The Pagan Gods That Still Exist in the Holy Land's City Names

Conquerors came and went, but cities all over Israel and the region, not least Jericho and Jerusalem, retained identification with ancient deities

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El, the leader of the Canaanite pantheon: Exhibit in the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, US
El, the leader of the Canaanite pantheonCredit: Daderot
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Place names tend to be very conservative, remaining more or less unchanged over time even when the population that lives in them changes. Take for example Chicago or Toronto: their names retain their Native American origin despite the fact that the local population that once lived there and named them were supplanted by European colonists hundreds of years ago.

Much the same happened in ancient Palestine. Over the years and despite major upheavals, names of the towns and cities of the region often kept their ancient names, even when their populations changed time and again.

According to the story we find in the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Jews occupied the land in a conquest led by Joshua after Moses had led them out of Egypt and through the desert. The story tells that God commanded the Israelites to exterminate the local population of the land they were to inherit so they won’t be tempted to worship foreign gods:

“But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).

If this actually happened, and it probably didn’t, it is quite odd that they continued to call their cities by the names used by the people they had just annihilated, even when they included the names of the very same gods whose worship they were supposed to stomp out. In ancient times, it was common for towns to be named for the town’s main shrine and the tutelary deity worshipped therein. Thus many of the towns and cities mentioned in the Bible, even those said to have been home to Israelites, have the names of foreign gods embedded in them.

In some cases the names of these places are in use to this very day, idolatrous deity and all.

City of the Evening Star

This is the case with Jerusalem, which the Bible and 14th-century tablets found in Amarna, Egypt, confirm was inhabited by Canaanites before it became the capital of Judah. The name of the city was very likely originally Ir Shalem (“The City of Shalem”), likely because the central shrine of the city was dedicated to the god Shalem.

Area E of the the City of David digs, Jerusalem contains habitation layers, from a Bronze Age house to a Hellenistic dovecoteCredit: Ariel David

Shalem, aka Salem, is known to us from the writings discovered in the ancient city state of Ugarit, in today’s Lebanon. He was the personification of the Evening Star.

From the writings of Ugarit we know that the god Shalem had a twin brother, Shahar, the personification of the Morning Star. Shahar was presumably the tutelary god in the town Zareth-Shahar, in what is today central Jordan, which is mentioned in the Bible (Joshua 13:19).

Zareth-Shahar apparently didn’t survive into modern times and its exact location is unknown, but another town dedicated to Shahar and not mentioned in the Bible may have existed on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This site was known by the Arabic name for the morning star, which may be taken as evidence that at some point in the ancient past Shahar was worshipped there. In 1915 the site was purchased by Zionist settlers who founded a kibbutz there, calling it Ayelet HaShachar, a poetic biblical term for the Morning Star (Psalms 22:1).

The names of other cities too reflect the astral worship of their inhabitants. The city Jericho probably derives its name from the city’s ancient tutelary god Yareakh, the moon god, who was very popular in the Ancient Near East. Another site on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee called Beit Yarekh, mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah 1:1), probably attests to the same god being worshipped there in antiquity.

Ruins of palace built by Herod in JerichoCredit: Moshe Gilad

A number of sites mentioned in the Bible have names that attest to worship of the sun god Shemesh: these include Beth-Shemesh (“House of Shemesh,” Joshua 15:10), En-Shemesh (“Spring of Shemesh,”Joshua 15:7), and Ir-Shemesh (“City of Shemesh,” Joshua 19:41). None of these cities survived to modern times, but a place named in Arabic ‘Ain Shems in central Israel is believed to be the site of ancient Beth-Shemesh, and in 1950 a modern Israeli city called Beit Shemesh was established there.

Bowing to Baal

Perhaps the most popular god in Bronze Age Judah was the storm god Baal, at least based on the sheer number of towns and cities named for the deity.

Just east of Jerusalem was a city called Kiryat Baal (“The City of Baal,” Joshua 18:14), just south was a place called Baal Perazim, where David defeated the Philistines (II Samuel 5:17). In southern Judah there was a place called Gur Baal (II Chronicles 26:7), and in northern Israel there were Baal-Gad (Joshua 11:17), Baal-Hermon (Judges 3:3), and Baal-Hazor (II Samuel 13:23). East of the Jordan was a town called Baal-Peor (Numbers 23:28), and another town called Baal Shalishah (II Kings 4:42) existed in some unknown location. Some identify it as the modern Palestinian town Kafr Thulth.

Temple of Baal Shamin seen through two Corinthian columns in the ancient city of Palmyra, SyriaCredit: AFP

The head of the Canaanite pantheon, El, was clearly the tutelary god of Bethel, a town and holy site mentioned quite often in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Genesis 12:8). Based on its location and name, the Palestinian town Beitin, north of Jerusalem, is believed to be ancient Bethel. An Israeli settlement called Beit El was established nearby in 1977.

Beth Dagon in the plains east of ancient Judah (Joshua 15:41) must have had a shrine dedicated to the god Dagon at some point. This was a very ancient god already worshiped extensively in Ebla (southwest of Aleppo) in the 23rd century BCE. He was later adopted by the Philistines as a national god.

The extant writings about Dagon, which are relatively plentiful, do not attest to what kind of god he was. Already in ancient times people had guessed based on his name that he was a god of grain (Hebrew: dagan) or fish (Hebrew: dag), but these are no more than guesses. Anyway, biblical Beit Dagon apparently remained inhabited into the 20th century, until the Palestinian town Bayt Dajan was depopulated by the Haganah in 1948 in the leadup to the Israeli War of Independence. Shortly after this an Israeli town called Beit Dagan arose there, the name of the ancient deity only slightly obscured by altering a single vowel.

Another very ancient Semitic god known from Ebla and still alive in Israeli town names is Reshef, who was venerated well into the Hellenistic period, when he was identified with the god Apollo. What kind of god Reshef was believed to have been is far from certain. He may have been a god of fire (Song of Songs 8:6), a storm god (Psalms 78:48) or a god of pestilence (Habakkuk 3:5). 

During the Persian period, the Phoenicians established a town named for Reshef along the coast of today’s Israel, Arsuf, also known as Apollonia. It remained a major city in Crusader times but was destroyed by the Egyptian Sultan Baibars in the 13th century. In 1936 a moshav was founded near the ancient city and was named Rishpon, still retaining that identity of the tutelary god. Later, a new town founded in the vicinity, in 1995, was named Arsuf.

Crusader-era ruins at Apollonia, aka Arsuf, named for the god ReshefCredit: Moti Milrod
Phoenician statuette probably depicting Reshef, the Phoenician god of storms and warCredit: NearEMPTiness

Moving onto the god Horon: There were two towns named Beth Horon (upper and lower) located north of Jerusalem in biblical times (I Chronicles 7:24). Presumably they were named thus in honor of their tutelary god Horon. This god is known to us from quite a large and varied collection of incantations and amulets calling upon him, discovered throughout the Middle East. He was perhaps a desert god believed to have power to drive away wild animals and snakes. A settlement called Beit Horon was founded east of Jerusalem in 1977.

With all these idolatrous gods lingering in the names of towns and cities, we cannot but wonder what about, the God of Israel, Yahweh?

Surprisingly, not a single town is named for the God of Israel, Yahweh. We can only speculate why this is so. One might suppose that this had to do with the prohibition on uttering God’s holy name, but surely if the ancient Hebrews were comfortable with giving their children names that included YHWH in its truncated forms “yah”, "yau" and “yahu” (e.g., Yehoyahin – Jeconiah; Yermiyahu – Jeremiah; Yeshayahu – Isaiah; Netanyahu, etc.) they could have done so with their towns.

Another possibility is the Torah’s prohibition on worshiping Yahweh outside one single shrine. This could suggests there shouldn’t have been any temples outside of Jerusalem dedicated to Yahweh for the town to be named after.

The thing is, this does not seem to have been the case in the Kingdom of Judah during the First Temple period: the Hebrew Bible tells of numerous places of worship dedicated to Yahweh outside Jerusalem, including those founded by Joshua (Joshua 8:30), “the people” (Judges 21:4), Samuel (I Samuel 7:17), King Saul (I Samuel 14:35), King Jeroboam (I Kings 12:26-33), David (II Samuel 24:25), and Elijah (I Kings 18:32).

Then why were no towns in Israel named for Yahweh? Maybe the most logical answer is that the cult of Yahweh reached Judah relatively late, when the towns already had names, and their residents were not inclined to change the names they bore.

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