The Israelites' lack of faith while Moses was on Mt. Sinai made them feel insecure. Moses was gone less than 40 days when the Israelites fashioned a calf of molded gold to substitute for the invisible Creator God. In their own minds, they had reduced God to something they could control and call upon when convenient. Those who repented were ashamed at what they had done.
Moses' life was full of lessons and instruction, and at the end of his life, he left Israel and us a song that encapsulates much of what he learned about godly living. This is not apparent at first because it seems to be a prophecy of Israel's future, but Moses himself tells us in Deuteronomy 32:2 that his song concerns "doctrine" (KJV) or "teaching" (NKJV).
What is the doctrine he is trying to explain to us? The doctrine of God Himself! In this song, Moses is "proclaim[ing] the name of the LORD" (see also Exodus 33:12-23; 34:1-9)! He summarizes in Deuteronomy 32:4 exactly what he means: "He is the Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He." An accurate conception of God is a Christian's first concern, for if we truly understand God, we will respond properly to Him and live in a godly manner.
Moses' song breaks down into five sections:
1) Introduction (verses 1-4);
2) God's faithfulness versus Israel's faithlessness (verses 5-18);
3) God's just chastisement of Israel (verses 19-33);
4) God's eventual compassion on Israel (verses 34-42);
5) Conclusion (verse 43).
From this simple summary of the song, we can see the main themes Moses is attempting to expound. First, God is always faithful, right, just, provident, and merciful in all His dealings with Israel. God Himself "found" Israel, and nurtured, protected, and instructed its people "as the apple of His eye" (verse 10). He gave them the best and "choicest" of the earth (verse 14).
Second, the Israelites always forsook Him and turned to other gods, even to the point of sacrificing to demons (verses 15-18). It is the height of irony that Moses uses the term "Jeshurun" to name Israel, as it means "upright one"! Whether this means that God saw Israel in this idealistic way or this is how the Israelites saw themselves is not known, but their actions certainly show them not to be worthy of the name.
Third, God's reaction to their idolatry—various deadly disasters ending in scattering (verses 23-26)—is justified by their faithlessness to the covenant (verses 19-20). Even so, God restrains His wrath, "fearing" (that is, "worried" or "concerned") that Israel's enemies would misunderstand His actions against Israel and take credit for its downfall themselves (verse 27). Moses concludes this section by saying that this happened to Israel because they failed in two areas: 1) foreseeing the consequences of their behavior, and 2) failing to understand God's character.
Fourth, though God takes vengeance and inflicts punishment, He is also a God of compassion and mercy (verses 35-36). Once He sees that the remnant of Israel learns its lesson—that the gods they worshipped are nothing compared to the true God (verses 37-39)—He will pardon them so they can resume their relationship. Maybe then they will understand that what God says He will do—and does in abundance (verses 40-42)!
To conclude the song, Moses brings in a New Covenant image of the Gentiles rejoicing with Israel because God is faithful to His promises and will provide atonement for His people (verse 43). As Paul shows in Romans 15:8-12, it is through the atoning work of Jesus Christ that salvation has come to both Israelite and Gentile, and they can now sing praises together as His people, spiritual Israel.
After the song was sung, Moses gives Israel a final bit of advice: "Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today. . . . For it is not a futile thing for you, because it is your life, and by this word you shall prolong your days . . ." (Deuteronomy 32:46-47). Because of our calling, we have an even greater reason to take this advice from God's servant Moses, a psalmist.
Jeshurun, meaning "the upright," is a poetical name for Israel carried over from her earlier uprightness, before she took for granted the physical and spiritual blessings that God provided. The metaphor Moses uses derives from a pampered animal that, instead of being tame and gentle, becomes mischievous and vicious as a result of good living and spoiled treatment. Israel did this in various acts of rebellion, murmuring, and idolatrous apostasy.
Symbolically, adultery is used to express unfaithfulness to God, and we can easily see this in Israel's idolatry. God is represented as the husband of His people. Ezekiel 16:15-59 gives a graphic description of Israel's spiritual adultery, and Hosea 1:1-2 shows the same symbolism in Hosea's marriage. We can fall into spiritual adultery by relying on the world and its false teaching rather than God.
In the intervening years, from the time that Levi came into Egypt with his father Jacob, the Israelites had forgotten about God. They had given up their monotheism, their worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Instead, they had copied the people of the land and began worshipping the gods of Egypt (their progenitors had also done so in other lands). Regarding this same period of time, Ezekiel says:
Say to them, "Thus says the Lord GOD: 'On the day when I chose Israel and raised My hand in an oath to the descendants of the house of Jacob, and made Myself known to them. . . .'" (Ezekiel 20:5)
Remember this phrase, "made Myself known to them." Had they forgotten Him in Egypt? Yes, they had. They did not know God any longer. Just a few did, like Amram and Jochebed, who retained the religion, the worship of God.
"'...and made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt, I raised [lifted] My hand in an oath to them, saying, "I am the LORD your God." On that day I raised [lifted] My hand in an oath to them, to bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, "flowing with milk and honey," the glory of all lands. Then I said to them, "Each of you, throw away the abominations which are before his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the LORD your God." But they rebelled against Me and would not obey Me. They did not all cast away the abominations which were before their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I said, "I will pour out My fury on them and fulfill My anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt."'" (Ezekiel 20:5-8)
The Sabbath was forgotten. We know that circumcision was also forgotten because of what happened in the wilderness and when Joshua took them into the land. In the wilderness, they had to circumcise the men. Why were not they already circumcised? Because they had forgotten the covenant that God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Instead, they adopted the religions of Egypt and were worshipping false gods and participating in heathen festivals.
2 Kings 17:5-17
II Kings 17:7-17 catalogs the sins of Israel:
» Widespread idolatry. Israel "feared other gods" (verse 7). "They built for themselves high places in all their cities . . . . They set up for themselves sacred pillars and wooden images on every high hill and under every green tree; and there they burned incense on all the high places, as the nations had done whom the LORDhad carried away before them." (verses 9-11). Further, they "followed idols, became idolaters, and . . . made for themselves a molded image and two calves, made a wooden image and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served Baal" (verses 15-16).
» Pagan Religious Practices. The Israelites "caused their sons and daughters to pass through the fire, practiced witchcraft and soothsaying, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke Him to anger" (verse 17).
» Rejection of God's Law. Israel "walked in the statutes of the nations whom the LORD had cast out from before the children of Israel." (verse 8). Verse 15 points out that the people "rejected [God's] statutes and His covenant that He had made with their fathers, and His testimonies which He had testified against them." The prophet Amos particularizes the epidemic of social injustice in the Kingdom of Israel. As an example, notice Amos 2:6-7, where Amos chides the Israelites: ". . . because they sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals. They pant after the dust of the earth which is on the head of the poor, and pervert the way of the humble." The Israelites displayed a pandemic failure to love their fellow man.
II Kings 17:5-6 relates the ultimate consequence.
Now the king of Assyria went throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria and besieged it for three years. . . . The king of Assyria took Samaria and carried Israel away to Assyria, and placed them in Halah and by the Habor, the River of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.
Assyria, a kingdom known as much for its innovative weapons as for their brutal implementation, conquered the Kingdom of Israel in 718 BC. So it was that, about 250 years after it was established, the ten-tribed northern kingdom became extinct as a sovereign nation. The Assyrians deported the population en masse from its homeland in Canaan, transplanting it virtually in tototo the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. The Kingdom of Israel fell below the historian's radar.
2 Kings 17:5-8
God was thorough. He just wiped them all out of the land of Canaan and sent them into the cities of the Medes and into Assyria—exiled. And in a way, they are still in exile. God has led them to the lands that He was holding for them.
The descendants of Israel who went into exile do not know that their homeland is back in Canaan. They have never gone back. That is a detail of how thorough God's exile of Israel was—they forgot everything. Just as He prophesied in Deuteronomy 28, the Israelites went into other lands and took gods of wood and stone and completely forgot their past.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
How to Survive Exile
Related Topics: Assyrian Captivity | Babylonian Captivity | Captivity of Israel | Descendants of Israel | Diaspora | Exile | Identity of Israel | Israel's Identity | Israel's Idolatry | Israel, Identity of | Israel, Migration of | Scattering of Israel
Psalm 78 gives a clear and concise history of Israel's relationship with God. The psalmist illustrates four steps that led to their rebellion:
1. They forgot God's goodness (verse 11).
2. They tested God by insisting that He satisfy their lusts (verses 18-19).
3. They played moral hide-and-seek with God, which is hypocrisy; they served Him only when they discovered for the moment they could not escape Him (verses 35-37).
4. Finally, they substituted idols for God at the center of their lives (verses 57-58).
Israel never got the true picture. Because they were walking by sight, and not by faith, they were so impressed with what they saw that they limited God's ability to create His heart and mind in them (verse 41).
Searching for Israel (Part Six): Israel Is Fallen, Is Fallen
Because the Kingdom of Judah had seen the results of Israel's idolatry—had witnessed the catastrophe of her fall and mass deportation, but had refused to repent--God judges that "backsliding Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah" (verse 11).
God, through a number of prophets, warns Judah not to follow Israel's course. For example, Hosea, using harlotry as an analogy for idolatry, pleads, "Though you, Israel, play the harlot, let not Judah offend" (Hosea 4:15).
With a few exceptions, notably Hezekiah and Josiah, the kings of Judah were more corrupt than their counterparts in the north. Israel set the pace into idolatry, and Judah enthusiastically followed. "Israel and Ephraim stumble in their iniquity; Judah also stumbles with them" (Hosea 5:5).
God is speaking about the two nations, Israel and Judah. Israel had gone into captivity over a hundred years before Jeremiah came along. God is relating what Judah did after it saw that Israel had gone into captivity for its sins.
He uses marriage as an analogy of His relationship with His people—first with Israel and Judah and later with the church—in order to help us see clearly what is required of us. He calls Israel His wife, but Israel was not faithful in that the people committed idolatry. God considers this spiritual idolatry as being the same as, or similar to, the committing of adultery in a human marriage.
This is why He calls idolatry "adultery." It is unfaithfulness to a vow, a contract, a covenant, or an agreement. The two partners in the agreement, God and Israel, said, "I do" to be Husband and wife. God was faithful, upholding His part of that relationship, but Israel was unfaithful to those vows, committing adultery through idolatry, by worshiping other gods.
Notice how strong God's language is: He uses the word "treacherous." He calls Judah's unfaithfulness, her idolatry, her spiritual adultery "treachery." It is a word that is reserved for the most despicable breaches of trust. We do not like to use it even when speaking of adultery, so we soften it, using a euphemism like saying he or she "had an affair." God calls it what it is—treachery, an egregious violation of allegiance, of trust.
Whether a person is treacherous, that is, unfaithful, or whether he is faithful to his vows, both results have to be worked at, but the former comes easier than the latter because treachery follows the natural course of human nature. We have all done what Israel and Judea did through sin, alienating ourselves from Him.
God does with us individually as He was willing to do with Israel and Judah as nations. He says, "Yes, you've committed these unfaithful sins, but if you'll just return to Me, I'll still accept you as my wife." He is willing to forgive. The condition, however, is repentance—real change in attitude and behavior.
There is a lot of emotion in the word "broken." The marginal reference for it gives "crushed." Godsays, "I am crushed." This is how He felt in the rejection He received from Israel within this marriage.
The idols represent what she greatly desired, and as the context clearly shows, what she greatly desired, God (her Husband) prohibited.
This "whoring" is their fickle drive. They were always curious about how others did things. They were always ready for excitement in some new thing and ever willing to experience a variety of things. Almost always what she chased after was outside the guidelines that God gave in His commands, but to her His commands always appeared to be denying her pleasure.
"Idols" represent what she greatly desired and expended her efforts to possess. As the context shows, what she greatly desired God, her Husband, prohibited. These fickle lusts led Israel into relationships with ways of life other than God's. Her drive for the "excitement" of experiencing some new thing led her to make those other ways her ways. God labels this as adultery because she abandoned Him for them.
Usually what Israel chased after was outside the guidelines God gave in His commands. However, to her His commands always appeared to be denying her pleasure. Hosea, though the earliest of the prophets to connect spiritual idolatry to the sexual sin of adultery, was far from the last, as this verse in Ezekiel suggests.
Ezekiel 20:15-16 refers to a historical situation that shows idolatry's deceptive nature. These verses summarize that Israel went into captivity and were scattered primarily as the result of idolatry and Sabbath-breaking. As they were breaking those commands, did they believe that doing so would take them into captivity? Probably not, but we can believe it because God records it for our admonition! It is interesting that idolatry and Sabbath-breaking are linked, because the breaking of either leads directly to the breaking of the other.
We can see Ezekiel's general accusation against Israel's idolatry in the specific example of Judah in the writings of his contemporary, Jeremiah. This occurred just before Judah completely collapsed and the Jews were led into Babylonian captivity. At that time, God flooded the nation with godly prophets to give the people a final warning:
From the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, even to this day, this is the twenty-third year in which the word of the LORD has come to me; and I have spoken to you, rising early and speaking, but you have not listened. And the LORD has sent to you all His servants the prophets, rising early and sending them, but you have not listened nor inclined your ear to hear. They said, "Repent now everyone of his evil way and his evil doing, and dwell in the land that the LORD has given to you and your fathers forever and ever. Do not go after other gods to serve them and worship them, and do not provoke Me to anger with the works of your hand; and I will not harm you." "Yet you have not listened to Me," says the LORD, "that you might provoke Me to anger with the works of your hands to your own hurt." (Jeremiah 25:3-7)
Many prophets witnessed against the Jews, but no lasting repentance occurred. A key to understanding why nothing changed is found in verses 6-7 in the phrase, "provoke Me to anger with the works of your hands." "Works of your hands" indicates concepts, ideas, and notions developed from their own minds, not from the Creator's. He refers, of course, to their idolatry. The deceptive nature of idolatry and Sabbath-breaking is such that their damaging effects are more subtle than other sins' effects. The pains of the penalties usually come so much later that most are unable to connect the true spiritual cause with the individual's or culture's moral and spiritual degeneracy.
If one lies, steals, or commits murder, the effects are almost always immediately evident, but this is not so with idolatry and Sabbath-breaking. With those who do not know God, breaking the first commandment leads to breaking the fourth. However, with the converted—those who know the truth—breaking the fourth can just as easily lead to breaking the first.
The Bible reveals that the effect of breaking the first commandment is to break the second, and eventually all the other commandments (James 2:10). In practical experience, this happens because, once a person is no longer responding to the Creator God's values, someone or something else has to be put in His place. Man will worship—that is, give his devotion to—something, and that something is more often than not himselfand his own creations!
God specifically draws attention to idolatry and Sabbath-breaking as powerful irritants to His relationship with Israel. The Israelites began breaking these commandments right from the get-go in the wilderness, and they apparently never really understood what He wanted from them regarding them.
The book of Hosea's dominant theme is Israel's faithlessness. Hosea is especially creative in his use of metaphors to describe the relationship between Israel and God, but the two dominant ones are suggested in this verse. The primary one is Israel as a faithless wife, and the secondary one is Israel as a rebellious child (rebelling against God's law). Harlotry indicates sexual wantonness. If the person committing harlotry were married, it would suggest extreme faithlessness to his or her vows of marriage. In a spiritual covenant relationship with God, however, it indicates idolatry.
In tandem with the metaphors regarding Israel, the prophet uses two main family-relationship themes. In the first, God is shown as a faithful Husband, and in the second, as a loving and longsuffering Parent. In each case, Israel is faithless in carrying out responsibilities within the relationship, which God calls adultery and harlotry. God's judgment was occasioned by Israel departing from duties agreed to in a contract, the Covenant.
The “three measures of meal” first show up in Genesis 18:6: “So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, 'Quickly, make ready three measures of fine meal; knead it and make cakes.'” The occasion was God's meeting with Abraham and Sarah to promise them a son, the next step—a miraculous one—in the growth of the family/kingdom. The meal symbolizes the fellowship between God and the family of Abraham.
The Jews in Jesus' audience were quick to claim Abraham as their father (John 8:39), and the “three measures of meal” refers to something easily recognizable in their history. But then Jesusintroduces a subversive element into the story. Over time, something happened to the fellowship between God and the expanding house of Abraham—the kingdom became “all leavened.” Many commenters hold that this parable teaches that the gospel will spread over all the earth in the same way that leaven spreads, but this interpretation overlooks both the context and the fact that God's Word never uses leaven positively. Instead, leaven is universally a symbol of corruption, especially of apostate doctrine and practice (Matthew 16:11-12; Luke 12:1; I Corinthians 5:8; Galatians 5:7-9).
The parable indicates, then, that the covenantal relationship between God and Abraham's family had completely degenerated. Israel “took” of pagan belief systems from the nations around her and introduced those corrupting ways into her relationship with God. The Judaism that Jesus encountered was a noxious blend of some Scripture with beliefs and practices picked up during the Babylonian captivity and flavored with Hellenism and the hardened traditions of previous generations. When Jesus delivered the parables, the major problem within the kingdom was not the idolatry of graven images as before the captivity, but one of false beliefs. He did not have to contend with pagan temples and high places, but with hearts hardened by anti-God doctrines and practices.
The beliefs and practices that Jesus encountered suggested a thoroughly leavened covenantal relationship, such that “He came to His own”—the descendants of Abraham, in particular—“and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). Therefore, as He later informed the religious leaders, God would take the kingdom from its current caretakers and give it to a spiritual nation—the spiritual seed of Abraham, those who are Israelites because of their faith in Him rather than their physical lineage.
1 Corinthians 10:12-14
This passage appears in the midst of an epistle detailing the problems of a tumultuous congregation. Paul draws on the experiences of Israel in the wilderness as examples to us. He concludes by telling them, despite what manner of sin each individual was involved in, to turn their attention to overcoming idolatry. In others words, idolatry sat at the foundation and was ultimately the cause of whatever their sin happened to be.
Throughout the Old Testament in the Bible, we find what seems a confusing trend of idol worship among the Israelites, who especially struggled with the worship of Baal and Asherah (or Ashtoreth). God had commanded Israel not to worship idols (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7)—indeed, they were to avoid even mentioning a false god’s name (Exodus 23:13). They were warned not to intermarry with the pagan nations and to avoid practices that might be construed as pagan worship rites (Leviticus 20:23; 2 Kings 17:15; Ezekiel 11:12). Israel was a nation chosen by God to one day bear the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. Yet, even with so much riding on their heritage and future, Israel continued to struggle with idol worship.
After the death of Joshua, the worship of Baal and Asherah became a plague upon the Israelites and was a perennial problem. Baal, also known as the sun god or the storm god, is the name of the supreme male deity worshiped by ancient Phoenicians and Canaanites. Asherah, the moon goddess, was the principal female deity worshiped by ancient Syrians, Phoenicians, and Canaanites. The Israelites neglected to heed the Lord’s warning not to compromise with idolaters. The ensuing generations forgot the God who had rescued them from Egypt (Judges 2:10–12).
Of course, the period of the judges wasn’t the first time Israel had been tempted by idol worship. In Exodus 32, we see how quickly the Israelites gave up on Moses’ return from Mount Sinai and created an idol of gold for themselves. Ezekiel 20 reveals a summary of the Israelites’ affairs with idols and God’s relentless mercy on His children (also see 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles).
As for why the worship of Baal and Asherah specifically was such a problem for Israel, there are several reasons we can cite: first, the worship of Baal and Asherah held the allure of illicit sex, since the religion involved ritual prostitution. This is exactly what we see in the incident of Baal of Peor, as “the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods” (Numbers 25:1–2). It was during this episode that an Israelite named Zimri brazenly brought a Midianite woman into the camp and went straight to his tent, where the two began having sex (verses 6–8, 14).
Another reason that the worship of Baal and Asherah was a perennial problem for Israel is due to what we could call national peer pressure. Israel wanted to be like the other nations (see 1 Samuel 8:5, 20). The other nations worshiped Baal and Asherah, and so many Israelites felt a pull to do the same.
Of course, we cannot overlook the fact of Satan’s temptations and mankind’s basic sinfulness. The enemy of our souls tempted Israel to worship idols; the sacrifices made to Baal and Asherah were really sacrifices to demons (1 Corinthians 10:20). The stubborn willfulness of humanity works in tandem with Satan’s seductions and causes us to jump at any chance to rebel against God. Thus Israel repeatedly forsook God’s commands, despite losing God’s blessings, and chased after the Baals and Asherahs to their own destruction.
The book of Hosea aptly uses adultery as a metaphor in describing Israel’s problem with idol worship. The Israelites were trapped in a vicious cycle of idol worship, punishment, restoration, then forgiveness, after which they went back to their idols once more. God’s patience with Israel is unfathomable by human standards; God’s nature is the essence of love, and He gives His sons and daughters chances to repent (1 John 4:8; Romans 8:38–39; 2 Peter 3:9).
The problem of Baal and Asherah worship was finally solved after God removed Israel from the Promised Land. Due to the Israelites’ idolatry and disregard of the Law, God brought the nations of Assyria and Babylon against them in an act of judgment. After the exile, Israel was restored to the land, and the people did not dally again with idols.
While Christians today may be quick to judge the Israelites for their idolatry, we must remember that idols take many forms. Idolatrous sins still lure and tempt the modern-day believer (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8–10), though perhaps they have taken new shapes. Instead of ancient forms of Baal and Asherah, we today sometimes honor possessions, success, physical pleasure, and religious perfection to the dishonoring of God. Just as God disciplined the Israelites for their idolatry and forgave them when they repented, He will graciously discipline us and extend the offer of forgiveness in Christ (Hebrews 12:7–11; 1 John 1:9; 2 Peter 3:9).
In Leviticus 18, the Lord contrasts the laws He gives to the Israelites to those of the nations surrounding them. A look at some of the details of these laws offers much insight both for biblical understanding and contemporary applications.
Leviticus 18:24 says, “'Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled.” What were “any of these ways”? Chapter 18 focuses on immoral sexual practices, including incest, bestiality, same-sex activity, and adultery. In addition to prohibiting sexual immorality, Leviticus 18 addresses the heinous practice of sacrificing children to Molech (verse 21).
Following this list of commands, the Lord says that it was these sins that defiled the land of Canaan: “This is how the nations . . . became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:24–25).
Three times in the final verses of this chapter, the Lord calls the sexual sins and child sacrifice “detestable things” (or “abominations” in some translations). Again, the emphasis of Leviticus 18 is on living differently from the surrounding nations, specifically Egypt and Canaan. In contrast, the Israelites were to live as “clean” before Him.
Further, the “abominable” actions listed in Leviticus 18 were the reason God removed the Canaanites from the land. This people group had lived in rebellion to God and His ways, and the Israelites were given their land instead.
What contemporary applications can be made from these verses? First, many of the sinful practices of an ungodly society are related to sexual immorality and the exploitation of women and children. Second, God’s people are clearly commanded to live in a manner distinct from the surrounding culture. The goal is not to “fit in” but to “stand out” as people who live by a moral standard given by God.
Immediately following Leviticus 18 is a passage that focuses on God’s holiness and the command to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:1, 18). The goal in these commands is not simply to declare what God is against, but also to emphasize who He is, His greatness, and the positive response His people should have toward Him and toward other people.
Canaan was not an empty land when the wandering Hebrews entered it. There were people there. They were the Canaanites, who had lived there for thousands of years.
These people had their own ways, and their own religious practices. They venerated cosmic forces, and they made images to represent these forces – images made of stone, wood or metal, moulded or carved by their craftsmen.
Some of them were works of art, over-laid with precious metals and stones. Often they were mass produced ﬁgurines of stone or clay. The Hebrew prophets called them ba‘alim, elilim and asherahs.
The prophets and priests were horrified by any influence that neighbouring countries had on the religious life of Israel.
This influence could show up in
- Hebrew sacriﬁces and funerary rites
- worship at the ‘high places’
- the style and lay-out of temples, and
- religious symbols.
Despite this, Bible stories insist that the children of Israel rejected Canaanite religious customs. They were to hold themselves separate.
Stone wall relief of the fierce goddess Anat
They point out that although Yahweh
- controlled the elements (see the great battle in the Song of Deborah)
- and the heavenly bodies (Josiah 10:12 ff)
- and rode on the wings of the storm (Psalm 29),
And even though he might bless the land with fertile crops, (Genesis 49:25 If; Dueteronomy 33:11-16), Yahweh was in no sense a fertility god.
During the period of JudgesAs the Israelites abandoned their semi-nomadic way of living and took up farming, many of them saw the Canaanite focus on the gods of fertility as a sensible alternative. They began propitiating the ancient gods who promised fertility and a good harvest.
It worked in the opposite direction too. Many Canaanites were absorbed into Israelite society. In time they became worshippers of Yahweh – but they kept their old allegiance to the agrarian gods as well.
As a result, Yahweh became confused with Ba‘al, both at the farming and cosmic level. The book of Judges is full of examples of this. For example, the worship of Ba‘al existed in Gideon’s home town and even in the house of Saul.
During the MonarchyStone plaque of the Canaanite rain god Baal
The fundamental danger may have increased following the conquests of David and King Solomon, when previously unconquered Canaanites joined the Israelite kingdom. Though they served a new king, they remembered their ancestral ways.
Later on, when Solomon’s kingdom was split in two, most people in the Northern Kingdom had strong connections to the worship of Baal. Jezebel, herself a Phoenician princess, encouraged the immigration of many Phoenicians.
- Ahab, husband of Jezebel, built a temple to Ba‘al.
- The Tyrian Ba‘al cult reappeared later on in Queen Athaliah’s court in Jerusalem (see Athaliah, ruthless queen).
In all the excavations of Israelite towns, large numbers of small statues and plaques have been found. These are usually clay, with a nude ﬁgure in relief. They are from the Middle Bronze Age (roughly the period of the patriarchs) and were popular as long as the Israelite kings reigned.
The ﬁgures were usually found in the ruins of houses rather than sanctuaries. This is important, because it means it was the ordinary people of Israel, not official religion, who turned to these images/gods.
Charms or Idolatry?Clay figurine of the Asherah
It was not an either/or situation. People could have their household gods and at the same time be devoted to the ofﬁcial religion.
But it is hard to say exactly what these figurines meant to the people who owned them. They are not necessarily ‘religious’ in the way we use the word.
- Perhaps they were personal good luck talismans.
- Perhaps they were objects of household veneration.
- Perhaps they were used in community worship/celebrations.
Jeroboam and the Golden CalvesAfter the death of Solomon, Israel and Judah split into two separate kingdoms. Jeroboam, king of the northern, richer kingdom of Israel wanted to provide his people with their own sanctuary – so they did not need to travel to Jerusalem.
He revived the ancient shrines of Bethel and Dan.
When this happened, the symbols that had been used for the old worship, mainly the bull/calf, were employed once more. A bull was the most common for virility. The priests of Judah, in Jerusalem, were not happy. They fiercely clung to the idea of a god who was invisible.
This may explain the ‘golden calf’ episode in the Bible.
- Jeroboam was now worshipping Yahweh in the form of a golden bull, derisively called ‘calf’ in the Bible story.
- Jeroboam’s ‘calf’ deflected attention from the religious centre of Jerusalem, and so it was attacked with the best weapon the Jerusalem priests had: scorn.
- Statues of ancient gods often showed them standing on the backs of animals such as bulls, lions, etc. Jeroboam’s golden calves were meant to be like this: pedestals for Yahweh (I Kings 12:28). Jeroboam had not violated the commandment that forbade the making of images of God. But Yahweh was confused with the symbols that represented his invisible presence, and Jeroboam was accused of making ‘idols’.