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-‘olam– known 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.