Ba‘al Worship in the Old Testament

Ba‘al Worship in the Old Testament. [Baal /Shamash Nimrod] The most prevalent religious system in the immediate Canaanite context of Israelite culture was the worship of Ba‘al. A network of mythical stories that attempted to explain in narrative the nature of the physical world supported this religious system. As with most myths, the entire story is complex, varying in details and emphasis between peoples. The basic features, however, are fairly simple. Ba‘al religion revolved around the cycles of nature necessary for survival and prosperity in the ancient world, primarily growing crops or raising livestock, as well as the growth of human populations. Not surprisingly, in an arid and agriculturally marginal area of the world the fertility of land and crops played a large role in Canaanite world view. Also as expected, water was a major element of the myth and its images. Likewise, in an environment where human existence was often precarious for a variety of reasons human fertility was an important concern, not only for survival, but also due to the fact that people were one of the most important resources.

What we know of the basic elements of the Ba‘al myth actually comes from two groups of texts. The Babylonian creation hymn, Enuma Elish, describes a great battle among the gods, primarily between Marduk, the champion of the gods, and Tiamat, the primeval ocean or the "deep." Sometimes Tiamat is portrayed as a great serpentine beast, the dragon of chaos or the dragon of the sea. Marduk overcame Tiamat and her forces and after splitting her body into two parts, made the sky, stars, sun, and moon from one half, and the earth from the other. From the blood of Tiamat's defeated husband Kingu, one of the lesser gods, Ea (Enki) then created humanity to be servants of the gods so they would never have to work again. Marduk continued to bring order into the chaos caused by Tiamat, setting each of the astral deities in their place in the heavens and establishing the cycles of nature.

This theme of a cosmic battle among the gods personifies the struggle for life. It describes the annual renewal of the earth in springtime; it is a myth of the cycle of seasons. This cosmic battle was not understood as a historical event of the past, but occurred anew each year and was reenacted in cultic ritual. Marduk represents the forces of order, the coming of spring with its renewal of life and the end of the reign of the chaos and death of winter. Marduk is the spring sun that gives life and renewed energy to the earth. Tiamat represents those forces that threaten human existence, the threat of a disordered world in which springtime never comes. The ancient theme of an original primeval ocean that threatens to break out and engulf the world in killing salt water is also seen in Tiamat. Creation, in Babylonian thinking, was an ongoing struggle between order and chaos, a way of thinking no doubt related to the uncertainties of life in the ancient world.

The second group of texts come from Ugarit, in northern Syria. They are chiefly concerned with the emergence of Ba‘al as the leader of the gods. Basically, Ba‘al was the storm god, the bringer of rain, and thus fertility, to the land. There was rivalry among the gods and a struggle erupted between Yamm, the sea, and Ba‘al, the rain. With the help of his sister Anat, the goddess of war, and Astarte, the goddess of earth and fertility, Ba‘al defeated Yamm, and his cohorts, Tannin, the dragon of the sea, and Loran (or Lothan, cf. Isa 27:1), the serpent with seven heads. The gods began to build a magnificent house for Ba‘al so that he could be at rest and provide abundant rain for the earth. But Ba‘al was challenged by Mot (or Mut), the god of death and the underworld. Mot temporarily triumphed and Ba‘al disappeared into the underworld. Anat and Shapash, the sun god, found Ba‘al, brought him back to life, and restored him to his house.

This series of stories is even more clearly, especially in its details, an agrarian myth personifying the cycle of rainy and dry seasons of the Middle East. Like the Enuma Elish, these texts deal with the danger inherent in drought and ensuing famine. The disappearance of rain in the dry season (Ba‘al’s descent into the underworld) portended catastrophe if it did not return in the Spring.

But this myth is more explicitly concerned with fertility, specifically cast in terms of human sexuality. Worship of Ba‘al involved imitative magic, the performance of rituals, including sacred prostitution, which were understood to bring vitality to Ba‘al in his struggle with Mot. It takes little imagination to see the connection between the human sexual act and rain watering the earth to produce fruit. It is interesting to note in passing that the biblical traditions use these same agrarian images of being fruitful or barren to describe vitality in human beings.

The emphasis here is not on the order of the world, but on the necessity of rain. The needed water cannot be the unrestrained water of flood or the lifeless salt water of Yamm (the Sea). It must be life-giving rain, falling at the proper time. Ba‘al is often portrayed as "Rider of the Clouds," and described in imagery associated with storms and meteorological phenomena, including clouds, thunder, lightning, and hail. The myth gives assurance of some stability in the physical world, assisted by humans in their service to the gods, that would allow continued human existence.

While we have no surviving Canaanite religious texts, the accounts of Ba‘al worship in the Old Testament correspond closely to the existing versions of the Ba‘al myth and what we know of religious practices in surrounding areas. The influence of this religious system on Israel can hardly be overestimated. Contrary to how some statements in the biblical traditions are often understood, the problem that faced Israel through most of its history was not that the people totally abandoned Yahweh for the worship of Ba‘al. Rather the problem was syncretism, the blending of Yahweh worship with Ba’al worship.

Yahweh has been experienced as a God of power, the God who fought Pharaoh, who parted the Reed Sea, who led the Israelites through the desert, who parted the Jordan, who brought them into the land by toppling the walls of Jericho and routing the Canaanite and Philistine armies. This led to the idea that Yahweh, the God of the patriarchs, was a powerful warrior God, the God of the desert who could be counted on to march in with his heavenly armies in times of crisis. However, as the Israelites settled into the land, they encountered the fertility cult of Ba‘al. They were easily convinced that while Yahweh may be God of the desert and God of battles and God of power, it was Ba‘al who was in charge of the more mundane aspects of everyday life, such as rain and crops and livestock.

The Israelites never abandoned the worship of Yahweh. They simply added the worship of Ba‘al to their worship of Yahweh (called syncretism). They had one God for crises and another god for everyday life. The actual worship of Ba‘al was carried out in terms of imitative magic whereby sexual acts by both male and female temple prostitutes were understood to arouse Ba‘al who then brought rain to make Mother Earth fertile (in some forms of the myth, represented by a female consort, Asherah or Astarte).

When crops were abundant, Ba‘al was praised and thanked for his abundant rain. It is in this context that drought had such impact throughout the biblical traditions. Not only was lack of rain a threat to survival, it was also a sign that the gods of the Ba‘al myth were unhappy. It is this context that the "contest" between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al carries such significance. The issue is really who controls the rain, Ba‘al or Yahweh.

Hosea suggests and Jeremiah graphically depicts the debauchery and excesses that developed in the worship of Ba‘al. Because of the sexual overtones of Ba‘al worship, it was easy to use the metaphor of adultery or prostitution to describe the problem that such syncretism raised for Israel. The prophets are consistent in condemning Ba‘al worship as a sign of being unfaithful to their covenant relationship with Yahweh. It is also in this context that the idea of Yahweh being a "jealous" God comes into play (see God as a "jealous" God). The idea here is not an emotional or arrogant dimension, but rather simply an assertion that if God alone is God, as the shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 asserts, then they cannot worship both Yahweh and Ba‘al.

It is likely in response to the Ba‘al myth that Israelites eventually developed their profound doctrine of creation. If Yahweh were to be the only God, then he had to fulfill the role taken by the gods of the Canaanite pantheon. The primary revelation of God for the Israelites was in the exodus. From this experience they could easily work backward to understanding that the same God who created them as a people was the Creator of the world in which they lived. Or, to express this idea from the opposite perspective, Ba‘al worship was a denial that God was really the creator and sustainer of the world. It is from this perspective that many of the names and titles carried by Ba‘al were taken over and transformed to apply to Yahweh (for example, "rider of the clouds" in Psalm 68:4). That was simply a theological way for the Israelites to say that whatever the Canaanites claimed that Ba‘al did, it was actually Yahweh who did those things (see Speaking the Language of Canaan).

The Israelites struggled with Ba‘al worship until the time of the exile, especially in the more agrarian areas of the northern Kingdom of Israel (also due to some degree to its official establishment as a state religion in the North for a time during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel, c. 850 BC). However, as Jeremiah makes clear, it was a recurring problem in the Southern Kingdom as well. Largely due to Jeremiah’s insistence that the nation would fall because of its lack of commitment to God exemplified in its dabbling in Ba‘al worship, the problem faded after the return from exile in 538. While there were traces of it later, Ba‘al worship was never again the problem that it was prior to the Exile. The Judaism that emerged after the exile in the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah was passionately monotheistic, and has remained so ever since. In fact, it was partly that passion for monotheism that arose from the purge of Ba‘al worship from their corporate consciousness that caused Judaism to have problems accepting Jesus as the Son of God. For many faithful Jews, that sounded too much like a return to a polytheistic syncretism. That was one lesson that they had learned well.

1. Question: Who was Baal?

Answer: Baal was the name of the supreme god worshiped in ancient Canaan and Phoenicia. The practice of Baal worship infiltrated Jewish religious life during the time of the Judges (Judges 3:7), became widespread in Israel during the reign of Ahab (1 Kings 16:31-33) and also affected Judah (2 Chronicles 28:1-2). The word baal means “lord”; the plural is baalim. In general, Baal was a fertility god who was believed to enable the earth to produce crops and people to produce children. Different regions worshiped Baal in different ways, and Baal proved to be a highly adaptable god. Various locales emphasized one or another of his attributes and developed special “denominations” of Baalism. Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:3) and Baal-Berith (Judges 8:33) are two examples of such localized deities.

According to Canaanite mythology, Baal was the son of El, the chief god, and Asherah, the goddess of the sea. Baal was considered the most powerful of all gods, eclipsing El, who was seen as rather weak and ineffective. In various battles Baal defeated Yamm, the god of the sea, and Mot, the god of death and the underworld. Baal’s sisters/consorts were Ashtoreth, a fertility goddess associated with the stars, and Anath, a goddess of love and war. The Canaanites worshiped Baal as the sun god and as the storm god—he is usually depicted holding a lightning bolt—who defeated enemies and produced crops. They also worshiped him as a fertility god who provided children. Baal worship was rooted in sensuality and involved ritualistic prostitution in the temples. At times, appeasing Baal required human sacrifice, usually the firstborn of the one making the sacrifice (Jeremiah 19:5). The priests of Baal appealed to their god in rites of wild abandon which included loud, ecstatic cries and self-inflicted injury (1 Kings 18:28).

Before the Hebrews entered the Promised Land, the Lord God warned against worshiping Canaan’s gods (Deuteronomy 6:14-15), but Israel turned to idolatry anyway. During the reign of Ahab and Jezebel, at the height of Baal worship in Israel, God directly confronted the paganism through His prophet Elijah. First, God showed that He, not Baal, controlled the rain by sending a drought lasting three-and-one-half years (1 Kings 17:1). Then Elijah called for a showdown on Mt. Carmel to prove once and for all who the true God was. All day long, 450 prophets of Baal called on their god to send fire from heaven—surely an easy task for a god associated with lightning bolts—but “there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:29). After Baal’s prophets gave up, Elijah prayed a simple prayer, and God answered immediately with fire from heaven. The evidence was overwhelming, and the people “fell prostrate and cried, ‘The LORD–he is God! The LORD–he is God!’” (verse 39).

In Matthew 12:27, Jesus calls Satan “Beelzebub,” linking the devil to Baal-Zebub, a Philistine deity (2 Kings 1:2). The Baalim of the Old Testament were nothing more than demons masquerading as gods, and all idolatry is ultimately devil-worship (1 Corinthians 10:20). BAAL,Various Forms of the Name.

Baal is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament as a god of the idolatrous Israelites, as well as of the Phenicians, Philistines, and Moabites (?). The name also occurs in a proper name of the Edomites, in Phenician and Aramaic inscriptions, in Greek and Roman authors (Baal, Bal), in the Septuagint and writings dependent on it, and in Josephus. Greek and Latin writers for the most part speak of Bal, Bolos, Bel as a Babylonian as well as a Syrian and Phenician god. The form Bal is more frequently found in composite Phenician proper names as Abibalos, Hannibal, etc., according to which the Phenicians pronounced the name of the god ba`l (cf. P. Schroder, Die phonizische Sprache, Halle, 1869, p. 84). The Phenicians carried their religion wherever they went, and thus the worship of Baal was very widely spread. Even the Semitic Hyksos in Egypt, according to Egyptian testimony, worshiped the god Bar (=Ba'al; cf. E. Meyer, Set-Typhon, Leipsic, 1875, p. 47, and ZDMG, xxxi, 1877, p. 725; W. Max Miiller, Asien and Europa nach altagyptischen Denkmalern, Leipsic, 1893, p. 309).
There can be no doubt of the identity of the names Ba'al and Bel, the Babylonian god mentioned in the Old Testament, the Bel or Belos of the Greeks, i.e., the Assyrian Belu (Bilu) contracted from Be'el, which is modified from Ba'al by the influence of the guttural. In an Esarhaddon inscription Zil-Bel ("Baal is protection") is the name of a king of Haziti, i.e., of Gaza (E. Schrader, Keilinschriften and Geschichtsforschung, Giessen, 1878, pp. 78-79), where Bel is evidently used for the Canaanitic Baal. The "bol" in the names of the Palmyrene deities Aglibol and Yaribol (and "bel" in Malakbel) may be still another form of Baal.
2. Who was Asherah?
Answer: Asherah, or Ashtoreth, was the name of the chief female deity worshiped in ancient Syria, Phoenicia, and Canaan. The Phoenicians called her Astarte, the Assyrians worshiped her as Ishtar, and the Philistines had a temple of Asherah (1 Samuel 31:10). Because of Israel’s incomplete conquest of the land of Canaan, Asherah-worship survived and plagued Israel, starting as soon as Joshua was dead (Judges 2:13).

Asherah was represented by a limbless tree trunk planted in the ground. The trunk was usually carved into a symbolic representation of the goddess. Because of the association with carved trees, the places of Asherah worship were commonly called “groves,” and the Hebrew word “asherah” (plural, “asherim”) could refer either to the goddess or to a grove of trees. One of King Manasseh’s evil deeds was that he “took the carved Asherah pole he had made and put it in the temple” (2 Kings 21:7). Another translation of “carved Asherah pole” is “graven image of the grove” (KJV).

Considered the moon-goddess, Asherah was often presented as a consort of Baal, the sun-god (Judges 3:7, 6:28, 10:6; 1 Samuel 7:4, 12:10). Asherah was also worshiped as the goddess of love and war and was sometimes linked with Anath, another Canaanite goddess. Worship of Asherah was noted for its sensuality and involved ritual prostitution. The priests and priestesses of Asherah also practiced divination and fortune-telling.

The Lord God, through Moses, forbade the worship of Asherah. The Law specified that a grove of trees was not to be near the altar of Jehovah (Deuteronomy 16:21). Despite God’s clear instructions, Asherah-worship was a perennial problem in Israel. As Solomon slipped into idolatry, one of the pagan deities he brought into the kingdom was Asherah, called “the goddess of the Sidonians” (1 Kings 11:5, 33). Later, Jezebel made Asherah-worship even more prevalent, with 400 prophets of Asherah on the royal payroll (1 Kings 18:19). At times, Israel experienced revival, and notable crusades against Asherah-worship were led by Gideon (Judges 6:25-30), King Asa (1 Kings 15:13), and King Josiah (2 Kings 23:1-7).
3. Question: "Who was Molech?"

Answer: As with much of ancient history, the exact origin of Molech worship is unclear. The term Molech is believed to have originated with the Phoenician mlk, which referred to a type of sacrifice made to confirm or acquit a vow. Melekh is the Hebrew word for “king.” It was common for the Israelites to combine the name of pagan gods with the vowels in the Hebrew word for shame: bosheth. This is how the goddess of fertility and war, Astarte, became Ashtoreth. The combination of mlk, melekh, and bosheth results in “Molech,” which could be interpreted as “the personified ruler of shameful sacrifice.” It has also been spelled as Milcom, Milkim, Malik, and Moloch. Ashtoreth was his consort, and ritual prostitution was considered an important form of worship.

The Phoenicians were a loosely gathered group of people who inhabited Canaan (modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and Israel) between 1550 BC and 300 BC. In addition to sexual rituals, Molech worship included child sacrifice, or “passing children through the fire.” It is believed that idols of Molech were giant metal statues of a man with a bull’s head. Each image had a hole in the abdomen and possibly outstretched forearms that made a kind of ramp to the hole. A fire was lit in or around the statue. Babies were placed in the statue’s arms or in the hole. When a couple sacrificed their firstborn, they believed that Molech would ensure financial prosperity for the family and future children.

Molech worship wasn’t limited to Canaan. Monoliths in North Africa bear the engraving “mlk”—often written “mlk’mr” and “mlk’dm,” which may mean “sacrifice of lamb” and “sacrifice of man.” In North Africa, Molech was renamed “Kronos.” Kronos migrated to Carthage in Greece, and his mythology grew to include his becoming a Titan and the father of Zeus. Molech is affiliated with and sometimes equated to Ba’al, although the word ba’al was also used to designate any god or ruler.

In Genesis 12 Abraham followed God’s call to move to Canaan. Although human sacrifice was not common in Abraham’s native Ur, it was well-established in his new land. God later asked Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:2). But then God distinguished Himself from gods like Molech. Unlike the native Canaanite gods, Abraham’s God abhorred human sacrifice. God commanded Isaac to be spared, and He provided a ram to take Isaac’s place (Genesis 22:13). God used this event as an illustration of how He would later provide His own Son to take our place.

Over five hundred years after Abraham, Joshua led the Israelites out of the desert to inherit the Promised Land. God knew that the Israelites were immature and easily distracted from worshiping the one true God (Exodus 32). Before the Israelites had even entered Canaan, God warned them not to participate in Molech worship (Leviticus 18:21) and repeatedly told them to destroy those cultures that worshiped Molech. The Israelites didn’t heed God’s warnings. Instead, they incorporated Molech worship into their own traditions. Even Solomon, the wisest king, was swayed by this cult and built places of worship for Molech and other gods (1 Kings 11:1–8). Molech worship occurred in the “high places” (1 Kings 12:31) as well as a narrow ravine outside Jerusalem called the Valley of Hinnom (2 Kings 23:10).

Despite occasional efforts by godly kings, worship of Molech wasn’t abolished until the Israelites’ captivity in Babylon. (Although the Babylonian religion was pantheistic and characterized by astrology and divination, it did not include human sacrifice.) Somehow, the dispersion of the Israelites into a large pagan civilization succeeded in finally purging them of their false gods. When the Jews returned to their land, they rededicated themselves to God, and the Valley of Hinnom was turned into a place for burning garbage and the bodies of executed criminals. Jesus used the imagery of this place—an eternally burning fire, consuming countless human victims—to describe hell, where those who reject God will burn for eternity (Matthew 10:28).

4. Question: "Who was Tammuz?"

Answer: The false god Tammuz is mentioned in the book of Ezekiel. The prophet describes a vision he had, saying the Lord “brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the LORD, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz” (Ezekiel 8:14). God calls the idolatrous practice of weeping for Tammuz a “detestable” thing, made even worse in that it was happening at the temple in Jerusalem.

Tammuz the demigod apparently began as a Sumerian shepherd named Dumu-zid or Dumuzi. His father was the ancient Mesopotamian god Enki [also known as the Akkadian/Babylonian Ea, who saved the family of Utnapishtim (Noah) from the flood in the “Epic of Gilgamesh”], and his mother was the sheep goddess Duttur. In the earlier Sumerian culture, Dumuzid/Tammuz was the god of sheep, lambs, and sheep’s milk—a pastoral deity. In the later Akkadian mythos, he was the god of agriculture.

Tammuz was known as “the good, young one,” and his beauty caught the attention of Inanna (known to the Akkadians as Ishtar), who took him for her consort. At some point, they had a falling out. The most common story is that Ishtar travelled to the netherworld to take the throne of her sister, Ereshkigal. For her hubris, Ishtar was condemned by the Anunnaki (judges of the underworld) and sentenced to be killed and her corpse hung from a nail or hook. While Inanna/Ishtar was dead, sexual relations ceased over the entire universe. Enki/Ea allowed her to be resurrected, but she had to find another soul to take her place. She scoured the world, looking for someone who wasn’t mourning her death. Eventually she found her husband, Dumuzid/Tammuz, dressed in rich clothing and sitting on her throne.

In retaliation for his lack of devotion, Inanna/Ishtar set her demons on Tammuz. He hid in the home of his sister, Geshtinana, but the demons eventually caught up to him and dragged him to the underworld. Eventually, Inanna/Ishtar regretted her extreme measures, and the gods compromised by having Dumuzid/Tammuz and his sister alternate time in the underworld.

Another version says Inanna/Ishtar went to the underworld to rescue Dumuzid/Tammuz after he was killed by underworld raiders.

The story of Inanna and Dumuzid spread beyond the Sumerian and Akkadian Empires to other cultures. In Egypt, Tammuz relates to Osiris. Osiris, married to the faithful Isis, was killed by his brother Set for his throne. Accounts vary, but somehow Isis brought Osiris back to life in time to sire Horus before he was killed again. In appreciation for Isis’ devotion, the gods made Osiris the leader of the underworld, the Nile (whose tides ebb and flow, bringing life and death), and agriculture (with its cycle of dormancy and restoration).

In Greece, Ishtar and Tammuz seem to have inspired the story of Aphrodite and Adonis. Aphrodite gave the infant Adonis to her sister Persephone to protect in the underworld. Persephone fell for the beautiful child, as well, and the sisters fought. Zeus finally intervened, declaring Adonis had to stay four months with Persephone, four months with Aphrodite, and four months wherever he pleased. Sometime later, Adonis was killed by a boar. Zeus honored Aphrodite’s mourning by allowing him to remain above ground half the year.

Whether we’re talking about Dumuzid, Tammuz, Osiris, or Adonis, the theme of death and resurrection runs through the mythology. Because of this and his early identification as a shepherd, Tammuz in all his forms is known as the god of fertility and agriculture. During the Sumerian Festival of Tammuz, the king took on Tammuz’s identity and mated with a priestess; this act was said to ensure the fertility of crops and animals for the year. Tammuz’s retreat to the underworld, generally said to occur at the summer solstice when the weather turns hot and dry, brought the end of fertility of plants, animals, and humans. His return marked the restoration of plenty.

Later observance of the Tammuz/Adonis rituals was somewhat unique in that they were performed primarily by women, and, while worship may have included celebrations for Tammuz’s return, the mourning of his death was emphasized more. The women’s tears recalled the supposed tears of Ishtar that brought Tammuz back. This is what the women in the gate of the temple were doing in Ezekiel 8. It is easy to see why the Lord referred to this pagan observance as an abomination; a vile fertility god was being honored in the very place the One True God had sanctified for Himself.

Less well-documented legends further muddy the identity of Tammuz. The Sumerian King List mentions two kings named Tammuz. The first is the fifth king before the Flood, a shepherd who reigned for 36,000 years; the second king on the list is a fisherman who reigned for 100 years circa 2700 BC, immediately before Gilgamesh. Other legends say that Tammuz was the son of Nimrod (founder of both Babel and Nineveh, Genesis 10:8–12), but since Nimrod is thought to be Gilgamesh’s alter-ego, it’s impossible to say which was the origin of the legend.

Some critics claim that the legend of Dumuzid/Tammus/Osiris/Adonis served as the inspiration for the “legend” of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The differences are too many to take this claim seriously:

Tammuz/Adonis/Osiris was rescued from the underworld by a faithful lover.
Jesus was raised from the dead by Himself in conjunction with God.
“The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again” (John 10:17)
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:32)

Tammuz/Adonis died once a year.
Jesus died only once.
“The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Romans 6:10)

Osiris died once forever.
Jesus rose once forever.
“You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, / nor will you let your faithful one see decay” (Psalm 16:10)

Tammuz/Osiris’s death and rebirth brought life to agriculture.
Jesus’ death and resurrection brings life to our souls.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

The cult of Tammuz promised rich provision in the form of grain and sheep, but it is only Jesus who gives life and gives it to the full (John 10:10). It is said that Tammuz was a shepherd. But only Christ, the Good Shepherd, willingly laid down His life for His sheep (John 10:11, 18). Whatever modern-day idols we chase in the desire to have plenty, it is only God who can provide what we need (James 1:17).

5. Question: "Who is the Artemis mentioned in the Bible?"

Answer: Artemis was a goddess worshiped in the ancient world. The Greeks considered her the twin sister of Apollo and the goddess of hunting and wilderness and the protector of unmarried girls. The Artemis mentioned in the book of Acts was a different deity—a localized goddess of the Ephesians—but she bore the same name (Latinized as “Diana”) as the goddess of Greek mythology. Her temple in Ephesus was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Ephesian Artemis was a “mother earth” deity emphasizing fertility and reproduction. Many of her images have been unearthed; the rows upon rows of breasts, totally covering her upper body, depict the power of Artemis to nourish the world. The many priests employed in the temple performed animal sacrifices, and the many priestesses, in keeping with the fertility theme, engaged in ritual prostitution. All of this made the Artemis temple in Ephesus a popular tourist attraction in the Roman world.

A unique mythology sprang up around the origin of Artemis worship. The account is alluded to by the city clerk of Ephesus: “Doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven?” (Acts 19:35). A popular item to sell tourists was a small Artemis shrine—a cupped enclosure with a small female figure inside. Worshipers were told they could take this shrine anywhere in the world and worship Artemis in front of her tiny shrine, and it would be just the same as worshiping her at the Ephesian temple.

Paul spent years in Ephesus (Acts 19:10) and performed “extraordinary miracles” there (verse 11). The gospel began to change lives, and “a number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. . . . In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (verses 19–20). As the gospel made inroads into territory claimed by Artemis, the stage was set for a confrontation with the spiritual forces of darkness.

As the followers of Artemis noticed the difference Paul’s preaching was having in their city, “there arose a great disturbance about the Way” (Acts 19:23). A silversmith named Demetrius called a meeting of his guild and said, “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business [selling Artemis shrines]. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty” (verses 25–27). In his speech, Demetrius paid lip service to the “majesty” of Artemis, but his real motivation was evident—he was losing business as people stopped buying his idolatrous trinkets.

Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen stirred up the city into a riotous frenzy, shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28). They led a mob to find Paul and, not finding him, grabbed two of Paul’s traveling companions and dragged them to the theater. There the mob continued shouting the praise of Artemis for about two hours (verse 34). They were only quieted when the city clerk gained an audience and reminded the mob they were breaking Roman law in disturbing the peace (verse 40).

Paul soon left Ephesus to continue his third missionary journey. But a church had been established. In the center of Artemis worship, in a city known for paganism, immorality, and greed, the light of Jesus Christ shone brightly. Despite the enemy’s intimidations, the church thrived.

6. Question: "Who was Beelzebub?"

Answer: “Beelzebub” is the Greek form of the name “Baal-zebub,” a pagan Philistine god worshiped in the ancient Philistine city of Ekron during the Old Testament times. It is a term signifying “the lord of flies” (2 Kings 1:2). Even archaeological excavations at ancient Philistine sites have uncovered golden images of flies. It was later on that the Jews changed the name to “Beelzeboul,” as used in the Greek New Testament, meaning “the lord of dung.” It referenced the god of the fly which was worshiped to obtain deliverance from the injuries of that insect. Some biblical scholars believe it was also known as "the god of filth" which later became a name of bitter scorn in the mouth of the Pharisees. As a result, he was a particularly contemptible deity and was used by the Jews as an epithet for Satan.

The word has two parts: “Baal” which was the name for the Canaanite fertility gods in the Old Testament, and “Zebul” which meant “exalted dwelling,” which then became a name for Satan himself, the prince of demons. This term was first used by the Pharisees in describing Jesus in Matthew 10:24-25. Earlier they had accused Jesus of casting “out the demons by the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 9:34), referencing Beelzebul (Mark 3:22; Matthew 12:24).

In Matthew 12:22 Jesus healed a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute. As a result, “all the people were astonished and said, ‘Could this be the Son of David?’ But when the Pharisees heard this, they denied that this could be a work of God, but instead declared: “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons” (Matthew 12:23-24).

It is remarkable that the Pharisees reacted to this incredible miracle by Jesus in a way which was the very opposite of that of the multitude who realized that Jesus was from God. In fact, it was an admission by the Pharisees that Jesus worked miracles or performed deeds beyond the reach of any unaided human power, but they attributed this power to Beelzebub instead of God. Actually, they should have known better: the devil cannot do works of pure goodness. However, in their way of thinking, their self-absorbed pride, these Pharisees knew that if the teachings of Jesus should prevail amongst the people, their influence over them was at an end. So, the miracle they did not deny, but instead attributed it to an infernal power, “Beelzebub the prince of the demons.”

But the greater question that remains is this: what relevance does this have to us as Christians today? In Matthew 10, Jesus is providing us with the very essence of what it means to be His disciple. Here we learn that He is about to send out His apostles into the world to preach the gospel (Matthew 10:7). He gives them specific instructions on what to do and what not to do. In doing so, He warns them: “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues . . . All men will hate you because of me” (Matthew 10:17, 22). Then He adds: “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!” (Matthew 10:24-25)

The point Jesus is making to us today is that if people are calling Him Satan, as did the Pharisees of His time, they would surely call His disciples the same. In John chapter 15 Jesus declared: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me” (John 15:18-21).

7. Question: "Who was Dagon in the Bible?"

Answer: Dagon was the chief deity of the Philistines, and the worship of this pagan god dates back the third millennium BC. According to ancient mythology, Dagon was the father of Baal. He was the fish god (dag in Hebrew means “fish”), and he was represented as a half-man, half-fish creature. This image furthered an evolutionary belief that both men and fish had evolved together from the primal waters. Dagon may also have been the provider of grain. So Dagon was similar to many other idols in that he personified natural forces that had supposedly produced all things.

There are three places where Dagon is mentioned in the Bible. The first mention is Judges 16:23, where we are told that Dagon was the god of the Philistines. The Philistines offered “a great sacrifice” to Dagon, believing that their idol had delivered Samson into their hands. First Chronicles 10:10 mentions a temple of Dagon in which the head of King Saul was fastened. Then, in 1 Samuel 5, Dagon is brought to humiliation by the True God of the Israelites.

What an interesting story is found in 1 Samuel 5! The Philistines had captured the Ark of the Covenant, and they “carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of [the city of] Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained. That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any others who enter Dagon’s temple at Ashdod step on the threshold. The Lord’s hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation on them and afflicted them with tumors. When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, ‘The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god’” (verses 2-7). Who says God does not have a sense of humor? This has to be one of the more funny passages in the entire Bible. For further reading, see 1 Samuel 6 for the account of the Philistines’ attempt to solve their dilemma— with golden rats and golden tumors (or, as some translations put it, “golden hemorrhoids”)!

Dagon figures into the story of Jonah, as well, although the deity is not mentioned by name in Jonah’s book. The Assyrians in Ninevah, to whom Jonah was sent as a missionary, worshiped Dagon and his female counterpart, the fish goddess Nanshe. Jonah, of course, did not go straight to Ninevah but had to be brought there via miraculous means. The transportation God provided for Jonah—a great fish—would have been full of meaning for the Ninevites. When Jonah arrived in their city, he made quite a splash, so to speak. He was a man who had been inside a fish for three days and directly deposited by a fish on the shores of Assyria. The Ninevites, who worshiped a fish god, were duly impressed; they gave Jonah their attention and repented of their sin.

 Filed under: Ancient / Mythology


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