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To Burn Incense Unto Baal

Posted by foryourfaith on May 7, 2011

 

As long as the Israelites lived among a large Canaanite population, Baal, the principal god of the native peoples loomed large in Israel’s religious life. The name Baal means “Lord” and may imply any sort of lordship. For the Canaanites it indicated Baal’s lordship over the land.

Baal, unlike Yahweh, was part of a family of gods. The high god and creator was called El, a name that means simply “god.” Baal was the son of the grain god, Dagon, and came to be the principal god through his mighty works, related in the mythology of the Canaanites. His exploits are known to us principally through a series of inscribed clay tablets that were discovered in the Canaanite city of Ugarit, also known as Ras Shamra. The stories make Baal a heroic deity intimately linked to the stability of life and the fertility of the land. In a society in which the great majority of the people were farmers and herders, their lives dependent upon agriculture, it is not difficult to understand the attraction of a god such as Baal.

One story told how Baal came to be king among the gods by standing against the threat of chaos in the world, as symbolized by the waters of Sea and River. Even the gods in the Council of El were intimidated by the threatening waters, but Baal in a titanic battle overcame Sea and River, confined them to their proper place, and restored order to the world. Thus Baal gained an “eternal kingship” and “dominion forever.” Through the gods struggles, the Canaanites expressed the mystery of the life cycle.

Myths such as this one, together with the attendant celebrations and sacrifices, held a fascination for many Israelites. The Book of Judges repeatedly indicts the people because they “serve the Baals; and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers.” In periods such as the reign of Ahab and his wife Jezebel, the worship of Baal was the state-supported religion of Israel.

But it was the attractiveness of the Canaanite religion that threatened the worship of Yahweh and made the prophets of Yahweh implacable enemies of Baal and his related deities. Elijah stood against Baal on Mount Carmel, Jeremiah, shortly before the Babylonian exile, warned that “as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to burn incense to Baal.” The prophets warned against the immorality of the fertility cult. They warned against the materialism and corruption of Canaanite religion, as well as its lack of concern for the welfare of the needy. But most of all they warned that Israel was being untrue to her covenant with Yahweh to “have no other gods before me.”

The very competition between the two faiths, however, led Yahweh’s worshipers to praise him with descriptions that adapted and challenged those long attributed to Baal. Thus Yahweh is described in Psalm 68 as he “who rides upon the cloud,” a designation usually reserved for Baal. Psalm 82 even goes so far as to make a confrontation of the gods explicit. The threat of Baal to the worship of Yahweh continued until the fires of the Babylonian exile finally purged the Canaanite deity from the heart of Israel.

 

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Astarte And Ishtar

Posted by foryourfaith on April 20, 2011

 

A major theme recurring throughout the Old Testament and especially in the Prophets is the admonition and punishment of the Israelites for worshiping false gods. The Ten Commandments warn against this, stating “I am the Lord your God . . . You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image” (Exodus 20:2-4).

There are numerous biblical references to warnings about the worship of the gods of the Canaanites, Babylonians, and Assyrians. Canaanite religion contained a pantheon of gods and goddesses who continued to be worshiped throughout biblical times; chief among the goddesses was Astarte, or Ashtoreth. She is known from Ugaritic and ancient Egyptian texts recounting the epic deeds of Baal and his cohorts. Scholars believe that the Canaanite Astarte is identical to the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian goddess Ishtar. In ancient texts and art, Astarte and Ishtar are identified, and have as their symbols the planet Venus.

Astarte is closely associated with Baal, Baal’s sister and consort, Anath, and his mother, Asherah. Within the Canaanite mythology, Baal and the three female goddesses were the centerpieces of a fertility cult. The goddesses appear variously as sexual cult objects, as sacred courtesans, or as the mother goddess, depicted as a nude pregnant woman. Figurines of this sort have been found by archaeologists excavating Canaanite sites.

Ishtar is known from various Babylonian and Assyrian texts, inscriptions, hymns, and artifacts. Like Astarte, she was worshiped as the goddess of fertility, and had as her symbol Venus, the evening star. In one Assyrian hymn, Ishtar is quoted as saying “Ishtar, the goddess of the morning, and Ishtar, the goddess of the evening, am I.”

Temples were built to Ishtar in all the major cities of Babylonia and Assyria. Slaves were often dedicated to her temples, and ancient kings frequently offered her gifts. Sargon is known to have presented her with cedar and cypress wood, and Nebuchadnezzar gave her offerings of animals, birds, fish and wine. Although child sacrifice has been associated with the cult of Astarte, there is no evidence to suggest that this terrible custom was practiced among Ishtar’s devotees.

A fertility goddess, Ishtar was also thought to bestow life, health, and innumerable other blessings upon mankind. On account of this belief, she was frequently beseeched in prayers. Ashurbanipal prayed to her for long life, as did Nebuchadnezzar. In fact, Ashurbanipal’s library was found to contain a number of prayers and psalms dedicated to the goddess. In one, the poet writes: “Her song is sweeter than honey and wine, sweeter than sprouts and herbs, superior indeed to pure cream.”

Despite the prohibition against the worship of false gods, and the prophets constantly inveighing against idolatry, a cult to Ishtar was thought to have flourished in Israel during the tie of the prophet Jeremiah. The cult was especially popular among women, who possessed very little status in the formal worship of Yahweh. Jeremiah speaks out against those who “makes cakes for the queen of heaven.” These cakes were thought to have been shaped in the goddess image, or perhaps in the shape of her symbol, the evening star Venus.

 

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Artemis Of Ephesus

Posted by foryourfaith on April 20, 2011

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In his third missionary journey (about AD 53-58), Paul went to Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia; he spent nearly three years there, teaching “both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). Ephesus was in ancient times a major on the trade routes between Greece and Asia Minor. It was there that Paul caused “no little stir” (19:23) among members of one of the most venerated pagan cults, that of Artemis.

The city of Ephesus was probably founded in the 11th century BC by Ionian Greeks, but even before their coming, the cult of a goddess identified with Artemis existed in the area. It is likely that the worship of Artemis spread outward along the trade routes.

The Ephesian Artemis was a form of the ancient Asian and Anatolian mother-goddess; as such, she was revered throughout much of the Mediterranean world. The Greeks identified her with their Artemis (Roman Diana), daughter of Zeus and Leto and sister of Apollo. But she was different from this virgin huntress, moon goddess, and protector of chastity. Rather, the Ephesian Artemis was a patroness of fertility. She was represented in sculpture as having what seem to be numerous breasts, and her garments were adorned with animals and birds.

Though Artemis was revered in many parts of the Roman Empire, the most important center for her worship was in Ephesus. In the sixth century BC, the Cretan architect Cherisiphron erected a great marble edifice in honor of Artemis. After this structure burned down in the fourth century BC, it was rebuilt and was even larger and more splendid than before. The temple became famous as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Acts 19:35 calls Ephesus “temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky.” This stone may have been a meteorite associated with the goddess and kept in her shrine.

The Book of Acts recounts St. Paul’s difficulties in bringing his message to Ephesus (19:23-41). The silversmiths and craftsmen there, whose livelihood depended on the sale of silver objects associated with the worship of Artemis, feared that Paul’s preaching of a rival religion would threaten their jobs. Worse, it appeared to them that Christianity threatened the goddess Artemis herself by denying her divinity: “she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”

On one occasion, the opponents to Paul and his missionary companions nearly started a full-scale riot, which would of necessity have involved the Roman authorities. This was averted through the intercession of the town clerk, who succeeded in pacifying the mob that had gathered. However, perhaps because his mission to the pagan population of Ephesus could no longer be safely pursued, Paul left for Macedonia.

The temple of Artemis at Ephesus endured well into the third century AD, but its importance began to lessen with the expansion of Christianity. The temple was finally destroyed by the Goths around AD 262, and very little of it remains today. Around the fifth century, a statue of the goddess near the marketplace was taken down by a Christian and replaced with a cross. On the base was an inscription stating that he had “removed the deceitful image of the demon Artemis.”

 

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