In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan explains to Beelzebub, “The mind is its own place, and in itself, it can make a heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven” (Paradise Lost, Book 1, lines 254-255). What Satan failed to mention was that time, etymology, and humanity’s eternal revision of cosmology can similarly make a god of a demon, and a demon of a god. In the West, we are most familiar with Beelzebub, either as a pseudonym for Satan himself, and in more sophisticated Christian demonology, as one of the Seven Princes of Hell, specifically assigned to the deadly sin of Gluttony. The name Beelzebub (and its numerous archaic variants) derives from the Old Testament 2 Kings 1:2-3, 6, and 16, where reference is made to Ba‘al Zebûb (Hebrew—literally “Lord of the Flies”) in reference to the God of the Philistine city of Ekron, but is repeated across the Abrahmic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).
Proto-Semitic is the hypothetical precursor to Near East languages such as Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and South Arabian, and bearing similarities to other languages of the Afroasiatic language family, such as the Ethiopian Amharic (scholars argue about whether the Semitic language group originated in ancient Canaan around 3750 B.C. and was introduced through the Arabian Peninsula to Africa at around 800 B.C. or if Proto-Semitic arrived with migrants from North Africa around 10,000 B.C.). Our earliest written indications of a Semitic language are the appearance of Akkadian names in Sumerian texts in 2800 B.C. Akkadian would remain the lingua franca of the ancient Middle East from roughly 2000 BC – 800 BC, and spawn two variants in the Assyrian and Babylonian languages. Semitic languages feature nonconcatenative morphology, which basically means that words do not consist of syllables, rather are groups of three consonant roots, with meaning varied based on the intervening vowel sounds used. For example, the name Ba’al in Hebrew is based on the triliteral (three consonant morpheme – smallest semantic unit in a language) consisting of bet, ayin, and lamedh and means “Lord”, as in “Lord of”. In Arabic the same trilateral would be bā, ʿayn, lām. The triliteral alone means to possess (as in ownership), therefore “marriage” in Hebrew is also formed from the same root bet, ayin, lahmedh for obvious reasons. The earlier Akkadian term Bēlu is a cognate for the eastern Semitic “Bel,” and the northwest Semitic “Ba’al” and similarly means “Lord”, as a title specifically applied to Gods, rather than a specific deity or and generally not to a human ruler. In short, references to Bel-Marduk in Assyrian inscriptions are referring to the god Marduk. Thus we see Ba’al, the Phoencian god of the city Tyre, Ba’al Hammon as the Phoenician god of Carthage, Ba’al Hadad in Ugarit, Baʿal Zebûb of the Philistine city of Ekron, Ba‘al Pe‘or of Moab, the Syrian Ba’al Šamem, and a host of other Ba’al entitled gods. Ba’al was essentially a divine honorific for many gods, rather than a specific god. The ancient Near East was filled with a lot of Ba’al, so to speak.
Judaism (or rather the strain that survives) likely originated in Bronze Age (3600-1200 B.C.) polytheistic Canaanite religion. The ancient region of Canaan roughly corresponds to modern day Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria and Canaanite religion boasted an extensive pantheon of deities, the names of which may look etymologically familiar: Anat, Athtart (Astarte), Moloch, Ba’al Hadad, Ba’al Hammon, El Elyon (“God Most High”), Dagon, Shamayim, Lotan, Ishat, and a host of other divine creatures. Most of what little we know about Caananite theology derives from tablets discovered in the city of Ugarit (destroyed 1200 B.C.), so we have no clear sense of their cosmology, but the pantheon is referred to as ‘ilhm in Ugaritic, (translated in Hebrew as the familiar “Elohim”, that is, the children of “El”, the Canaanite supreme god). Yahweh (the god of the Israelites) makes his first appearance in Egyptian inscription around 1400-1300 B.C., referencing a god of Edom an area associated with a desert tribe of Shasu Bedouins (in particular the Kenites, from which the theory of Judaic origins called the “Kenite Hypothesis” derives. Migrating Edomite tribes are thought to have brought Yahweh to the southern highlands of Canaan, as there is no mention of a god Yahweh in northern Caanan prior to Biblically, the first king, Saul was a Gibeonite (a tribe of Edom), and as the Bedouin tradition of worship was heavily oriented towards ancestor-worship and local deities, the “god of my fathers” Yahweh” subscribed to by Saul became central to the emerging religion of the Israelites. By roughly the 9th Century B.C., Yahweh is the god of northern Canaan as well. Early Yahwism includes non-derogatory references to other deities such as Asherath, as the Queen of Heaven and consort of Yahweh, other minor gods, and a divine council as late as the 8th Century B.C. Where Yahweh was once regarded as one of the seventy children of El, each a patron deity of an ancient Near East region, but by the 7th Century B.C. El had become synonymous with Yahweh. Orthodox Yahwism in its monotheistic form dates from the late 7th century B.C., and this is where attitudes towards other gods turned ugly. “The essential typology of the chronological development of monotheism in ancient Israel is established with substantial certainty: (1) In the earliest stage of Israelite religion, Yahweh is considered the national deity of Israel, but not the head of the pantheon. (2) Subsequently, Yahweh becomes the head of the Israelite pantheon, but without a denial of existence of other deities. (3) Ultimately, Israelite religion affirms the veracity of monotheism, with Yahweh as the sole deity and the explicit denial of the existence of other deities” (Rollston, 2003, p.112).
The Hebrew Tanakh (the canonization roughly dated to 200 B.C.) includes references to bə’ālîm (plural of Ba’al), as a catch all for “other” gods, and references directly to Baʿal Zebûb specifically as the Philistine god of Ekron appears in 2 Kings 1:2–6:
But an angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Go and confront the messengers of the king of Samaria and say to them, ‘Is there no God in Israel that you go to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? (JPS translation of the Masoretic Text, 2 Kings).
The literal translation of Ba’al Zebub in Hebrew is “Lord of Flies”, which is maintained by Jewish scholars to actually be the equivalent of calling the god Ba’al Zebul (whom this passage is believed to actually refer to) a “pile of dung” or alternatively, a “load of crap”. Ekron was a contested border town in southwest Canaan, between the Kingdom of Philistia and Judah, and as many Canaanite cities, worshiped a local deity in the polytheistic Semitic pantheon. In the solidification of orthodox Yahwism, all other god were considered “false gods”, so differentiation between one Ba’al and another would eventually be considered unnecessary. The vast array of existing Semitic gods prior to the emergence of orthodox Yahwism became demons and monsters in favor of Yahweh. From a local Canaanite deity just trying to get along, Ba’al Zebub has the dubious distinction of emerging from a host of Ba’als as the Prince of Hell. Today’s god is tomorrow’s demon or as French playwright Pierre Cornielle observed “As for our gods, we have a few too many to be true.”
Rollston, Christopher A. “The Rise of Monotheism”. Stone-Campbell Journal: 6 (Spring 2003), p95-115, 2003.