serpent, annihilated the Twisty Serpent,The Potentate with Seven Heads, The heavens grew hot, they withered20

What is close in English (and each translation varies) is much closer in original languages.  Ugaritic is in the same Semitic language family as Hebrew and while the “serpent” is a different cognate, “the adjectives describing the serpent are the same21.

This passage in the Baal Cycle also answers a little quirk in Psa 74:13.  The passage through to v17 is below:

You destroyed the sea by your strength; you shattered the heads of the sea monster in the water. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you fed him to the people who live along the coast. You broke open the spring and the stream; you dried up perpetually flowing rivers. You established the cycle of day and night; you put the moon and sun in place. You set up all the boundaries of the earth; you created the cycle of summer and winter.  Psa 74:13-17 (NET)

Why is God crushing the plural heads of Leviathan?  Because as the Baal cycle informs us Leviathan had seven heads.  Interestingly a seven-headed serpent/dragon finds echoes later in Old and New Testament.  While psalm is sometimes associated with the Exodus, the immediate context of v13-17 appears to be closer to Genesis 1 with the establishment of day and night and the seasons which is interesting.  Controlling the wild and dangerous sea (Yamm) and defeating the dragons was an appropriate motif to include in a reflection on creation (and perhaps to recycle into a “national covenantal creation if Exodus is indeed the underpinning context).

Whether as a deliberate appropriation of Baal’s exploits, or a reusing of familiar motifs to convey new information, Litan/Leviathan crops up a few times in the Old Testament.  Job 41 is probably the most well-known, Leviathan is there presented as an awesome beast yet a plaything for Yahweh.  Interesting there is another parallel to Baal mythology.  While preferring a mix of literal creature, conservative scholars like Clines admit of Leviathan in this passage that:

It is no doubt the same mythological figure that is called Lotan, or more correctly Lītān, in the Ugaritic literature, a sea-monster that threatens Baal (KTU 1.5.1.1 = CTA 5.1.1; KTU 1.3.III.4–42 = CTA 3.III.D.37–39)22

The council of gods

A feature of the Baal Cycle is the divine assembly or council.  This was compromised of the lesser gods, whom Baal provided over.  El was the supreme god but Baal ran the show in a kind of ‘King and Prime Minister’ type model.  

Job 41, which we touched on in relation to Leviathan/Litan/the dragon contains an obscured reference to the divine council.  In verse 9 according to Pope, the:

…lines are difficult and it is apparent that the text has suffered some sabotage intended to obscure gross pagan mythological allusions…the Masoretes have obscured the sense of the line23

Based on both the Syriac version (a textual tradition dating back to the 2nd century with manuscripts dating back to the 5th century24) and Symmachus’ Greek Old Testament from circa 200 AD25, Pope and others like the NRSV follow this authority in translating v9:

Any hope of capturing it will be disappointed; were not even the gods overwhelmed at the sight of it? Job 41:9 NRSV

When were the gods overwhelmed by the sight of Leviathan?  The answer perhaps is found in the Baal Cycle.  When Yamm rejects Baal’s promotion, he sent messengers to the divine assembly of gods, which caused all of them (including El) to lose heart as the epic records:

The gods lowered their heads onto their knees, and onto the thrones of their princeships26

This doesn’t endorse Baal’s conflict with Litan’s as historical nor that there is a divine assembly of lesser gods, but it demonstrates the use of common cultural language and models.

The members of the divine council are restored to variously as “the sons of El” and also as the assembly (or host) of heaven as the below extract shows:

 [ ] which the gods do not know, [ ] the assembly of the stars, [ ] the circle of those in the heavens27

The commentator Oswald notes the expression “host of heaven” scripturally is used of both stars and the pagan pantheon (and example being 2 Chron 33:5)28.  This is reinforced in Job 38:7 which simply equates the ideas of the stars and the divine assembly in the same way as the Baal Cycle does:

when the morning stars sang in chorus, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

In Isa 24:21 Yahweh promises judgement upon the divine assembly as well as on earthly rulers saying:

On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth.  22  They will be gathered together like prisoners in a pit; they will be shut up in a prison, and after many days they will be punished.

The passage doesn’t let us read the heavenly host as being the same as the earthly rulers.  Each group is judged in their respective and different locations.  Perfectly rationale in the context of a Canaanite pantheon which needed correction by the chief god.  Somewhat unusual in the context of our expectations of the text.  However this is not the only oddity.

Readers of translations overly reliant on the Masoretic Text tradition are probably unaware of the ‘interesting’ history of Deut 32:8.  In the KJV it reads:

When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, When he separated the sons of Adam, He set the bounds of the people According to the number of the children of Israel

However this rendering appears to be one which later scribes “fixed”.  According to both the LXX and the Dead Sea Scroll 4QDeut the passage should read (per NET): 

When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided up humankind, he set the boundaries of the peoples, according to the number of the heavenly assembly

Or to use the NRSV:

When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind,  he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods

I.e. Moses tells the Israelites (steeped in polytheism) the land of Israel and all national boundaries were divvied up based on the count of gods.  Attempts to read the heavenly assembly as angels or faithful people cannot be right.  Was the territory between Moab and Ammon (or Fiji and Tonga) based on the number of Israelites?  No.  How would Moses audience have understood this verse?  Only one way – the way which the Masoretic text sought to obscure (some would say “correct”) by changing the text to say the boundaries were set according to the number of Israel.  But the text actually reflects the common polytheistic idea of a divine assembly.  Rather than be challenged by the text, we can see instead how God worked with people communicating in ideas and language they understood.

Conclusion

Most readers of the Old Testament would be well aware of the conflict of loyalty between Yahweh and Baal.  It is a dominant theme, especially during the period of the kings and therefore a subject of interest.  The issue seems to dominate the narrative in the time of Elijah and later Jehu.  An understanding of the background to the Baal mythology provides insight into the action of protagonists and the way in which the prophets of Yahweh claimed Baal’s titles, powers and language for their deity.  

At the practical level, the insights from the Baal stories demonstrate again the significance of culture to understanding the Bible – including otherwise challenging ideas.  Bible study should be informed by cultural considerations (while not being subject to it).  Spiritually the responses show how God met Israel where they were and led them to a better understanding.  At times this included language modern Christians with justifiable monotheistic insistence would condemn.  Yet Yawheh used such language.  Why?  Surely because singular loyalty to Him was more important than every theological exactitude.  Perhaps God seeks earnest progress over theological perfection?  This example surely has implications for how we interact with believers and unbelievers alike.

Footnotes

  1. Corduan, W. (2016). Baal. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  2. Noonan, B. J. (2016). Ugarit. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  3. Gerald III, T. L. (2015). The Ugaritic Baal Cycle: A Comparison of Literature in the Ancient Near East.
  4. Smith, M. S., & Parker, S. B. (1997). Ugaritic narrative poetry (Vol. 9, p. 158). Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.
  5. Smith, M. S., & Parker, S. B. (1997). Ugaritic narrative poetry (Vol. 9, p. 151). Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.
  6. Corduan, W. (2016). Baal. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  7. Moran, W. L. (1992). The Amarna letters (English-language ed., p. 233). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  8. Jung, K. G. (1979–1988). Baal. In G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 1, p. 377). Wm. B. Eerdmans.
  9. Myers, R. (2012). Images from Helps to the Study of the Bible. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
  10. Noll, K. L. (2013). Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: A Textbook on History and Religion (Second Edition, p. 190). London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury.
  11. Gibson, J. C. L., & Driver, G. R. (2004). Canaanite myths and legends (2nd ed., p. 6). London;  New York: T & T Clark International.
  12. Bergman, J., Krecher, J., & Hamp, V. (1977). אֵשׁ. G. J. Botterweck & H. Ringgren (Eds.), J. T. Willis (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 1, pp. 424–425). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  13. Smith, M. S., & Parker, S. B. (1997). Ugaritic narrative poetry (Vol. 9, p. 182). Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.
  14. Dahood, M., S. J. (2008). Psalms I: 1-50: Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 16, p. 175). New Haven;  London: Yale University Press.
  15. Craigie, P. C. (2004). Psalms 1–50 (2nd ed., Vol. 19, pp. 245–246). Nashville, TN: Nelson Reference & Electronic.
  16. Wyatt, N. (2002). Religious texts from Ugarit (2nd ed., p. 109). London; New York: Sheffield Academic Press.
  17. Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 976). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  18. Day, J. (2000). Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series: 265
  19. Tugendhaft, A. (2012). Politics and Time in the Baal Cycle. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 12 145–157
  20. Smith, M. S., & Parker, S. B. (1997). Ugaritic narrative poetry (Vol. 9, p. 141). Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.
  21. Mangum, D., & Hamilton, M. J. (2016). Leviathan. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  22. Clines, D. J. A. (2011). Job 38–42 (Vol. 18B, p. 1191). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
  23. Pope, M. H. (2008). Job: Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 15, p. 336). New Haven;  London: Yale University Press.
  24. Ray, D. M. (2016). Peshitta. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  25. Pang, J., & Otten, J. (2016). Symmachus. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  26. Wyatt, N. (2002). Religious texts from Ugarit (2nd ed., p. 60). London; New York: Sheffield Academic Press.
  27. Smith, M. S., & Parker, S. B. (1997). Ugaritic narrative poetry (Vol. 9, p. 182). Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.
  28. Oswalt, J. N. (1986). The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39 (p. 454). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Author: Daniel Edgecombe

Daniel is a lifelong Christadelphian and married to Sarah. They have a poodle and three teenagers. He is interested in apologetics (partly to answer his children’s questions) but suffers from an addiction to all books but particularly history and science.