Did the Omride kings of Israel worship Baal or Yahweh?
The Hebrew Bible portrays the ninth-century BCE Omride kings of Israel as worshipers of the Phoenician storm god Baal. We are told that King Ahab and his villain wife Jezebel sponsored Baal worship and persecuted Yahweh’s prophets, including Elijah (1 Kings 18–19). But was that true? How does this biblical narrative, which seeks to explain the demise of the Omride dynasty, measure up against the historical evidence we have from archaeology, inscriptions, and artistic depictions?
In the Fall 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Michael J. Stahl examines the relevant historical evidence in his article “Yahweh or Baal: Who Was the God of Northern Israel?” Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Pennsylvania State University and an expert on the origins of Yahweh, Stahl looks critically at the biblical accounts that present the early kings of Israel as Baal worshipers and compares this image with what we know from ancient inscriptions and artistic and literary depictions of Baal and Yahweh.
Stahl discusses the language and iconography associated with the Phoenician storm god Baal, pointing out the intriguing similarities with the later Yahwistic vocabulary—in the Bible and artistic representations. This analysis reveals that “Yahweh came to be associated with the language, imagery, and traditions of Baal worship.” But why? Most likely, the Omride kings of Israel borrowed from Baal “to elevate Yahweh’s profile and status as the patron deity of the Northern Kingdom.”
Curiously, “the earliest indisputable evidence for Yahweh’s worship outside of the Hebrew Bible dates to the time of Israel’s Omride kings,” points out Stahl. This leads him to the inevitable conclusion that not only did the Omrides not seek to exterminate Israelite worship of Yahweh, but they actively promoted Yahweh as Israel’s patron god. For this, they used Baal language, imagery, and traditions to boost Yahweh’s status and their own political influence—in a religious world dominated by mighty storm gods.
So how did the Omride kings of Israel end up being presented as devotees of a foreign god and enemies of Yahweh? Writing in the post-monarchic period, the authors of 1 and 2 Kings likely fabricated the myth about the despicable Omrides as a means of promoting—in their own time—the exclusive monotheistic worship of Yahweh. To this end, they told a story of Yahweh bringing down the bygone Omride dynasty because of their (alleged) support of Baal. The apparent similarities in language and style of depiction made this myth a believable cautionary tale.
To explore the historical evidence that compares the Bible with inscriptions and depictions of Baal and Yahweh, read Michael J. Stahl’s article “Yahweh or Baal: Who Was the God of Northern Israel?” published in the Fall 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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