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Gods at War: 

A Look inside the Idolatry in the Holy Land

by Caner Dewees

Since the dawn of the nation of Israel, the Israelites have struggled with other gods competing for the throne of their hearts. Whether it was the gods of Egypt, Canaan, or Rome, the Israelites continuously were faced with the reality of having to choose between assimilating to their surrounding environments and peoples, or remain faithful to the true God who brought them out of the land slavery.

This conflict became most evident during the seasons of conquering the land which the Lord had promised them, and establishing themselves as a nation therein; however, the scars of Israel’s lack of faith that so easily manifested themselves into the culture can be seen clearly across the land to this day. How did the gods of Canaan so easily wedge themselves into the daily lives and worship practices of the people who followed the one true God? Why, after just receiving the commands to “have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) and to “not bow down to idols” (Exodus 20:4-5), did the Israelites find themselves slowly suffocating with the idols of the Canaan?  The best way to answer questions like these is to first understand who the gods of Canaan were, what Canaanite worship practices entailed, and to look at examples of how the worship of these false gods bled into the theology of the ancient Israelites.

Moses breaks the Ten Commandments in response to the golden calf worship in this 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld.
Moses breaks the Ten Commandments in response to the golden calf worship
in this 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (picture above)

The gods of Canaan were fitting for the land in which they occupied. The Promised Land is located in what is colloquially known as “The Fertile Crescent.” This means that, while being in the Middle East, which would typically be considered very arid and infertile, this land was quite the opposite. Though this land was inexplicably fertile, rain was an invaluable resource that was not always prevalent. This led the ancient Canaanites to become entranced with gods of fertility. Although there were many gods in the Canaanite pantheon, two stood out above the rest, and it was these two that greatly affected the people of Israel. Their names were Baal, the God of the storm and rains, and Asherah, the mother goddess of fertility. Worship of these Canaanite deities varied greatly, but found common ground in how much it the Lord of Israel. Many of the commands given to the Israelites in Scripture by God are a direct response to some of the practices that were being carried out in the names of these deities. The people of Canaan relied on the gods such as Baal and Asherah, to give them everything that was needed for life in the land. In the daily lives of many Canaanites, these gods were worshipped in the temple, trees, shrines, or even small fertility idols in their own homes. Worship varied from city to city, as an important character trait of that city’s patron deity was highlighted, often sacrificing bulls, lambs, pigs, or even sometimes people for personal gain, along with committing ritual sex acts to invoke fertility among the gods.

Hebrew scripturesThe worship of idols can be seen clearly throughout the Old Testament. The problems arose when Israel did not do as the Lord commanded, but allowed these idols to continue to dwell in their midst. Later, after being established in the land, the problems with idolatry escalated. Throughout the period of the Judges, Israelites kept intermixing Canaanite worship with the worship of YHWH, if not completely foregoing worshipping the Lord all together. The battle against Israel’s apostasy reached its climax in the period of the prophets As the kings got more immoral, the idolatry became more legislated, from government sanctioned idols, Asherim, and male prostitutes in the temple under King Rehoboam (1 Kings 14:23-24, ESV), to King Ahaziah consulting with the prophets of Baal and Asherah over the one true God (2 Kings 1:2, ESV). Sadly, the views of the ancient Canaanites ultimately permeated the worship of ancient Israel so greatly; that some Israelites even wrote inscriptions saying “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah” alluding to the fact that they believed the Lord of Israel, like El of the Canaanites, had a wife. This demonstrates just how strong of a grip that the Canaanites had on the nation of Israel. Ultimately this led to Israel’s division, destruction, and captivity as it says, “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when [Israel’s] slain lie among their idols around their alters, on every high hill, on all mountaintops under every green tree, under every leafy oak, wherever they offered pleasing aroma to all their idols” (Ezekiel 6:13, ESV). Ultimately the Lord had enough; He got tired of the nation of Israel being a prostitute with others gods. The Lord allowed for Israel to be destroyed if it meant bringing them back to him, so he allowed for Assyria and Babylon to overtake them, resulting in a relative end to the debauchery in Israel.

Slaughter of the Prophets of Baal, 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld
Slaughter of the Prophets of Baal,
1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld

The practice of worshipping these idols in the Promised Land had devastating effects on the nation of Israel because of their disobedience in driving out the Canaanites. Because the Israelites allowed for the Canaanites to continue to live and worship in the land, it allowed their cultures, practices, and religious allegiances to syncretize. Examples of this downward spiral into idolatry are littered throughout Scripture and other extra-biblical sources. While it was not an intentional backslide initially, the cycle of “having faith in the Lord, turning to other gods, punishment, and repentance” became the way of life for the Israelites, and a stronghold that has remained with them to this day in one form or another. As syncretism continued, the Canaanite population decreased either as a result of war or immersion. Though the Canaanite cults of Baal and Asherah were destroyed with the people of Canaan by the dawn of the New Testament period, they were merely replaced by others who closely resembled their ideals, brought in by new people. Baal and Asherah were traded for the more prevalent Zeus and Artemis. This unfortunate truth shows the potency of idolatry in a land.

Though these cults have died, the issue of idolatry and the worship of sex are engrained in cultures all over the world. Mankind no longer worships idols of stone and wood, but of screen and greed. Humanity can still learn from the example of the Israelites, and should long to have the one true God, who is living and active. Man can no longer walk through life worshipping the idols of his heart. Ancient Israel turned its back on the one true God. They turned to gods that they could carry and had forsaken the only God who could carry them under his wing.

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