Syncretism is the merger of different, and at times, contradictory religious practices, faith, and beliefs in order to reconcile different religious traditions found within a community and in order to find unity between competitive views.
Syncretism in the Old Testament involves Israel’s absorption of Canaanite religious practices into the religion of Yahweh. Syncretism arose in Israel because Israel did not practice its religion in insolation, detached from its Canaanite neighbors.
When Israel conquered the land of Canaan, the books of Joshua and Judges say that the Canaanites cities were not destroyed. Rather, many Canaanite cities were left unconquered and, as a result, the Canaanites lived among the people of Israel.
Abraham and his family came from a culture where syncretism was a fact of life: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor— lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods” (Joshua 24:2). In fact, Abraham’s ancestors, Peleg, Serug, Nahor, and Terah (Genesis 11:18, 22-23, 26) were named after the names of gods mentioned in documents from Mesopotamia.
When Abraham left Haran to come to Canaan, he and his descendants came into contact with Canaanite religion and their gods. These gods were worshiped in sanctuaries located at Shechem, Bethel, Mamre, and Beersheba. Although there is no evidence that the patriarchs worshiped the gods of Canaan, the Old Testament reveals that the people of Israel eventually became involved in the worship of the gods of the land.
When Israel went to Egypt and lived there for more than four centuries, the people of Israel were exposed to Egyptian religion. Although the Israelites were forced to build cities for pharaoh and were not impressed by their many gods, some people in Israel accepted Egyptian religion.
When Joshua renewed the covenant with a new generation of Israelites at Shechem, Joshua urged the people to abandon their Egyptian gods: “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14).
After the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, the people of Israel worshiped Yahweh while the Canaanites worshiped their local gods. Gradually, the people of Israel took over the worship places that once belonged of the people of the land and eventually the religious practices at these cultic centers became thoroughly Israelite, focused on the worship of Yahweh.
The reason syncretistic practices became prevalent in Israel was because the covenant that God established with the people at Sinai did not require Israel to deny the existence of other gods. Rather, the covenant required Israel to worship Yahweh alone as the only God of Israel: “You must not have any other god but me” (Exodus 20:3 NLT). However, when Israel chose to worship other gods, the prophets criticized Israel for violating the demands of the covenant.
The worship of other gods intensified after Israel conquered the land of Canaan. For many years Israel had sojourned in the wilderness, preparing to enter the promised land. The new generation of Israelites who entered the land with Joshua was not familiar with agricultural life and had never learned how to cultivate an arid land in order to produce crops. Yahweh was not an agricultural god like Baal.
The land from which the Israelites now had to grow crops and produce pasture for their flock was believed to belong to Baal. It was Baal who produced crops and increased the flock and the herd of his worshipers.
It was this belief that tempted many Israelites to abandon the God who guided them through the wilderness to follow the gods and goddesses who promised them grain, oil, and wine in abundance. It took many years before Israel understood that it was not Baal, but Yahweh who had been giving them their grain, their oil, and their wine.
Israel said: “’I’ll run after other lovers and sell myself to them for food and water, for clothing of wool and linen, and for olive oil and drinks” (Hosea 2:5 NLT). But Hosea told the people that the giver of these blessings was Yahweh and not Baal. Yahweh said: “[Israel] did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished upon her silver and gold that they used for Baal” (Hosea 2:8).
In the studies below I discuss the rise of syncretism in Israel. These three studies are not complete, for much more could be said about the problem of syncretism in Israel and Judah. At a later time I will conclude these studies and explain how Israel decided to abandon the worship of other gods and worship Yahweh as the only God of Israel.
Studies on Syncretism in the Old Testament
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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