Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 4—1513-607 B.C.E.—A Nation Set Apart, Unlike All Others
ACCOMPANIED by thunder and lightning, it was an auspicious birth. The time was 1513 B.C.E., and the place was Mount Sinai, in what at that time was Arabia but today is Egypt. Rather than the birth of a human, it was the birth of a nation!
Less than a year before, they had been a patriarchal society of perhaps three million people, enslaved to the world power Egypt. Now they were a free people, one their God had determined to organize into a nation—but not just any kind of nation. They were to be a nation set apart, unlike any that had existed before or would exist again.
‘Church and State’—But With a Difference
Nimrod’s attempt at merging religion with government had ended in disaster. What was now taking place at Mount Sinai was in some respects a similar merger. Would it fare any better?
A nation needs laws. The Israelites were therefore given ten basic laws, commonly known as the Ten Commandments, as well as an additional 600 or so regulations. (Exodus 20:1-17) It was a law code based upon fundamental truths that have always applied to true religion, and still do, even in our 20th century.
Were these laws based upon the already existent Code of Hammurabi? Some people might think so, since Hammurabi, king of Babylon’s first dynasty, ruled well over a century and a half before Israel became a nation. In 1902 his law code was found copied on a stela that had originally been in the temple of Marduk in Babylon. The book Documents From Old Testament Times concludes, however: “Despite many resemblances, there is no ground for assuming any direct borrowing by the Hebrew from the Babylonian. Even where the two sets of laws differ little in the letter, they differ much in the spirit.”
That was only one way in which the nation was to differ. In addition, originally it was to have no human ruler. It was to be directed by an invisible King in the heavens, thus making this nation truly different, unlike all others. Not until almost 400 years later was a dynasty of human kings introduced. But even then, the nation was unique. Its king did not claim to be God or a descendant of God as, for example, the Pharaohs of Egypt did. Israel’s kings simply sat upon “Jehovah’s throne” in a representative way.—1 Chronicles 29:23.
Israel’s governmental functions, involving legislative, judicial, and executive processes, may remind us of certain governments today. But once again, there was a profound difference. Isaiah 33:22 explains: “For Jehovah is our Judge [judicial agency], Jehovah is our Statute-giver [legislative power], Jehovah is our King [executive officer].” All three functions of government were unified in Israel’s God. Neither the nation’s king, nor its judges, nor its priests were to be absolute monarchs. All were bound by the laws and directives of the God they represented, quite unlike the dictatorships of political and religious men today.
Thus, whereas the merging of Church and State in Nimrod’s day had been a merging of human government with false religion, what occurred at Mount Sinai was a uniting of divine government with true religion. This ensured better results.
Interfaith Movements Ruled Out
Lack of faith resulted in the Israelites’ having to wander 40 years in the wilderness. Now, in 1473 B.C.E., finally about to enter Canaan, the land their God had promised them, they were reminded of their obligation to reflect his glory as a nation set apart for his service. There was to be no fraternizing with the Canaanites. That accounts for what a reference work calls “their hostility toward their non-Yahvistic neighbors, and the insistence on the uniqueness of Yahveh.”
‘But just a minute,’ someone may object, ‘why this intolerance? The Canaanites may have been quite sincere. Besides, are not all religions just different ways of approach to the same one God?’ Before agreeing, recall the negative effects suffered by certain people in the violence-filled earth before the Flood, in the ziggurat-building days of Nimrod, and in the polytheistic atmosphere of Egypt. Some of these people also were probably sincere, but this did not save them from reaping the consequences of having practiced religions obviously unacceptable to their Creator. Was the Canaanite religion as bad as these others had been? Ponder the facts revealed in the box “Religion in Canaan—True or False?” on page 20 and then judge for yourself.
Limping Upon Two Opinions
After entering the Promised Land, Joshua, Moses’ successor, took the lead in battling false religion. But after his death, the Israelites neglected to push on, taking possession of the land. They embarked upon a tolerant policy of coexistence. This was not to their advantage. The Canaanites became like thorns in their sides, continually harassing them, repeatedly causing them to deviate from true religion.—Numbers 33:55; Judges 2:20-22.
For some 300 years thereafter, 12 divinely appointed judges periodically appeared on the scene to deliver the backsliding Israelites from the bondage of false religion. These included such well-known men as Barak, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson.
Then, in 1117 B.C.E., a major change in governmental structure occurred when Saul was enthroned as Israel’s first human king. He was followed on the throne by David, who finally subdued all of Israel’s enemies within the Promised Land, expanding the nation to its divinely set boundaries. During the reign of his son Solomon, Israel reached its pinnacle of glory, enjoying a prosperity that set it apart from all its neighbors.
But at Solomon’s death, in either 998 B.C.E. or 997 B.C.E., disaster struck. The nation broke apart. Ten tribes to the north were thereafter known as Israel, the two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin as Judah. Although claiming to represent the true God, none of the northern kingdom’s ensuing 19 kings, not counting Tibni, practiced true religion. (1 Kings 16:21, 22) They were limping, as it were, on two opinions, a situation that led to serious consequences in the days of King Ahab. (See 1 Kings 18:19-40.) Even more serious were the consequences in 740 B.C.E., when Israel was overthrown by the Assyrians.
Meanwhile, of Judah’s 19 kings beginning with Solomon’s son Rehoboam, only a handful practiced true worship. As the nation fluctuated between good and bad kings, so also its people vacillated between true and false religion. The false religious doctrines and degrading practices of neighboring nations, including Baal worship, became increasingly evident in the homes of its people. As these elements “became further entrenched in the Israelite faith,” says The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “the people began to lose the concept of their exclusiveness and their mission to be a witness to the nations.” This brought about the nation’s ruin.
Obviously, the command to stay separate from the Canaanites had been designed to protect the Israelites and to maintain the purity of their worship. As a nation practicing true religion, they were to stand out in clear contrast with those that did not. But they wavered all too often. Finally, in 607 B.C.E., Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, and its surviving inhabitants were carried into captivity. For 70 years they suffered the sad consequences of having forsaken true religion. Babylon, birthplace of post-Flood false religion, had triumphed over a nation set apart, unlike all others.
Needed—An Effective Ruler
As long as the Israelites practiced true religion, they enjoyed peace and security. The uniting of divine government with true religion brought them benefits of every kind. Yet success was limited. If the peace and security experienced for a limited time by one nation was to be achieved in full for every nation, something more was needed. A ruler—someone capable of providing righteous government and true religion to achieve full success—was sorely needed. What, or who, would it be?
Some 250 years after Jerusalem’s fall, a man was born who, though having a short life, would make a name for both himself and his nation. His foot would touch down in Babylon and also in Egypt, where he would be hailed as a great deliverer. Of him The New Encyclopædia Britannica, with the benefit of hindsight, would say some 23 centuries later: “It is not untrue to say that the Roman Empire, [and] the spread of Christianity as a world religion . . . were all in some degree the fruits of [his] achievement.”
Would this prominent world ruler prove to be what was needed? Our next installment, “Mythical Gods Without Merit,” will answer.
[Box on page 19]
“The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people.”—Ashanti (Ghanaian) proverb
[Box on page 20]
Religion in Canaan—True or False?
“Excavations in Palestine have brought to light a multitude of A[starte] figures in all forms; . . . most of them are small, crude figures, an indication that this deity was chiefly used in home worship, perhaps worn by women on their person or placed in an alcove in the house. . . . The sensual nature religions of A[starte] and Baal appealed to the common folk. Of course, serious injury was inevitable; sexual perversions in honor of the deity, voluptuous lust, and impassioned exuberance became a part of worship and later moved into the home.”—Calwer Bibellexikon (Calwer Bible Lexicon).
“Religious festivities became a degraded celebration of the animal side of human nature. Even Greek and Roman writers were shocked by the things the Canaanites did in the name of religion.”—The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible.
“Of Canaanite religious practices, mention will only be made here of the sacrificing of children, for excavations have directly verified this. In Gezer as well as in Megiddo, the way corpses of children are immured . . . speaks conclusively . . . for this practice.”—Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft (Science of the Old Testament).
“In no country has so relatively great a number of figurines of the naked goddess of fertility, some distinctly obscene, been found. Nowhere does the cult of serpents appear so strongly. . . . Sacred courtesans and eunuch priests were excessively common. Human sacrifice was well known . . . The aversion felt by followers of YHWH-God when confronted by Canaanite idolatry, is accordingly, very easy to understand.”—Recent Discoveries in Bible Lands.
[Picture on page 18]
A representation of the god Baal, the adoration of whom caused the Israelites to deviate from true worship
Louvre Museum, Paris