Holman Bible Dictionary
One of the great distinctivesof Judeo-Christian religion is monotheism—the recognition and reverence of only one God. By contrast, pagan religions of the biblical world were polytheistic, worshiping many gods.
Old Testament Many pagan gods had their origin as gods of certain places such as cities or regions. In Old Testament times, such gods or a combination of gods became nationalistic symbols as their cities or regions struggled for political dominance. The names of Near Eastern kings thus frequently contained a national god's name. The kings of Israel and Judah, for example, often bore names which contained a shortened form of the Hebrew name of Yahweh: Jo-, Jeho-, or -iah. A by-product of the connection between gods and certain locales was the belief that a god's power was limited to certain regions. Thus, officials of the Syrian king advised a battle with Israel on the plains observing, “their gods are gods of the hills” (1 Kings 20:23 ). Israel, against the background of this common belief, struggled with the concept that God was the Lord over all aspects of creation.
Egyptian Gods. Egyptian religion included a great number of gods. Many were personifications of the enduring natural forces in Egypt, such as the Sun (Re or Atum), sky (Nut), earth (Geb), and so on. Certain gods were associated with a particular place, such as Ptah of Memphis. Other gods, like Maat (truth and justice), Sekhmet (war and disease), and Bes (god of childbirth) ruled over aspects of life. Still others combined these categories so that Thoth was god of Hermopolis, the moon, and wisdom, while Hathor was goddess of Denderah, the sky, and love. Some of the gods were worshiped in animal form, such as the Apis bull which represented the god Ptah of Memphis. The Osiris myth was popular with the common people and became the principle of divine kingship. See Egypt . Osiris, the good king, was murdered and dismembered by his brother Seth. Osiris' wife, Isis, gathered his body to be mummified by the jackal-headed embalming god Anubis. Magically restored, Osiris was buried by his son, Horus, and reigned as king of the underworld. Horus, meanwhile, overcame the evil Seth to rule on earth. Thus, in death the pharaoh was worshiped as Osiris, while the legitimate heir became the living Horus by burying his dead predecessor.
The position of certain deities was a factor of the political situation. The gods' names which dominate pharaohs' names in a dynasty show both the dominant city and its dominant god. Thus the god Amen, later called Amen-Re, became the chief god of the empire because of the position of Thebes. Under Amenhotep III, the successes of the empire led to internal power struggles between the powerful priesthood of Amen-Re and the throne. Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaton and embarked on a revolutionary reform which promoted worship of the sun disc Aton above all other gods. The reforms of Akhenaton failed. His second successor made clear his loyalties to Amen-Re by changing his name from Tutankhaton to Tutankhamen and abandoning the new capital in favor of Thebes. The following dynasty, while promoting Amen-Re seems to have favored gods of the north. The names of the gods Seth of Avaris, Ra of Heliopolis, and Ptah of Memphis are evident in the Nineteenth Dynasty names Seti, Ramses, and Merneptah.
No Egyptian gods are mentioned in the Bible, and the complex Egyptian religion did not significantly influence the Hebrews. Some have tried to posit a relationship between the reforms of Akhenaton and the monotheism of Moses, but the differences between Atonism and the Mosaic view of God are far greater than the similarities.
Mesopotamian Gods The complex system of belief common throughout Mesopotamia included thousands of gods. The most important are reviewed here.
The patron deities of the oldest Sumerian cities became the high gods of the Mesopotamian pantheon. Anu, god of the heavens and patron of Uruk (biblical Erech; Genesis 10:10 ), did not play a very active role. Enlil of Nippur ruled over the earth. The god of Eridu, Ea, was lord of the underground waters and the god of craftsmen. The feared Nergal of Cutha was the god of plague and the underworld. Gods of other cities became prominent through political circumstance. Thus, the god and namesake of the original Assyrian capital, Ashur, rose in importance with the rise of that empire. Ninurta, god of war and hunting, was patron for the Assyrian capital Calah. After the political rise of Babylon, Marduk was considered the chief god and was given the epithet Bel (equivalent to the Canaanite term Baal), meaning “lord” ( Isaiah 46:1; Jeremiah 50:2; Jeremiah 51:44 ). The Enuma elish , or Babylonian Creation Epic, tells of a cosmic struggle in which, while other gods were powerless, Marduk slew Tiamat (the sea goddess,fjcr representative of chaos). From the blood of another slain god, Ea created mankind. Marduk's son Nabu (Nebo in Isaiah 46:1 ), the god of nearby Borsippa and of scribes, became especially exalted in the neo-Babylonian period as seen in the name Nebuchadnezzar. Several important gods were associated with heavenly bodies. Shamash was god of the sun and played a prominent role. The moon god Sin was revered in the cities of Ur and Haran, both associated with Abraham's origins (Genesis 11:31 ). Ishtar (the Canaanite Astarte/Ashtaroth) was goddess of the morning and evening star. In addition to her astral associations, Ishtar fulfilled a dual role as the goddess of war and the goddess of love and fertility. Temple prostitution was an important part of her cult and gave Uruk, the city of her older Sumerian equivalent, Inanna, a sordid reputation. Among the masses Ishtar was very popular and referred to as the “queen of heaven” (Jeremiah 7:18; Jeremiah 44:17-19 ). Closely connected with Ishtar was her consort, the spring vegetation god Tammuz. A myth ells of Tammuz' betrayal by Ishtar, his subsequent death, and descent into the underworld. This event was commemorated by an annual mourning for the god in the fourth month which fell during summer. Ezekiel lamented this pagan practice by certain women of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8:14 ). The death of Tammuz reflected and coincided with the annual wilting of spring vegetation in the Near East. Also associated with fertility was the storm god Adad, the Canaanite Hadad.
In addition to their cosmic nature, the gods were thought of as present in their image, or idol, and living in the temple as a king in his palace. The gilded wooden images were in human form, clothed in a variety of ritual garments, and provided with meals. On occasion the images were carried in ceremonial processions or to “visit” one another in different sanctuaries.
Canaanite Gods The gods of the Canaanites made the greatest impact on the Israelites. While many of these are related to Mesopotamian gods, Canaanite religion was not well understood until the discovery of religious texts in the 1920s at the Syrian city of Ugarit. See Canaan.
The chief god of the Canaanite pantheon was called El, the generic Semitic word for “god.” El, however, was viewed as a grandfatherly, retiring god and did not play an active role. By far the most prominent role must be assigned to Baal around whom the Ugaritic myths revolve. These myths represent Baal as the storm god with power over rain, wind, and clouds, and thus over the fertility of the land. The cycle of the seasons is represented in the myths by Baal's struggle with Mot (literally, “death”), who represented drought and brought forth dry barren fields. During the dry season (summer) Baal was forced temporarily into the underworld by Mot, but his recurring return brought forth the rainy season (winter) and restored fertility to the land. In another myth, Baal defeated Yam (literally “sea”), the god of chaos, in much the way that the Babylonian Marduk defeated Tiamat. Baal was often pictured standing on the back of a bull or wearing a helmet adorned with horns to emphasize his role as the chief fertility god.
Some confusion surrounds the various usages of Baal in the Old Testament. Fifty-eight times Baal is used as a divine name in the singular, but eighteen times it appears in the plural form (RSV “Baalim,” NIV “Baals”). Thus, Baal was also used to designate various local gods, such as Baal-peor (“Baal of Peor,” Numbers 25:3 ). Perhaps these should be viewed as local manifestations of a single Baal, the Semitic storm god. In the Ugaritic myths, Baal is frequently identified with the storm god Hadad (Adad of Mesopotamia), perhaps as a title. In fact, the Hebrew word baal means “lord” or “possessor.” Other divine names in the Old Testament combine Baal and a noun, such as Baal-berith (“Lord of the covenant,” Judges 9:4 ) and Baal-zebub (“Lord of flies,” 2 Kings 1:2 ). While the Hebrew word baal was not in itself considered pagan, perhaps its use as a divine title in Canaanite religion is behind God's rejection of the appellation Baali, “my master” (Hosea 2:16-17 ). In the Ugaritic myths, Baal's sister/consort Anat, goddess of war and love, assisted in his victories. Closely associated with Anat and more important in Palestine was another goddess of war/love, Astarte, the Mesopotamian Ishtar. Astarte (a Greek form of the name) appears in the Old Testament in the singular as “Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Zidonians” (1Kings 11:5,1 Kings 11:33; 2 Kings 23:13 ) as well as in the plural form, Ashtaroth (Judges 10:6 , 1 Samuel 7:4; 1 Samuel 12:10 ), representing local manifestations of the godess. As the female counterpart of Baal, Astarte/Ashtoreth seems to have been worshiped through sacred prostitution designed to promote fertility. Another goddess of fertility was Asherah, in the Ugaritic texts the wife of El. Worship of Asherah was apparently quite pronounced throughout Palestine (1 Kings 14:23 NIV). See 2 Kings 21:7 NIV) and removed from the Temple ( 2 Kings 23:6 NIV). It was clearly of wood, however, being “cut down” ( Judges 6:25-30 ). Asherah was often worshiped in connection with Baal (Judges 3:7; 2 Kings 17:16 ), her object appearing alongside the latter's altar (Judges 6:25 , Judges 6:30 ). The fertility aspects of the Canaanite gods was an inviting snare to the Israelites. New to farming and having just settled in Canaan after a generation of nomadic life in the desert, the Israelites were particularly tempted to serve the gods said to control the fertility of that land. A great deal of syncretism must have occurred, mixing elements of Baalism with worship of God. Indeed, Jeroboam's golden calves at Dan and Bethel may have been an attempt to identify Yahweh of Israel with the Baal of the Canaanite elements of the kingdom and to combine their traditions. Archaeological evidence of such syncretism can be seen in the recent discovery in the Sinai of a jar inscribed with prayer to “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.” Baalism reached its peak in the northern nation of Israel under King Ahab and his wife Jezebel who aggressively sponsored worship of Baal in Samaria (1 Kings 16:31-33 ). The drought at this time and Elijah's contest with the prophets of Baal were intended to show that the God of Israel, not Baal, was truly Lord of the rain (1 Kings 17:1; 1 Kings 18:20-45 ).
Various other deities of Palestine impacted the Old Testament story. The Arameans of Damascus (Syria) worshiped the generic Semitic storm god Hadad, frequently referred to by the epithet Rimmon (2 Kings 5:18 ), meaning “thunder.” Sometimes the names Hadad and Rimmon were coupled (Zechariah 12:11 ). The god Dagon of the Philistines (Judges 16:23 ) was apparently a Semitic god of grain mentioned in the Ugaritic texts as Dagan, the father of Baal. The Philistines worshiped Dagon in temples at Ashdod (1 Samuel 5:1-5 ) and Beth Shean (1 Chronicles 10:10 ). The national god of the Ammonites was called Molech (1 Kings 11:7 ). There are no vowels in Hebrew, so in ancient times Molech was written with the same consonants (MLK) as the Hebrew/Semitic word for king, melek . Thus, Molech may have served as a title (“the king”; compare Amos 1:15 ) for the Ammonite god much as Baal served as a title for the storm god. The pronunciation Molech comes from the substitution for the original vowels with those from the Hebrew word bosheth , “shame,” and is an intentional insulting misvocalization. The alternate name Milcom (1 Kings 11:5; Jeremiah 49:1 ,Jeremiah 49:1,49:3 TEV) is a corruption of a variant form meaning “their king.” Worship of Molech involved human sacrifice, especially making one's children “pass through the fire” ( Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 20:2-5; 2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 32:35 ). In Judah, this practice was conducted at Tophet in the Valley of Hinnom on the southwest side of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 28:3 ). Jephthah's reply to the Ammonites (Judges 11:24 ) refers to Chemosh as their god. Chemosh, the national god of the Moabites (Numbers 21:29; Jeremiah 48:46 ), thus may be identical to Molech although they are listed separately as abominations brought to Jerusalem by Solomon (1 Kings 11:7 ). Chemosh is mentioned prominently in the famous Moabite Stone. Mesha, king of Moab, probably offered up his son Chemosh (2 Kings 3:27 ). The Canaanite god Horon was evidently worshiped in the two cities of Beth-horon (“house of Horon”). Resheph (Hebrew for “flame” or “pestilence” Habakkuk 3:5 ) was a god of lague, equivalent to the Nergal of Mesopotamia.
New Testament The pagan gods of the New Testament world were the deities of the Greco-Roman pantheon and certain eastern gods whose myths gave rise to the mystery religions. The conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedon took the Greek culture throughout the Near East. The resulting Hellenistic culture included the acceptance of Greek gods. Conquered peoples did not see a totally new religious system; rather they assimilated or identified their gods with the Greek gods. Thus Ishtar/Astarte was identified with Aphrodite, and Zeus was identified with various Near Eastern deities.
By New Testament times, thinking persons no longer accepted the system of Greek mythology literally. The Greek gods had become an integral part of Hellenistic culture that dominated the Roman empire, and many of the gods had strong local appeal. In the west, old Roman gods were identified with Greek counterparts.
A few of the Greco-Roman gods are mentioned in the New Testament. At the head of the Greek pantheon was Zeus, the Roman Jupiter, god of the sky, originally the weather or storm god. With the syncretism of the Hellenistic period following Alexander the Great's conquests, Zeus was equated with the Semitic storm god Hadad. As the supreme Greek deity, however, Zeus was readily identified with the chief god of any region. Thus, when Antiochus IV attempted to force Hellenism on the Jews in 167 B.C., he transformed the Jewish Temple into a temple to Zeus. A huge altar to Zeus at Pergamum is probably the “Satan's throne” of Revelation 2:13 . The messenger of the Greek gods was Hermes (Roman, Mercury). When the people of Lystra assumed Barnabas and Paul to be gods (Acts 14:8-18 ), they called Paul Hermes because he was the spokesman; and they identified Barnabas with Zeus or Jupiter. The oxen and garlands they brought forward were appropriate offerings for Zeus. Hermes was also the god of merchants and travelers. Artemis was the Greek goddess of the wildwood, of childbirth, and, consequently, of fertility. The great mother goddess of Asia Minor worshiped at Ephesus was identified with Artemis, the Roman Diana. Her temple at Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the aancient world and an object of pilgrimages. Artemis of the Ephesians was depicted in statues at Ephesus with many breasts, perhaps inspired by a sacred stone (a meteorite?; Acts 19:35 ) kept in the temple. Paul's work in Ephesus resulted in an uproar incited by the silversmiths who sold souvenirs to the pilgrims (Acts 19:23-41 ).
Other Greco-Roman gods are not mentioned in the New Testament but formed an important part of Hellenistic culture. The most popular of the gods was Apollo, pictured in Greek art as the epitome of youthful, manly beauty. He served as the god of medicine, law, and shepherds. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty. She was identified with the Semitic godddess Ishtar/Astarte and with the Roman Venus. Although not mentioned in the New Testament, a temple to Aphrodite at Corinth was said to employ a thousand cultic prostitutes and contributed to the city's reputation for immorality. Athena, namesake and patron of the city of Athens, was a virgin goddess connected with arts and crafts, fertility, and war. She was identified with the Roman Minerva. Hera, whose Roman equivalent was Juno, was the wife of Zeus and goddess of marriage, women, and motherhood. Also not mentioned is the important Poseidon, Neptune to the Romans, god of the sea, earthquakes, and—oddly—horses. The war god of Greece was Ares, equated with the Roman god Mars. Hephaistos, the Roman Vulcan, was god of fire and the patron of smiths. Hades, called by the Romans Pluto, was the Greek god of the underworld. His name became the Greek word used in the New Testament for the abode of the dead (Matthew 11:23; Matthew 16:18; Luke 10:15; Luke 16:23; Acts 2:27 ,Acts 2:27,2:31; Revelation 1:18; Revelation 20:13-14 ).
Certain Greek gods became the centers of cults which were quite influential in New Testament times. Foremost among these is the cult of Demeter or the Eleusinian mysteries. Demeter was the Greek goddess of grain who, according to the myth, ceased to function when her daughter Persephone was abducted into the underworld by Hades. Persephone was eventually released to her mother but forced to spend a third of each year in the underworld, a cycle which reflected the annual growth cycle of grain. Secret rites of initiation into the cult took place annually at Eleusis. The Greek god of wine, intoxication, and fertility was Dionysus, the Roman Bacchus. His cult involved orgiastic feasts in which wild animals were torn apart alive and eaten raw, originally only by groups of women. Sick persons appealed to the popular god of healing, Asclepius, by visiting special sanctuaries in certain cities. See Fertility Cult; Mystery/Mystery Religions.
In the process of hellenization, the mixing of Greek and Near Eastern culture, certain Near Eastern deities were adopted as the centers of new cults, usually called the myster religions. Generally these systems of belief involved the adoption of a Near Eastern god and myth having to do with fertility. The mystery religions, including the cults of Eleusis and Dionysus, filled a vacuum left by the fading popularity of the older Greek gods and became the primary comeptitors of Christianity in the early centuries of the church.
The Egyptian myth of Osiris was modified and became the center of a widely popular cult of Serapis and Isis. Serapis was a syncretistic combination of Osiris and the Apis bull of Memphis. Another mystery religion centered around Mithra, a Persian god, and his myth. Initiation into the cult was limited to men and involved the slaying of a bull above the initiate who bathed in its blood. The cult of Cybele or Magna Mater (“Great Mother”) came from Asia Minor. The myth involved the death and restoration of her consort Attis and was similar to the Mesopotamian myth of Ishtar and Tammuz (see above) as well as that of Atargatis and Hadad in Syria. Perhaps related is the myth of the vegetation god Adonis (fromfjcr pbadon, “lord”) of the Phoenicians, whose death was mourned much like that of Tammuz. The idea of a dying and rising god has been compared to the death and resurrection of Christ, but the death of those gods was mythical, cyclical, and involuntary, in contrast to the historical, once-for-all act of Christ motivated by love.
Daniel C. Browning Jr.
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