Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Trouble with Baal

If you spend much time at all in the Old Testament, it won't take you long to figure out that God has kind of this ongoing thing with Baal, the pagan god of the region who the Israelites just can't seem to shake. You might think it's just a run-of-the-mill battle of the gods, but there's much more going on here than meets the eye. 

Well, unless you speak a little Hebrew.

Don't be intimidated! I'm going to spell this one out for you because 1) it's neat and 2) it's important. See, the Hebrew word for Baal is...Baal. Shocking, I know. But what you may not know about this little word makes all the difference. 

First, Baal is both a noun and a verb. Strike one against the idol. This is a claim that YHWH (the Jewish/Christian God) also makes about Himself. When He says, "I Am," He is really saying - "I exist and I act." In other words, YHWH also claims to be both a noun and a verb, a being actively being in the lives of His people.

As a noun, Baal means several things. (And as a verb, essentially the same things, but in action form.) One of the things that Baal means is "master," as in the kind of master that owns slaves. Strike two against the idol. YHWH led His people out of Egypt to free them from slavery. All this talk we read in the Old Testament about the people becoming slaves to the idols,'s the real deal. Because Baal is a master, and it demands slaves. 

Baal also means "lord." Strike three against the idol. God says again and again - and shows - that He is the Lord of His people. He is the One who leads them out of Egypt, who parts the seas, who drowns the enemy armies. He is a refuge and a fortress and a shield. He is the One who manages the details of His people's lives. This other god claiming to be a lord just won't do. 

God might be willing to put up with a people who are more content to be slaves, who are happy with the meager protection of an idol, even a people who buy in to any degree to the idea that this idol both is and is acting. But God absolutely will not put up with the final straw.

In the Hebrew, Baal is a word that means "husband."

You only have to have a very small amount of knowledge about the love affair that God has with His people to know that that's not gonna fly. Israel can have all the idols she wants. She can build altars and poles and whatever. She can seek protection wherever she can find it. She can even sell herself back into slavery. But there is no way that God is going to tolerate even a fallen creation having another husband.

His people are His bride.

That's the image we see all over Scripture. The Song of Solomon declares it. The prophets speak in the language of marriage. Hosea is even commanded to marry a prostitute as a demonstration of God's abiding marital love for His wayward Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus is called the bridegroom, and the church is His bride. Now, forever, for always. 'Til death do us....who are we kidding? God defeated death so that we would never part. 

Something like this changes the way that we read these stories. It has to. It's one thing if we have this image of Israel as having their own little idols in their own little towns while the Temple gathers dust and cobwebs. But it's another thing entirely if we understand that this Baal-named so-called god is, in the very root of its name, declaring itself to be all the things that God already is for His people...right down to their most intimate Lover. 

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