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Ancient Jewish History: Baal - Berith

BAAL-BERITH (Heb. בַּעַל בְּרִית; "Lord of Covenant"), the name of the deity worshiped in the earliest Israelite period at the Temple of Shechem (Judg. 9:4). That temple was destroyed in the 12th century B.C.E. by *Abimelech , the half-Shechemite son of the great judge Gideon (Jerubbaal), after his suppression of a counter-revolt. Abimelech himself had come to power as "king" with the aid of funds from the Baal-Berith temple. As Abimelech's revenge moved apace, the terrified populace sought refuge in the "stronghold of El-Berith" (9:46), where they died en masse. The polemic of the narrative is directed against Abimelech and the conspirators who had profaned the great Shechem temple; it was never again rebuilt, except as a granary, as archaeological work has shown. Critics have suggested that the narrative of Abimelech seems to be an old pre-Deuteronomic account later inserted into the historical work because it explicated a brief Deuteronomic reference to an early particularist tendency in 8:33–35. In that place it is asserted that Israel's whoring after the Baalim consisted of making Baal-Berith their god and forgetting YHWH when they betrayed the family of YHWH's charismatic deliverer. In later circles the original significance of the "house of Baal-Berith" had long been lost, and the element "baal" in such a combination could only smack of the repudiated fertility cult. Something of its earliest significance can be glimpsed, however, in patriarchal stories connecting Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph with the site in various ways and in the archaeology of Shechem. The Baal-Berith temple was preceded on the same site by a Middle Bronze Age fortress-temple, which in turn perpetuated a piece of ground considered holy since the first half of the 18th century B.C.E. Genesis 34:2 personifies Shechem as one of the sons of Hamor ("ass"), reminiscent of Amorite treaty terminology at Mari, where "killing an ass" is a technical term for concluding a covenant. That Joshua-Judges contains no developed conquest tradition for the Shechem area is largely due, according to some scholars, to the influence of the Baal-Berith sanctuary (Josh. 24). According to tradition, such a situation had been anticipated by the strategists (Deut. 27; Josh. 8:30–35).

The Hebrew term Baal-Berit is also applied to the father of the child at a *circumcision (berit) ceremony, and in modern Hebrew the term means "ally" based on the plural form in Genesis 14:13.


G.E. Wright, Shechem: Biography of a Biblical City (1965), 80–138. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: T.J. Lewis, in: JBL, 115 (1996), 401–23; M. Mulder, in: DDD, 141–44.

[Robert G. Boling]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.