Canaanite Religion and the Downfall of Israel and Judah: Primary Cause of God’s Displeasure

Specifics about the Canaanite Religion (Baalism) have been hard for archaeologists to find and, until recently, most of what was known about them came from the Bible and other writings that were not written until the Roman age (Unger, 1950, p. 168). Unger goes on to explain that with recent archaeological finds the knowledge of the Canaanite pantheon has greatly increased and one thing from the biblical account that has been proven is that “A study of the Canaanite pantheon reveals its extremely low moral level and the barbarous and licentious character of its deities” (Unger, 1950, p 169). These terms “barbarous and licentious” are a very good way to start when summarizing Baalism. There are two primary features that are pointed out in the Bible tied to the worship of Baal. First is the sexual content, the sexual worship of Baal went all the way back to Judah and Tamar. When Judah slept with Tamar, who he thought was a temple prostitute, what he was doing was practicing an early version of Baal worship (Genesis 38:18, NIV). This form of worship was happening in pre-exilic Israel near 750 B.C. according to Amos: “Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name.” (Amos 2:7, NIV). The other side of Baalism was far more barbaric. The Lord said through the prophet Jeremiah  “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal… ” (Jeremiah 19:5, NIV). This means that the Canaanite Religion was a pantheistic system where the deities were worshiped with licentious and barbarous practices and the Bible refers to it as Baal worship.  This Baal worship would be the primary cause of God’s displeasure with Israel motivating Him to judge the people of Israel, first by dividing the kingdom and eventually carrying all away into exile; God warned Israel of this impending judgment through the prophets, who often lost their lives giving the message.

There are few stories like that of Israel and being led out of Egypt and into the land promised to them. One of the most outstanding features of that story is the command to Israel from God to “Completely destroy them… “; God told Israel to kill every Canaanite religious follower in the land (Deuteronomy 20:17, NIV). As the story unfolds it becomes plain that Israel did not follow God’s command and they paid for it by falling time and time again into Baal worship. At first God sent judges to rescue Israel and bring them back to Him, then it fell to the kings and David proved to be a king who was “… a man after my (God’s) own heart” (Acts 13:22, NIV). However the high was short lived as king Solomon, David’s son, because of His sexual exploits, was led away to worshiping other god’s. Because of Solomon’s betrayal, God divided Israel. From that point on every king to sat on the throne of Israel or the newly formed Judah would be judged by just how well they lived up to the Davidic standard. The Northern Kingdom of Israel never had a single king that was not a Baal worshiper of some kind, though there were different levels of their debauchery. Ahab is probably recognized as the chief among the offenders among the northern kings. Perhaps the most well known location for child sacrifice would have been a valley called Topheth. Josiah, one of the few good kings in the south, desecrates this valley so it can no longer be used for child sacrifice (2 Kings 23:10). Modern archeological research matches the biblical account about Topheth: “.. age distribution of the Topher infants supports our contention of infant sacrifice.” Smith, Stager, Greene, Avishai, n.d, p. 1192). Not all of the southern kings were Yahweh seekers, far from that, some went as far as setting Baal worship in the temple itself. Manasseh was the Ahab of the south: “He sacrificed his own son in the fire, He took the carved Asherah pole he had made and put it in the temple, and led them (the people of Judah) astray” (2 Kings 21:1-9). God would not turn a blind eye to the suffering of infants or the desecration of the temple and by 597 B.C. all of Israel had been carried off to Babylon.

As this debauchery grew among Israel God sent prophets to speak against it. Isaiah, Jeremiah and even Ezekiel were among these people that God sent to warn Israel of the impending judgment they were bringing on themselves. Isaiah was a pre-exilic prophet that would have been alive near 750 B.C. and in his opening oracle he makes two references to Israel’s idolatry; first he compares Israel to Sodom and Gomorrah and then he tells them they will be ashamed of their “sacred oaks” and “gardens” these references are linked to Baalism (Isaiah 1:1-29, NIV). Jeremiah, who would have lived in about 587 BC, is less cryptic than Isaiah as he directly calls out Israel for burning their children to Baal: “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal… ” (Jeremiah 19:5, NIV). Jeremiah adds that because of this rampant immorality “In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies” (Jeremiah 19:7, NIV). Ezekiel does not directly reference Baalism but he does have a lot about idols in general and because idols were most commonly about or to one of Baalism’s pantheon it can be assumed that Ezekiel was talking about the same Baal worship that Isaiah and Jeremiah were. Ezekiel warns Israel that if Israel does not “Repent, turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations” “I (the Lord) will cut off its supply of bread, send famine on it, and cut off man and beast from it” (Ezekiel 14:1-14). These prophets were not liked for their message, Isaiah was reportedly sawn in half and Jeremiah was forced in exile in Egypt. There message was clear however, and that was that if Israel persisted in their licentious and barbarous worship of Baal God would destroy them.

God has been known throughout history as long suffering and patient with the evildoer but He is also just, and that justice demanded that the prostitution of Imago Dei (the image of God) both sexually and through child sacrifice was not something that should be allowed to continue. God warned the people through the prophets but they persisted in Baalism and because of that, Baal worship would be the primary cause of God’s displeasure with Israel and the eventual source of their destruction.

 

References

Hyatt, J. P. (1958). Jeremiah: Prophet of courage and hope. New York: Abingdon Press. Retrieved from (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jeremiah-Hebrew-prophet)

Smith, P., Stager, L., Greene, J., & Avishai, G. (n.d). Age estimations attest to infant sacrifice at the Carthage Tophet. Antiquity, 87(338),

Unger, M. F. (1950). Archeology and the religion of the Canaanites. Bibliotheca Sacra, 107(426), 168-174.

Posted in Blog, History, Theology.