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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.

TEMPLES

There were two basic designs for places of worship in the ancient world:

  • altars on a 'high place', either a mountain top or a man-made simulated mountain like the ziggurats

  • a single, highly decorated building usually within a city, such as the Temple of Jerusalem or the temples to Athena and Zeus in ancient Greece.

Neither of these types of building accomodated a congregation of worshippers in the way a modern church does.

The ziggurat at Ur, as it would have looked in ancient times

The ziggurat at Ur, as it would have looked in ancient times

 

The ziggurat at Ur as it looks today, with reconstructed outer walls.

The ziggurat at Ur as it looks today, with reconstructed outer walls. 
This mighty temple dominated the landscape from which Abraham and Sarah came.
BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: ZIGGURATS has photographs and architectural reconstructions of this extraordinary religious building.

 

Reconstruction of the inner chamber of the Temple of Athena in Athens

Reconstruction of the inner chamber of the Temple of Athena in Athens. The statue of Athena shows her as the goddess of war. She confronts her viewers directly, wearing Medusa's head on her leather aegis (a protective collar or cape), a statue of Nike, (victory) in her right hand and a shield in her left. The skin area of the statue was covered with ivory and the armor and drapery with gold.

 

the colossal 'Athena Parthenos'  statue by the sculptor Pheidias

A back view of the colossal 'Athena Parthenos'  statue by the sculptor Pheidias

 

Reconstruction of the inner chamber of the Temple of Zeus,

Reconstruction of the inner chamber of the Temple of Zeus, 
at the ancient town of Olympia on the west coast of Greece

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.   

 

Reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, 1st century AD

Reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, 1st century AD

 

ANIMAL SACRIFICE

 

Beersheba, a reconstruction of the horned altar.

Beersheba, a reconstruction of the horned altar. 
For more on Beersheba, see BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: CITIES

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.  

Mural of an animal sacrifice, Corinth, 540-530BC

Mural of an animal sacrifice, Corinth, 540-530BC. Note the horn-shaped corners of the altar, bottom right. The altar itself seems to be enclosed in a wooden framework.

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:

  • the selection and preparation of the animal

  • prayers of supplication or thanksgiving to the deity

  • the killing of the animal

  • the burning of pieces of the animal

  • distribution of meat after the ceremony

At the beginning of the war in the Iliad, Achilles gives a speech that tells us why ancient people offered sacrifice:

Come, let us ask some seer, or priest, or maybe a reader of dreams - who may tell us why Phoebus Apollo is so angry: whether he sees fault in us for some vow or sacrifice neglected. Perhaps in return for the smoke of lambs and sacrificial goats, he will save us from the pestilence.

 

TANTILISING OBJECTS

 

Woman at thewindow, ancient ivory plaque

Woman at a window, ivory plaque, Nimrud

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 theme of the 'woman at the window' appears several times in the Bible, but its exact significance is lost. 

The mother of the slaughtered enemy general Sisera stands at a window -see DEBORAH AND JAEL. She is waiting for the son who will never return. 

Jezebel appears at a window immediately before she is hurled down to her death (see JEHU MURDERS JEZEBEL)

Small cult statue of the ancient god Baal

Cult statue, probably of Baal

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 Canaanites worshipped several gods; the two most important were Asherah and Baal. Asherah was the mother of Baal and is often shown with a Tree of Life. 

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

 

 

Ancient Philistine incense burners

Philistine incense burners. 
Burning incense was part of religious ritual. The Temple in Jerusalem 
may have had large incense burners in the forecourt of the Temple. 
For an image of this forecourt, see
BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: JERUSALEM

 

Bronze statuette of a bull, ancient, from northern Israel

Bronze Bull found in northern Israel at an open-air sanctuary.
The bull calf was a common fertility symbol in the ancient world.  
In the Old Testament, the Israelites grew tired of following Moses, and while he was on Mount Sinai they made a Golden Calf (see
Bible People: Moses). Jeroboam set up bull images at Bethel and Dan when he formed a breakaway kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 12:28)

 

Cretan snake goddess or priestess

Minoan snake goddess.
People sometimes interpret the woman's bare breasts as a fashion statement, saying that Minoan woman, or perhaps just Minoan priestesses, wore clothes that exposed their breasts. In fact, the bare breasts in Minoan statuettes and paintings may have been symbols for a goddess who fed and nurtured the human race, as babies are fed and nurtured by plentiful mother's milk. The earth was still venerated/worshipped as the Great Mother who fed, sheltered and protected humanity.

The snakes the goddess/priestess carries may have been a symbol of triumph over death. Snakes shed their skin and thus appear to die once a year, but then reappear again alive. 

Snakes also appeared prominently in a number of ancient fertility religions, and so may have been seen by the writers of the Bible as symbols of evil. See Eve for the story of Eve and the serpent.

 

RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

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).

There are three areas in which the people fail:

  • they practise the rituals of the fertility cults

  • they are attracted to the idea that they can communicate with the dead

  • they resort to witchcraft and sorcery - indeed, Jesus was accused of being a sorcerer.

 A larium from Pompeii

A Roman shrine to the lares, the spirits that protected a family and its household. 
Offerings of food and drink were made every day to these spirits in the hope they would bring prosperity and good luck to the family. 
In many ways, the teraphim hidden by Rachel are similar to the Roman lares (see WOMEN IN THE BIBLE: RACHEL and  Genesis 31:22-35).

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 tried many different ways to come to terms with the forces of Nature. Every country had different rituals and religious practices to keep bad luck at bay and to coax Nature into behaving in a way that would help, not harm, humanity.

They encouraged fertility in Nature and in humans by means of sacred prostitution, and by giving gifts to Nature.

The burial practices of each country enabled them to cope with the grief of losing people they loved, and with the anxiety they felt when they lost someone who was valuable to the community.

Witchcraft and sorcery gave them a sense of control over possible disaster. A spell or charm could, they believed, ward off bad luck or illness, caused as they believed by malignant forces in the universe.

The prophets of the Old Testament taught them that prosperity, peace and safety depended on Israel's obedience to God, and that people themselves had an obligation to help the unfortunate, the poor and the weak. Despite this, many of the people still found the ancient religious practices attractive, and continued to worship other religious deities or forces of Nature right throughout the biblical period.


GOD AND THE ANCIENT ISRAELITES

Archaeological discoveries show several ancient biblical customs relating to worship of God:

Pillars

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).

High Places
The high or holy places at which God revealed Himself to the Patriarchs are associated with natural objects: 

A lone tamarisk tree in an empty landscape

A lone tamarisk tree

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.

High places actually stood outside the towns mentioned, recalling the semi-nomadic custom of camping on the outskirts of society. Moreover, the towns existed before the advent of the Patriarchs.

A flock of sheep with their shepherd in a barren landscape

Patriarchal High Places
Careful study of the shrines and Holy places visited by the Patriarchs leads to the paradoxical conclusion that while tradition multiplies the links uniting the Patriarchs and the sanctuaries of Shechem, Bethel and Beersheba, later religious reformers and prophets reproved the cult of high places as pagan. 

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. 

Religious Concepts
The Covenant and the relationship it represents between the Patriarchs and their God is one of the basic ideas of Genesis. An important manifestation of this covenantal relationship is described in Genesis 15, in the revelation of God to Abraham. 

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.

A Personal God
The concept of a personal god, with whom one could talk on intimate terms, was one of the traits that characterized the religion of the Patriarchs. By demonstrating that God revealed Himself to the Patriarchs at different places, the biblical narrators emphasize the traditional belief that God wished to show that he followed His Chosen People wherever they went, and watched over and cared for them.

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 unique place of the Patriarchs in the evolution of religion in Israel is far more important than their ethnic and inter-tribal origins. The whole philosophy of the biblical narrators rests on the assumption that while Moses was the actual founder of the people of Israel and formulator of its faith, the origins of both are to be found in Abraham. He is regarded as the fountainhead of divine revelation and the recipient of the Promise of the Land of Canaan. This is the fundamental tradition of Genesis. 

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.

CANAANITE RELIGION

Canaanite Mythology

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.

The main source for the ancient mythology of the pre-Israelite period is Ugarit. Discoveries there include the epics of Baal and 'Anat, Dan'el and Aqhat, and the story of Keret, all dating from the 15th and 14th centuries BC. 

During the later — decadent — period, the Canaanites were beginning to amalgamate politically with the invading Hebrews and Philistines. Although it had lost much of its prestige, Canaanite religion lingered for centuries in Palestine and Phoenicia. The old myths and the poetry in which they were expressed may, however, have undergone changes over the years.

Divinities

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.

Nine different images of ancient goddesses carved in stone

Different images of the goddess

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.

Ishtar (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.

El, Supreme Father God: The "creator of creatures" and supreme father is also "Kindly El Benign", the "King" and, sometimes "Bull El, my Father", using one of the commonest symbols of masculine potency. "El" is the Semitic word for God; it appears, for example, in the biblical El and Elohim.
In the epic tales, El is described as living in a remote dwelling "a thousand plains, ten thousand fields" from Canaan at the "source of the rivers of the Floods", in the midst of the "headwaters of the Two Deeps". When the gods wanted to consult him, they had to travel to this remote paradise. In the same way, the Babylonian hero, Utnapishtim, was translated into an immortal existence at the "source of the two rivers" and in Genesis the Garden of Eden is placed at the source of the four great rivers.
Another of El's titles was "Father of Years" which made him the god of time. 

Stone carving from Ugarit showing a god and a worshipper


This mottled stone from Ugarit (above) shows a god with a flowing beard seated on an elaborate lion-footed throne, his feet resting on a footstool and wearing a tiara, tunic and mantle. A king or priest is presenting an offering which is welcomed as El welcomes gifts in the epic tales. It is believed that this figure represents a "supreme father".
The characteristics ascribed to El made him seem too remote for simple people, although like the other gods he occasionally stepped down from his heavenly eminence and played the hero in some remarkably earthy myths. Nevertheless, interest in him began to wane and the popular cult attached itself to his more active children.

The Baal and 'Anat Cycle

Stone stele showing Baal, god of rain and storms in ancient Israel

Baal, controller of rain and rivers

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.

In Northern Syria, 'Anat was thought to be his wife, although later on in Palestine the goddess Ashtoreth (Ishtar) became his wife.
Even in the epics, 'Anat sometimes appears as both sister and wife. Elsewhere she is a devoted sister and a valiant warrior maiden.

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:
"Like the heart of a cow for her calf; Like the heart of an ewe for her lamb, So is the heart of 'Anat for Ba'al."

However, more typical of 'Anat as she appears in the myths is the Egyptian stele (below) which stresses her cruel, revengeful nature. 

Egyptian stone stele showing the goddess Anat

An Egyptian stele depicting Anat - womanly and fierce

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.

In spite of her bloodthirsty nature, it was 'Anat, more than any other female divinity who was the symbol of fecundity and vitality. This gave her one of her other names, the "Power of Life". Her popularity in the Palestine of the Patriarchs (Middle Bronze Age) is indicated by place names such as 'Anathot, Beth-`Anat.

In the Bible, her name appears only in occasional lists of temples or places. The goddess herself is not mentioned. By the time the biblical books were cast in their final form, she had been forgotten. Some scholars believe that her place had been taken by the female warrior, Ishtar.

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 

  • the god of pestilence and Lord of the Underworld, Reshef, represented as an angry warrior, heavily armed and wearing contemporary Asiatic costume

  • Shulman or Shalim, the god of health

  • and Kothar, god of arts and crafts.

Ancient bronze statue of Baal, god of water and storms

A bronze statuette of Baal

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.

Mot: 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 Hebrew).
The most likely representation we have of the rain-god Ba'al is a stele found in Ugarit showing a god bestriding the mountains with a club in one hand and a shaft of lightning in the other. References in the epics to Ba'al as god of the storm, who spoke in the thunder and whose voice resounded through heaven and earth, seem to fit in very well with this "Ba'al of the Lightning".

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".

 

See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible

  

 

 

 

Ancient Religion in Bible Times  - Archaeology of The Bible
Ancient Temples, Animal Sacrifice, Private and Public Worship; Bible  Study Resource

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