Israel and Canaanite Religion

This is my third article on the book of Judges. The links for the two previous posts on the book of Judges are listed at the end of this post.

It is a fact that the greatest challenge Israel faced in maintaining its relationship with Yahweh and keeping the demands of the covenant was its encounter with Canaanite culture and Canaanite religion.

During the days of Joshua, the main concern of the people of Israel was the conquest of the land and the settlement of the tribes. Before Joshua died, he assembled all the tribes of Israel together at Shechem. Present at that convocation were the representatives of the people. Israel’s leaders, elders, judges, and all officers came to Shechem to renew the covenant before God (Joshua 24:1).

These people represented the new generation of Israelites. They were the descendants of those who had perished in the wilderness. When the people were together, Joshua urged them to abandon the pagan gods their ancestors had worshiped: “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14).

After Joshua challenged the people to be faithful to Yahweh, the people answered: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight” (Joshua 24:16-17).

But after the death of Joshua, “another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). What set apart this new generation of Israelites is that they departed from the ways of the Lord and were not as faithful to God as the people in Joshua’s generation had been.

The expression “did not know the Lord” does not express ignorance of the demands of God. Rather, this expression means that the people did not acknowledge that Yahweh was their only God. Thus, the expression does not mean ignorance, but unfaithfulness to God.

Of this new generation, the writer of Judges wrote: “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes. (Judges 2:10-13).

The reason for this apostasy is not hard to understand. The time of the judges was a time of transition for the people of Israel. After the exodus from Egypt, Israel spent forty years in the wilderness. During these years, God fed the people by providing “manna” for them.

Although we do not have a clear understanding of what manna was, the Bible says that manna “was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31). In another place the Bible says that “manna was like coriander seed, and its color was like the color of gum resin. The people . . . gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil” (Numbers 11:7-8).

Thus, the Lord fed the Israelites for forty years, “until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna, until they came to the border of the land of Canaan” (Exodus 16:35). Once they entered the land of Canaan and once they occupied of the land, the people had to learn how to eke out an existence from the ground.

It is here where the conflict between two opposing religious views comes into conflict with each other. Canaanite religion was a fertility religion. The essence of this conflict was the tension between the semi-nomadic religion of the Israelites and the settled elements of Canaanite religion.

The Hebrew God was different from the gods of the Canaanites. The Canaanites were farmers; the Israelites were shepherds. The gods of the cycle of planting and of harvesting were foreign to Israel, a people who served the God of migration.

The Canaanites believed that the fertility of the land was the work of their god Baal. The Israelites did not know whether Yahweh could provide them with abundant crops. So the question became whether to please the fertility gods of Canaan or depend on Yahweh for their survival. Israel decided to do both: they would worship Yahweh and at the same time they would please the gods of the land.

Less than a century ago our knowledge of Canaanite religion was very limited. However, the discovery of the religious epic literature at Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit, a place located on the north Syrian coast, provided much information about Canaanite culture and religion.

Ugaritic literature confirmed many of the things the Old Testament says about the religious practices of the Canaanites and shed light on the reasons the biblical writers were so hard on Israel because of their assimilation of Canaanite practices.

Several of the Canaanite deities are mentioned in the book of Judges. The references in Judges to these Canaanite deities is evidence that the people of Israel were involved in the worship of Canaanite gods and goddesses. These were some of the gods and goddesses of the Canaanites:

Baal

Baal was the storm-god who after supplanting his father, the god El, became the main god in the Canaanite pantheon. The name Baal means “lord,” “master,” “husband.”

As the storm-god, Baal’s voice came from the heavens in the form of thunder. Baal was the one who sent rain to water the ground to produce the fertility of the land. He was the center of the fertility myth. When Baal was killed by Mot, the god of the underworld, the dry season came. All vegetation withered, and procreation ceased. When Baal was revived, rain fell and the land again became fertile. The name of Baal appears 11 times in the book of Judges, both in the singular and in the plural.

Asherah

Asherah was the Canaanite goddess of fertility. Asherah was also the name of the wooden pole dedicated to the goddess. For instance, the NRSV translates Judges 3:7 as follows: “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, forgetting the LORD their God, and worshiping the Baals and the Asherahs.”

The KJV translates the same verse as follows: “And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and forgot the LORD their God, and served Baalim and the groves.” The “groves” are the wooden poles representing the goddess Asherah. It is believed that the practice of sacred prostitution was associated with the worship of Asherah. The references to the Asherah poles appear in Judges 3:7; 6:25-26, 28, 30.

Anat

Anat was the Canaanite goddess of war. She fought using the bow and the sword against her enemies. Although the name of this goddess does not directly appear in the book of Judges, her name appears as part of the name of Shamgar, the judge who is called “Shamgar son of Anath” (Judges 3:31). Her name also appears in the name of a place, Beth Anath, a village located in the tribe of Naphtali (Judges 1:33).

Dagon

Dagon was a Canaanite god associated with grain. In the Hebrew Bible Dagon appears as the god of the Philistines (Judges 16:23). Since the Philistines were not a people native to Canaan, it is possible that they adopted Dagon as their god after they conquered the Canaanites.

The Old Testament presents the Canaanites as immoral and degraded. Their religious practices did not reflect the holiness God demanded from his people. When God made a covenant with Abraham, God told him that his descendants would not return to Canaan for four generations because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16).

It was because of the degraded paganism of the Canaanites that Yahweh ordered the complete destruction of their places of worship and Israel’s absolute separation from Canaanite religious practices. Thus, a compromise between Israel’s religion and the practices of Canaanite religion was unthinkable.

But the uncompromising attitude commanded by Yahweh was not to be. The Israelites failed to conquer the Canaanites. For example, the writer of Judges says that “Zebulun did not drive out the Canaanites living in Kitron or Nahalol, so these Canaanites lived among them”(Judges 1:30). As a result, many Canaanite religious practices were assimilated into Israelite religious life.

The consequences for Israel’s disobedience was tragic. As Joshua had warned the new generation of Israelites, the Canaanites and their religion became the reason for Israel’s downfall. Joshua told the people: “They [the Canaanites] shall be a snare and a trap for you, a scourge on your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land that the LORD your God has given you” (Joshua 23:13).

Other Studies on the Book of Judges

Israel in the Book of Judges

Israel in the Days of the Judges

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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This entry was posted in Asherah, Baal, Book of Judges, Canaanites, Hebrew Bible and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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