Chapter 2 Biblical Recognition of The Gods and Cults of The Nations








  1. Gods of the Nations. Allusions to the various gods of the nations with whom Israel came in contact are frequent and abun­dant in the Scriptures. We are told that the ancestors of Abraham, who dwelt in old time beyond the Euphrates, served other gods (Josh. 24:2). In Egypt the Hebrews came into close touch with an ancient and elaborated religious cult, with its temples, and sacred scribes, and magicians and sorcerers (Gen. 41:8; Exod. 7:11), and upon the exodus of the chosen people from that land of bondage Jehovah “executed judgments against all the gods of Egypt” (Exod. 12:12; Num. 33:4). During their journeys and in the land of Canaan Israel “chose new gods” (Judg. 5:8; Dent. 32:17), and ran away after the gods of the nations that were round about them, and all through their history, down to the time of the Babylonian exile, they persisted more or less openly in the idolatrous practices of the nations with whom they had intercourse. They found no nation or people without a god and a religious cult.
  2. Traces of Heathen Myths. Even the myths of the nations are recognized in such names and monsters as “leviathan the swift serpent, the crooked serpent, and the monster (___) that is in the sea” (Isa. 27:1). Rahab is mentioned in a similar way in Isa. 51:9; Psa. 89:10; Job 26:12. For while these words are employed by the poets and prophets to designate hostile powers like Egypt and Babylon, they go back linguistically and historically to ancient nature-myths. Compare the allusions to Leviathan in Job 3:8; 41:1; Psa. 74:14; and to Behemoth in Job 40:15, and to the serpent at the bottom of the sea, in Amos 9:3. Helal­benShahar (or Lucifer), in Isa. 14:12, has also the appearance of a mythological name, and Lilith (night-monster) in Isa. 34:14, has similar suggestions of ultimate derivation from the realm of nature-myths. It has long been seen that the Hebrew word Tehom, translated the deep in Gen. 1:2, has its connection with the raging Tiamat of the Babylonian story of creation. Other allusions of like character appear in the poetic metaphors found in the Psalms and the Prophets,[1] and comparative research shows that there are numerous myths and symbols which travel from race to race, and from one religious cult to another, and whose power of life is not extinguished with the century, the people, or the religion in which they had their origin.
  3. Names of the Gods. The names of the various deities of the nations found in the Scriptures give a more specific witness to the actual religious thought and worship of the ancient peoples with whom the Israelites came in contact. The most common Hebrew word for God is Elohim (___) and we find it applied both to the gods of the nations and to the God of Israel. Dagon, Chemosh, and Baal as well as Jehovah are called Elohim (comp. 1st Sam. 5:7; Judg. 11:24; 1st Kings 18:24), and even magistrates and rulers bear the same title (Exod. 21:6; Psa. 82:1, 6). The word seems to have a natural linguistic connection with El (__), which is also used to designate the gods of the nations as well as Israel’s God. Both these words express primarily the idea of power. Israel’s God is spoken of as “a great and terrible El” (Deut. 7:21), and “the great, the mighty and the terrible El” (Neh. 9:32). The plural form of Elohim has been accounted for in different ways: some are of opinion that the plural indicates a polytheistic origin and usage of the name; others explain it as the plural of majesty, and others as a designed recognition of the manifold powers inherent in the divine nature. So Elohim is con­ceived as the pluripotent Being, who combines in himself and represents all the powers on high. The word is often used with the article, the Elohim, to designate the only true God (comp. Dent. 7:9; 1st Kings 8:60; 18:39; Isa. 45:18). The same is true of El (___). The name Baal is frequently mentioned in connection with the idolatrous cults of Canaan, and may be regarded as an appellative rather than a proper name. It means owner, lord, master, and when applied to the deity it designates him as the possessor and lord of the particular province or district of country where the worship is performed. Thus we read of Baal-Peor, Baal-Hermon, and Baal-Zephon. The fertility of the land and the blessings of rain and corn and wine and oil are the beneficent gifts of the god of that particular land. The name in some places seems to have been associated with sun-worship, and we have also the compounds Baal-gad, “lord of fortune” Baalzebub, “lord of flies,” that is, the deity who delivers from the pest of flies. The plural of this word, Baalim, would thus refer to the numerous local Baals, which seem to have had their individual names (Hos. 2:17), had their altars on high places (Jer. 19:5), and were probably worshiped under different forms in different localities. The name Ashtaroth appears in several texts in connection with Baal (comp. Judg. 2:13; 1st Sam. 7:4; 12:10), but the form Ashtoreth appears in 1st Kings 11:5, 33, as the name of “the god­dess of the Sidonians.” The name is found in other forms, as Astarte, Ashtart, and is doubtless to be in some way associated or identified with the Assyrian goddess Ishtar, the queen of the gods and “the queen of heaven” referred to in Jer. 7:18; 44:17. By the Phoenicians and the Greeks this same goddess seems to have been identified with Aphrodite, and was probably connected with the rites of Tammuz referred to in Ezek. 8:14. The cult of this goddess Ashtoreth was of a pernicious tendency, encouraged unchas­tity, and is called in 2nd Kings 23:13, “the abomination of the Sidonians.” Chemosh was the name of the national deity of the Moabites, and in Num. 21:29, and Jer. 48:46, the Moabites are called “the people of Chemosh,” as if they were sons and daughters of the god. We learn from 2nd Kings 3:26, 27, that this deity was worshiped by human sacrifices. Hence, in 2nd Kings 23:13, Chemosh is called “the abomination of Moab.” In the same verse mention is made of “Milcom, the abomination of the children of Ammon.” Ammonites and Moabites occupied con­tiguous territory, and their religious cults were probably quite similar. The names Molech, Moloch, and Milcom are but different forms of the same word which means a king, and designates the deity as the great ruler of the land and people where he is wor­shiped. Human sacrifices were common among the Ammonites as well as among the Moabites. The argument of Jephthah, in Judg. 11:24, implies that Chemosh was also recognized as the god of the Ammonites. Dagon is mentioned in Judg. 16:23, and 1st Sam. 5:2-7, as the name of the god of the Philistines. The Hebrew etymology would suggest that the images of this deity had, at least in part, the form of a fish, but this is questioned and denied by recent lexical authorities. Passing beyond the borders of Canaan we meet the name of Rimmon, a Syrian deity, in whose temple Naaman and his king were wont to worship (2ndKings 5:18). The name is probably the same as that of Ramman, the Assyrian god of the wind, the thunderstorm, and the lightning. It is note­ worthy that when Naaman, “knowing that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel,” asked pardon for bowing with his royal master when he thereafter accompanied him into the house of Rimmon, the prophet Elisha bade him “go, in peace,” and did not forbid him to carry home with him “two mules’ burden of earth” that he might, even in Syria, worship on the holy soil of Israel’s God. In 2nd Kings 17:30, mention is made of Succoth-benoth (probably identical with Sakkuth in the Hebrew text of Amos 5:26), Nergal, Ashima, Nibhaz, Tartak, Adrammelech, and Anammelech, names of so many gods of the nations whom the king of Assyria transported from the eastern provinces of his empire and settled in the cities of Samaria. Some of these names are probably corrupt, and little or nothing is known now of the cults which they represented. The same is to be said of the Assyrian god Nisroch, in whose temple Sennacherib was worshiping when slain (2nd Kings 19:37). In Isa. 46:1, Jer. 1, 2; 51:44, we meet the names of the Babylonian deities Bel, Nebo, and Merodach. Bel is probably the same as Baal, meaning lord, and when connected with the name Merodach may be regarded as an appellative, Lord Merodach. The Babylonian inscriptions speak of him as “the great Lord,” “the King of the heavens and the earth.” The form of the name found on the monuments is Marduk. Nebo, or Nabu, had a tem­ple near Babylon, and was worshiped as the god of wisdom and learning.

It is not important here to enlarge upon these names. From extra-biblical sources we may learn the names and attributes of many other deities which were worshiped by the nations with whom Israel had more or less intercourse. The vast pantheon of Baby­lonian, Assyrian, Persian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cults has been brought to our knowledge by learned specialists, who have given their lives to the study of the monuments of the life and thought of these ancient nations. No evidence is found to show that any of the tribes and peoples of antiquity were without gods and religious practices. In every case the names of the deities worshiped commanded the reverence of the worshiper, and it is worthy of our attention that, in spite of the prohibition of Exod. 23:13—“Make no mention of the name of other gods”—so many of the names of foreign gods are recorded in the sacred books of Israel. These records show in how many ways the chosen people were brought in realistic touch with the religious life of other nations; and the names of the deities mentioned, and also cor­responding names of all the gods of other peoples not known to the Israelites, point in every case to a religious cult through which innumerable human hearts were feeling after the mystery of the Invisible.


  1. See Gunkel: Schöpfung and Chaos, pp. 82-87. Göttingen, 1895.

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