Its good to go back to our roots. A sort of homecoming. Going back about 4000 years ago, I guess that is where our journey actually starts with Abram, who would leave Urᵁʳ of the Chaldees, around 2000 B.C.ᶜ to be called later as Abraham, the father of nations.
The script in the featured image of this post means “may it be well with you” in Ugaritic cuneiform.
Abraham shunned the polytheism of Mesopotamiaᴹᵉˢ and embraced worshipping the one true G-d. In my mind that was a drastic step, and it involved shedding a lot of cultural baggage to embrace a dramatically different faith.
The majority scholarly opinion is that Abram lived around the Middle Bronze-Ageᴮʳᶻ. Ur was a major city in the ancient world and Akkadianᴬᵏ was the lingua franca of Ur and its surrounding regions, another language of the time was Sumerianˢᵘ but it did not manage to hold for long. During Abram’s time in all probability Ur was under the control of an Akkadian or a Sumerian dynasty with the king assuming the role of a god king, building several temples dedicated to a pantheon of gods.
My interest zeroes in on another ancient city called Ugaritᵁᵍ, now Ras-Shamra in the northern part of modern Syria. Excavations from this site have led to the discovery of ancient clay tablets which carry the tales of a culture bearing striking resemblance to the religion of Canaanite deities mentioned in the Old Testament. The city rose to prominence around 1400 B.C. and was a major trading centre, connecting the Mediterranean sea route to ancient Mesopotamian land routes.
The Ugaritic scriptˢᶜʳ found on the ancient tablets unravels an ancient pantheon of gods that would ensnare Israel time and again. The chief deity was El, the father/ruler god figure, and his wife, the goddess Ashera, their sons and daughters, chief among them being his son Baalᴮˡ, and Baal’s brother Mot. The ancient religious texts centre around three epics: The Legend of Keret, Tale of Aqhat and The Baal cycle, recorded by the high priest Illimilku; reconstructed from various clay fragments and tablets, even though a few portions were missing.
The Baal Cycle displayed in Louvre. For attribution and License of image, check Referencesᴬᵗᵗ.
Baal, was the storm god of fertility and according to some scholars, he was the central figure in the pantheon, even though El was the supreme deity. Dagonᴰᵍ appears in some texts and was also a deity that was worshipped across several Mesopotamian and later Canaanite cultures.
The point is that this pantheon was well established in the late Bronze-Age as Ugarit was a city port, where several cultures intermingled with each other. The ancient texts recovered from Ras Shamra are in several languages like Ugaritic, Akkadian, Hurrian and Hittite.
This brings us back to our forefathers, and the first mention of Baal as a source of the Creator’s anger against Israel, pops up in the book of Numbers.
במדבר כה.ג ׃ ויצמד ישראל, לבעל פעור: ויחר-אף יהוה, בישראל
Numbers 25:3: Then Israel worshipped Baal-Peor: and this incited God’s anger against Israel.
After this it was pretty much downhill, with the later kings and queens and the people of Israel embarking on a tour of monumental stupidity ( worshipping idols ) culminating in the enslavement and exile of the entire population by 600 B.C.. Evidently the snare of Baal was too hard to resist even at the risk of seeing the kingdom of Israel destroyed.
Looking at the pantheon itself, it’s not quite different from the fertility god cycles of other Semitic cultures. One wonders as to why Baal in various forms was so attractive to Israel ? Maybe the Ugarit and Israelite cultures were connected in some way ? Some scholars point out that the pantheon of Ugarit has reflections in the Tanakh, and was probably the source of some of the legends in the Tanakh. I would argue to the contrary, that it was the Hebrew culture that affected Ugarit, as it preceded the Ugarit civilisation. None of the assumptions carry any backing evidence.
Is there any difference in the El of Israel and the El of Ugarit? I mean if they are similar that could explain Israel falling for Baal worship, time and again. However, to my mind, there is a strong contrast between El-Ugarit and El-Israel. ( I am going to switch to the present tense here because El is a living deity in this present age. ) The El of Israel demands complete obedience with a great stress on holiness. The El of Israel has no consorts and is not a being of flesh and blood that involves in human family like relationships. He is distinct from His Creation, a separate entity.
Holiness was not much of an issue in the Baal pantheon and in the associated polytheistic Semitic cultures; ritual human sacrifice, sexual rites were all too common. The gods had their consorts. Most of the kings and priests identified themselves as being part of the godly bloodline, being born of part human and part godly ancestry, so the gods were part human, but only when it came to kings and queens. They certainly displayed human traits and were constantly warring and fighting with each other. The gods of the Baal type pantheon were ‘flexible’ in that they could be appeased with sacrifices to flow with human wants. In short, the control was with the priests and important dignitaries like kings and courtiers.
The El of Israel in contrast has complete control, none of it rests with the follower. Since He has no competition, and no equals, there is no question of Him warring to save His throne. His views on right and wrong are absolute, and He insists on mankind to follow the path of righteousness and justice.
עמוס ה.כד: ויגל כמים, משפט; וצדקה, כנחל אותנ
Amos 5:24: Let justice flow up as waters; righteousness as a mighty stream.
The masses were not too happy. They saw all kinds of shady dealings and wantonness in the kingdoms around them, and yearned for some ‘action’. They wanted a Baal like god riding on a swashbuckling chariot crushing perceived foes, winking at the evils committed by his followers while destroying the evil ‘others’. The El of Israel is none of this and saw through the hypocrisy of Israel.
ישעיהו כט.יג :ויאמר אדני, יון כי נגש העם הזה, בפי ובשפתיו כבדוני, ולבו רחק ממני — ותהי יראתם אתי, מצות אנשם מלמדה
Isaiah 29:13: Therefore the Lord said, These people draw near me with their mouths and lips, but their hearts are far from me — their fear of me is like a man-made commandment learned by rote.
Unlike the gods of the pantheon, Hashemᴴ is a living and active agency, warning His people before visiting vengeance on them, (for their evil acts). He is not going to wink evil away.
This distinction between the El of Israel and the pantheon becomes more apparent with the Messiach† ,משיח, plan of mankind’s redemption. The gods of the pantheon were elevated and lived in higher spheres, supernatural beings who would never stoop low to walk among the rabble at large i.e. us. El, is different in that He foretold of the arrival of the Messiah and carried out His Redemptive plan. The Messiah would be a Man of sorrows, One who would walk amongst the ordinary. Emmanuel — G-d with us.
The Book of Isaiah, sometimes referred to as the fifth gospel, in Chapter 53, mentions the very ‘un-Baal’ like plan of Redemption. The sins of the world would be ascribed on to the Messiah and He would be scourged and chastised to death. Then, He would rise again in victory, to rule the dominions.
ישעיהו נג.ח׃ מעצר וממשפת לקח, ואת דורו מי ישוחח: כי נגזר מארץ חיים, מפשע עמי נגע למו
Isaiah 53:8: With oppression and judgement He was taken away, who amongst his generation has protested ? He was cut off from the land of the living, because of the transgression of my people, for whom the stroke was due.
Predictably, when the Messiah did arrive, the reception was very hostile. But, this was El-Israel’s plan all along, isn’t it ? These verses in Isaiah are also a slap on the face of those who keep blaming Jews for ‘killing’ Christ. With the advent of Yeshua Christos, the difference between the El of Israel and the Baal pantheon becomes more evident. In one of the Gospel passages He mentions that there are no sexual relations in the heavenly realms.
Μαθαιον 22:30: εν γαρ τε αναστασει ουτε γαμουσιν ουτε γαμιζονται αλλ ως αγγελοι Θεου εν το ουρανω εισιν.
Matthew 22:30: At the resurrection, neither do they marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of God in Heaven.
The tales of marriage/sexual relationships in spiritual realms was an internalisation of the Baal culture, during His time.
Has the snare of Baal diminished today? I am afraid not. It has simply been carried over into our age, in various forms. Violent pogroms against Jews or the significant ‘other’ are a testimony to the internalisation. Point is if El-Israel decides to slay sinners, it’s going to be pretty much all of mankind. It’s not going to be we the pure-bred holy beings vs. the evil others. I think then that El’s plan of redemption via the Messiach Yeshua Christos was much better.
Ρομαιους 3.23– παντες γαρ ἡμαρτον και ὑστερουνται της δοξης του Θεου,
Romans 3:23– For all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God,
This brings me to another issue, that of ‘names’ that Middle-Eastern and surrounding cultures use in calling El. There is a misguided assumption doing the rounds that ‘Allah’ is a pagan deity and that Arab Christians should stop calling the name of Allah. The Syriac Church has been around much before any other Church globally and uses the Biblical Aramaic ܐܠܗܐ or Alaha, to call El-Israel, Elahi, Illahi, Allahᴬˡ and Elohi are all related to El. Semitic languages are related and often use cognates of the same name to call on their deities.
In conclusion, we are not so different from the Ugaritic city folks living their lives around 2000 B.C., and that should keep us on our toes or else we stand to lose everything in the light of the Scripture. We may look and feel more modern but the primal urge to gain imaginary control of our situation is always lurking around the corner, the snare of Baal.
ᶜB.C. is Before Christ
†Messiach: The Tanakh/Old Testament abounds with references to the arrival of El’s Redemptive work for mankind.