Abraham: From Ur to Haran

Not much is known about Abraham prior to Genesis 12:1 where God first called to him and said, “Lech Lecha!” which is Hebrew for, “Go, go out!”What kind of world did Abraham live in and leave behind when he left Ur? Why did he leave in the first place?  Was Abraham truly a pagan before he decided to trust in the voice of the one true God and heed His call? These questions and more we will try to sort out as we examine the world Abraham grew up in, why he left, and what it meant for him to believe in monotheism, and beyond this, to follow the true God in a world of polytheism.

To begin, we must first briefly examine the world of Abraham (his name was first Abram but later it was changed to Abraham in Genesis 17:5, but we shall just refer to him as Abraham to avoid confusion.) Abraham lived in the region of Mesopotamia, which is a Greek term meaning “land between two rivers.” These rivers would be the Tigris and Euphrates and this land would be found in modern day Iraq and Iran. Mesopotamia was a very rich and fertile place due to the existence of these two massive rivers which helped balance the region. Mesopotamia can be divided up into the Southern Plain, Northeastern Foothills, and the Steppe Area which is located in the northwest. The climate today is very much like what it would have been in the time of Abraham around 1950 BC, and apart from the shifting of the rivers since then, examining the geography can help us pinpoint key areas Abraham would have lived. But let’s examine the geographical setting a little more.

The Southern Plain has dry, subtropical summers, yet at the same time winter can fall below freezing. In the south, it generally receives ten inches of rain annually, which in turn massive irrigation systems were developed in the biblical world and still are utilized today. The irrigation system was also needed due to the salinity levels which are given off into the soil from the Tigris and Euphrates. In the region of the Southern Plain barley became the chief crop prior to Abraham and continued flourishing.

In the Northeastern Foothills, the climate would have been temperate much like it is today, rainfall sufficient which meant a lack of dependence on irrigation such as found in the south. However, despite the significant levels of rain and moisture, the terrain was difficult and contained poor farming land, which meant dependence on trade and transporting certain grains and foods from other localities.

Finally, the Steppe area can be found in the northwest part of Mesopotamia. These vast lands, fertile and rich, have led to many discoveries of ancient mounds which have unearthed ample evidence of vast settlements in and around this region. Also, an interesting note was the discovery of cities and towns with walls being erected around them, which begs the question, what were they afraid of and why did they feel they had to lay out defenses?

During the periods of Halaf (5500-4500 BC), Ubaid (5300-3750 BC) and Protoliterate (3750-2900 BC) we see incredible changes take Mesopotamia by storm. We see an increase in pottery design and decoration, the smelting of copper and other metals which replace stone tools and weapons, we see towns increase in size by the thousands, enhanced irrigation systems put in place, temples grow larger and higher, and fertility become a focal point of the peoples. During these times nearly 70% of all children under age five died, and with deaths increasing from people in battles a sense of the progression of life was focused upon. To the peoples of these periods, they also saw fertility as the earth giving back, and pantheons of gods and goddesses began to develop so that by 3000 BC there were over four thousand deities worshiped in the region as mankind worshiped and adored the creation instead of the true Creator.

However, in the later Protoliterate Period, the north of Mesopotamia began to stagnate as cultural unity was lost, while the south flourished and expanded. The fast potter’s wheel was developed which vastly increased production, the stamp seal was replaced with the cylinder seal, the chariot was invented, metals were in full swing of being used. We also see free standing columns and sculpture, the development of writing, and the massive Ziggurat’s were constructed. This would give way into what is known as the Early Dynastic Period where kings began to rule, establish kingdoms which led to city-states, and of these the kings of Ur became very powerful and strong as they believed their dynastic powers came from the heavens.

During the Akkad Period (2334-2193 BC) a strong king named Sargon expanded and unified all of Mesopotamia making his capital the city of Agade. Cuneiform writing was implemented and other massive changes occurred through the work of stone, bronze, silver, and wood.  During his rule the city-state was replaced by the centralized government and widespread law developed. However, this would be short lived for around the year 2112 BC a people called the Guti, who were mountain people invaded the land and ruled for 100 years. During this time they naturally created political unrest, yet soon Ur was rebuilt (for the third time) and founded by a man named Ur-Nammu. This ushered in a Sumerian type of renaissance as peace was restored and father-son succession of throne kings was instituted. At this time the kings ruled absolute and were believed to be gods.

Ur-Nammu developed the oldest known law codes, which predate the Code of Hammurapi by 300 years, with an emphasis on justice. However, this incredible era of change and splendor would close with another invasion yet again in 2004 B.C. when the Elamites would burn Ur to the ground. It would be at this time, shortly after the destruction of Ur III, that Abraham would be born. He would be raised in a world with a strong, proud past, that was civilized and had established life which stretched back thousands of years. In fact, ancient Mesopotamia had more freedoms for people then many countries today in the 21st century.

In Genesis 11:26-29 we see the first mention of Abraham (mentions him as Abram). Through a genealogy we see people such as: his father Terah, his nephew Lot, and in verse 29 we see his marriage with Sarai, later to become Sarah. Now, the Bible does not actually state that Abraham was born in Ur, but it does say in 11:28, “And Haran died before his father Terah in his native land, in Ur of the Chaldeans.” Since Ur is considered the “native land” of Haran, we can then presume this is where Abraham was born and lived as well. Yet, before we move on, one interesting thing is where it states, “Ur of the Chaldeans.” This is the first time in the Bible where the reference to the people of the Chaldeans, is mentioned. The other two major occurrences outside the book of Genesis are in Nehemiah 9:7, and Acts 7:4. What is interesting is that during the time of Abraham the people called, Chaldeans did not exist and when Nehemiah and Acts were written, the Chaldeans had come and gone. So what is this saying then? Well, the book of Genesis is the key. Basically, when Moses wrote what is now called “Genesis” or “Beri’shit” in Hebrew, meaning, “beginning,” the Chaldeans did exist, but there were at least four places called Ur. So Moses attached the people group to the specific city so his readers would know which “Ur” he was speaking about. Thus, we get in all three cases, Abraham being named as coming from Ur of the Chaldeans, or the Ur where the Chaldeans would later settle by. Problem solved.

Now, let’s continue. During the time of Abraham when he was growing up in his father’s house, Mesopotamia was made up of thousands of gods and goddesses with each city having its chief or central god. Some of the main deities we see at the time were: Sin/Nanna god of the moon, Anu the chief god who was replaced by his son Enlil. Enlil would take on many titles, such as “King of the Earth” or “Lord of the Earth.” Enlil was seen as the god of wisdom, protector of arts, crafts, science, literature, and magic which was one thing that highly interested the people of that day. We see the god of sun and magic Marduk, take his place in Babylon, and others such as Ishtar (later Asherah) goddess of sex and war, Shumuqan god of cattle, and Baal god of crops and storms. Amulets were made to keep in homes or wear for protection, and priesthoods were created to be mediators between mankind and the pantheons that ruled the heavens. Pagan worship became very ritualistic as sacrifices (sometimes human) were made, the gods were fed by placing food before them, temple prostitutes appeared as important in matters of fertility, and people adopted household gods to serve. This is the era and world Abraham grew up in. There is no doubt that he would have been influenced heavily by his surroundings.

Many people, both Jewish and Christian, see Abraham as a man who had always rejected the notion of multiple gods. They conjure up a man who, when God called him, obeyed right away because he had never believed in polytheism to begin with. Most likely, this is not an accurate depiction. Did Abraham obey God? Yes he did! Did God call out to Abraham to leave his country? Yes, He did. Genesis 12:1 says that God told Abraham to leave his country, and Acts 7:2 states that God called for Abraham to leave “before he dwelt in Haran” which would mean, when he lived in Ur. In Genesis 12:4 it states that after Abraham heard the word of the Lord he departed, and when he had left Haran he was seventy-five after the death of his father of which the Bible is very clear. From there, he journeyed to Canaan where God would show Himself and bring Abraham to a place of dependence. Simply said, Abraham was a man of faith and believed what God told him.

Yet, was Abraham ever a pagan before God called him? This is possible. There is a story in the Midrash (Jewish collection of stories, translated as ‘to seek, study, or inquire’) where Abram, as a boy, was working for his father who was an idol maker. Abram had come to doubt the validity of idols as being “gods” and so when his father was absent one day, Abram smashed one of the idols and put a hammer into the hand of one of the other idols. When his father returned he was naturally upset and demanded to know what had happened. Abram told his father that one idol had attacked the other and smashed it. His father then declared this to be impossible, for idols were lifeless creations of stone, wood, and metal. Therefore, Abram proved his point, the idols were only man-made, not God. Thus, according to the Midrash, Abram began his journey to discover the real God. Even in the book of Joshua 24:2, it clearly reveals Abraham’s father and family as being pagans. It is then very likely, that having grown up in this home and in a polytheistic city, that Abraham could have spent a portion of his 70+ years either willingly practicing paganism or else in the least going through the motions to please his father. Certainly, he was raised in a pagan home and was heavily exposed to this influence.

It is likely he would have been familiar with stories of past generations from before Noah, the flood and some of the descendants who followed after God (Gen. 5-6) but simply knowing these stories does not entirely mean Abraham followed the true God when he was younger. Even being well versed in the stories of earlier generations, such as Enoch or Noah, does not completely absolve Abraham from the possibility of being a pagan in his early days, as polytheism often syncretizes other beliefs, even adding other ‘gods’ to their pantheons. This can be compared to other pagans in the Bible who, either obeyed a message from God or were said to have believed in God yet, did not completely abandon their polytheism (i.e. people of Nineveh in Jonah, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, or Cyrus of Persia). However, knowing of these earlier men who “were righteous before God” could indeed point towards a doubt that may have simmered for years in Abraham’s mind as to the possible existence of the gods compared with the One True God. Whether Abraham was a pagan or not, one thing we know for sure, that out of this pagan family and environment he lived in, the True God called out to him and Abraham obeyed. In years to come, he would become the father of the Hebrew nation (Israel) as well as a ‘father of many nations.’

We know that for ourselves in the world we have grown up in, it is nearly impossible to separate oneself from our culture, it is a trademark stamped upon ourselves, almost written into our DNA. It can define us, rule our thoughts, and guide us. Our culture is identity and part of our makeup, it is what is familiar, how we talk, sometimes what we believe spiritually, what we do for fun, where we work, and shapes our thinking. Culture is powerful, and to leave ones culture is a very drastic major life choice. This is exactly what Abraham did, but not right away.

In Genesis 11:31 was see an interesting circumstance develop. It states that Terah took his son Abraham, his grandson Lot, and his daughter-in-law Sarai to go to the land of Canaan, but they only made it as far as Haran and he decided to live there. Now, this is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the Bible names the main people of importance in this account as Abraham, Lot, and Sarai, yet along with Terah he would have taken his entire household. This would mean animals, servants, concubines, other children of less stature then Abraham, and anybody else associated with him. This was not four people wandering in the desert but a community. When we see Abraham later on moving from Haran to Canaan in Genesis 12:5, again we see that he took even more people that he had acquired there.

But, why did they move to Haran in the first place, apart from God speaking to Abraham? Could there also have been something else to play a part in the move? Since moving to new lands at that period in time was seen as extreme and out of the ordinary, there had to be a purpose to it for Terah to ask such a thing of his family. The Bible does not give us our answer, apart from telling us there had been a word spoken to Abraham from God earlier, but history may also shed some light on this interesting predicament. At the time we find Abraham living in Ur, we see a couple things happen. The Elamites had invaded and continue to be a major problem, we see major crop failures particularly on the barley yields, and political unrest as well as economic strain was prevalent. So, this clearly could have been a strong motivator to find fresh pastures, and for Terah to pack up his belongings, take his family out of Ur, head for Larsa, decide to cross the Tigris, and head to Haran.

Now, one of the final things we will cover is to answer, why Haran? Why did Terah stop there? In Genesis 11:31b it definitively states “…and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there.” Now, if one examines a map, Haran definitely is not Canaan. But why did Terah stop? Well, let’s take a glimpse at what Haran was like in those days and perhaps we will find our key. First, Haran was a caravan city, it was politically stable, and was flourishing. These are all very good reasons to stop, but I think the final one may be the hidden key, and that is Haran’s chief god was Nanna the god of the moon. Why is this so important? Well Nanna or Sin, was also the chief god of Ur, where Terah had just left. Joshua 24:2 says, “And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods.'” Thus, it is possible Terah found a new home in Haran, and wanted to stay because that was a city that honored and worshiped a god he would have revered all his life, Nanna the moon god. So, essentially we get a familiar religious scene, a good economy, and a location which is safe. Although we cannot know for sure why, these could still very well be clues at why Terah chose to live in Haran.

So, why did Abraham stay in Haran and not just move on if God had called him? Well, unlike today and our societies definition of independence which involves people freely moving and traveling and often living very far from family, in Abraham’s day it was not so. The culture in Mesopotamia was a patriarchal society. So, Terah as the father ruled and his sons and extended family obeyed. In this case, Abraham simply acted in a culturally acceptable way by following his father and bidding his time. We clearly see that by the time Terah did die, Abraham would assume the role as patriarch. Then we see everyone following Abraham, just as he had obediently demonstrated his place as a son to Terah in Ur.

In conclusion, the life of Abraham was a real life account and not a myth. He was a man of God who followed and demonstrated a faith which has been modeled after for centuries and centuries. His step of faith was very significant and went completely against the norms of his age and the world at that time. To believe in one God would have been seen as foolish, strange, and weird, but God called Abraham and he obeyed. We do not see him arguing about journeying to Canaan, or lamenting and wanting to return to Ur, we see him as a hero of the faith, and a man whose heart and mind was opened to the incredible character and nature of the God who had created him, and this would forever change history.

Moloch: An Appetite For Children

Introduction:

Among all the paganism of the ancient world, and the gods and goddesses people worshiped, there may be none more complex in nature, terrible in homage and mysterious in identity then the name, Moloch. When examining and reviewing idolatry of the ancient world, it is like peering through a spyglass at an entangled labyrinth of twisting paths and blocked roads. What we must rely on to clear those roads and gain access to understanding are written records, reliefs and frescoes, archeological remains, and geographical land marks. It is always important to know that paganism in the ancient world was physically seen everywhere and entwined into society, just like name brands or slogans are today in the 21st century. Images of idols could be found on hairpieces, combs, perfume bottles, oil lamps, door frames, jugs and vessels, armour and weaponry, equipment for horses, records of history, clothing, jewellery, etc. The deities were talked about, revered in nature, forged into standing idols and altars, and explained through myths. Often when drastic patterns of nature would effect the land (i.e. crops and drought), the awareness of the gods would increase as would desperation to appease the power. This awareness would take the forefront with the hope to appease the deity to such an extent that he/she would relent from their intended wrath or displeasure. It would be at this center stage, concerning such fear of the unknown, that Moloch would find himself with throngs of worshipers prepared to do anything.

Historians, anthropologists, theologians and archaeologists alike that commit vast amounts of time to the study of mythological beliefs of the ancient world, all wrestle with the memory of Moloch. Little information exists about who or what exactly Moloch actually was and what kind of god he represented and was believed to be. One of the best texts of understanding Moloch is the Hebrew text of the Bible, and a number of other Jewish sources which we will explore further on. Yet, the problem remains that as far as information and cataloged evidence goes, there is not much that has survived to give us a full dimensional and accurate picture of Moloch. So, a level of speculation must enter into the picture, but speculation based on what we know about ancient pagan societies, what their gods/goddesses demanded from their loyal patrons, and how these false deities influenced peoples lives. We will examine the Bible and other sources, and try and formulate an image of Moloch and what we know about him. Thus, for now, I will attempt to place Moloch in his historical setting so that we may be able to grasp an essence of who worshiped this god, why he is considered to be one of the most sadistic of gods, and why some of the most harshest warnings and judgements found in the Bible were directed at him and those who would succumb to his worship.

Origins and Biblical Evidence:

The worship of Moloch (with early roots tied to the Ammonites) was common during the 13th-5th century B.C.. It was practiced in large part by the Canaanites, Phoenicians (which most likely had Judaic roots as a people from the tribe of Asher) and other related cultures in North Africa and the lands of the Levant as far as the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The name, Moloch, is a Semitic term that derives its root meaning from the word, ‘king.’ As a god, Moloch was part of cult worship which revolved around a kind of propitiatory child sacrifice system where the children were offered by the parents themselves in a honour ceremony to the god. This kind of sacrifice was void of any edged knives or weapons, but instead gave homage to fire which was connected with Moloch. Thus, for what we know about this cult, the children (male and female- 2nd Kings 23:10) were offered to Moloch by being consumed by fire. “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch.” Leviticus 18:21-23.

In Biblical text, we see the cult religion of Moloch infiltrate elements of the Kingdom of Judah as we see King Manassah, overseeing and allowing sacrifices to take place in the Hinnom Valley, which is outside Jerusalem. The terms, Gehenna (Greek) and Gihinnom (Hebrew) both describe this valley which the Bible also calls it, Valley of the Son of Hinnom. In 2nd Chronicles 28:3, 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31, 19:2-6 we see the apostate Israelites and followers of various forms of Ba’al and other Canaanite gods, including Moloch, offer their children to the fires. Later, the term Gehenna would be used to demonstrate a picture of hell where the wicked will perish.

We see clearly in the Bible (Leviticus 20:2-5) warnings from God through Moses to His people, Israel, against the practice, veneration and worship of Moloch. “Again you shall say to the children of Israel, or of any of the strangers who dwell in Israel, who gives any of his descendents to Moloch, he shall surely be put to death.” (Lev. 20:2) This will also result in God turning His face from the accused and having the perpetrator cut off from Israel for it is viewed as a defilement against God and directly profaning His holy name. Then the passage is opened up from the individual to the community, should many people take part in the worship of Moloch. “And if the people of the land should in any way hide their eyes from the man, when he gives some of his descendents to Moloch, and they do not kill him, then I will set My face against that man and against his family; and I will cut him off from the people, and all who prostitute themselves with him to commit harlotry with Moloch.” (Lev. 20:4-5). The warning is clear and judgment declared, thus by the time King Manassah reigns over Judah, and allows the worship of Moloch to occur, we see swift judgment following in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. by the Babylonian Empire.

Text

In the Hebrew text we see the letters מלך (mlk) used which stand for “melek” or “king”. However, when examined and vocalized in the Masoretic text we hear the name, moloch which has been the traditional pronunciation for the god. Yet, the name in its form regularly appears as (lmlk) when translated letter for letter from the text. The Hebrew equivalent for the “l” means simply, “to”, but it can also take on further meanings such as, “for” or “as/an”. Thus, one could translate the text and read the name as, “to Moloch” or “for Moloch” or “as Moloch”, or “to the Moloch” or “for the Moloch” or “as the Moloch”. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moloch) If we translate this this as, “king” then it gives us either two options, either this is a title and we do not know the true name for Moloch apart from the people of that day who referred to him with honour as, “king,” or that simply was his name, such as Ba’al meaning, “master”.

In reference to the mention of children being sacrificed to Moloch as seen in the Bible, this term “children” is translated as “offspring” or “seed” and demonstrates a literal action displaying the seed, as the continuation of a family, being willingly offered to Moloch into the flames. As it is also seen, offspring could have meant a single family also offering all of their children to Moloch, both male and female. As far as the age of the children, that is not known, although it is a common assumption that they were babies.

Jewish Classical Sources:

In the 12th century A.D. the Jewish rabbinic commentator and revered teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (1040-1105 A.D.) known by the acronym name as Rashi, dealt with the question of Moloch in his examination of Jeremiah 7:31. He stated, ” Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.”

Rashi dealt with the fact that the entire ceremony was designed to put people in a trance as they worshiped Moloch and to quench any emotion or reluctance on behalf of the parents offering the children. He gives a description of Moloch and how traditionally he was viewed throughout the Oral History of the Jewish people and the common understanding in rabbinic Judaism. Nevertheless, it is clear that Moloch was wicked and that the institution of such a deity was blasphemous and therefore was worthy to incur the wrath of God upon the people who committed the apostasy. Other forms of rabbinic tradition to support Rashi is attributed to the Yalkout of Rabbi Simeon who said, “that the idol was hollow and was divided into seven compartments, in one of which they put flour, in the second turtle-doves, in the third a ewe, in the fourth a ram, in the fifth a calf, in the sixth an ox, and in the seventh a child, which were all burned together by heating the statue inside.” This is simply impossible to know for sure, but still may have an ounce of truth in it as it was common for these types of animals to be used in sacrifices to gods and goddesses and if we know one thing about the sacrifices in the Hinnom Valley during the days of Manassah, Moloch was only one of many other gods present.

End Notes:

In closing, despite not having all of the details concerning Moloch, it is true that he was a cruel and terrible god. He demanded victims for the obedience of wicked and deceived people to offer, many of whom chose to deliberately turn their backs on the true God to serve a false one. Not only would their own flesh and blood pay for their transgressions and deliberate rebellion, but entire kingdoms and peoples would be vanquished, crushed, exiled, and wrenched from their lands in judgment. The line of kings both in Israel and Judah would be cut off, the Canaanites and Ammonites would vanish from history, and things would never again be the same. Although, in the time of Ezra, Nehemiah and Zerubbabel the Jewish people would once again return and cleanse the land, they would again feel the weight of judgment and oppression through the occupations of the Hellenist Greek world and the Romans. From there, Jerusalem would be destroyed in 70 A.D. and again in 135 A.D. and the people would be scattered again. However, nearly two thousand years later the entire world would behold an amazing event as a nation would be born in a single day (Isaiah 66:8-11) and God would be shown to remember His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as He restored Israel on May 14th 1948.

By, Peter J. Fast

Part Two: “Let us worship the creation instead of the Creator!”: The clash between the pagans and the radical idea of monotheism

The Ancient Canaanites 2500 – 411 B.C.E. Date is based on period known as Late Bronze Age to the last recorded Canaanite king, Abdemon.

Although, as a people, the Canaanites cease to exist, they remain prevalent today through both Biblical and archaeological records. Located mainly in the region (Mesopotamia) , which today is the State of Israel, Syria, Jordan, and parts of Lebanon, the Canaanite people will be our second study on the link between the early roots of paganism in ancient times (and the deification of nature) compared with the modern expression of these commonalities.

Canaanite culture, as we know it today through archaeology and the Bible, took enormous leaps and bounds with its Mesopotamian flare from the influence of nations surrounding it and the kings that ruled them. The Canaanites were a Semitic, tribal people, divided into clans that governed sections of lands in an agrarian caste. They were warlike,  built cities, developed intricate pottery, worshiped many gods fervently, wrote in a cuneiform type script (with connections to Accadian) and were the major players during the time of the early Hebrews when they entered the land. We read in the Bible of such Canaanite cities as Hazor, Beit She’an, Jericho, and Ai (that have been excavated) to just name a few and they lived among and were surrounded by non-Semitic neighbors such as the Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, etc. Yet, the Canaanites had one main thing in common that we see among all the people’s of the lands and that was their belief that their gods directly impacted nature and existed within nature as a controlling, malevolent, factor.

In William Foxwell Albright’s masterpiece entitled, “YAHWEH AND THE GODS OF CANAAN” he writes that the pantheon of Canaanite gods and their religious practice has better come to light through the study and excavations of ancient Ugarit, which shared common culture and language with the Canaanites. Also, the myths, prose, songs, ballads, and legends are almost exactly the same between that of Canaan and Ugarit, so much as it is possible the two blended together, although there are sources that explicitly verbalize a difference between the two. Yet, similar to Ugarit, the Canaanites connected their gods and goddess to what they saw in nature, whether through the weather, seasons, and animals. They worshiped upon the high places (mountains) where they built temples, they tied in the natural changes of nature into an agrarian type calendar (for instance at the time of planting or harvest certain ceremonies would take place related to the deity that was in charge, i.e. Baal over wheat crops) and they worshiped the celestial heavens (sun, moon, stars, planets). Their religious expression was interwoven into the fabric of daily life in every facet. Let’s look at three such gods, El who was the head of the pantheon, Asherah the goddess of holiness and fertility, and Baal the god of harvest and crops.

Three is a Crowd: A Study of El, Baal, and Asherah

El: (El-‘elyon, El-‘olamknown as Baniyu binawati “Begetter of Creatures”) : El was the chief god of the Canaanites and has been identified with gods such as Kronos (Greece) and Re (Egyptian) and is translated as, “strong one”, or “the leader/master”. El  was also called by another name, “Bull El,”. According to Albright, El is pictured as the father of mankind and the creator of everything that man interacts with, the earth and the heavens. An image of a bull was associated with “El, or the Bull El,” for the significance of wild cattle and horses contained strength and majesty which was what the Canaanites wanted to emulate in the persona of such a chief god as, El. For in this image of the bull or stallion, Albright says, El would be viewed as “strong enough to vanquish all rivals.” The Canaanites, as did any other pagan group of people, wanted to view El as unstoppable and a god who commanded respect and was the highest authority among the pantheon.

For one to visit, meet with, and worship El, they had to come to a place known as, “the source of the two rivers, the fountain of the two deeps.” Albright lays out a geographical grid on where to find such a place. He states that this place referred to the region of Canaan itself (like a Mount Olympus), and that most likely this region was in the heartland called Aphaca (fountain), which later would house the sanctuary of a god Adonis. We see the common pattern throughout the pagan world in the visitations by men to the temples of their gods, built upon the peaks of mountains which were literally believed to be the celestial homes of the gods on earth. For El, within his temple or abode, it was believed that El would not communicate with gods or men, except through visions and visits.

Baal: Baal, the storm-god and king of heaven and earth, is by far the most active of the Canaanite pantheon. Known as the, “Son of Dagan” (Hebrew: Dagon) Baal took upon himself similar traits of fertility from his father who was worshiped around the Euphrates Valley in early times and later adopted by the Philistines. Baal’s personal name, Hadad (pronounced: Hudade) later took on the appellation of meaning “lord” (Ba’al). When this addition was applied to Hadad is not known. In the seventeen and sixteen centuries B.C.E. Hadad (like in most mythology) was identified to other gods in the regions around it, like ancient Egypt‘s storm-god, Seth, Greece’s god Zeus, or Babylon’s Marduk. Favorite terms to describe Baal would be, ‘Triumphant Baal’, ‘Cloud-Rider’, and ‘Majesty, Lord of the Earth.’  Baal struggled with gods, had power in the underworld, and effected the vegetation on earth. He had such great influence that often times human sacrifices would be offered to appease Baal or from an act of desperation (i.e. famine, death, sickness, drought, etc). The worship of Baal meant the worshiper would give everything and be kept in a state of fear and question. Baal left its adherents in the dark and sometimes demanded their very blood.

The expression of worship to Baal was something which we see in many different ways. One such example we will look at is in the account of the prophet Elijah and the 400 prophets of Baal upon Mount Carmel. Here we see an extreme and charismatic sadism in how the prophets of Baal react to calling on their god, Baal. The account in 1 Kings 18:28-29 reads, “So they (prophets of Baal) cried aloud, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out of them. And when midday was past, they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice. But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention.” In this showdown of who is real, Baal or the God of Israel, Elijah watches as the prophets of Baal cry out to him (the son of Dagon).  However, Baal says nothing and ultimately the true God, the God of Israel, shows Himself through fire from heaven which consumes Elijah’s altar covered in water. Thus, showing to all who the real God is. The interesting thing in this account are a number of items I will touch on before I continue.

Elijah and the Prophets of Baal: Quick points to note!

Baal among Israel: We see in 1 Kings 16:31-33 that Baal was brought into the land of Israel by way of the marriage between King Ahab of Israel and the Sidonian daughter, Jezebel, (notice the end of her name) of King Ethbaal (notice the name again!!!). We see Ahab build a temple to Baal in Samaria and erect within it a wooden image of the god. This no doubt provokes the anger of the Lord God of Israel and Elijah the Tishbite is sent to confront both Ahab and the paganism.  Season: Baal is considered to be the god over the crops and natural forces. He is seen as a god of fertility that helps fields grow and gives life. However, in the account by the hand of Elijah, God has allowed it not to rain on the land for over three years, thus bringing famine. This shows Baal to be powerless and incapable of changing anything in a climate he is assumed to be in control over. God or god?: The worship of Baal was rampant throughout the Canaanite world. We see many cultures apart from the Canaanites adopting the worship of Baal, chiefly among those were the ancient Israelite’s.  Elijah’s challenge is that Israel has strayed away from the real God and traded Him for a lie, to worship that of which is untruth. Elijah therefore proclaims that God will show Himself to be master over everyone and everything, including El, Baal, and all the other gods of Canaan. The end of the account proves this to be true with the God of Israel sending fire from heaven, consuming the altar of bull parts, wood, and water, which ultimately results in the prophets of Baal being put to death.

Asherah: (The Lady who traverses the Sea- known as Qaniyatu ‘elima “She who gives birth”):Asherah is seen as the goddess of holiness. She possesses a mystical approach as a goddess who has been seen (through myth) to consort and have relations throughout the Canaanite pantheon. She was usually depicted as a nude goddess atop of a lion, and was seen often, in Canaanite literature, as a sworn enemy of Baal and his sister Anath. Her holiness is seen as a designation of her very divinity, and she is equaled to El as his consort. Often times it is Asherah, who deals with the misbehaving of other gods as El instructs her and gives her advice.

The mention of Asherah in the Bible is frequent during the time of the Philistines and Canaanites when Israel was establishing herself. In the Book of Judges 3:7 it states that Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served both Baal and Asherah. In 1st Kings 15:13 it gives the account of King Asa of the Kingdom Judah, dealing with the evil of the queen mother who set up an image of Asherah which is described as being, “obscene.” We see Asa cut this object down and burn it by the Brook Kidron. However, none of the accounts of the Israelite syncretism of Canaanite gods/goddess into their religious system are as sacrilegious as the passage in 2nd Kings 21:7 where we see the wicked king of Judah, Manasseh, profane the temple in Jerusalem by setting up a carved image of Asherah. Further ahead in chapter 23:4, we see the next king of Judah, King Josiah, cleanse the House of the Lord (temple) of, “all the articles that were made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven,”. This is interesting because it shows that Manasseh in the previous passage which I mentioned, did not just stop with Asherah, but had filled the Jewish Temple with articles of Baal and the other gods and goddess, a despicable act! These are just three examples of the syncretism in which the Hebrews fall guilty to, as the enormous pressure to take part in the local norm of idolatry pressed in around them.

Conclusion of the Canaanites:

The Canaanites were a people developed and advanced like the nations surrounding it, but a people controlled by the whims of their deities in which they sought to understand the world in which they lived in. They explained natural patterns (such as storms, rain, and sunshine) as being guided by their deities, and things found in nature (rivers, lakes, animals, fields, trees, and mountains) as emulating the very existence of the gods and goddesses. For example, the common belief concerning pools of water, underground rivers and springs was that they were inhabited by mystical spirits like nymphs which gave the water power. They also went further in the belief that the spirits themselves which dwelt in the water would directly affect the growth of their crops and the prosperity of their families. When the harvest failed or was stunted, people naturally interpreted that as the wrath and anger of the gods, thus they would offer sacrifices or often perform extreme measures of worship, such as what is found in the Biblical account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal.

However, in all of their worship and practices, it was the exact opposite of what the God of the Bible had intended for man after his creation, in the book of Genesis 1:28 where it states, “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” In the lives of the Canaanites, it was creation that had dominion over them as they (along with all the other pagan nations) became slaves to it. The Canaanite pantheon was a cruel task master, and inevitably it led to their demise as the one true God, would judge them because of their idolatry and having sacrificed, even their own children, to quench the glutinous appetite of false deities such as El, Baal, and Asherah.

By: Peter J. Fast

Soon to come: Part Three: Ancient Israel: The Radical Monotheists 2400 – 516 B.C.E. Date is based on the Biblical account of Abram’s calling from God to the rebuilding of the second temple after the destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.