Worship of idols in Israel
Canaan was not an empty land when the wandering Hebrews entered it. There were people there. They were the Canaanites, who had lived there for thousands of years.
These people had their own ways, and their own religious practices. They venerated cosmic forces, and they made images to represent these forces – images made of stone, wood or metal, moulded or carved by their 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. The Hebrew prophets called them ba‘alim, elilim and asherahs.
The prophets and priests were horrified by any influence that neighbouring countries had on the religious life of Israel.
This influence could show up in
- Hebrew sacriﬁces and funerary rites
- worship at the ‘high places’
- the style and lay-out of temples, and
- religious symbols.
The southern part of Canaan, the poorer land where the Israelites settled, was economically and culturally backward. It compared badly with the northern states and the highly developed cities of Phoenicia, Tyre, Byblos and Ugarit.
Despite this, Bible stories insist that the children of Israel rejected Canaanite religious customs. They were to hold themselves separate.
They point out that although Yahweh
- controlled the elements (see 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 definitely not a sun, moon or storm god like Baal or any of the other Canaanite deities.
And even though he might bless the land with fertile crops, (Genesis 49:25 If; Dueteronomy 33:11-16), Yahweh was in no sense a fertility god.
During the period of Judges
As the Israelites abandoned their semi-nomadic way of living and took up farming, many of them saw the Canaanite focus on the gods of fertility as a sensible alternative. They began propitiating the ancient gods who promised fertility and a good harvest.
It worked in the opposite direction too. Many Canaanites were absorbed into Israelite society. In time they became worshippers of Yahweh – but they kept their old allegiance to the agrarian gods as well.
As a result, Yahweh became confused with Ba‘al, both at the farming and cosmic level. The book of Judges is full of examples of this. For example, the worship of Ba‘al existed in Gideon’s home town and even in the house of Saul.
During the Monarchy
The fundamental danger may have increased following the conquests of David and King 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. Jezebel, herself a Phoenician princess, encouraged the immigration of many Phoenicians.
- Ahab, husband of Jezebel, built a temple to Ba‘al.
- The Tyrian Ba‘al cult reappeared later on in Queen Athaliah’s court in Jerusalem (see Athaliah, ruthless queen).
The prophets Elijah and Elisha hated these aristocratic foreigners. ‘Idolatry’ was linked with cosmopolitan habits – which offended the ascetic Yahwists at a material and a spiritual level.
How do we know? the Figurines
In all the excavations of Israelite towns, large numbers of small statues and plaques have been found. These are usually clay, with a nude ﬁgure in relief. They are from the Middle Bronze Age (roughly the period of the patriarchs) and were popular as long as the Israelite kings reigned.
The ﬁgures were usually found in the ruins of houses rather than sanctuaries. This is important, because it means it was the ordinary people of Israel, not official religion, who turned to these images/gods.
Charms or Idolatry?
It was not an either/or situation. People could have their household gods and at the same time be devoted to the ofﬁcial religion.
But it is hard to say exactly what these figurines meant to the people who owned them. They are not necessarily ‘religious’ in the way we use the word.
- Perhaps they were personal good luck talismans.
- Perhaps they were objects of household veneration.
- Perhaps they were used in community worship/celebrations.
We simply do not know.
Jeroboam and the Golden Calves
After the death of Solomon, Israel and Judah split into two separate kingdoms. Jeroboam, king of the northern, richer kingdom of Israel wanted to provide his people with their own sanctuary – so they did not need to travel to Jerusalem.
He revived the ancient shrines of Bethel and Dan.
When this happened, the symbols that had been used for the old worship, mainly the bull/calf, were employed once more. A bull was the most common for virility. The priests of Judah, in Jerusalem, were not happy. They fiercely clung to the idea of a god who was invisible.
This may explain the ‘golden calf’ episode in the Bible.
- Jeroboam was now worshipping Yahweh in the form of a golden bull, derisively called ‘calf’ in the Bible story.
- Jeroboam’s ‘calf’ deflected attention from the religious centre of Jerusalem, and so it was attacked with the best weapon the Jerusalem priests had: scorn.
- Statues of ancient gods often showed them standing on the backs of animals such as bulls, lions, etc. Jeroboam’s golden calves were meant to be like this: pedestals for Yahweh (I Kings 12:28). Jeroboam had not violated the commandment that forbade the making of images of God. But Yahweh was confused with the symbols that represented his invisible presence, and Jeroboam was accused of making ‘idols’.