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929 Project: Genesis 20 – Ba’al and ba’al

August 9, 2018

First, a quick thanks to Karen R. Keen for mentioning this series in Biblical Studies Carnival 149.  Much appreciated, Karen!

This is a bit of an insane day for me, and I am about to board an airplane, so for Genesis Chapter 20, I’d like to simply quote the (rather good) “Hebrew Corner” about this chapter.

בעל – Ba’al – Storm God, Master, Owner – Husband?

Gen 20:3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is בעולת בעל, be’ulat ba’al, a married woman.”

You’d think that linguistic vestiges of pagan gods would have been eradicated in monotheistic Judaism, and in its tribal language Hebrew, long ago. But Ba’al, the ancient Canaanite sky god (see eg I Kings 18, for the duel at high noon between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al), actually crops up in a number of surprising contexts.

For instance, given that the land of Canaan/Israel has no Nile or Tigris or Euphrates to depend on for water, Ba’al was a pretty significant god, a sort of Zeus-like head cheese of the Near Eastern pantheon. To this day in Israel, non-irrigated or rain-fed crops are called chaklaut ba’al – “baal agriculture.” So much for the eradication of paganism!

The word ba’al sometimes was used in combination, as in the demonic Beelzebub, from ba’al zevuv (see 2 Kings 1), meaning literally “Lord of the Flies,” which inspired the William Golding novel of that name.

What do gods do? They fight, conquer, take possession, and rule. And when the sky god is male (as most are), and the personification of earth is female (just think Mother Earth), it’s no coincidence that this image was taken for the title and role of the traditional husband, and more generally, an owner or master of anyone, or anything.

The act of בעילה be’ilah means “to have carnal relations with,” and it can have both positive connotations of love and devotion, or negative ones, of conquest.

For instance, in the following, be’ilah means redemption: “Nevermore shall you be called ‘Forsaken,’ Nor shall your land be called ‘Desolate’; But you shall be called cheftzi-bah ‘I delight in her,’ And your land be’ulah ‘Espoused.’ For the LORD takes delight in you, And your land shall be espoused” (Isaiah 62:4). This verse gives us the English given name Beulah.

On the other hand, while “espousal” is nice (certainly better than “forsaken” and “desolate”), the word ba’al is left both with its pagan connotations, and the idea of ownership. בעל הבית, ba’al habayit, is “owner of the house,” the lord of the manor, as it were. In Yiddish, pronounced balabus, this acquires the additional connotation of middle-class, bourgeois gentry. The woman of the house is the balabuste,”,” a strong, competent, often dominant, woman […].

Those looking for non-patriarchal terminology need go no further than the prophet Hosea. His version of redemption goes like this: “‘And in that day,’ declares the LORD: ‘You will call [Me] Ishi (i.e., “my man,”) And no more will you call Me Ba’ali (my lord). For I will remove the names of the Ba’alim from her mouth, And they shall nevermore be mentioned by name’” (Hosea 2: 18-19). This has been a great prooftext for reformers of contemporary Hebrew to use less sexist terminology.

Ba’al can also refer to possessing different qualities or attributes. For instance, a newly-religious Jew is known as a ba’al teshuvah, a “master of repentance,” or “BT” for short. The founder of the 18th century movement of Hasidism was the Ba’al Shem Tov, “master of the Good Name,” probably meaning that he knew how to magically use God’s name in working miracles. 

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 15, 2018 7:11 am

    And thanks, Karen Keen, for the inclusion of the

    BONUS: WOMEN SCHOLAR BLOGGERS

    and for there remembering Suzanne McCarthy.

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