How False Gods Allured Ancient Israel
CAN a degraded form of worship be alluring? What motives would cause a people to contaminate pure worship with false? The answer to these questions is seen in what happened to ancient Israel. The Israelites were warned beforehand that this would take place: “[The Canaanite] gods will serve as a lure to you.”—Judg. 2:3.
But why was this so? To find out, we must first examine the nature of Baalism, the religion of Canaan.
THE NATURE OF BAALISM
The most prominent of the Canaanite gods was Baal. Each locality in Canaan and in other lands where Baalism existed had its own Baal or, as the name “Baal” signifies, its own “lord,” “master” or “owner.” The local Baal was often given a name denoting his being attached to a specific locality. One example of this is the “Baal of Peor.” This deity took his name from Mount Peor. Although there were many of such local Baals, the Canaanites and neighboring peoples understood that the local Baals were all merely manifestations of the one god Baal.
Ancient texts discovered at Ras Shamra on the Syrian coast reveal that Baalism was a fertility cult centered around agriculture. Baal worshipers attributed the changes in the seasons and their effects to the warring of the deities. They believed that the end of the rainy season and the death of vegetation marked the god Mot’s triumph over Baal, forcing Baal to withdraw to the depths of the earth. But when the rainy season started, Baal worshipers took this to mean that Baal was again alive, his sister Anath having defeated Mot. They thought that Baal’s mating with his wife Ashtoreth at this time ensured fertility in crops, flocks and herds for the coming year.
Baal worshipers believed that their engaging in prescribed rituals at their religious festivals would serve to stimulate the gods to follow the same pattern. Hence, to celebrate Baal’s awakening to life, to be mated with Ashtoreth, they engaged in sexual orgies of unrestrained debauchery. This was a sort of sympathetic magic, carried out in the hope that the gods would imitate their worshipers and thereby guarantee a fertile and prosperous agricultural year.
Throughout Canaan could be found sanctuaries in honor of Baal, where male and female prostitutes served and priests officiated. Near the altars outside the sanctuaries there were stone pillars, sacred poles (representing the goddess Asherah) and incense stands. Both the sacred pillars and the sacred poles were sex symbols.
References in the Ras Shamra texts and archaeological discoveries show that Baalism was a most degrading form of worship. The goddesses Ashtoreth, Anath and Asherah symbolized both sexual lust and sadistic violence and warfare. Figurines of Ashtoreth found in the Middle East depict her as a nude woman with rudely exaggerated sex organs. In one of the Ras Shamra texts, when Anath’s father refuses a request of hers, Anath is portrayed as responding with the words: ‘I’ll truly smash your pate, make your gray hair flow with blood, the gray hair of your beard with gore.’ Of her lust for bloodshed, we read: ‘Much battle she does and beholds; her fighting contemplates Anath: Her liver swells with laughter, her heart fills up with joy, Anath’s liver exults; for she plunges knee-deep in knights’ blood, hip-deep in the gore of heroes.’ Indeed, a revolting picture!
Understandably Jehovah God, as a loving Father, wanted to protect his people, the Israelites, from abominable Baal worship. His Law given through Moses made idolatry an offense worthy of death. (Deut. 13:6-10) Jehovah God commanded the Israelites to destroy every appendage of false worship and to keep free from alliances with idolaters. (Deut. 7:2-5) He instructed the Israelites not even to “mention the name of other gods,” that is, not to mention them with worshipful regard or in such a way as to credit any existence to them.—Ex. 23:13.
But the Israelites disobeyed and were allured by the worship of Baal, Ashtoreth and Asherah. Why?
Like all other forms of idolatry, Baalism was a work of the “flesh.” (Gal. 5:19-21) As such, it appealed to the sinful inclinations of imperfect humans. The Israelites were not immune to the allurements of idolatry and other works of the flesh associated therewith.
Once settled in the Promised Land, the Israelites may have observed that their Canaanite neighbors were having generally good success with the land, perhaps bringing in a fine harvest. Since the Israelites had not had much experience in cultivating the soil, it would not have been unusual for an Israelite to ask a Canaanite about agriculture. As far as the Canaanite was concerned, Baal had to be appeased in order to enjoy a prosperous agricultural year. If the Israelite was disturbed by the suggestion that he should also appease the local Baal, the Canaanite could have calmed his neighbor’s fears by saying that there was no objection to the Israelite’s continuing to worship Jehovah. It was merely a matter of acknowledging and pleasing the local Baal also.
Not recognizing that experience and knowledge of the land were the real reasons for whatever success the Canaanites had, an Israelite may have allowed his desire for material gain to become a snare to him. Wanting to get the best yield from his land, he may have justified erecting an altar to Baal in his field and placing a sacred pillar and a sacred pole alongside it. Why, he may have reasoned, ‘I’m still worshiping Jehovah.’
Another factor responsible for involvement with false gods was marriage to nonworshipers of Jehovah. Even wise King Solomon deviated from true worship because of marrying women who served false gods and goddesses. (1 Ki. 11:1-8) There is no indication that Solomon wholly abandoned the worship of Jehovah and the sacrifices at the temple on Mount Moriah. He apparently practiced a sort of interfaith to please his foreign wives, but this displeased Jehovah.
The unrestrained sexual indulgence associated with false worship ensnared still others. At Shittim, on the plains of Moab, thousands of Israelites yielded to this temptation and engaged in false worship. The Bible reports: “The people started to have immoral relations with the daughters of Moab. And the women came calling the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people began to eat and to bow down to their gods.”—Num. 25:1, 2.
Then, too, the religious festivals, with their extensive feasting and drinking, appealed to lovers of pleasure. At Amos 2:8 we read: “On garments seized as a pledge they stretch themselves out beside every altar; and the wine of those who have been fined they drink at the house of their gods.” Of a religious festival at Shechem, the Bible tells us: “They went out as usual into the field and engaged in gathering the grapes of their vineyards and in treading them and in carrying on a festal exultation, after which they went into the house of their god and ate and drank.”—Judg. 9:27.
Furthermore, uncertainty about the future (on account of a lack of faith or a guilty conscience toward Jehovah) prompted many to seek help through false religion, hoping that they might get some assurance that things would go well for them. A case in point is Israelite King Ahaziah, the son of Ahab and Jezebel. Injured in an accident, he sent messengers to inquire of Baal-zebub the god of Ekron, to find out whether he would recover.—2 Ki. 1:2, 3.
A LESSON TO BE HEEDED
When we consider what has happened in Christendom, Israel’s being ensnared by idolatry should come as no surprise. Today in Christendom educated people consult fortune-tellers, dabble in the occult, carry lucky charms and, in some parts of the world, even go to medicine men in the hope of gaining relief from sickness. At the same time, like the unfaithful Israelites of old, they claim to be serving the God of the Bible. Moreover, sexual immorality, heavy eating and drinking, dishonesty and other works of the flesh abound in Christendom.
This situation makes it certain that the lawless adherents of Christendom’s churches will not escape the execution of God’s judgment. Jehovah God did not spare unfaithful Israel and, as the unchangeable One, he again will “become a speedy witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against those swearing falsely, and against those acting fraudulently with the wages of a wage worker, with the widow and with the fatherless boy, and those turning away the alien resident, while they have not feared [him].”—Mal. 3:5, 6.
It is urgent, therefore, that all seeking God’s approval avoid being ensnared by idolatry or any other work of the sinful flesh. If that is your desire, cultivate an intense hatred for what God condemns, not allowing your mind to dwell on fleshly desires. By so doing, you can escape the deadly lures of this world. As the apostle John wrote: “Do not be loving either the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him; because everything in the world—the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the showy display of one’s means of life—does not originate with the Father, but originates with the world. Furthermore, the world is passing away and so is its desire, but he that does the will of God remains forever.”—1 John 2:15-17.