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Canaanites, Religion of.

The inhabitants of Palestine W of the Jordan at the time of the Israelite conquest were called Canaanites. For several hundred yrs. after that time many Israelites were tempted to accommodate, modify, or neglect the covenant religion of Israel in favor of the religion of the Canaanites. A series of discoveries at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) in N Syria, beginning 1929, included a number of clay tablets describing the myths and rites of the ancient gods of Canaan. According to these myths the patriarch of the 70 gods (or “holy ones”) of the Canaanite pantheon was the majestic god El, “the father of years.” El also was one of the names given to the God of Israel in the OT The female consort of El and the mother god of the pantheon was Athirat, who is designated Asherah in the OT (2 K 23:4 RSV). The Asherim (plural of Asherah) were common wooden female cult pillars of the Canaanites used during the Israelite occupation of Canaan. (Ex 34:13 RSV)

Probably the most popular of the Canaanite gods was Baal, the god whom many of the Israelites worshiped as late as the time of Jeremiah. Baal had various significant titles or names. He was sometimes dubbed “Zebul (Prince), Lord of heaven and earth” (cf. “Beelzebul” Mt 12:24 RSV). He was sometimes called “Son of Dagon,” grain god of the Philistines (1 Sm 5:2). Baal's title “Rider of the Clouds” is also applied to Yahweh, God of Israel (Ps 68:4 RSV). A fourth title, “Baal the Victor,” underscores the role of Baal as the conqueror of Prince Yam (Heb. and Canaanite word for sea) or Judge River (cf. Hab 3:8); of the chaos monster Leviathan, who is described as the twisting serpent both in the Ras Shamra tablets and in Is 27:1; and of Mot (Heb. and Canaanite word for death). In one of the texts from Ras Shamra, Baal is recognized as king of the gods because of his decisive victory over Yam, sea or chaos god, who appeared as foe of the gods. It is of interest to note that the first time Yahweh, God of Israel, is acclaimed King in Israel is after His decisive victory over Egypt, terrifying foe of Israel (Ex 15:1–18). After Baal had won his kingship, he built a house or temple-palace in the great mountain of the gods in the far North. Comparable imagery is employed to describe Jerusalem as “Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King” (Ps 48:2 RSV). It was from this great temple in the clouds of the far North that Baal was thought to appear as the mighty storm god, brandishing his thunder club in one hand and his spear of lightning in the other. Baal was therefore considered a god of life, nature, and fertility who needed to be placated to ensure adequate rainfall. Included among cultic objects of Baal worship mentioned in the OT are altars for animal sacrifice (Ju 6:25) and stone pillars (Ex 34:13). Sacred prostitution was also associated with the fertility rites of Baal and his female consorts (Hos 4:14). Of these consorts, Anat, the goddess of love and war, is the most prominent in the myths of Ras Shamra. However, the female goddess most frequently represented among the finds of archaeologists in Palestine is Astarte (Ashtoreth). The Ashtaroth (plural of Ashtoreth) are mentioned many times in the OT (Ju 2:13). According to another Ras Shamra text Baal died and entered the netherworld of Mot, god of death. Thereupon El gashed himself in a ritual lamentation similar to that of the Baal prophets on Mt. Carmel (1 K 18:28), and Anat fought with Mot, ripped him open, and scattered him across the fields. Baal then returned to life, and El cried aloud, “I know that the victor Baal lives.” A similar portrait of the conquest of death is employed in the OT (Is 25:8). The dying and rising of Baal was thought to correspond with the annual death and rebirth of nature; in other Baal texts, however, the battle with Mot is fought every 7 yrs. This cycle of death and rebirth of a deity is a common feature of ancient mythologies. In stark contrast to this phenomenon stands the biblical portrait of Yahweh, God of Israel, as the “living” God who is in no sense restricted by the boundaries of nature. Yahweh is portrayed as the creator of fertility, nature, the sea, and the entire earth. Moreover, the activity of Yahweh was not concerned primarily with the cycles of nature or the rebirth of creation, but with the course of the hist. of His covenant people Israel. It is probable that the major religious function of the Canaanites was a New Year festival revolving around the rebirth of the god of nature. There is considerable evidence to indicate that the Canaanites had an organized priesthood and that they offered animal sacrifices and vows similar to those mentioned in the OT In addition, many Canaanite shrines, temples, and fertility cult objects have been discovered by archaeologists in recent yrs. Baal was frequently portrayed as a bull or calf, an image employed by the Israelites at various times (Ex 32:4). Oher Canaanite deities include Shachar, the dawn or morning star (cf. Is 14:12), and Resheph, god of pestilence (cf. Hab 3:5). It was this mythical religion of the Canaanites that held such attraction for the Israelites and that came into direct conflict with the religion of Yahweh as the Israelites entered the promised land and committed their covenant allegiance to Yahweh, the unseen, unbound Creator-God. (Jos 24). NH

G. R. Driver, Canaanite Myths and Legends. Old Testament Studies, No. III (Edinburgh, 1956); J. Gray, The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament, Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, Vol. V, 2d rev. ed. (Leiden, 1965); C. F. Pfeiffer, Ras Shamra and the Bible, Baker Studies in Biblical Archaeology (Grand Rapids, Michigan 1962); N. C. Habel, Yahweh versus Baal: A Conflict of Religious Cultures: A Study in the Relevance of Ugaritic Materials for the Early Faith of Israel, Conc. Sem., St. Louis, Graduate Study, No. 6 (New York, 1964).

Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
©Concordia Publishing House, 2000, All rights Reserved. Reproduced with Permission

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