There are a number of false gods identified in the Old Testament that were worshipped by the occupants of the promised land destined for the nation of Israel. I will not cover all of them but I will identify the major pagan religions. As you recall, there were six specific Canaan nations that were to be utterly destroyed. To a casual reader of the scriptures, this commandment given by God to Israel will probably seem harsh and even cruel but it is necessary to remember that God had called the nation of Israel to be His own, a shining example of God’s holiness and righteousness to a world that thought very little about the value of human life, or righteous living. The rationale behind this commandment was based on the horrendous practises that these peoples participated in, with regard to the “worship” of these false gods and the distinct reality of their negative influence on Israel, when contrasted with their commitment to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Yahweh), as God’s chosen people. These “false gods” were not merely a “religion” that some of them loosely followed but were in fact the driving force behind everything that they did.
Deuteronomy 20:16-18 NIV
“However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.“
The Hittites were a Canaanite nation that inhabited Canaan prior to the arrival of Israel.
The Amorites were of Sumerian descent who inhabited the land of Canaan.
The Canaanites were various indigenous populations of Canaanite descent that settled throughout the southern region of Canaan
The Perizzites were early inhabitants of Canaan prior to the arrival of Israel.
The Hivites or Hittites were also early inhabitants of Canaan prior to the arrival of Israel.
The Jebusites were a Canaanite tribe that inhabited Jerusalem (Jebus) prior to the arrival of Israel.
The Amalekites were also ear marked for total destruction. They occupied Negev which is a region of southern Israel. In 1 Samuel 15:2-3, God commanded Saul and the Israelites, “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'”
Consequently the destruction of the Amalekites would appear to be for retribution and foreknowledge considerations by God, of what would transpire in the future with regard to the nation of Israel. If Israel did not carry out God’s orders, the Amalekites would come back to trouble the Israelites. Saul claimed to have killed everyone but the Amalekite king Agag (1 Samuel 15:20). Obviously, Saul was lying—because just a couple of decades later, there were enough Amalekites to take David and his men’s families captive (1 Samuel 30:1-2). After David and his men attacked the Amalekites and rescued their families, 400 Amalekites escaped. If Saul had fulfilled what God had commanded him, this never would have occurred. Several hundred years later, a descendant of Agag, Haman, tried to have the entire Jewish people exterminated (see the book of Esther). So, Saul’s incomplete obedience almost resulted in Israel’s destruction. God knew this would occur, so He ordered the extermination of the Amalekites ahead of time.
Major Canaanite gods
Figurine of Astarte with a horned headdress
The false gods mentioned in the Old Testament were worshiped by the people of Canaan and the nations surrounding the Promised Land, but were these idols just made-up deities or did they actually possess supernatural power?
Many Bible scholars are convinced some of these so-called divine beings could indeed do amazing acts because they were demons, or fallen angels, disguising themselves as gods.
Also called Astarte, or Ashtoreth (plural), this goddess of the Canaanites was connected with fertility and maternity. Astarte was connected with fertility, sexuality, and war. Her symbols were the lion, the horse, the sphinx, the dove, and a star within a circle indicating the planet Venus. Pictorial representations often show her naked. She has been known as the deified morning and/or evening star. The deity takes on many names and forms among different cultures and according to Canaanite mythology, is one and the same as the Assyro-Babylonian goddess Ištar, taken from the third millennium BC Sumerian goddess Inanna, the first primordial goddess of the planet Venus. Astarte was worshipped in Syria and Canaan beginning in the first millennium BC and was first mentioned in texts from Ugarit. She came from the same Semitic origins as the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, and an Ugaritic text specifically equates her with Ishtar. Her worship spread to Cyprus, where she may have been merged with an ancient Cypriot goddess. This merged Cypriot goddess may have been adopted into the Greek pantheon in Mycenaean and Dark Age times to form Aphrodite.
Ashtoreth is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as a foreign, non-Judahite goddess, the principal goddess of the Sidonians or Phoenicians, representing the productive power of nature. The biblical Ashtoreth should not be confused with the goddess Asherah, the form of the names being quite distinct, and both appearing quite distinctly in the Book of 1st Kings.
Ashteroth Karnaim (Astarte was called Ashteroth in the Hebrew Bible) was a city in the land of Bashan east of the Jordan River, mentioned in Genesis 14:5 and Joshua 12:4 (where it is rendered solely as Ashteroth). The name translates literally to ‘Ashteroth of the Horns’, with ‘Ashteroth’ being a Canaanite fertitility goddess and ‘horns’ being symbolic of mountain peaks. Figurines of Astarte have been found at various archaeological sites in Israel, showing the goddess with two horns.
Male priests who engaged in (homosexual) sacred prostitution were called kadesh or qadesh (literally: male holy one); the word evolved semantically in ancient Hebrew to take on a similar meaning to sodomite. The Hebrew word kelev (dog) in the next line may also signify a male dancer or prostitute.
The Hebrew Bible uses two different words for prostitute, zonah (זנה) and kedeshah (or qedesha) (קדשה). The word zonah simply meant an ordinary prostitute or loose woman. But the word kedeshah literally means consecrated (feminine form), from the Semitic root q-d-sh (קדש) meaning holy or set apart. In spite of the cultic significance of a kedeshah to a follower of the Canaanite religion, the Hebrew Bible makes it clear that cultic prostitution had no place in Israelite or Judahite religion. Thus the Hebrew version of Deuteronomy 23:17-18 tells followers:
None of the daughters of Israel shall be a kedeshah, nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a kadesh.
You shall not bring the hire of a prostitute (zonah) or the wages of a dog (kelev) into the house of the Lord your God to pay a vow, for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.
Also noteworthy is that a Asherah pole is a sacred tree or pole that stood near Canaanite religious locations to honour the goddess Asherah, consort of El. Deuteronomy 16:21 NIV states “Do not set up any wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build to the LORD your God,”
Stele of Baal with thunderbolt found in the ruins of Ugarit
Baal, sometimes called Bel, was the supreme god among the Canaanites, worshiped in many forms, but often as a sun god or storm god. He was a fertility god who supposedly made the earth bear crops and women bear children. Rites involved with Baal worship included cult prostitution and human sacrifice.
The Ugarit tablets are explicitly concerned with fertility, cast in terms of human sexuality. Worship of Baal involved imitative magic, the performance of rituals, including sacred prostitution. Sexual acts by both male and female temple prostitutes were understood to arouse Baal who then brought rain to make Mother Earth fertile when crops were abundant; Baal was praised and thanked for his abundant rain.
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.
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).
Moloch was the national deity of the Ammonites, a fire god worshiped throughout the ancient near East and North Africa, by Canaanites and Philistines, Arameans and Semitic peoples and later, Phoenicians. He was known by many names, all signifying the same false god. He is also the Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice.
In addition to sexual rituals, Moloch worship included child sacrifice, or “passing children through the fire.” It is believed that idols of Moloch 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 Moloch would ensure financial prosperity for the family and future children.
Various writers in various countries spell names differently. These names all refer to the same false god – Melech, Mo-lech, Milcom, Melkom, Moloch, Molek, Malec, Malik, Melek, Malkum, Melqart, Melkart, Milk, Melqarth, Kronos, Cronus.
That Molech worship was already common among the Canaanites when Israel entered the land is evident from the fact that, before Israel entered the land, God warned them against Molech worship as an abomination the Israelites were forbidden to practice, Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5.
Fire gods like Moloch, the fertility goddess Ashtoreth, and Baal, were not religious fantasies. They exercised a very real power over the primitive Canaanites and their pagan worship practises snared many of the children of Israel. There are multiple lessons that we can all learn from, in the testimony that we have been given.
Worthy is the Lamb! Blessings!