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The Biblical account narrates King Jehu's actions as destroying Baal worship in Israel. It describes a mass murder conducted by Jehu in which hundreds of Baal devotees are destroyed in the Temple of Baal in Samaria. Translations universally report the victims as prophets, priests and servants, but most specify "worshipers" as well. When they do so, the Hebrew word is עָבַד - ʿāḇaḏ which Strong defines as:

a primitive root; to work (in any sense); by implication, to serve, till, (causatively) enslave, etc.:—× be, keep in bondage, be bondmen, bond-service, compel, do, dress, ear, execute, husbandman, keep, labour(-ing man, bring to pass, (cause to, make to) serve(-ing, self), (be, become) servant(-s), do (use) service, till(-er), transgress (from margin), (set a) work, be wrought, worshipper

Here is the RSV version of the text in question from 2 Kings 10:

Then Jehu assembled all the people, and said to them, “Ahab served Ba′al a little; but Jehu will serve him much. 19 Now therefore call to me all the prophets of Ba′al, all his worshipers and all his priests; let none be missing, for I have a great sacrifice to offer to Ba′al; whoever is missing shall not live.” But Jehu did it with cunning in order to destroy the worshipers of Ba′al. 20 And Jehu ordered, “Sanctify a solemn assembly for Ba′al.” So they proclaimed it. 21 And Jehu sent throughout all Israel; and all the worshipers of Ba′al came, so that there was not a man left who did not come. And they entered the house of Ba′al, and the house of Ba′al was filled from one end to the other. 22 He said to him who was in charge of the wardrobe, “Bring out the vestments for all the worshipers of Ba′al.” So he brought out the vestments for them. 23 Then Jehu went into the house of Ba′al with Jehon′adab the son of Rechab; and he said to the worshipers of Ba′al, “Search, and see that there is no servant of the Lord here among you, but only the worshipers of Ba′al.” 24 Then he went in to offer sacrifices and burnt offerings. Now Jehu had stationed eighty men outside, and said, “The man who allows any of those whom I give into your hands to escape shall forfeit his life.” 25 So as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, Jehu said to the guard and to the officers, “Go in and slay them; let not a man escape.” So when they put them to the sword, the guard and the officers cast them out and went into the inner room of the house of Ba′al 26 and they brought out the pillar that was in the house of Ba′al, and burned it. 27 And they demolished the pillar of Ba′al, and demolished the house of Ba′al, and made it a latrine to this day. 28 Thus Jehu wiped out Ba′al from Israel.

In support of 'Worshipers'

'Worshiper' is the choice of the clear majority of translators for 10:22 and several other verses, but the word in question is the same word they translate as "servant" elsewhere. Their decision is apparently contextual: Jehu wants to make sure there are no devotees or Yahweh in the temple but only servants/worshipers of Baal. Surely there could be no actual priests or attending servants of Yahweh attending Baal. Moreover Jehu is described as having "wiped out Baal from Israel," and this would not have been accomplished by killing only his priests, servants and prophets, since new ones could arise from among Baal's other devotees.

In Support of 'Servants'

Against this is the argument that the word עָבַד is normally translated as servant or slave, and the context could just as well be argued in the opposite manner: Corrupt levitical priests could very well serve Baal as well as Yahweh, and destroying the bureaucratic infrastructure of Baal worship could indeed have resulted in "wiping out Baal," though not as effectively as also killing all who worshiped him.

Should we accept the majority view that עָבַד means "worshiper" as well as "servant" in this passage? Or is "servant" the best translation in each case?

Did Jehu massacre only Baal's functionaries, or also his worshipers?

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  • I like the spirit in which this question is asked. +1.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 2, 2023 at 2:39
  • The words 'murder' and 'victims' do not appear in the passage. It is the OP has added these words.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jan 2, 2023 at 9:38
  • Admittedly those are my own words. I could willingly change "murder" to "killing," but I must insist that those who died were victims. But the question is outside of that issue: were 'worshipers' included or only religious functionaries? Commented Jan 2, 2023 at 13:56

2 Answers 2

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Moses commands the Israelites in (ESV) Exodus 20:

4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down [H7812] to them or serve [H5647] them

There is a strong linkage between serving [H5647] an idol and worshipping [H7812] an idol. Unfortunately, there is no single Hebrew word that unambiguous means worship in English, so sometimes, H5647 is used and sometimes H7812 is used.

ESV 2 Kings 10:

18Then Jehu assembled all the people and said to them, “Ahab served [H5647] Baal a little",

i.e., Ahab worshipped and served Baal

"Jehu will serve [H5647] him much. 19 Now therefore call to me all the prophets of Baal, all his worshipers [H5647] and all his priests.

Jehu listed the prophets and priests who were functionaries, plus the H5647 who might not be official functionaries. Further, he used "all" three times. He really wanted to get the word out: He wanted everyone who believed in Baal, whether you were offical servant or ordinary worshippers (H5657-servants). He continued:

Let none be missing, for I have a great sacrifice to offer to Baal. Whoever is missing shall not live.” But Jehu did it with cunning in order to destroy the worshipers [H5647] of Baal.

Did Jehu massacre only Baal's functionaries or also his worshipers in 2 Kings 10?

I would say both.

Benson explained:

All his worshippers, as the word here rendered servants is translated in the close of this verse. If it be inquired how all these could be contained in one house of Baal, it may be answered, that the number of the worshippers of Baal had been greatly diminished by the ministry of Elijah and Elisha, and the rest of the prophets; and by Joram’s neglect and disuse of that worship. Besides, this house or temple of Baal was probably very large and capacious, being in the royal city, nigh the king’s palace, and intended for the use of the king, queen, and whole court, and for great and high solemnities, and therefore was the chief building of the sort in the kingdom. Moreover, as by the house or temple of God, at Jerusalem, we are frequently to understand, not only the principal building, but all the other buildings or courts belonging to it, in which the worshippers stood when they worshipped, so it might be here; and in that case there would be space sufficient for all the worshippers of Baal that can reasonably be thought to have been at that time in Israel.

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  • I decided to accept this answer, although I also upvoted @Dottard's response, which argues the opposite. Both are useful and provide good research. Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 18:46
  • Thanks. In fact, Dottard is my hero in this community :)
    – user35953
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 20:32
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With very few exceptions, there are really only two Hebrew words that it is possible to translate "worship" (as a verb) and its cognate noun, "worshipers":

  • שָׁחָה (shachah) = to bow down, worship, do obeisance, occurs 172 times, eg, Gen 18:2, 19:1, 22:5, 23:7, etc. It is broadly similar to the NT προσκυνέω, eg, Matt 2:2, 8, 11, 4:9, 10, etc.
  • עָבַד (abad) = to serve, work for, give service to, occurs 289 times, eg, Gen 2:5, 15, 3:23, Josh 24:15, etc. This occurs in 2 Kings 10:18, 19, 21, 22, 23. It is braodly equivalent to the NT δουλεύω, eg, Matt 6:24, Luke 15:29, 16:13, John 8:33, Acts 7:7, 20:19, etc.

It is the second of these verbs that is the subject of this question. It is true that עָבַד (abad) is used (inter alia) of the following

  • people serving God, eg, Ex 3:12, 4:23, 7:16, 26, Ps 22:31, Job 21:15, etc
  • people serving false gods, eg, Deut 7:4, 8:19, 11:16, 16, 12:2, etc.
  • levitical service, eg, Num 3:7, 8, 4:23, 30, 47, etc.

Thus, like its NT cousin, עָבַד (abad) describes serving in a general sense and not specifically worshiping. For this and the following reasons, I suggest that in 2 Kings 10, עָבַד (abad) means "servants" not worshipers of Baal:

  • a majority of the (northern) nation of Israel were, at the time, apostatized to Baal worship. It would have been impossible for even a small part of the population of the city of Samaria to fit into the temple of Baal. Yet, in 2 Kings 10:19, Jehu ensure that "no one is missing". See also V21.
  • It would have been impossible for Jehu's personal guard to slaughter the entire population of Baal adherents; however, the "servants of Baal" (functionaries) would have been a much smaller group.
  • The KJV (and a few others) treats this passage in 2 Kings 19 as an exception to the general translation of "serve" by inexplicably translating עָבַד (abad) as "worship" - every other instance, it is translated as "serve", "work for" or similar.
  • Jehu specifically summons the "prophets, priests and servants of Baal". If he wanted to slaughter all worshipers generally, then he might have simply asked for all worshipers. Thus, the contexts suggests functionaries rather than general worshipers.
  • Jehu would have known that as a new king, he would not want to slaughter more than half the population, else he would ruin the economy of the city and country. By slaughtering only the officials and functionaries (who did not contribute to the economy), little or no effect would be felt economically.

Therefore, in keeping with עָבַד (abad)'s normal useage, I suggest the best, consistent translation in 2 Kings 10 should be "serve" and "servants" (and not worshipers).

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  • These are all good arguments, although I do think that being a "servant" of Baal does not necessarily imply a formal office. If "worshipers" is correct then "wiped out Baal" is a hyperbole. But if your are correct then why do the clear majority of translators use "worshipers" in several verses? (I don't expect you to get into their heads, but do you have a sense as to why this is?) Commented Jan 2, 2023 at 13:48
  • @DanFefferman - First, hyperbole is common in Bible literature. Second, modern versions are about (numerically) equally divided between "worshipers" and "servants"/"slaves" of Baal.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 2, 2023 at 20:08
  • I agree with your first sentence but not the second. For 2 Kgs 10:22 it looks like about 80 percent of translators chose "worshipers". Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 22:59

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