How Did Pagan Beliefs Affect the Bible?

The Canaanite Storm God Baal had a powerful influence on the Old Testament.
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Paganism, by its most basic definition is the worship of nature. The European tribes known collectively as the Celts practiced a form of nature worship before their conversion to Christianity starting in the fifth century. While Christianity absorbed many Celtic pagan beliefs into its own traditions, a much earlier form of nature-religion wielded a powerful influence on the Old Testament as well. This was the Canaanite worship of Baal, the god of thunderstorms. And the authors of the Old Testament were furiously against it.

1 The Land of Canaan

The land of Canaan, where Israel now exists.
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Canaan was the territory that later became Israel and Palestine. Canaanite civilization dates back to 8,000 B.C., but the biblical Canaanites didn’t appear until sometime between 3,000 and 2,000 B.C. They were an agricultural people, but with no river to irrigate their land, they relied on rain for survival. They worshiped many gods, but the most powerful was Baal, the Storm God.

2 Who is Baal?

Baal’s origins trace back to Mesopotamia, the world’s first civilization, in what is now Iraq. But Baal’s command of the weather, as well as his role as the fertility god, made him all-important to the Canaanites.They worshiped him with human sacrifice, sexual orgies and even prostitution. Baal himself indulged in all of these things, setting a terrible example. The authors of the Old Testament were appalled. They crafted their new religion specifically to eliminate Baal worship and enforce a better code of behavior.

3 The Israelite God

The people of the Old Testament, the Israelites, worshiped their own god, Yahweh. But Yahweh worship was not about sacrifices and fertility rites. It was about following the laws that Yahweh gave to his people. Still, with the frequent droughts, Baal worship presented a strong temptation for Israelites. The law of the Old Testament therefore was perfectly clear: there is only one god. To worship any other God enraged Yahweh and brought about his most furious possible wrath, which he demonstrated by wiping out entire cities.

4 The Old Testament vs. Baal Worship

The prophet Elijah confronted the Baal worshipers.
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The Old Testament contains numerous examples of direct confrontation between the new religion and the old. The prophet Elijah challenges Baal’s prophets to a contest, which Elijah wins. Yahweh eradicates Sodom and Gomorrah, whose inhabitants practice Baal worship. But the Old Testament authors were shrewd enough to refashion Baal myths, which would have been familiar to the Israelites, into stories extolling the glory of Yahweh. Just as the New Testament incorporated pagan myths into the Jesus story, the epic story of Baal’s battle with the sea god Yamm was paralleled in Yahweh’s battle with the Egyptian pharaoh in Exodus. Yahweh uses the sea to drown the enemies of his people, a clear demonstration to the ancient worshiper of Yahweh’s superior power. Baal lived on a mountaintop. But as always, Yahweh did him one better. He didn’t just live there. He delivered the sacred book of laws, The Torah, to his people from the top of a mountain. There could be no doubt which god the Israelites were better off worshiping.

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.