Fertility rites and child sacrifice were the hallmarks of Canaanite worship — and yet they appealed to many Israelites. Should we be shocked, or look in the mirror?
In the most recent issue of Biblical Archaeological Review, archaeologist Itzhaq Shai of Israel's Ariel University described what he characterized as "extraordinary finds that provided insights into the Canaanites and their religious world."
The finds, which Shai suspects may be the biblical Libnah mentioned in Joshua, Second Kings and Isaiah, include a "large public building," possibly a temple, ceremonial masks, and figurines, like idols of a nude female figure nursing two infants.
Shai's goal is to better understand Canaanite religion for academic reasons. But a better understanding of Canaanite religion isn't only for academics. By understanding what Israel's pagan neighbors believed and how they put those beliefs into practice, we see just how radically different — and even unique — the biblical worldview truly is.
Reading the Old Testament, it becomes clear that Canaanite religion was attractive to many of the children of Israel. When Joshua told the people to choose whom they would serve, he was acknowledging that fact.
When he told them "put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel," it was because some, perhaps many of them, had embraced these gods despite everything that the Lord had done for them and for their ancestors.
Why? Well, part of the answer lies in the nature of Canaanite religion. While the term "Canaanite" covers a multitude of peoples and cults, they all shared some important things in common. They were polytheists who worshipped many gods, each of whom specialized in some aspect of life.
It's hard for those of us raised in cultures shaped by biblical monotheism to appreciate how radical the idea of one omnipotent and sovereign God was to the ancient mind. What's more, this God was not only invisible, He absolutely forbade any representation of Himself.
Part of the reason why lies in the way Canaanites and other pagan religions used representations as a way to manipulate their gods into doing what they wanted. This was especially the case when it came to fertility. Worshippers of Baal and his consort Asherah engaged in symbolic sexual acts in order to ensure a good harvest.
This is in stark contrast to YHWH, who in addition to absolute loyalty, made ethical and moral demands of His worshippers. He was a God who was to be obeyed, not manipulated.
To see just how far pagans would go to manipulate a deity, look at the Phoenicians, who were basically Canaanites with boats. Archaeological excavations of at least nine Phoenician settlements have found evidence of tophets, the biblical term for places where child sacrifice, usually by burning, was practiced.
As the Bible tells us, the practice spread to ancient Judah. We're told that Josiah destroyed the tophets in Judah along with other sites of pagan worship.
This kind of barbarism is unimaginable today. Or is it?
As Mother Theresa famously said, "It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish."
What is the so-called "right to choose" if not the sacrifice of children to the gods of personal autonomy and self-fulfillment?
As the Bible shows, Israel struggled, usually unsuccessfully, with the temptation to compromise or blend her own faith with other religions. The allure of Canaanite practices was too powerful at times. It took exile to cure Israel of that tendency.
If we're honest, we have to admit the appeal of contemporary alternatives to Christian truth. They're less demanding and promise us that we can have our religious cake and eat it, too. The question is: will it take exile to cure us as well?
This article was originally posted here.