Is Baal more than a carved idol? And how did people worship this false god?
Baal (“owner,” “master,” “husband,” “lord” in ancient Phoenician, Hebrew, Amorite, and Aramaic languages) was the name given to several ancient pagan deities. The Baal we read of in the Bible was first associated with the Phoenicians and Canaanites and was originally generally identified with the Dagon deity worshiped by the Philistines (Judg. 16:23ff; 1 Sam. 5:2ff). Worship of this false god gained prominence in a big way during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel during the time of Elijah, especially when Ahab erected an altar and a temple for Baal in Samaria (1 Kings 16:29-33; cf. 2 Kings 10:21, 26-27).
When Elijah prophesied a long drought (1 Kings 17:1), that would have been considered a threat against the Baal cult which was becoming the official state religion of Israel at the time because Baal was the god of fertility. His followers believed he sent dew in the summer and rain in the winter to nourish the earth. His worshipers gave him the title of “rider of the clouds” and believed that another god – Mot, the god of death – put Baal to death each spring but Baal would be resurrected each fall to bring rain upon the land again. Baal worshipers believed he was responsible for seasons of good harvest, fertile wombs for women and livestock, and anything else they thought necessary for prosperity. So Elijah prophesying that Yahweh would bring a long drought was basically a clear challenge to the worship of Baal.
When Elijah later mocked the false god by telling his prophets to basically pray louder because “either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27), those insults were based on the widespread teaching of Baal being basically a very busy god who was constantly involved in the building of his castle, defeating his enemies, being very involved in many sexual conquests, and even stories of Baal not being home when expected and being tired and needing sleep…a story which was usually tied in with the aforementioned accounts of Baal regularly being slain by Mot only to later be resurrected.
In addition to the previously mentioned altar and temple of Baal, the Bible gives some insight into how Baal was worshiped through the recording of how the prophets of Baal both prayed to him and “cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out of them” (1 Kings 18:28). Many ancient religious rituals included cutting oneself, perhaps in an effort to get a deity’s attention or sympathy. Perhaps the Baal prophets cut themselves to cause Baal to have pity on them and show himself, or perhaps to rouse him from the dead per their beliefs. This gives insight into the reasons behind the Old Testament prohibition against cutting oneself (Lev. 19:28; 21:5; Deut. 14:1; cf. Jer. 16:6; 41:5). God clearly did not want His chosen people to follow after the idolatrous practices of the pagan nations around them. Unfortunately, their joining of the Baal cult is just one example of many of how they converted to the pagan ways around them.