The Worship of Baal in the Bible
In the episode with the golden calf (Exodus 32), the Israelites proved how quickly they had forgotten the wonders and promises of God, not to mention His first and second commandments:
“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” (Exodus 20:1-2)
Instead of keeping their end of the bargain and following God’s command to remain in an exclusive relationship, the Israelites turned to other gods and idols for guidance and provision (Exodus 32). This trend would continue throughout the Old Testament.
In Number 25, we find the first mention of Israel being enticed to worship the Baal of Peor.
“While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to commit infidelity with the daughters of Moab. For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel became followers of Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry with Israel.” (Numbers 25:1-3)
God had warned His people to avoid the religious practices of their neighbors before entering the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 6:14-15). Unfortunately, the influence of Canaanite culture, religion, and idolatry proved too pervasive and attractive to resist.
The Israelites had also not done themselves any favors by intermarrying with Canaanite women and allowing their religious practices to infiltrate their homes.
In the time of the Judges, Baal worship became even more prominent (Judges 2:11). The prophet Samuel warned God’s people to turn away from their idols or suffer the consequences of foreign oppression at the hands of the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:3-4).
It wasn’t until the reign of King Ahab, however, that Baal worship became normalized and widespread. Influenced by the religion of his Phoenician wife Jezebel, Ahab allowed Baal worship to become a dominant religion in Israel, as he erected altars, temples, and statues to Baal and Asherah throughout the land. Ahab and his queen even employed 450 prophets and priests to lead God’s people in ritual worship, prayer, and sacrifice to Baal. In fact, 1 Kings tells us that “Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel than all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (1 Kings 16:33)
As a direct challenge to the Israelites’ faith in Baal, who they worshipped as the “god of rain”, God withheld rain and dew from the land for three years to prove that He alone was Creator and Lord (1 Kings 17:1).
In those days, God also sent His prophet Elijah to admonish Ahab and direct the hearts of Israel back to God. On Mount Carmel, Elijah challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to a showdown to settle once and for all who was God over Israel (1 Kings 18)
In the challenge, Elijah and the prophets of Baal were each to call out to their god to send fire from heaven to ignite the altar erected in their name. The 450 prophets of Baal called out to Baal all day and night, “but there was no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention.” (1 Kings 18:29)
Exhausted, the prophets of Baal finally gave up. Then, in a simple prayer, Elijah called out to God and God swiftly answered with fire from heaven, putting the prophets of Baal and Baal himself to shame. “When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, ‘the Lord, He is God; the Lord; He is God.” (1 Kings 18:40)
However, though God’s display on Mount Carmel had demonstrated His power over Baal and His sovereignty over creation, revival in Israel was short-lived.
The Israelites would continue to worship idols and look to foreign gods, influencing their brothers in Judah to the South with their pagan practices (2 Kings 17:19)
Unfortunately, it took exile and captivity at the hands of Babylon to finally put an end to Baal worship in Israel and break God’s people of their idolatry (Zephaniah 1:4-6).
In the New Testament, Jesus would go on to refer to Satan as “Beelzebub” (Matthew 12:27), equating the devil with Baal-Zebub, the Philistine god of flies (2 Kings 1:2).