Questions and Answers


Question of general interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy.

Question: What were the false ideologies, values, and practices that tempted Israel during the Old Testament period?

Ellis T. Rasmussen, Former dean of Religious Instruction, Brigham Young University.

I think we don’t appreciate enough the hard mission the prophets of Israel had: to help Israel remember their covenant and calling. The Israelites were to teach about God and his ways—not to be taught by the people who followed the cults of idol gods. However, they had a hard time resisting the pressures and enticing wrongs of the peoples among whom they lived, and they had difficulty remaining true to their unseen God, even though they had seen many manifestations of his benevolence and graciousness.

I recall my surprise when visiting ancient pagan temples and tombs to discover the main “blessings” for which the idol worshippers repeatedly asked their gods: immortality, reproduction of life, and fertility for flocks, herds, and farms. These blessings were asked for in carnal and sensual rituals which appealed to the Israelites’ natural appetites, in contrast to the austere, moral, and spiritually motivated codes of behavior asked by Israel’s God for the same blessings.

The Canaanites had gods and goddesses in abundance. These gods supposedly brought the rainfall, caused fields and flocks to be productive, blessed commerce, and protected cities. They were thought to control seasonal cycles, death and birth—every function of nature. Hence, it was concluded that man could influence nature by worshipping the right god or goddess for each need. Of course, sacrifices were required, even the sacrifice of children.

Scholars have discovered through years of archaeological research and translation of ancient documents that there was extensive communication among ancient peoples—a broad sharing of religious concepts and worship practices and a wide awareness of the names and functions of idol gods. It is not surprising, then, that many people in Israel turned occasionally to one or another of the local deities.

The most common idol gods were Ball and his consort Ashtaroth (See Judg. 2:13). The goddess Ashtaroth, called the “queen of heaven,” was the most widely worshipped goddess of fertility among the Canaanites, the Babylonians, the Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon, the Syrians, and others. The mistress of mysterious powers of reproduction, she was “worshipped” by ritualized sexual indulgence. These practices were often a sensual temptation to the Israelites.

Ashtaroth’s son (in some cases, husband), Tammuz the god of vegetation, controlled the annual cycle of the seasons. The myth of Tammuz tells the story of the goddess Ashtaroth going into the underworld during autumn to bring her husband back from the place of the dead to restore life again in the spring. We read of the people of Israel weeping for Tammuz as part of an autumn ritual in some of the prophetic books of the Bible.

Calves and bulls were also objects of adoration or worship. Sometimes they bore the gods of fertility; sometimes they were symbols of reproduction. The god Chemosh of Moab was among the idols installed at times in Jerusalem, sometimes for political reasons. Dagon, the god of the Philistine cities of Gaza and Ashdod was either a fish god or a grain god and is mentioned several times in the Bible.

Perhaps the most dreaded deity to whom the children of Israel surprisingly turned at times was Molech. His name means “the king.” It was to him that children were sacrificed by fire, even by some Israelite kings: they caused “their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech.” Such things, Jeremiah the prophet said, the Lord never did require of Israel. Why would Israel turn from the gracious benevolence of Jehovah to such a fearful deity? No doubt it was for urgent economic, social, and political reasons.

The sun and constellations of stars were attributed powers of productivity and security. In hot, dry lands, the mysterious, pale, cool light of the moon was another object of adoration; the phases of the moon marked phases of life and biological and agricultural functions.

The Teraphim, household gods mentioned frequently in the Bible, appear to have symbols of land ownership. They were also appealed to for foretelling the future or consultation in times of need or trouble.

Some trees, plants, and shrubs were worshipped. The tamarisk, in particular, whose Hebrew name eshel is translated in the Bible as “grove,” was looked upon as a holy plant that could bring about benevolent effects upon other vegetation. Trees such as the pistacia terebinthus, the Teil tree and the oak were considered especially sacred, probably because they gave shade and shelter and manifested powers of long life.

There were also gods of destiny, of fortune, of the storm, of the desert, and indeed of all functions and faculties of man and nature.

The problems of moving from slavery to freedom, from nomadism to settled agriculture, from rural life to city life, and from a national scope to international status brought an ever-increasing need for divine aid and intervention. But the prophets constantly faced the problem of how to convince people to trust in Jehovah instead of turning to fertility charms, good luck amulets, and idols with mystical powers. It was difficult to convince many that devotion to Jehovah and lives of moral, social, and spiritual righteousness was the only true path to security and success.