Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

On the Rise and Fall of Canaanite Religion at Baalbek: A Tale of Five Toponyms

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

On the Rise and Fall of Canaanite Religion at Baalbek: A Tale of Five Toponyms

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

The city of Baalbek, in present-day Lebanon, has been a subject of interest to students of the Bible for more than a millennium. Since the tenth century c.e., many have identified it with Baal-Gad (Josh 11:17) and/or Baalath (1 Kgs 9:18).1 Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, others have connected it, in one way or another, with Bikath-Aven (Amos 1:5). In 1863, these and other suggestions were reviewed by John Hogg in a lengthy treatise.2

The etymology of the toponym, which appears as B'lbk in classical Syriac and as Ba'labakku in classical Arabic, has been widely discussed since the eighteenth century. Many etymologies have been suggested, most of them unconvincing.3 Part of the problem is that a combination of etymologies is needed, for the name of the place changed over the centuries as its religious significance evolved.

In this article, I shall attempt to show that the rise and fall of Canaanite religion at Baalbek from the Bronze Age to the Byzantine period can be traced with the help of five toponyms: (1) Mbk Nhrm (Source of the Two Rivers),4 (2) ... (Valley of Idolatry), (3) ... (Baal of Weeping), (4) ... (Spring of Weeping), and (5) B'lbk/Ba'labakku (Baal-Bacchus). All of these are Semitic; the Greek name of Baalbek, Heliopolis, will not be discussed.5


Toponym 1, probably a poetic toponym,6 is Mbk Nhrm. In the Baal cycle (KTU 1.4 IV 21 and parallels) and in a Ugaritic serpent incantation (KTU 1.100.3), Il's abode is said to be located there. A full review of the literature on this toponym is beyond the scope of this article,7 but one piece of evidence should be mentioned. Othmar Keel, followed by Mark S. Smith, notes that a seal from the Akkadian period at Mari depicts "a god of the type El enthroned, between the springs of two streams, on a mountain."8 If this is really a depiction of Il's abode, it suggests that the latter was above ground, even if the "source of the two rivers" was partly subterranean.

In my view, the Ugaritic toponym (and perhaps the seal from Mari) should be compared with modern descriptions of Baalbek, such as: "Baalbek was a natural centre for the upper part of the Beqa'a, being located at its highest level, at the source of two important rivers. . . ."9 The two rivers in question are Lebanon's greatest rivers, the Litani and the Asi (Orontes), which, according to Ellen Churchill Semple, "rise in a swampy, indeterminate watershed near Baalbek at an altitude of 3,500 feet."10 According to Richard F. Burton and Charles F. Tyrwhitt Drake, the true (scientific) sources of the Litani and the Asi are the 'Ayn el-Baradah and the Nabav el-'Illá, located "within one short mile of each other" and only five or six miles west of the ruins of Baalbek.11 The two sources "are separated by a mere ground wave; . . . whilst two distinct river-valleys, running north and south, have been formed by the erosion of the twin streams."12 It has been argued that Baalbek's location explains its rise to prominence as a religious center:

A more appropriate setting for the abode of gods who represented such material phenomena as rain and tempest, fertility and growth, would be difficult to imagine. Situated near the highest point of the Beqa'a, controlling the watershed between the Orontes river to the north, and the Leontes river to the south, Baalbek combined aspects of a city in a plain with that of a high place, and was thus predestined to become a centre of religious worship.13

Since Baalbek was occupied already in the Early and Middle Bronze Ages,14 it could well have been a religious center in the Late Bronze Age, when the Ugaritic texts were written (and even in the Akkadian period, when the seal from Mari was manufactured). I suggest, therefore, that Ugaritic Mbk Nhrm refers to the site of Baalbek.15

II. ... (Valley of Idolatry)

Toponym 2 is ... …

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