On Root / Get the 'Ba'al' Rolling

The Hebrew word for husband and owner also runs the gamut from lord of the manor to lord of the flies.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

First comes love, then comes marriage, right? So it only makes sense that after last week's Valentine's vocabulary of romantic rapture, we move on to wedding words, especially the mark of the married male.

The word for husband in Hebrew is ba'al, and if that sounds like it has an Old Testament ring to it – it does.

With Hebrew being the tribal language of the Jews, a fiercely monotheistic people with a notoriously jealous Old Testament God, you'd think that linguistic vestiges of paganism and pagan gods would have been eradicated long ago. But the ancient Canaanite sky god actually crops up in a number of surprising contexts.

Raining and reigning

Over here in this corner of the Near East, we've had a rainy year this year, praise the Lord! Of course if we were true to our Canaanite roots, we wouldn't be giving thanks to a single transcendent cosmic deity of all Creation (i.e., God) but rather to our own particular divinity of storm and rain – Ba'al.

Given that Israel/Canaan/Palestine is a land with no Nile or Tigris or Euphrates to depend on for water, Ba'al - lord of the sky - was a pretty significant god, and in some versions, a sort of Zeus-like head cheese of the Near Eastern pantheon. To this day in Israel, non-irrigated or rain-fed crops are called chaklaut ba'al – "baal agriculture." So much for the eradication of paganism!

The word ba'al sometimes was used in combination, as in the demonic Beelzebub, from ba'al zevuv (see 2 Kings 1), meaning literally "Lord of the Flies," which inspired the William Golding novel of that name.

What do gods do? They fight, conquer, take possession, and rule. And when the sky god is male (as most are), and the personification of earth is female (just think Mother Earth), it's no coincidence at all that this image and name was taken for the title and role of the traditional husband. In general, though, to be a ba'al is to be not only a husband, but an owner or master of anyone, or anything. We'll come back to that.

Beulah, the earth espoused

There is even a verb, liv'ol (the "b" and "v" alternating in initial and medial positions) which means "to have carnal relations with," i.e., sexual conquest and possession. The associations are indeed not the most sensitive or egalitarian. But in traditional sources there are other connotations.

For instance, the English proper name, Beulah, is the feminine passive of this verb. It comes from Isaiah 62:4, where it is applied to the earth, and means "espoused," contrasting with the land and the people being forsaken or desolate.

Likewise, another prophet, Hosea, also speaking of betrothal to God, expresses practically a feminist vision when he says (2:18): "on that day, says the Lord, you shall call Me Ishi ("my man"), and no longer call Me Ba'ali."

Husband with a good name

"Husband" in English was originally "master of the house" (haus-bond), and "husbandry" is indeed a sort of frugal, prudent management. Likewise, a man can be a ba'al bayit, "householder" or "homeowner."

In Yiddish, pronounced balabus, this acquires the additional connotation of middle-class, bourgeois gentry. The woman of the house is the balabuste, "hausfrau," a strong, competent, often dominant, woman (only coincidentally sounding remarkably like "ball-buster").

Ba'al thus can refer to concrete ownership, as in a house or business, or to possessing different qualities or attributes. For instance, a newly-religious "born-again" Jew is known as a ba'al teshuvah, a "master of repentance," or "BT" for short. The founder of the 18th century movement of Hasidism had a lot to say about that and other mystical topics. That was the Ba'al Shem Tov, "master of the Good Name," probably meaning that he knew how to magically use God's name in working miracles. But Mrs. Ba'al Shem Tov might have married him just to have "a husband with a good name."

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

In Hebrew, the pagan god of the sky, the master of the house and the lord of the flies all share a common name.Credit: AP
Ancient pagan altar discovered during excavations at Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon in May 2010.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

Click the alert icon to follow topics: