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The Hebrew Word “Baal” and Male Authority

The Meanings of Baal: owner, master, husband …

There is a teaching which claims that because the Hebrew word baal (a word used in the Bible) can mean “owner” and “master,” and because it can also mean “husband,” this indicates that God has given husbands authority over their wives.[1] Here are a few notes in response to this contrived idea.

The word baal (בַּעַל) could mean “owner” or “master” in Bible times, and this may well reflect how some ancient people understood the position of husbands.[2] However, a word’s origin can have little to do with how its meanings develop or how it is used in real life.

For example, the English word “husband” developed from a word which meant “owner of the house” or “master of the house.” But practically no English speaker looks at the word “husband” today and thinks it implicitly means “owner, or master, of the house.” In modern use, the word “husband” simply means a “married man.”

We shouldn’t confuse a word’s origin or its etymology with its actual definitions and use, and we shouldn’t confuse or conflate a word’s different and distinct meanings.[3] These basic principles apply to all words, whether they are used by the authors of the Bible or not. And they apply to the word baal.

Baal as “Husband” in the Hebrew Bible

Husbands are not called baal very often in the Hebrew Bible, only about a dozen times in the whole Old Testament. (The more common Hebrew word for “husband” is ish.) A third of the occurrences of baal with the meaning of husband are in the book of Proverbs.

In Proverbs 12:4, a valiant/ virtuous wife (eshet chayil) is described as a crown of her husband (baal). In Proverbs 31, a husband (baal) trusts his valiant/ virtuous wife (eshet chayil) and praises her. (The word occurs in verses 11, 23 and 27 in Proverbs 31.) No statement or phrase in these verses encourages the idea that a husband is the owner or master of these women. Instead, the Proverbs 31 woman appears to have freedom regarding her actions and activities and relatively few of them are done especially for her husband’s sake.

Baal is still used for “husband” in modern Hebrew, but the idea that husbands today are owners or masters is not at all how most people in Israel view married men.

Baal can simply mean “husband,” a “married man.” God, however, prefers to be called “my husband” (ishi) rather than “my master” (baali) by his beloved Israel. In Hosea 2:16, God refers to Israel metaphorically as his wife and declares, “You will call me ‘my husband’ and no longer call me ‘my master.’”[4] (Admittedly, baal is used with a dual sense in verse 16, in a play on words, because in the next verse, in Hosea 2:17, baal refers to the Canaanite god.)

Instructions to Husbands in the New Testament

Neither Jesus nor Paul nor Peter (or any other New Testament character or author) ever tell husbands that they are the owners or masters of their wives. They also never tell husbands to lead their wives or have authority over them.

~ Jesus quoted from Genesis 1 and 2 and spoke about the unity of husband and wife in marriage (Matt 19:4-5//Mark 10:7-8 cf. Gen. 1:26-28; 2:24). Jesus also warned his disciples against having authority over fellow believers.
~ Paul told husbands to love their wives. The apostle used the word “love” 6 times in his instructions to husbands in Ephesians 5:25ff, and his instructions in Colossians 3:19 are straightforward.
~ Peter told men to honour their womenfolk (1 Pet. 3:7f).

Rather than sounding like Jesus or Paul, Christians who promote male authority over their wives sound more like the pagan king Xerxes (also known as Ahasuerus) who, when he was snubbed by his wife Vashti, ordered that “every man should be master  (שָׂרַר-sarar) of his own house” (Esth. 1:22 cf. Esth. 1:20).[5]

It is misleading to use the Hebrew word baal in claims about male authority in Christian relationships. I can’t imagine Jesus would ever make such an argument.


[1] Here is a video on YouTube where a person teaches on baal as the noun and verb. (It begins at the 1.12.35-minute mark.) The speaker brings together many useful scriptures where baal is used. He successfully shows that nothing insidious is implicit in the word, but overall I have issues with his teaching.  One minor point, Sarah does not use the word baal when speaking about her husband Abraham in Genesis 18:12. But I have bigger issues than that.

[2] Several laws in the Old Testament state that a father or husband is to be compensated for injustices towards their daughter or wife. These laws, where men sound like owners of women, reflect the patriarchal culture of the time and are not dissimilar to the idea of coverture that persisted in law until relatively recently. However, patriarchy was never God’s best plan for his people and it has no place in the New Creation where men and women have an equal status as siblings in Christ.

[3] In entries of baal in most lexicons of biblical or classical Hebrew, the definition “owner, master, lord” is separate from the definition of “husband.” “Husband” is more than a nuance of baal, it is a distinct meaning. And “authority” is not necessarily a nuance in every use of baal with the meaning of “husband.”

[4] See Sharona Margolin Halickman’s short article, “Baali (my master) vs. ishi (my husband)” on the Times of Israel website. She writes on the use of ish and baal for “husband” in modern Israel. Some modern Hebrew speakers dislike the word baal for husbands because of it could also mean “owner, master.”

[5] They also sound like the ancient Greek author Plutarch. I compare Plutarch’s views on marriage with Paul’s here: Plutarch and Paul on Husbands and Wives.

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Explore More

Jesus’s Teaching on Leadership and Community
All my articles on Ephesians 5 are here.
A Close Look at Colossians 3:19 (Husbands)
All my articles on 1 Peter 3:1-7 are here.
The Biblical Basis of Egalitarianism in 500 Words
Revisiting Eshet Chayil (“woman of valour”)
King Lemuel’s Mother: The Other Proverbs 31 Woman
Esther’s Story: Setting the Scene
Some Pitfalls of Using Greek-English Dictionaries

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