Idolatry, gods and goddesses in ancient Israel of the Bible

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Worship of idols in Israel

Bible Study Resource

Hebrew prophets and priests often expressed horror at the influence that neighbouring countries had on the religious life of Israel. This influence was most evident in 

  • Hebrew sacrifice and funerary rites

  • worship at the 'high places'

  • the style and lay-out of temples, and

  • the symbols of religion.

Canaanite people had long since established their own religious practices in the land the Hebrews entered after their long flight from Egypt. Golden snake, bracelet The local inhabitants venerated  images made of stone, wood or metal, moulded or carved by Canaanite and, later, Phoenician 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 with few artistic pretensions. The Hebrew prophets called them ba‘alim, elilim and asherahs 

The southern part of Canaan, where the Israelites settled, was economically and culturally backward compared to the northern states and the highly developed cities of Phoenicia, Tyre, Byblos and Ugarit. Despite this, the Bible stories are at pains to insist that the children of Israel rejected Canaanite religious customs, and saw themselves as completely separate. 

Stone wall relief of the fierce goddess AnatThey point out that although Yahweh controlled the elements (for example, see the story of 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), he was not a sun, moon or storm god like Baal or any of the other Canaanite deities. Even though he might confer the blessing of fertility (Genesis 49:25 If; Dueteronomy 33:11-16), he was in no sense a fertility god. 

Up to the time of the monarchy, the Canaanites remained in close association with the Israelites. Their widespread worship of “ba‘alim” and “asherahs” under different forms in different localities continued side by side with Israelite religious institutions. 

During the period of Judges

As the Israelites changed from their semi-nomadic way of living to the sedentary life of Canaan, they naturally absorbed many aspects of Canaanite culture. Rainfall Most Israelites became farmers, and many of them must have seen the Canaanite focus on the gods of fertility an essential part of agrarian life. They would naturally have joined in propitiating the ancient gods who promised fertility and a good harvest. 

Moreover, many Canaanites and others whose culture was mainly Canaanite were absorbed into Israelite society. While in time they became worshippers of Yahweh, they may have kept their old allegiance to the agrarian gods. As a result of this conflict of pressures, Yahweh became confused with Ba‘al, both at the agrarian and cosmic level. The book of Judges emphasizes the religious irregularities of the period. The cult of Ba‘al existed in Gideon's home town and even in the house of Saul. This was the beginning of the “popular religion” which was to play such an important part in the evolution of Israel. 

During the Monarchy

Sacrificial altarYahwism rejected the fertility rites and the worship of the high gods, El and Ba‘al, which they believed invited confusion between Yahweh and Ba‘al. The fundamental danger may have increased following the conquests of David and 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. During the reign of Ahab, his wife Jezebel, herself a Phoenician princess, encouraged the immigration of many Phoenicians. The cultured and prosperous Phoenicians were much admired by the Canaanite and offered a fertile ground for fostering Ba‘alism. Jezebel brought the cult of Ba‘al (apparently in the form of Ba‘al-Melkart) from her home in Tyre to Ahab’s court in Samaria. There Ahab erected a temple to Ba‘al and an asherah. The Tyrian Ba‘al cult reappeared later on in Athaliah’s court in Jerusalem. 

Statuette of the rain god Baal Stone wall relief of the rain god Baal

Images of the rain god Baal

The early prophets Elijah and Elisha aimed their denunciations mainly at the royal leaders and their sophisticated courts. 'Idolatry' was linked with cosmopolitan habits which offended ascetic Yahwists at a material as well as a spiritual level. 

The Figurines

In all the excavations of Israelite towns, the lower Canaanite levels have turned up large numbers of figurines. These are usually clay plaques with a nude figure in relief which appeared in Palestine during the Middle Bronze Age (roughly the period of the patriarchs) and remained popular in various forms until the end of the Israelite kings. 

Clay figurine of the Asherah Their use is reflected in the very low artistic level of the female figurines discovered. Significantly, Astarte figurines of the clay plaque type, so common in Canaanite levels as well as in later Israelite ones of Iron Age ll, were not found in Israelite sites of central Palestine of the Early Iron Age (period of Judges), although they continued to be popular within the Canaanite cities of the same period. 

In the period of the Monarchy or Middle Iron Age, several types of figurines were common in all the cities of Israel. Such figures were usually found in the ruins of houses rather than sanctuaries and it is assumed that they had no specific cultic significance but were merely fertility charms. Since every Israelite home of this period apparently possessed one or more, it seems that the ordinary people of Israel had gone a long way towards adopting the popular beliefs of their environment. 

Charms or Idolatry? 

The many biblical stories about household gods seem to show that there was not necessarily any conflict between possession of such things and devotion to the official prophetic religion. The border-line between charm and sacred figure was vague. As ancient sculpture comes without labels, it is hard to prove that every bull is a bull-god or every chariot a sun-chariot, or the opposite. Just as archaeologists at one stage tended to exaggerate the religious significance of every unidentified structure, finding temples in every pile of stones, so there is a similar temptation to label every statuette and figurine as cultic. Large stone remains are not necessarily those of religious objects. 

Clay figurines linked to the worship/veneration of Asherah

Moreover, careful investigation has proved many small stone or pottery figures had no connection with the cult. In the whole of Palestine, hardly any Canaanite idol has been found in position in a temple. Outside the temples, nothing has been discovered large enough to have been placed on a pedestal and seen by an assembly of worshippers. Furthermore, no male image has yet been found in any Israelite town so far excavated. This suggests more than a mere “accident of discovery”.

Jeroboam and the Golden Calves

Following the schism between the two kingdoms, Jeroboam wanted to provide the people of his kingdom of lsrael with an alternate sanctuary so that they would no longer have to go to Jerusalem to sacrifice and, perhaps, feel a revival of loyalty towards Rehoboam.

The alternative he chose was to revive the ancient shrines of Bethel and Dan. The Book of Amos (7:10-17) reveals that the sanctuary at Bethel, like that in Jerusalem, was a royal sanctuary. At the same time, the symbols associated with the old worship, mainly the bull as a pedestal for the invisible god, were employed once more. The custom of representing gods as standing on an animal whose nature emphasized the divine attributes - a bull, for instance, was the most widespread symbol for virility - does not seem to be native to the peoples of Palestine.The Israelites, however, worshipped a god who was invisible.

Nevertheless, when it became necessary to offer some tangible symbol of his presence, either his throne (seat) was chosen or the animal he might be thought to stand upon. 

This may also be the explanation of the “golden calf" episode in the Exodus story.When Jeroboam and his court introduced the custom of worshipping Yahweh in association with a “golden calf", evidently a bull, derisively called “calf”, this did not imply any worship of a sacred bull. The “calves” of Jeroboam were not necessarily attacked because they were idols, but because they represented an attempt to deflect attention from the religious centre of Jerusalem. 

Jeroboam’s “calves of gold” represented pedestals of Yahweh, not his image (I Kings 12:28). He had provided his people with a symbol of the divine presence without violating the commandment that forbade the making of images of God. However, this was too subtle for unsophisticated people to appreciate. Inevitably, Yahweh was confused with the symbols that represented his invisible presence. 

There is no connection between Jeroboam’s “calves” and the Egyptian cult of the sacred bull Apis. 

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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology 
Sacrifice to the gods, funeral rites, worship at the 'high places', pagan temples, 
battle between Hebrew priests and prophets and the priests of Baal

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher