Bible Study Resource
People have tried to control the forces of Nature since prehistoric times. They still do. Witchcraft and sorcery were common in the ancient world, as was worship of fertility gods. The fertility cults were practised in the 'high places' - temples and altars built on the tops of mountains; 'on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree' Deuteronomy 12:2.
There were two basic designs for places of worship in the ancient world:
Neither of these types of building accomodated a congregation of worshippers in the way a modern church does.
The ancient Greeks believed that each person had a responsibility to develop a well-educated mind and a healthy body. Games and sporting activities were therefore an important part of Greek culture.
The city of Olympia was a center of religious worship dedicated to Zeus, and it was around the temple there that the first Olympic Games took place. During the Games warfare was laid aside - enemies forgot their grievances and competed without rancor even if they had recently been at war.
It seems strange to us now, but the first Olympic Games were preceded by days of religious ritual. Only after these were completed could the Olympic games begin.
The Games were financially supported by rulers in Greece and in surrounding countries. Herod the Great, who ruled Palestine at the time that Jesus was born, contributed to the cost of the Olympic Games during his reign.
Archaeologists excavating at Beersheba found several large, carefully shaped stones incorporated into the town walls dating back to the late eighth century BC. When the stones were reassembled, they formed a cubical altar with four tapered projections or 'horns'. One of the stone blocks had a snake carved onto it. The top stones were blackened, suggesting that sacrifices had been burnt there. The altar may have been dismantled at the time of King Hezekiah's religious reforms in the 8th century BC.
There have been various theories about why the altar had projecting 'horns'. The most practical reason would be that the high corner stones provided leverage for the ropes necessary to hold down a struggling animal as it was being sacrificed.
On the other hand, two areas would have been needed, one to slaughter the animal, the other to burn it. The same areas could not sensibly be used for both tasks, since the volume of blood from an animal with its throat cut would make any surface so wet that a fire could not burn.
There must have been several stages in the process:
At the beginning of the war in the Iliad, Achilles gives a speech that tells us why ancient people offered sacrifice:
This plaque is similar to ones found in the ruins of the palace at
Samaria, the ancient Israelite city built by King Ahab, husband of
Jezebel. Plaques were attached to furniture and screens (Amos 6:4).
The image at right shows an ancient bronze figure of the rain god Baal. Originally he would have held a club and
a spear in his hands - symbols of thunder and lightning.
The word 'Baal' originally meant 'husband', and he was the source of water and fertility - hence life.
Astarte, another goddess, was the consort of Baal. She was the protectress of the family.
For the conflict between the priests of Baal and Elijah, see BIBLE WOMEN: JEZEBEL
One of the
themes in the Old Testament is the people's lack of fidelity to the God of Israel - the Bible
often accuses them of turning to other gods. Their lack of fidelity is
likened to a woman who deserts her husband (Jeremiah 3:1-10).
Ordinary people often
attempted to use rituals to control problems in their daily lives. They were
anxious if it did not rain or if it rained too much; they were afraid of
death; and they sought to control frightening aspects of daily life such
as illness or accidents.
They encouraged fertility in Nature and in humans by means of sacred
prostitution, and by giving gifts to Nature.
show several ancient biblical customs relating to worship of God:
Examples include those pillars set up by Jacob near Shechem and Bethel, and the one he erected as a token of his covenant with Laban (Gn. 31:44-45). He called the pillar near Shechem "'El 'Elohei Israel" (God, the God of Israel; Gn. 33:20), and the one near Bethel, "'El Beth-'El" (God, the House of God).
It was near Beersheba that Abraham planted a tamarisk tree and called the site Adonai 'El'Olam (My Lord, God of the World; Gn. 21:33). Lehai-R6'&, the site of God's revelation to Hagar, is called "Ata 'El Ro'ee" (You are a God of Seeing; Gn. 16:13).
Certain scholars have
wrongly said that this association of deity with natural objects reflects the survival of primitive animistic beliefs in the religion of the Patriarchs. This theory ignores the fact that the spot at which
the revelation took place was not identified by the Patriarchs with God, but was regarded as commemorating the event. The Patriarchs observed no festivals or fixed holy days with attendant sacrificial rites, though we do know of ceremonies of libation of oil or wine on newly built altars. While the erection of altars was not obligatory, it was desirable. These altars were the predecessors of shrines, temples and the institution of the priesthood.
This was probably because the cultic rites practiced at the local shrines represented a real danger to Yahwism, as can be seen from the close association between the Hebrew tradition of "'El-Berith" in Shechem, and the Canaanite Ba'al-Berith, to whom a temple had been dedicated there.
It is also true, however, that "'El-Bethel" and other divine names invoked by the Patriarchs did not represent petty local gods, but were all manifestations of the supreme God 'El, whom the Israelites recognized as their own Deity. Yahweh was identified with 'EI in a peaceable merger and was worshipped in the same sanctuaries. The name continued in use and in fact displaced Yahweh in post-biblical literature — in Qumran for instance.
Under this Covenant, which was renewed with Abraham's descendants, God protected his family or clan. The Covenant was made for all time, the divine promise being renewed to the later Patriarchs. In the Covenant of Genesis 15, God made a commitment to "His People". At Sinai he also imposed obligations on that people. It appears that when the Hebrews came to form a nation on the basis of covenant unity, their thought was still governed by Patriarchal concepts.
In exchange He demanded and obtained from them implicit loyalty in times of prosperity as well as adversity. This element of the Patriarchal religion apparently differed from that of the later period of Moses and the Prophets.
The Promise and
its place in Israel's religion
The Promise is repeated to Abraham and his descendants, who are destined to settle in Canaan as titleholders to the land, and whose status as His Chosen People is guaranteed by the Covenant to which they are both parties.
The Divine Promise can also be viewed in the context of Near Eastern conditions during the 2nd mill. BCE. The Patriarchs were landless shepherds who lived in contact with the sedentary and urban people of the region and were, to some extent, dependent on them. Although the Patriarchs did not own land, they aspired to its possession, which is, of course, one of the prerequisites of sedentary life.
The Canaanites worshipped a variety of
gods who were both the patrons of particular places and also had a specific function and authority.
We know this from their rich mythology.
A comparison of ancient Canaanite epics, later Phoenician inscriptions and other archaeological finds shows that the Canaanite deities recorded in the Bible belong to the same family as the divinities of the Phoenician cities of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos and Ugarit. The most important among the goddesses and gods were the following:
The Lady Asherah (consort of El-Dagon and mother of many gods). She was the supreme mother goddess. She was also "Athirat-Yam", Asherah of the Sea, the goddess of the sea and fishermen, and supreme goddess in Tyre and Sidon. According to M. Dothan, a sanctuary from the days of the Patriarchs (18th to 16th cs. BCE) contained some crude figurines, much less sophisticated than those from other shrines. Numerous plaques and amulets have been found in the excavations of many towns and tombs of Canaanite and Israelite times.
There is a variety of styles for these plaques. Often the goddess has the two long "S" shaped ringlets which were the emblem of the great Egyptian goddess Hathor. Sometimes she wears the cylindrical crown of the goddesses and queens of Late Bronze Age Syria or, occasionally, an ordinary woman's headdress. Often the plaque is decorated with flowers, sometimes a flower and a serpent.
An Egyptian carving dating from the New Kingdom (1150-1090 BC) is a more artistic picture of Asherah, showing her standing on the back of a lion, holding flowers and a serpent. The flowers she offers with her right hand to the Egyptian fertility god, Min. Her left hand (the unfavourable one) offers the serpent to Reshef, who was associated with the idea of death. The inscription reads: "Qdesh, lady of heaven and mistress of all gods." This symbolism is echoed in the Bible. Jeremiah (44:17) reproached Hebrew women for worshipping Asherah as the "Queen of Heaven".
Asherah gave life to everything, good and bad alike. As the mother of the gods, she assigned responsibilities to each one according to his (or her) character.
(Ashtoreth or, in Greek, Astarte): In Mesopotamian mythology she was goddess of fecundity and love, and also goddess of war. With the spread of Mesopotamian influence during the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, she became known throughout Syria and, later, Israel. She is represented as mounted on a lioness, armed with a sword and wearing a fluted crown surmounted by an astral disc identifying her with the planet Venus. By that time the cult of Ishtar had spread along the coast of Phoenicia and throughout Canaan, obliterating the memory of the ancient Canaanite Asherah. Figurines of the mother-goddess, sometimes traditional, sometimes
Phoenician, sometimes Hellenistic, continued to be made. Ishtar's name appears more than forty times in Phoenician and later Punic inscriptions, many of them found on tombstones. The practice of sacred prostitution (as a magical means of ensuring fertility among men and their flocks and crops) was especially associated with Astarte.
Ba'al had different names in different places. He is Ba'al-Hazor, Ba'al-Peor, Ba'al Hermon, etc. He
also has different attributes—the Ba'al-Berith of Shechem, or Ba'al Zebub, or Ba'al Zebul.
These names referred to a single supreme god, the personification of all the life-giving forces in nature.
One of the Ba'al epics from Ugarit describes how he is killed by Asherah (the early mother goddess) and a group of monsters she has borne. Ba'al's friends mourn for him but his sister is not only grief-stricken but also determined on revenge. She had a single-hearted devotion to her brother:
However, more typical of 'Anat as she appears in the myths is the Egyptian stele (below) which stresses her cruel, revengeful nature.
She loved war. There is another story in the Ba'al cycle telling how, in her thirst for blood, she "smote and slew from seacoast (to the west, meaning sunset) to sunrise" in a night of general massacre. She filled her temple with men and barred the doors. Hurling heavy tables and furniture at them, she waded in blood up to her knees, even to her neck. "Her liver swelled with laughter; her heart was full of joy."
At last she washed her hands in the blood — and went cheerfully off to something else.
Nature Explained through Myth
The workings of the forces of nature were explained by means of myths and legends about the gods. Besides the great central epic of the seasons, there were stories about
Ba'al: The dominant figure among the Canaanite gods was the great storm-god Ba'al. His name means "master" or "lord", so the same title could be applied to many different gods and a variety of personalities. Ba'al was the son of El, the supreme Canaanite god. Later on, the son consigned his father to oblivion and Ba'al became the name of the principal god of the sky, the earth and its fertility, akin to Bel of the Babylonians.
According to the epics, control of Sheol (the underworld) was taken over by Ba'al's brother Mot (death) while a series of other myths presents Ba'al as one of the gods of creation, as when he kills the sea dragon Yam (which means "sea" in
Death and Return to Life
The most striking of the Ugarit poems is the epic of Ba'al's death and revival. A current interpretation of the myth is that it provides the mythical explanation for the annual cycle of death and resurrection in the seasons. It is suggested that the myth was re-enacted in mimetic ritual so that the forces of nature might be reactivated and fertility of soil, beast and man be ensured.
In Canaan and the Eastern Mediterranean, the summers are hot and rainless, and all the rain falls in the winter, usually during and after violent storms and cloudbursts. Ba'al was the vividness of all vegetation. Different epics tell how after a long war against his brother Mot, Ugaritic god of the rainless season, associated with the underworld, Ba'al was killed. With his death, all growth ceased and life languished.
Ba'al's sister, the "maiden 'Anat" came to the rescue and killed Mot, "With sword she doth cleave him, with fan she doth winnow him, With the fire she doth burn him, with handmill she grinds him. In the field she doth scatter his seed". 'Anat carried Ba'al's body to a sacred mountain top. There she performed an elaborate sacrifice and brought Ba'al back to life as god of grain.
The cycle of life and growth could begin again. In the words of the Ugarit epic, "the heavens fat did rain, the wadis flow with honey".
in Bible Times - Archaeology of The Bible