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Ba'al from Ugarit (Louvre Museum, Paris)

Ba’al from Ugarit (Louvre Museum, Paris)

He who shall not be named?

All along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, in what’s now Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, and down into the Arabian Peninsula, there was (and still is) a feeling that it’s wrong to say the name of your god aloud. Instead, people called their god “Lord”.

Another Eastern Mediterranean taboo: pork
West Asian religion
All our West Asia articles

What does Ba’al mean?

Baal is the Semitic word for “Lord”, so to people who spoke AramaicHebrew, or Arabic Ba’al could mean any male god. People who lived in ancient Phoenicia used “Ba’al” as a name for the god of their own city. Some gods called “Ba’al” were sky gods or rain gods, but many were less powerful local gods.

What’s Semitic?
Who were the Phoenicians?
Early Arabia

Ba’al and child sacrifice

People probably sacrificed children to Ba’al, at least for a while. The story of Abraham and Isaac is a warning to stop doing that. Later on, people only sacrificed sheep and cows to their god.

More about sacrifice
Abraham and Isaac
The story of Ishmael

Ba’al comes to Africa

When the Phoenicians sailed to North Africa and built the city of Carthage, about 800 BC, they brought their language with them, and the Carthaginians also called their main god “Ba’al”. In Carthage, Ba’al was the husband of Tanit, the moon goddess. Here, too, people probably sacrificed children to Ba’al.

Ba’al’s wife Tanit
More about the moon

Ba’al and the Jews

Early Jews also called their god “Ba’al,” or “Lord”. But around 600 BC, in order to make it clear that their god was really different from the other local gods, the Jews changed to using the word “Adonai” to mean “Lord”.

The Jews in the Iron Age

Ba’al, Zeus, and Allah

When Greek people settled in Phoenicia and Israel, in the 200s BC, they thought of Ba’al as being like their god Zeus. Early Christians called Jesus their Lord too: the Gospels use the Greek word Kyrios. But when most people in Phoenicia, Syria, Israel, and North Africa converted to Islam in the 700s AD, they began to call their god “Allah” (that means “the God”) instead of Ba’al. Allah is related to another word used for God in the Bible, “El”, which means “the One”. 

More about Islam
More about Zeus

Is it also wrong to draw pictures of God?

Bibliography and further reading about West Asian religion:

Ancient Mesopotamians, by Elena Gambino (2000). For kids, retellings of Mesopotamian stories and lots of context.

Gods, Goddesses, and Monsters: An Encyclopedia of World Mythology, by Sheila Keenan (2000). Easy reading.

Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, by Jean Bottero (2001).

God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism, by Jonathan Kirsch (2004). From Akhenaten in Egypt, through Judaism and the rise of Christianity. Lively, popular writing.

A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity, by Keith Hopkins (2001). Entertaining account of what it was really like at non-Christian and early Christian religious events. Not for young kids.

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