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Baal Stela, 14th-13th century BCE

Ba'al SteleLocated in northwestern Syria on the Mediterranean coast, Ugarit (Ras Shamra) served as the capital city of a second millennium BCE kingdom with the same name. This white limestone stela (4.6’ high x 1.6’ wide), carved in low relief, comes from a temple at the site. Based on stylistic similarities to Hittite art, the stele likely dates to the Late Bronze II, the fourteenth-thirteenth century BCE.

Wearing a horned crown, a marker of divinity, a bearded, muscular deity stands atop a base carved with mountains, seas or both representing his domain. Long stylized curls cascade down from under his helmet. He wears a short, wrapped skirt and a sword is tucked in the belt at his waist. In his upraised right hand, the figure brandishes a club or mace.

His left hand holds a lance sprouting branches at the top. A small figure wrapped in a long cloak stands on a pedestal in the background. Lacking divine signifiers, the diminutive figure likely depicts the king responsible for carving this stele. With no inscription naming the deity, his identification rests on associated emblematic features.

The mace, sword, and costume suggest a war deity while the sprouting lance suggests vegetal abundance. Depictions of both might and munificence identify the depicted god as Baal, the Canaanite storm and fertility god armed with thunder and lightning. Baal controls the rains upon which the crops depend.

Found in a temple, this stele plus a second one to Baal Saphon identified the deity worshipped and so the designation “Temple of Baal.”

Baal and the Bible

Early Israelites knew of Baal in his many manifestations such as Baal-Peor , Baal-Hermon, Baal-Meon, and Baal-Hazor (eg. Num 25-3). Prominent individuals including King Ahab (869-850 BCE) of the northern kingdom of Israel and Manasseh king of Judah (687-42 BCE) worshipped Baal. Ahab elevated Baal to national deity and built a temple to him in the capitol city of Samaria (I Kings 16-31-33; II Kings 21-3). As the indigenous god of the storm, upon which Israel depended for agricultural productivity, Baal assumed a prominent place in the local cult. In fact, as evident in the confrontation on Mt. Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal and Ahab’s designation of Baal as the national god, Baal seriously threatened Yahweh as supreme deity of the land (I Kings 18). These two young warrior gods, Yahweh (eg. Psalm 29) and Baal, competed for supremacy in Israel though Yahweh obviously triumphed. Just as Yahweh converged with the Canaanite El and subsumed his name and attributes, so Yahweh ultimately defeated Baal and appropriated his name and traits. For example, Hosea refers to Yahweh’s appropriation of Baal’s name (Hosea 2-16), Yahweh defeats the sea to confer kingship as Baal did before him (eg. Exod 15-17; Psalm 74-12-15; Isaiah 27-1), and both dwelt in Saphon (Psalm 48-3; Isaiah 14-13).

For additional information about the deity Baal and the relationship between Yahweh and Baal see John Day, “Baal (Deity)” in ABD I- 545-49 and V. Hurowitz, “From Storm God to Abstract Being” BR 14.5 (1998). Introductions to the site and literary texts are provided by Marguerite Yon (trans. Stephen Rosoff) in “Ugarit” ABD VI- 695-706 and Dennis Pardee and Pierre Bordreuil “Ugarit- Texts and Literature” ABD VI- 705-721. Near Eastern Archaeology, in conjunction with The World of the Bible, devoted an entire issue to summarizing the 70 years of excavation at Ugarit, NEA 63.4 (2000) The Mysteries of Ugarit- History, Daily Life, Cult.

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith

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