Skip To Content

Why Were Two Washington Nationals Named For A Canaanite God?

Now that my home team, the Washington Nationals, is in the World Series, their opponents, the Houston Astros, will find themselves facing a Nationals pitcher named Aníbal Sánchez. A second Nationals player, Asdrúbal Cabrera, played various infield positions until recently and will probably be pinch hitting. Both of these players were born and raised in Venezuela. I have wondered what was behind their rather unusual first names, which I had never heard before they joined the Nationals. The key, it turns out, is in the “bal” ending of the names.

We all know the Bible stories of how the Israelites conquered the Land of Canaan and were warned many times not to associate with the indigenous Canaanites – and especially not to worship their gods. The major Canaanite god, Baal, is mentioned dozens of times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and never in the spirit of inter-religious tolerance.

Of course, Canaanite culture and religion continued despite repeated divine admonitions to the Israelites to destroy their enemy completely. When the Greeks came across the inhabitants of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, they called them Phoenicians – generally taken as a reference in the Greek language to a purple dye that these people made – though the “Phoenicians” apparently called themselves Canaanites.

The seafaring Phoenicians established an empire across the Mediterranean. By the 8th century BCE, the Phoenician city of Tyre had founded the colony of Carthage in what is now Tunisia. Over time, Tyre and other Phoenician cities faded and Carthage itself ruled over an empire, but the Carthaginians never relented in their worship of the Canaanite/Phoenician god Baal.

Eventually, the Carthaginians came into conflict with Rome’s imperial expansion. This conflict was initially centered largely in Spain, where the great general Hannibal consolidated Carthaginian control. When Hannibal departed from Spain in 218 BCE to attack Rome directly, his brother Hasdrubal took command. Hasdrubal spent years in Spain leading troops to defend Carthaginian dominance in the face of Roman attacks. Thus the names of these two Carthaginian generals became part of Spanish culture – Hannibal, meaning “grace of Baal,” as Aníbal and Hasdrubal, meaning “helped by Baal,” as Asdrúbal.

So that’s why two baseball players from Venezuela appearing soon on your flat TV screen have names that are rooted in the religion of the ancient Canaanites.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.