The Hebrew Bible presents King Omri of Israel and his heirs (the Omride dynasty) as devotees of the Phoenician storm god Baal, whose name literally means “lord.” Whereas King Omri’s son Ahab and his Tyrian queen Jezebel sponsor Baal’s worship and seek to exterminate Yahweh’s prophets (1 Kings 16; 18–19), the prophet Elijah, whose own name means “My God is Yahweh,” promotes the exclusive worship of Yahweh and stands opposed to Baal’s invasion of Israelite religion (1 Kings 18:17–40). The biblical narrative even claims that Yahweh brings down Omri’s dynasty because of its support of Baal over Yahweh (1 Kings 19:14–18).
But were the Omrides of the ninth century BCE really committed followers of Baal and hostile enemies of Yahweh? Is there any historical evidence to corroborate the biblical claims? What if the Omrides did not champion Baal, but actually elevated Yahweh to the position of Israel’s patron deity—a religious revolution that would fundamentally shape biblical religion in the centuries to come?
Importantly, the earliest indisputable evidence for Yahweh’s worship outside of the Hebrew Bible dates to the time of Israel’s Omride kings. The Mesha Stele, an ancient stone monument from Jordan now located in the Louvre Museum, contains the longest extant Northwest Semitic inscription and the first indisputable reference to Yahweh in the historical record.1 The inscription celebrates how King Mesha of Moab, the ruler of a small kingdom east of the Dead Sea, supported by his patron god Chemosh, expelled Omri’s royal heir (who is unnamed) from Moabite territory after a generation of Israelite domination (2 Kings 3). In this context, Mesha reports:
Chemosh said to me: “Go! Seize Nebo from Israel!” I went in the night and fought against it … I seized it and slew all (of it): seven thousand men and boys, women and girls, and pregnant women. It was to (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh (that) I devoted it to destruction. I took from there Yahweh’s vessels and I dragged them before Chemosh.
The Mesha Stele indicates that the Omrides supported a Yahwistic shrine east of the Jordan River in territory disputed between Israel and Moab. The Moabite king’s victory over the Israelites at Nebo included the capture of religious objects dedicated to Yahweh, which Mesha placed before Moab’s god, Chemosh. The political implications of this act are clear: Mesha and the Moabite deity Chemosh had defeated the Omride king and the Israelite god—who is notably identified as Yahweh, not Baal!
Not coincidentally, the Mesha Stele complements other biblical and non-biblical lines of evidence that the Omrides officially endorsed Yahweh as Israel’s patron god. Importantly, the Omrides were the first Israelite dynasty to use names that honored and showed devotion to Yahweh. Ahab named his two sons Ahaziah and Joram (aka Jehoram), meaning “Yahweh has seized (in protection)” and “Yahweh is exalted,” respectively (1 Kings 22:40; 2 Kings 3:1). Historical confirmation of Joram’s name comes from the ninth-century Tel Dan Stele, in which an unnamed Aramean king claims victory over “Joram son of Ahab, king of Israel.” The Bible also informs us that one of Omri’s female descendants was named Athaliah—the oldest female Yahweh-name in the Hebrew Bible—meaning “Yahweh is eminent” (2 Kings 8:26).
While such indications of Omride worship of Yahweh may seem surprising given the biblical account, several stories that likely predate the material polemicizing against Baal actually recognize that the Omrides revered Yahweh. For example, 1 Kings 21:17–29 portrays Ahab humbling himself before Yahweh after Elijah delivers an oracle of judgment—not for Ahab’s alleged worship of Baal, but because he illegally seized Naboth’s vineyard. As a result, a placated Yahweh postpones his judgment of Ahab’s royal house until after his death (v. 29). Another story shows Ahab gathering the kingdom’s prophets to consult Yahweh before going to war against the Arameans (1 Kings 22:5–12).
Inscriptional evidence and Israelite personal names, though circumstantial, confirm that Yahweh was the most popular deity in ninth- and eighth-century Israel, although other deities, including Baal, were undoubtedly worshiped as well (e.g., Hosea 2:16). Israelite inscriptions dated to c. 800 BCE from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a royally sponsored Israelite waystation in the Egyptian Sinai, mention Yahweh more often than any other deity, and one epigraph even refers to the worship of “Yahweh of Samaria,” the capital city of the Northern Kingdom founded by Omri (1 Kings 16:24). The Samaria Ostraca, a group of administrative records dating to the early eighth century found among the ruins of the royal palace at Samaria, frequently mention men with Yahwistic names, while there are substantially fewer personal names that honor other deities. Although this evidence dates to the century following Jehu’s coup in 841 BCE, the recorded names likely reflect traditional Israelite devotion to Yahweh that extended back to the Omride period.
The biblical texts also make clear that Yahweh came to be associated with the language, imagery, and traditions of Baal worship, perhaps as part of a deliberate attempt to elevate Yahweh’s profile and status as the patron deity of the Northern Kingdom. Judges 5:2–11, which twice calls Yahweh the “God of Israel,” depicts Yahweh marching from his mountain home in the deep south (called Seir and Edom) as a warrior storm god much like Baal.2 Similarly, Habakkuk 3:3–15 imagines Yahweh as a storm god who comes to the aid of his king from the south (here named Teman and Paran), but it also draws on the tradition of Baal’s defeat of Yamm, the ancient Levantine god of the sea, as known from the Baal Myth found at Late Bronze Age Ugarit.
Psalm 29, in turn, celebrates Yahweh’s divine kingship manifest in the storm as it moves eastward from the Mediterranean into the coastal mountains, north of Israel. The psalm’s geography and its description of Yahweh’s powerful storm theophany likely relate back to Baal (2 Samuel 22:8–16; Psalm 18:7–15). Psalm 68:4 and Psalm 48:2 also use terminology and traditions that clearly originate with Baal, the former adapting the storm god’s stock epithet “rider on the clouds” for Yahweh, and the latter identifying Yahweh’s holy mountain, Zion in Jerusalem, with Baal’s sacred mountain, Zaphon (Jebel Aqra), north of Ugarit. These and other biblical texts appear to have appropriated more prestigious traditions associated with Baal to aggrandize Yahweh and legitimate his royal representatives in Samaria and Jerusalem.
Iconographic sources from ancient Israel complement the biblical evidence, suggesting that Samaria’s kings officially promoted Yahweh as Israel’s patron god using imagery and motifs drawn from Baal. For instance, Israelite seals and other objects from the time of the northern and southern kingdoms carry Yahwistic names and portray the deity as either a young four-winged god in stride with blossoms in his hands or a youthful sun god kneeling upon a plant—images that reflect Phoenician and Egyptian influence. These images may depict the solarized weather god Baal-Shamem, “Lord of Heaven,” who came to be widely worshiped in the ancient Near East during the first millennium BCE.3 The Israelite elites who used such objects seem to have conceptualized Yahweh’s divinity on the model of Baal-Shamem (Psalm 104:2; Hosea 6:3; Zephaniah 3:5).
Biblical and extra-biblical sources further associate Yahweh with the bull or bull-calf (Hosea 8:5–6, 10:5–6, 13:2), an animal closely identified with Baal in the Ugaritic texts.4 For example, two Iron Age IIB scaraboids from Samaria likely depict Yahweh standing on top of a bovine, while an engraved bronze plaque from ninth-century Tel Dan presents a winged deity riding on a bull. Although the head of the plaque’s divine figure has not survived, the bull and winged god motifs may suggest an identification with a weather god—either Yahweh or Hadad, depending on the political context one reconstructs for the find. Scholars often consider Yahweh’s association with the bull to have been a traditional aspect of Israelite religion. However, it may be that Yahweh only acquired such imagery during his assimilation to Baal in the ninth and eighth centuries.
To sum up, the inscriptional, biblical, and iconographic evidence suggests that, beginning with the Omrides, Samaria’s kings officially promoted Yahweh as Israel’s patron god and used Baal language, imagery, and traditions to enhance Yahweh’s status for their own political gain.
It is in this context that the Northern Kingdom of Israel emerged as a regional power in the ninth century. Non-biblical sources from the southern Levant, such as the Mesha Stele and Tel Dan inscription, show that Israel first expanded its borders north of the Jezreel Valley and east of the Jordan River in the ninth century, under the Omrides. Israel’s Omride kings also established Samaria as Israel’s capital city through the kingdom’s end (1 Kings 16:24, 28). Archaeological evidence, in turn, paints a picture of significant territorial and economic growth under the Omride dynasty. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that Assyrian records identify Omri—not David or Solomon—as the defining political leader from Israel’s past.
More broadly, the ninth and eighth centuries saw the rise of other small kingdoms in the Levant, each with its own royal patron god who, at the head of a small pantheon, provides protection and prosperity for its people (1 Kings 11:33). Chemosh, for example, emerges as Moab’s royal patron and divine warrior, with little evidence for the worship of any other major Moabite deity. Like Yahweh, several of these gods are largely unknown in earlier periods (e.g., Milcom among the Ammonites, Qaus in Edom), though others have a long history in the region (e.g., Hadad in the Aramean kingdoms, Baal and Astarte among the Phoenicians, etc.). Many of these deities are manifestations of, or come to take on attributes and characteristics associated with, the Levantine storm god Baal, particularly in his celestial capacity as the “Lord of Heaven.”
The Omride dynasty’s elevation of Yahweh as Israel’s patron deity and Yahweh’s image as a warrior storm god (like Baal) is to be situated in this broader historical context. Ironically, then, not only did the Omrides not seek to bring Israelite worship of Yahweh to an end, but they laid the Yahwistic foundation for the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, only to be accused by the later authors of 1 and 2 Kings of being ardent worshipers of Baal.
The Hebrew Bible presents King Omri of Israel and his heirs (the Omride dynasty) as devotees of the Phoenician storm god Baal, whose name literally means “lord.” Whereas King Omri’s son Ahab and his Tyrian queen Jezebel sponsor Baal’s worship and seek to exterminate Yahweh’s prophets (1 Kings 16; 18–19), the prophet Elijah, whose own name means “My God is Yahweh,” promotes the exclusive worship of Yahweh and stands opposed to Baal’s invasion of Israelite religion (1 Kings 18:17–40). The biblical narrative even claims that Yahweh brings down Omri’s dynasty because of its support of Baal over Yahweh (1 Kings […]