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recently have scholars begun to unravel the complex religious rituals of
Israel?s Canaanite neighbors. Much of our knowledge of the origins and character
of these fertility cults remains tentative and widely debated. What we do know
reveals dark, seductive practices that continued to entice the people God had
chosen to be his witnesses.
THE ORIGINS OF JUDAISM
The people of Israel developed their faith in the wilderness. Abraham lived
in the Negev desert, where God made his covenant of blood with him and sealed it
with circumcision. Moses met God in a burning bush in the desert, where he
learned the greatness of God?s name and received his commission to bring the
Hebrews out of Egypt. God spoke to his people on Mount Sinai and reestablished
his covenant with them in the Ten Commandments. Throughout the Israelites?
40-year journey in the wilderness, their Lord accompanied them, protected them,
fed them, and guided them to the Promised Land. There was no doubt that Yahweh
was God of the wilderness.
YAHWEH OR BAAL?
When the Israelites entered Canaan, they found a land of farmers, not
shepherds, as they had been in the wilderness. The land was fertile beyond
anything the Hebrew nomads had ever seen. The Canaanites attributed this
fertility to their god Baal?and that is where the Israelites? problems began.
Could the God who had led them out of Egypt and through the wilderness also
provide fertile farms in the Promised Land? Or would the fertility god of Canaan
have to be honored? Maybe, to be safe, they should worship both?Yahweh and
An intense battle began for the minds and hearts of God?s people. The book of
Judges records the ongoing struggle: the Israelites? attraction to, and worship
of, the Canaanite gods; God?s disciplinary response; the people?s repentance;
and God?s merciful forgiveness?until the next time the Israelites reached for
Baal instead of Yahweh.
Under the kings, this spiritual battle continued. By the time of Ahab and
Jezebel, the fertility cults appeared to have the official sanction of Israel?s
leaders. Ahab, with his wife?s encouragement, built a temple to Baal at his
capital, Samaria. All the while, prophets like Elijah (which means ?Yahweh is
God?), Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah thundered that Yahweh alone deserved the
people?s allegiance. It took the Assyrian destruction of Israel and the
Babylonian Captivity of Judah to convince the Israelites that there is only one
This struggle to be totally committed to God is of vital importance to us
today as well. We don?t think of ourselves as idol worshipers, yet we struggle
to serve God alone in every part of our lives. It is easy (and seductive) to
honor possessions, fun, relationships, fame, money, and a host of other
We need to learn from Israel?s experience and respond to Jesus? command for
total allegiance. One way we can accomplish this is to study the gods that
attracted Yahweh?s people 3,000 years ago.
The earliest deity recognized by the peoples of the ancient Near East was the
creator?god El. His mistress, the fertility goddess Asherah, gave birth to many
gods, including a powerful god named Baal (?Lord?). There appears to have been
only one Baal, who was manifested in lesser Baals at different places and times.
Over the years, Baal became the dominant deity, and the worship of El faded.
Baal won his dominance by defeating the other deities, including the god of
the sea, the god of storms (also of rain, thunder, and lightning), and the god
of death. Baal?s victory over death was thought to be repeated each year when he
returned from the land of death (underworld), bringing rain to renew the earth?s
fertility. Hebrew culture viewed the sea as evil and destructive, so Baal?s
promise to prevent storms and control the sea, as well as his ability to produce
abundant harvests, made him attractive to the Israelites. It?s hard to know why
Yahweh?s people failed to see that he alone had power over these things.
Possibly, their desert origins led them to question God?s sovereignty over
fertile land. Or maybe it was simply the sinful pagan practices that attracted
them to Baal.
Baal is portrayed as a man with the head and horns of a bull, an image
similar to that in biblical accounts. His right hand (sometimes both hands) is
raised, and he holds a lightning bolt, signifying both destruction and
fertility. Baal has also been portrayed seated on a throne, possibly as the king
or lord of the gods.
Asherah was honored as the fertility goddess in various forms and with
varying names (Judg.
3:7). The Bible does not actually describe the goddess, but archaeologists
have discovered figurines believed to be representations of her. She is
portrayed as a nude female, sometimes pregnant, with exaggerated breasts that
she holds out, apparently as symbols of the fertility she promises her
followers. The Bible indicates that she was worshiped near trees and poles,
called Asherah poles (Deut.
7:5, 12:2?3; 2
Kings 16:4, 17:10; Jer.
Baal?s worshipers appeased him by offering sacrifices, usually animals such
as sheep or bulls (1
Kings 18:23). Some scholars believe that the Canaanites also sacrificed pigs
and that God prohibited his people from eating pork in part to prevent this
horrible cult from being established among them. (See Isa.
65:1?5 for an example of Israel?s participating in the pagan practices of
the Canaanites.) At times of crisis, Baal?s followers sacrificed their children,
apparently the firstborn of the community, to gain personal prosperity. The
Bible called this practice ?detestable? (Deut.
12:31, 18:9?10). God specifically appointed the tribe of Levi as his special
servants, in place of the firstborn of the Israelites, so they had no excuse for
offering their children (Num.
3:11?13). The Bible?s repeated condemnation of child sacrifice shows God?s
hated of it, especially among his people.
Asherah was worshiped in various ways, including through ritual sex. Although
she was believed to be Baal?s mother, she was also his mistress. Pagans
practiced ?sympathetic magic??that is, they believed they could influence the
gods? actions by performing the behavior they wished the gods to demonstrate.
Believing the sexual union of Baal and Asherah produced fertility, their
worshipers engaged in immoral sex to cause the gods to join together, ensuring
good harvests. This practice became the basis for religious prostitution (1
Kings 14:23?24). The priest or a male member of the community represented
Baal. The priestess or a female members of the community represented Asherah. In
this way, God?s incredible gift of sexuality was perverted to the most obscene
public prostitution. No wonder God?s anger burned against his people and their
PAGAN RELIGIONS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Many, if not all, of the Old Testament gods had disappeared, at least in
name, by the time of Jesus. Beelzebub, based on the Philistine god Baalzebul,
had become a synonym for the prince of demons, Satan. Many of the ancient pagan
deities lived on, however, now identified with the gods of the Greeks and
Romans, the nations who controlled the people of Israel before and during New
Testament times. It is not appropriate here to discuss all the gods and
goddesses of the Greco-Roman pantheon; however, a few of them were significant
in the first century, and some are even mentioned by name in the Bible.
The leader of the gods, Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans), took on the role of
Baal, the god of weather or storms. Artemis, the goddess of childbirth and
fertility, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, continued the Asherah cults under
a new name (Acts
19:35), but with worship practices that were as immoral as ever. It is said
that in Corinth alone, there were more than 1,000 prostitutes in Aphrodite?s
temple. Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, became the namesake for the
place of the dead and even for hell itself. In Matthew
16:18, Jesus referred to the gates of Hades, or the underworld, believed by
some to be the grotto at Caesarea Philippi, from which one of the sources of the
Jordan River came. The grotto itself was part of a temple complex used in the
worship of the Greek god Pan.
Pan was depicted as an ugly man with the horns, legs, and ears of a goat.
Most stories about him refer to sexual affairs. The worship practices of his
followers were no different. Pan was associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of
wine and orgies, whose worshipers continued many of the sexual rites of the Old
Testament gods of the Baal cult. Dionysus was worshiped in the pagan Decapolis
across the Sea of Galilee from the center of Jesus? ministry. Clearly, though
the names of the gods had changed, the people?s worship practices had not. Only
the child sacrifice of the Baal cult came to an end with the Greeks and
MAGIC AND THE OCCULT
Many ancient peoples practiced magic. They foretold the future by examining
animal entrails or by watching flights of birds. The Greeks had oracles, shrines
where gods supposedly communicated the future to priests and priestesses. Demon
possession was a topic of much fascination. Many sorcerers claimed to have the
ability to cast out demons (Acts
8:9?24, 13:6?12), as did some Pharisees. Because the Bible, in both the Old
Testament and the New Testament, recognized the reality of the demonic world and
condemned all of its practices (Deut.
Cor. 10:20?21), we can be sure these practices continued and were a
temptation to many.
Jesus provided the ultimate solution to resisting the seductiveness of pagan
idol worship. He showed that he alone held power over the demons, sending them
into the Abyss (Luke
8:31). He promised his disciples that his church would overcome all evil,
even the gates of Hades itself.
Though today our gods?such as money, power, and possessions?are less
?personalized? than in ancient times, the temptations for us are no less
enticing. We would do well to remember the complete powerlessness of the pagan
gods?from Baal, Canaan?s bloodthirsty fertility god, to Hades, Greek god of the
underworld?to prevail against the one true God and his Son, Jesus Christ.