After taking a group of budding Bible enthusiasts around the British Museum to look at the Assyrian and Babylonian displays, it becomes apparent that what one is faced with at every turn, is the prevalence, nay, dominance of gods. Dominance in the sense of world-view, and their necessity at every level of society, social, civic, legal and religious.
Ancient Israel never completely purged the idolatry of Egypt from her heart! In this regard she was not uniquely idolatrous in the world, just typical of all. Even during the Exodus, in the wilderness, the intoxication with idolatry is told plainly, “…the people…yoked themselves to Baal of Peor” (Numbers 25:1-3). Baal is a truly demanding god, a god of which the nations seemed to be in an insane love-affair with.
Baal, whose name means ‘master’ was one of the major gods of the Canaanite religions. Often he will be anthropomorphised as a small, thin man, slightly larger than a figure made of pipe cleaners; one hand raised in a gesture of victory (as figure above at the British Museum shows). The bull is also a symbol of Baal, and there have been discoveries of this on a hilltop in what was Samaria, dating to the period of the Judges. It must be said, that there is very strong archaeological evidence to suggest that Baal worship was syncretised with YHWH worship, and any cursory reading of Judges will leave the reader unsurprised by this! This syncretism never really left the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and was totally dominant in the Northern Kingdom.
The bull as a symbol is fairly significant in the Biblical text. From the Golden Calf during the Exodus, as Israel were encamped at the foot of Sinai, with Moses actually receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites forged an idol because Moses was taking too long. The pathetic and familiar story is found in Exodus 32.
This clearly left an impression because after the division of the United Monarchy following the death of Solomon (931 BC), Jeroboam, a self-proclaimed King, a self-proclaimed appointer of priests and a self-locator of worship, installed two Golden Calves – in the south at Bethel, and in the north, at Dan (1 Kings 12:1-33). This set a monstrous pattern of idolatry, one that the Northern Kings never shook off; with the Southern Kings barely much better!
So as one reads through Scripture, it is clear that idolatry is the plague upon the human heart, and one that Yahweh insists must be healed, by Exile (722 & 587 BC) if necessary (2 Kings 17 and 25). This is what drives the prophets. It is seen clearly that idolatry is the outcome of covenantal unfaithfulness, and the call to repent and turn back to a patient and forgiving YHWH becomes ever urgent. It is noteworthy that Amos refers to the “Cows of Bashan” (4:1), the wealthy woman of Samaria, feeding and gorging themselves at the expense of the poor and needy.
This is what idolatry does, it is a self-feeding at the expense of everyone else, and everything else. It is the exact opposite of the Temptations of Jesus , who refuses to be a self-feeder, and a self-glorifier, and a self-promoter (Luke 4:113). He is the only One in history who has resisted the very things that everyone else has failed to resist.
Baal was a demanding monster and a liar. He consumed nations with a lust for wealth and fertility and war. He is the arch-enemy of mankind, and the destroyer of all that is good. He truly is demanding of those who look to him, of those who are stewards of him in any and every capacity.
In another post we will see how Baal as consort to Asherah and/or Astarte, is linked through the fertility rituals that would in Jeremiah’s time (if not before), promote enforced ritual temple prostitution of men and women, boys and girls, including homosexuality and bestiality – and this just the covenantal people of God!! At the British Museum, you can see this in the figures of large breasted women, holding them out as though tempting desire. The Apostle Paul faced the almost comical if it weren’t so sad scenario of this when he faced a mob at Ephesus, mad with religious fury and patriotism for their multi-breasted goddess, Artemis of the Ephesians (Acts 19:28-41).
This link to sexualised idolatry is, I think, seen in the present day obsession with sexuality being used as a perversion of relationships seen in the breakdown of marriage, the sexualisation of culture, meaning everything we see is often brought down to two lowest common denominators: If not money (a subject for another time), then sexuality, seen most obviously in pornography and paedophilia, not to mention advertising and film – nothing but locust like consumption, grabbing and taking, self-feeding and self-satisfying. It is this very thing, the self-feeding and self-satisfying, that the Israelites became good at when they hoarded the daily provision of manna (Exodus 16) – revealing a twisted view of their Redeeming and Providing God. They were rightly judged for this and their ‘additional Manna’ was fast-tracked to grow mouldy. Baal’s demands are as insatiable as death itself, even if, in the end, as Isaiah says, he is but wind.
By contrast, it is the One True God who is good, and he alone saves. Martin Luther called the human heart a factory of idols, and this is precisely why we need saving by a faithful Saviour, the true God, not some fictitious invention from our idolatrous heart! Freud said that God is a mere projection of our own desires. That may well be in part a truth, but God as He is God revealed in Trinity is no projection of any human heart. What is a projection of the human heart, is the vile thing that can often find a home in the heart – Baal. And we not only house him, we steward him.
If Christ is not our Saviour, the only One who can purge the human heart, remake it in fact, then we truly will become Baal-stewards, every last one of us. But, as Isaiah says,
“I the LORD speak truth, I declare what is right. Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep praying to a god that cannot save….there is no god beside me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none beside me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other!”