Try out the new BibleStudyTools.com. Click here!

Gods and Goddesses, Pagan

Gods and Goddesses, Pagan

God early and clearly commanded the descendants of Abraham not to have any other gods besides him ( Exod 20:3 ). This strict, undivided loyalty was the basis of the covenant relationship God established between himself and the people of Israel.

Sadly, the whole of biblical history is punctuated by the numerous times the people of God turned away from him to engage in the worship of a strange god or goddess. People in the lands surrounding Israel had deities that continually tempted the Israelites to turn from their own God.

Artemis. Greek goddess (K. J. V. Diana) of fertility worshiped at Ephesus and elsewhere during the New Testament era. Her worship combined Greek, Roman, and Anatolian elements and dates back to ca. 1000 b.c. In Ephesus a temple was built in the third century b.c. to replace an earlier one that burned down and became known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. A well-known statue of Artemis emphasizes fertility. Paul's preaching directly challenged her worship and precipitated a riot that only official interaction could quell ( Acts 19:23-41 ). In the end the worship of Christ prevailed and the cult of Artemis disappeared from history.

Asherah. The people of Israel had been settled in the promised land for only a brief time before their attention turned to the deities of the Canaanites. The Book of Judges chronicles this apostasy. The people forsook the Lord God to serve Asherah and her husband Baal (Ashteroth is an alternative name for Asherah, Judges 2:13 ; 3:7 ).

The name "Asherah" and its variant spellings occur thirty-nine times in the Old Testament. In a number of these instances, Baal is mentioned along with Asherah. Evidence from Ugaritic mythologies and other texts suggests that the term refers to both the Canaanite goddess and cultic objects facilitating her worship.

That Baal and Asherah are mentioned together in several Old Testament passages suggests that the Canaanites and other peoples considered Asherah to be an important "high deity" along with Baal. The most explicit passage disclosing the close relationship between the two comes from the narrative about Ahab and Jezebel's confrontation with Elijah ( 1 Kings 18:1-19:18 ). Their endorsement of and participation in the worship of these Canaanite deities is the most extreme of any incidents related in Scripture concerning Israelite rulers who adopted the worship of these gods. In fact, Jezebel went so far as to insist that Ahab provide for the worship of her Phoenician deities.

Asherah was one of the three chief consort-goddesses within the Canaanite pantheon, along with Astarte (or Ashtaroth) and Anath. These three goddesses were jealous rivals. In the mythology, Asherah is portrayed as the consort of both El and Baal. In the Ugaritic myths she clearly emerges as the consort of El, the chief high god of the west Semitic pantheon. The Canaanite myths associated El with the source of fresh water, located in the distant west or north. On this basis El's consort was identified mainly as a sea-goddess. During the kingdom period of Israel's history she was the goddess at the side of Baal. On some occasions, however, she comes across as a fierce opponent of Baalparticularly when she thought she would lose her authority or influence among other members of the pantheon or when Baal preferred Anath instead of Asherah as his sexual intimate. The conflict and enmity between Baal and Asherah provided an explanation for the alternating two-climate season each year in the Mediterranean region.

The most shocking endorsement of Israel's buying into Canaanite religion was the construction of a temple for the worship of Baal at Samaria. This, as mentioned above, was promoted by Ahab (869-850 b.c.) and Jezebel, his wife, who was the daughter of the Tyrian king Ethbaal ( 1 Kings 16:29-34 ). This temple was constructed with the help of Tyrian artisans, along with an altar on which to offer sacrifices and a "sacred pole" (NRSV) or "wooden image" (NKJV). Because of this apostasy, judgment was poured out on Ahab and Jezebel. Jehu later destroyed this temple ( 2 Kings 10:18-31 ).

During the reign of Manasseh (687-642 b.c.) Canaanite religion was appropriated by the people of Judah from Geba to Beer-sheba ( 2 Kings 16:4-14 ). Manasseh added various aspects of Canaanite (a carved image of Asherah, 2 Kings 21:7 ) and other religions to the city of Jerusalem. He even offered his own son as burnt offering ( 2 Kings 21:6 ). Josiah later cleansed Jerusalem of the excesses of Canaanite worship (2 Kings 23).

The Israelites had been warned before settling the land of Canaan about established religious worship sites, particularly the "high places" taken over intact during the conquest. These sites were often furnished with basic cultic objects and resident sacred personnel. Cultic features included the following: small clay figurines ( Judges 3:7 ; Micah 5:13 ); "sacred pillars" ( 1 Kings 14:23 ); an "incense altar" ( 2 Ch 30:14 ); an altar for offering the whole burnt offering ( 2 Kings 21:5 ) and "priests" and "priestesses."

Several Canaanite high places were appropriated by Israel's religious leaders early in the settlement, including Bethel ( Judges 1:22-26 ), Shiloh ( 1 Sam 1:1-18 ), and Gibeah ( 1 Sam 13:1-4 ). Both Solomon ( 1 Kings 11:1-4 ) and Manasseh ( 2 Kings 21:1-17 ) encouraged worship at high places. Asherah and Baal worship caused the downfall of the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel.

Ashtoreth. Ashtoreth was a popular goddess in several cultures. Her worship attracted the Israelites shortly after their settlement in Canaan. At the heart of this pagan religion was the worship of the fertility or fecundity "forces/features" that characterized the animate aspects of the created world. Ashtoreth's popularity among the Phoenicians and other northwest Semitic peoples was long-standing.

The major confrontation between Ashtoreth and Yahweh took place during the days of Eli, Samuel, and Saul. Particularly after the defeat on Mount Gilboa, the people of Israel faced an almost imponderable theological dilemma. Instructions were sent throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim victory over Israel and their God Yahweh. The proclamation was to be made in the temples of their idols and among the people ( 1 Sam 31:6-10 ): the Baals and Ashtoreths were mightier than the Lord!

Ashtoreth's influence was finally discredited by Josiah, who "cleaned house" by destroying the shrines erected by Solomon. He made clear that Yahweh was the onlyand trueGod for the people of Israel

Baal. Baalthe most significant male deity of the Canaanitesand his consort Asherah were the most alluring deities confronting Israel in the promised land following the conquest. The numerous references to Baal in the Old Testament indicate his attractiveness and influence on the Israelites. The Book of Judges chronicles the numerous times the people fell to the temptation to worship Baal. During the time of Ahab and Jezebel Baal was declared the official national deity. A temple and hundreds of officiants were established for Baal's worship in Samaria ( 1 Kings 16:29-34 ). A final chapter concerning Baal worship was written during the reigns of Jehu and Josiah, when the southern kingdom and its capital were purged of the worship of Baal ( 2 Kings 10 ; 23:1-30 ).

Baal's name derives from the Semitic word ba'lu, meaning "lord." He was assumed to fulfill several significant roles by the peoples who worshiped him. As god of the storm the roar of his voice in the heavens was the thunder of the sky. He was the god who both created and granted fertility. He was the deity slain by enemies who thus fell into the hands of Death. During the time that Baal was under the control of Death, the vegetation wilted or ceased and procreation stopped. He was the god of justice, feared by evildoers.

The Book of Kings recounts that Jezebel used the plan of the Baal temple in Sidon for the construction of a similar temple in Samaria. Ahab agreed with her to make Baal worship the royal religion of the northern kingdom ( 1 Kings 16:29-31 ). Baal, like Asherah, was also worshiped at high places.

The cult of Baal involved the offering of many animal sacrifices. Priests would officiate on behalf of the persons presenting sacrificial animals to the god. Some of the northern kingdom rulers even "made their sons pass through fire"offering their own sons as sacrifices to Baal. "Holy prostitutes"both male and femalewere available to worshipers, encouraging the fertility of both land and people.

Baal-zebub, Beel-zebul. Phoenician god worshiped at Ekron in Old Testament times ( 2 Kings 1:2-16 ). Original meaning of the name is unknown but the Old Testament form, Baal-zebub, means "Lord of the flies"; in Jesus' day this god is derisively called Beel-zebul (NIV Beelzebub), "lord of dung, " and identified with Satan, the ruler of demons ( Matt 12:24 ). Jesus' enemies accused him of casting out demons by invoking Beel-zebul ( Mark 3:22 ) and even of being his embodiment ( Matt 10:25 ). Jesus, rejecting this calumny, pointed out that the expulsion of demons was Satan's defeat, heralding the arrival of God's kingdom ( Luke 11:20-22 ).

Chemosh. Chemosh was the primary national god of the Moabites and Ammonites. The Moabites are called the "people of Chemosh" in the passage of Scripture that details the travels of the Israelites through Edom, Moab, and Ammon, ( Num 21:21-32 ). During the reign of Solomon worship of Chemosh, along with that of other pagan gods, was established and promoted in the city of Jerusalem. Jeremiah specifically condemns the worship of Chemosh (chap. 38). The prophet focuses on the god's impotence by showing him going into captivity with his priests and people.

Dagon. Dagon was the highly venerated national deity of the Philistines. Each city of the Philistine pentapolis had its temple for the worship of this god. The temple statuary portraying Dagon was characterized by an upper human torso, with the lower torso of a fish. The major cultic rite in Dagon's worship was human sacrifice.

When the Philistines captured and overcame Samson, the five Philistine cities planned a great celebration. Dagon had delivered their enemy into their hands ( Judges 16:23-24 )! The Philistines called for a sacrifice to their god. Presumably they intended to offer Samson as a human holocaust/offering. Dagon was, however, defeated by Yahweh.

Dagon haunted the reigns of both Saul and David. The Israelites relied on their theological understanding that Yahweh was mightier than Dagonbut, unfortunately, with an inexcusable naivete. When they brought the ark of the covenant from Shiloh and took it into battle against the Philistines, it did not result in their victory. However, the presence of the ark in Philistine hands led to the challenge to their god, Dagon, and the return of the ark to the Israelites.

Throughout the narratives relating the encounters between the people of Israel and the Philistines, there persists an underlying theological dilemma. Which deity is greaterand therefore the one to worship and serve: the Lord God or Dagon?

Hadad. Hadad was a prominent god among the Arameans, Syrians, and other west Semitic peoples. The name appears especially in the Edomite genealogy of Genesis 36 and in the history of the two Israelite kingdoms to the downfall of the northern kingdom in 722 b.c.

Hadad was the deification of natural forces and war. He was viewed as the god of the storm, who displayed his power in thunder, lightning, and rain. He was credited with both the good (desirable) and bad (undesirable) sides of storms. He was regarded as the origin and regulator of the beneficial rains, making him the principle of life and fertility. The Assyrians saw him as a mighty warrior-god. He was portrayed as standing on the back of a bull, wearing the horns of the bull on his helmet and wielding a mace and thunderbolt.

The name "Hadad" was used in reference to a human individual to indicate the essence or being of the patron deity, the power bestowed on that person, and bestowal of favor or help against an enemy or opponent. The name is used of a number of important persons in the scriptural record. Several rulers of the Edomites contemporary with David and Solomon had the name "Hadad."

Leviathan. Leviathan can be identified with Lotan, sea-monster of the Ugaritic Texts mythology. The Ugaritic myth recounts how Lotan and Baal were locked in mortal combat, until Baal killed the sea-monster. Leviathan is also mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The references to Leviathan in Scripture occur almost exclusively in poetic or semipoetic passages, emphasizing the might and control of the Lord God over the forces of nature.

Marduk. Marduk was the chief deity of Babylon. He became the supreme god among the older Sumerian gods as creator and ruler. Enlil was the original chief god until the Code of Hammurabi and the Creation Epic focused on Marduk instead. Jeremiah prophesied that Marduk would be put to shame ( Jer 50:2 ).

Milcom. Milcom, called the "abomination" of the Ammonites, was apparently the chief deity of the Ammonites or Moabites. The "abomination" label seems to convey both the detestable aspect of origin and of the worship of Lot's descendants. Solomon built a worship facility for this foreign deity (see 1 Kings 11:5 1 Kings 11:7 1 Kings 11:33 ). Milcom is sometimes identified with Molech, but this is incorrect since the two gods were worshiped individually.

Molech. Molech or Moloch was another "abomination" of the Ammonites. Solomon also built a high place for this god in Jerusalem. The worship of this god was particularly odious, as it required human sacrifice.

Queen of Heaven. Jeremiah was directed by God to speak out the Lord's disapproval of Israel's worship of the "Queen of Heaven" ( 7:18 ; 44:17-19 ). This female astral deity was particularly worshiped by the women in Judah and Egypt during the time of Jeremiah. Children were gathering firewood; women were busily kneading dough for cakes to be offered to this queen. The details and activity suggest that the Canaanite goddess Astarte was the deity motivating the people in Jerusalem to such frenzied worship activity.

Tammuz. Tammuz was a Syrian and Phoenician god of fertility, venerated in the worship of idols and elaborate, extreme rituals. The Greeks adopted Tammuz as one of their prominent deities, changing his name to Adonis. Ezekiel lists the worship of Tammuz as one of the abominations in God's sight ( 8:1-18 ) that was being practiced in the temple precincts in Jerusalem. The chanting of a litany of woes (or, singing a song, of lamentation see Ezek 8:14 ) shows that the cult of Tammuz was active in Jerusalem.

Harvey E. Finley

See also Idol, Idolatry

Bibliography. W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel; idem, From the Stone Age to Christianity; idem, History, Archaeology and Christian Humanism; idem, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan; W. Dever, Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research; M. Eliade, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion; J. Finegan, Myth and Mystery; A. Lamaire, BAR (1984): 43-51; J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament; M. S. Smith, The Early History of God; G. E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.


Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Gods and Goddesses, Pagan'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.