The word Baal literally means 'Lord', 'Master', 'Possessor', or 'Owner'. He was the male deity who owned the land of the Canaanites and controlled its fertility. His female partner was known as Baalath, which translated means 'Lady' though her personal name was Ashtart (or Astarte) . The Canaanites believes that these fertility npowers were connected to particular localities or towns, in which case one could speak of many Baals and Astarths, as numerous as the cities of the land itself. All of these Baals were regarded as manifestations of the great 'Lord' and 'lady' who dwelt in the heavens, in which case Baal and Ashtart were addr4essed as singular, cosmic deities.
The whole culture of the Fertile Crescent was dependent on the fruitfulness of the soil; the ground therefore became the sphere os divine powers. The Baal of a region was 'lord' and 'owner' of the ground and its fertility depended upon sexual relations between him and his consort. When the rains came and the earth and water mingled, the mysterious powers of fertility were supposed to stirr again. New life was resurrected and this was interpreted by the Canaanites to have been due to intercourse between Baal and Baalath.
The Canaanite was expected to ritually enact the drama of Baal through magic that was supposed to assist. In temples of Baal, a dramatisation of Baal's loves and wars took place. Sacred prostitution also took place. In this act, the man identified himself with Baal, the woman with Ashtart. It was believed that human pairs, by imitating the action of Baal and his partner, could bring the divine pair together in fertilising union.
Though highly erotic, this was not done simply for pleasure. It was believed that the whole national sphere was governed by the vitalities of sex - the power of male and female. Through sexual ceremonies, farmers believed they could swing into the rhythms of the agricultural world, and even keep those rhythms going through the techniques of religious magic, called Sympathetic ir Imitative Magic, which rests on the assumption that when men imitate the action of the gods, a power is released to bring that about.
The well known Ras Shamra tablets, found on the coast of north Syria in 1929, give us a clear picture of the Baal religion as it was practiced in Ugarit around 1400 B.C, i.e. around the time of the Exodus and Settlement. The religion was highly developed, sophisticated, and far ahead of the belief in local fertility spirits which scholars once thought the religion of the baals and Astharts to have been. The Canaanite Pantheon was presided over by the Deity El (which means 'king' or 'father of years'), the deity worshipped by the Patriarchs. His consort was called Asherah. Beneath El and Asherah were Baal (otherwise known as the 'storm god' or the more familiar 'lord', 'creator of man', etc.) and Anath. Baal was often depicted in the form of a bull to denote fertility and strength. His consort-sister was known as the warrior goddess, and was infamous for her violent sexual passion and sadistic britality.
The Book of Joshua claims that the Canaanites were either wiped out or reduced to insignificance following the Israelote invasion of Canaan, but this is confuted elsewhere. The Canaanites remained, following the Settlement, in large numbers to become tools in the hand of Yahweh to punish Israel when she became idolatrous and worshipped the Baals. It is interesting to note that the Confederacy (amphictyony) was founded in Shechem, the heart of Canaanite culture, and that it embraced people who, though Semitic (except in the case of the Canaanite Gibeonites), followed Canaanite living patterns into the covenant, who no doubt worshipped 'strange gods'. Thus there was likely a major diversity of living patterns in the Confrederacy which may have led to relapses from the stern demands of the Mosaic faith. Hence Moses' stern warning in Deuteronomy. Yahweh, the Elohim (God) of nomads (those who had wandered through the desert for 40 years), now had to become the Elohim (God) of sedentary people associated with the soil. New problems faced Israel; the need for rainfall, dependence upon rotation of seasons, and the concern for fertility which pervaded the whole of the Fertile Crescent. In the past, Yahweh revealed His power by controlling; the new question (for the Israelites) was whether He could win out in the rivalry with the Baals who 'controlled' the cycles of nature.
That Israel frequentlyabandoned her Yahweh religion in favour of Baal worship is no better illustrated than in the Book of Judges where we find Israel going through repeated cycles of adopting the Baals, finding herself oppressed by foreigners, realising her idolatry and calling upon Yahweh, and the sudden appearance of a Judge of 'deliverer', following which there is a period of peace until the Judge dies and the whole vicious cycle starts all over again. The pull towards the Baal cult must therefore have been strong as Israel tried to integrate Canaanite culture, based on agriculture, with her own unique religious nconcepts. Indeed, had Israel not had military crises such as those described in Judges, there is little doubt that she would have been swamped by Canaanite religion. Thus we can see how war can be allied to the preservation of a religious faith.
For an Israelite to have ignored Baal rites in those days (13th century B.C.) would have seemed as impractical as for a modern farmer to ignore science and the cultivation of the land. As Israel was unaccustomed to the land, was it surprising that they turned to the gods of the land? They did not mean to turn away from Yahweh, the Elohim (God) of the Exodus and the Sinai Covenant. They turned to Yahweh in military crisis, to Baal for success in agriculture. They did what many people do today in keeping religion and science separate, acknowledging each to be the lord in its own sphere. The Israelites may have regarded one religion as for public worship (Yahweh) and another for family life and forming (Baal). They obviously did not consider the two religions contradictiory or mutually exclusive. Perhaps we in the 20th and 21st centuries should learn from the Israelites of 3,000 years ago for we in our own way pursue a kind of religious syncretism, trying in vain to reconile our faith with the cultures in which we live.
Yahweh- and Baal-worship, therefore, became partly intermixed. Old Baal sanctuaries like Bethel, Shechem and Gilgal were rededicated to Yahweh, and the Canaanite agricultural ca÷endar was adopted for the timing of pilgrimage feasts (see Ex.34:22-23). Parents began naming their children after Baal; Gideon was renamed Jurub-baal after he had destroyed his father's images. The name means 'let Baal contend' or 'may Baal multiply'. Saul (and David), an ardent devotee of Yahweh, gave Baal names to his children; e.g. Mephi-Baal (Mephibosheth), Ish-baal (Ishbosheth or Ishvi). His son Jonathan named one of his children Meri-Baal (Meribosheth) . Later King David called a daughter Beeliada. Indeed, as late as the 8th century B.C, Israelites were addressing Yahweh as 'Baal', and by worshipping Him according to the rituals of Baal sought the blessings of fertility (Hos.2) .
We thus see a syncretism, or fusion of different religious forms and views at a popular level, and that this went on to some degree from the time Israel first set foot on Canaanite soul up until the Exile . There is therefore no doubt that the religion of the Baals had a profound influence on the religion of Israel from the time of the settlement onwards. But Israel'sstrue faith was based on the novel belief in a jealous Elohim (God) who would tolerate no rivals, and so Israel's attempted syncretism caused nothing but trouble, leading eventually to mass apostacy and exile. Yahweh's lordship was absolute and extended to every sphere of life. Thus to believe that Yahweh was Lord of History, and Baal the Lord of Soil Fertility was to violate the meaning of the Sinai Covenant. It took prophets to see the basic conflict between the two faiths and to throw down the challenge: Yahweh versus Baal. Joshua's appeal was ignored: "Choose this day whom you will serve".
Revised and expanded on 4 August 2009
 Ashtart is a general name for female fertility goddesses and is sometimes called Ashtoreth, or in the plural, Ashtaroth.
 The Hebrew bosheth means 'shame' and was substituted for Baal by some later scribe who was horrified that 'Baal' should appear in an Israelite name.
 A good case may be made for the claim that the use of 'Baal' in the names of Hebrew children does not necessarily, or always, indicate an intentional honouring of the Canaanite deity but rather this is to be understood as a case of evolving language usage. For instance, in English it has been common to call both Yahweh (God) and Yah'shua (Jesus) 'Lord' because in modern English 'Lord' simply means 'Master' even though the word 'lord' itself can be traced back to the name of an Etruscan god called Larth. In the mind of those Yahweh-fearing Hebrews who named their children after 'Baal', the word 'baal' may simply have been understood to mean 'Master', their Master being Yahweh. One of the great controversies in the Messianic Movement is whether or not we should avoid all names and titles that may have had association with the pagan gods of the past so as to be sure not to dishonour the Name of Yahweh (Dt.4:2; 12:31; Prov.30:6; Rev.22:18-19). See The True Names of Elohim.
 The same thing happened in early Christianity when Roman Christians deliberately fused the Messianic faith with paganism (e.g. neoplatonism and Roman festivals) to make the emergent religion more appealing to pagan converts. See The Pagan Infiltration of Christianity.