The strange gods that demand human sacrifice: Down through history every nation that sacrificed children was destroyed as given in this example of ancient Carthage
Those who are familiar with the Hebrew Bible, commonly called the Old Testament, are familiar with a variety of heroes of Israel, such as David, Solomon, Josiah and others, all of whom were loyal to the Hebrew God. But what about the bad guys?
Of course, the enemies of Israel were many, but the worshippers of the pagan god Baal were singled out with a special detestation and not without reason. In many ways, the rivalry between the Hebrew Yahweh and the Semitic Baal was one of the hot controversies of its day.
To set the scene in context, we must recall the period when the Hebrews entered the holy land under the leadership of Joshua, perhaps sometime around 1250 B.C. On entering the land of Canaan, the Hebrews came into contact with the polytheism of the residents, who worshipped a pantheon of gods including Baal, Moloch, Astarte and a great many others. These deities with their colorful and sometimes sexual worship lured some of the Hebrews away from the worship of Yahweh, which led to the Almighty getting seriously steamed at them. Child sacrifice by incineration followed by an orgy was common in the cults of these gods. The Book of Judges tells us that after the death of the heroic Joshua, things started to go really badly.
The text reads: “When the rest of that generation were also gathered to their ancestors, and a later generation arose that did not know the Lord or the work he had done for Israel, the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They served the Baals, and abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the one who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They followed other gods, the gods of the peoples around them, and bowed down to them, and provoked the Lord. Because they had abandoned the Lord and served Baal and the Astartes, the anger of the Lord flared up against Israel, and he delivered them into the power of plunderers who despoiled them. He sold them into the power of the enemies around them, and they were no longer able to withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord turned against them, as the Lord had said, and as the Lord had sworn to them; and they were in great distress.” (Judges 2:10-15)
It is worth noting that the term in the Biblical passage cited above is “baals” in the plural. In fact, there were many pagan gods who were identified with name Baal, and so the word’s meaning tended to change over the centuries as different deities became prominent. The word “baal” in the ancient Semitic languages meant “lord” or “owner” and occasionally “husband.” As a deity Baal has been associated with being a god of the storms, fertility, and the sun.
The term “baal” is used over 90 times in the Hebrew scriptures. The god identified by the Bible as Baal in many cases is Baal Hadad, a god of the Akkadian and Ugaritic peoples who was closely tied to storms and rain. In the aspect of storms this made him a terrifying god, but also a very necessary one because of the shortages of water in the region. It was probably this god with whom Elijah had his famous contest on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18. In this passage, Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to call down fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice, which they are unable to do. Elijah invokes his God who promptly incinerates the sacrifice, showing Him to be the true god who ruled the rains. This manifestation also authorizes Elijah to slaughter the prophets of Baal, earning him the wrath of the local queen, Jezebel.
Another Baal who is mentioned in the Bible is the Philistine god Baal Zebub, or the “fly lord.” The term “fly lord” was used by the ancient Hebrews as an insult, because flies flock around animal dung. It was this god whose priests King Ahaziah of Israel illicitly consulted in the Second Book of Kings. The Prophet Elijah condemned the king saying, “This is what the Lord says: Is it because there is no God in Israel for you to consult that you have sent messengers to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Because you have done this, you will never leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!” (2 Kings 1:16) The name of Baal Zebub would evolve into the name Beelzelbub, used by later generations as the name of a demon.
Outside the Bible, Baal is well known in many other contexts. An early collection of poems written in Ugaritic describe Baal as the son of El, the high god. Baal was given the secret of thunder and a grand palace. He is later challenged by Mot, the god of death who appears to slay Baal, but at the end of the story a goddess finds Baal alive and he returns to slay Mot. Baal is also known in Roman times as the leading god of the Carthaginians, the archenemies of the Romans. Carthage had originally been founded by the Phoenicians, who took their god with them to North Africa. Their warlord Hannibal even carries the name of their patron god in his own name. Archeological evidence in Carthage has found clear evidence of child sacrifice continuing there.
Yours truly can remember sitting in church, 25 years ago shortly after moving into town, with the esteemed wife and children. During a reading of the Scriptures, the lector read from 2 Kings 23, where the noble King Josiah did away with the priests of Baal and the sacred poles of the Asherah. The congregation listened to the word of God quietly. In silence, I wondered, “Does anybody here know what this is all about? The Baal and the Asherah represent the sexual cults of the gods and the pole represents the male … .” The Bible is a lot more interesting once you know what it really says.