Why all the inaction? Three reasons why the Seleucid Empire failed to defeat the Maccabees

51To one who knows the historical happenings concerning the war between the dreaded Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes IV and Judah Maccabee (story of Hanukkah), they must be always struck with a sense of awe and monumental surprise, for when we take a step back and examine the situation on the eve of the rebellion, the odds were clearly stacked in the Seleucids favour. This earth shattering story, intimately recorded in 1st and 2nd Maccabees of the Apocrypha and celebrated at the winter festival of Hanukkah, has all the colour and depth of any literary masterpiece: friendship, loyalty, faith, love, war, torture, betrayal, triumph, honour, courage, wisdom, virility, and standing against all odds. The small, seemingly insignificant Jewish people, surrounded by the behemoth empire of the Greek Seleucids with their vast armies and endless resources, are victorious over their brutal adversary following decades of war. This Seleucid defeat, eventually led to the weakening and collapse of the proud Seleucid Empire. For the Jews of Judea among the conquered nations which made up the Greek empire, a proper comparison would be to liken Judea to a single white dot on a chalkboard. Yet, it was the Jews who would triumph in battle and not the Seleucids. It was a rabble of Jews who became seasoned warriors, defeating massive armies three to four times their number. How could these Jews, who started out as simple masons, carpenters, priests, scribes, shepherds, butchers, vinedressers, farmers, weavers, and potters even have a chance at success? How could they seize victory over a professional, battle-hardened enemy? One may ask, how was this even possible? Well, let’s examine three clear facts which we know to be true. This examination is not meant to be exhaustive, but hopefully will shed light on how Judah Maccabee, the son of a priest, managed to lead the Jews of Judea in open revolt, staging one of the most incredible, daring, military feats in human history.

Number One: The subservient shall never rise!

The fact of the matter is simple, the idea of Jews rebelling in armed response against their Greek overlords never entered Seleucid thinking. Nobody on the Greek-Seleucid side saw it coming. Either they didn’t believe it at first, chose to out rightly ignore it, never thought it possible, or scoffed at the very idea. To say the Seleucids had a low opinion of the Jews would be a huge understatement. To Seleucid kings, nobles, and generals, the subservient never rebelled. History demonstrated that typically kings and generals led rebellions, amassing militias to their side, (i.e. Xenophon’s 10,000, Caesar and Pompey, or the Greeks versus the Persians) so why would Antiochus Epiphanes IV have treated this any differently?

Stattler-Machabeusze1Obviously communication was much slower than. The record shows that out of a result from the intense competitive lifestyle among Greek officers, information was suppressed and not properly passed on, yet still the Seleucids failed to treat the Maccabee uprising as a genuine rebellion for nearly a year since the initial outbreak, thus giving it time to strengthen and morph into a real problem. But at the grassroots of it all, the Seleucids thought they had no reason to worry. They suspected that they were dealing with nothing more than a gang of cut-throats and treasonous thieves. Even when a modern-day student of history looks back over time, the amount of conflicts started by “nobodies” and “peasants” are barely a fraction of a percentage when weighed against the wars and conflicts started by generals, kings, politicians, and warlords.

In the Seleucid opinion, the Jews were a backwater people, with no combat experience possessing strong religious roots. The Jews were divided among themselves, many adopting the Hellenism of the Greeks. Those who rejected Hellas, clung to their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, this category was where the Maccabees would arise from. So, when the rebellion was burning bright and the Maccabees were organizing their campaign to crush the Seleucids, the Greeks were making other plans to invade Parthia (a neighbouring superpower). Around the same time, Antiochus passed strict edicts, forcing all the inhabitants of his realm to adopt Greek customs and worship their gods in an effort to strengthen his western borders, due to his fear of the rising power of Rome. While all of this was going on, Antiochus, who saw himself as the next Alexander the Great, hardly paid any attention to the Jews as a result from his ego, overconfidence, and what history told him in regards to dominated, suppressed people.

Number Two: Bad tactics equal a bloody mess!

The harsh edicts in which Antiochus Epiphanes IV issued to all his subjects, were edicts that made it mandatory for all inhabitants to observe and participate inb878eleazar and the macabees attack seleucid Hellenistic activities, which included pagan rituals. This was Antiochus’ attempt to unify the subjects of his kingdom, in a two-pronged effort to guard against the rise of Parthia in the east and the might of Rome in the west. Rome was becoming more of an expansionist empire, having already defeated Carthage in two wars for supremacy of the Mediterranean Sea and now held Sicily, Sardina and Corsica, parts of west Africa, and swathes of provinces expanding into Europe. So Antiochus, intimately familiar with the Roman mindset from his days as a hostage, feared that the Roman eye would gaze upon his kingdom. Thus, he took swift action to strengthen his western borders. Antiochus also had to guard against his old rival, the Ptolemaic Empire, which had been a splinter kingdom, ruling out of Egypt, since the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Since the Jews had fallen under Seleucid rule (190’s B.C.) with the suppression of the Ptolemaic influence, they continued to remain as staunch monotheists in the God of Israel, observing Torah (Bible) and the traditions of their forefathers.

As a result of Jewish refusal to obey his new Hellas laws, Antiochus launched a campaign of persecution, targeting the Jews of Judea which made up the faithful majority who refused to compromise the commandments of Torah and their beliefs in one God. Thus, Judea became divided, with one side making up a significant percentage of Jews (known as Hellenists or Antiochians) who obeyed the king and forsook the Torah, and the other side being compiled of Jews who would rather die then break the commandments. Against overwhelming Seleucid persecution, the Maccabees, led by Judah and his brothers from the village of Modiin, launched a guerilla-style rebellion.

The commander of Jerusalem, Philip of the Phyrgians, failed to take the rebellion seriously, ostracized the Jews and branded them as nothing more than ‘murderers and thieves.’ Meanwhile, Antiochus was rallying a huge army in his capital of Antioch, to invade the lands of Parthia and expand his kingdom. As a result of his inaction, Philip allowed the Maccabees to gain intimate knowledge of the land, establish a system of bases among the friendly villages, create a network of recruiting soldiers to trai them, and settled in the hills around Gophna where they established a base. From here, nearly a year went by in which the Maccabees raided and ambushed Seleucid patrols, slaughtering them, seizing their weapons and armour. After Philip had lost substantial troops, he finally attempted to launch his own campaign into the wilderness, but was quickly destroyed, thereby realizing the threat that faced him. Thus, he had no alternative but to turn to the governor of Samaria for help, Apollonius.

In all his pomp, Apollonius marched 2,500 troops along the Samaritan Road, a road which runs north and south to Jerusalem. This was the easiest and quickest road to take but Apollonius failed to treat the Maccabee threat seriously. Marching his men through the Judean Hills, overcome by heavy armour and cumbersome weapons, they were ambushed by the Maccabees (numbering around 600 men) and massacred…including Apollonius who was decapitated. After this solid victory, Jews flocked to the Maccabee ranks and they went on to win another outstanding victory against Seleucid general, Seron. Seron made almost the identical mistake as Apollonius, except this time taking 4,000 men along a different route, only to be ambushed and slaughtered. Next came Seleucid generals Nicanor and Gorgias, who were commissioned by Seleucid Viceroy Lysias who was governing the capital of Antioch in the king’s absence on his Parthian campaign. Nicanor and Gorgias took an army of 25,000 troops, sought to establish a base camp in Emmaus and chose to divide their forces to launch a double attack against the Jews. However, through Maccabee genius, the Jews dodged Gorgias’ men, leading them on a wild goose chase, and closed in against Nicanor’s 15,000, striking the main base camp at Emmaus with force. In a desperate battle, Judah’s army of 6,000 managed to put to flight Nicanor’s host and capture the camp. Upon Gorgias’ return, he found the camp in ruins, the Maccabees waiting for round-two, and decided to retreat.

Jerusalem_Israel1When word reached Antioch, Lysias felt he had no choice but to lead his own army. So, he assembled 45,000 men, marched them down the coast, and struck inland for Hebron with plans of reaching Jerusalem from the south. Meanwhile, the Maccabees had been shadowing his advance, and assembling their men outside of Beit Zur, they attacked the marching columns of Lysias’ army and slaughtered 4,000 of them before putting them to flight. Lysias vowed his revenge, and like a dog with its tail between its legs, he withdrew back to Antioch. The Maccabees, unopposed, marched to Jerusalem and captured the city.

The series of Seleucid defeats can only be summed up by stating the obvious: they were unprepared for a guerrilla war, arrogant in their methods, never suspecting what awaited them, unorganized in their tactics, failed to share vital information or treat the threat as credible. The Maccabees on the other hand, capitalized on the Seleucid weaknesses, used their strengths against them, and constantly changed their tactics. They managed to unite the people of Judea, drive out the enemy, and establish an independent Jewish kingdom known as the Hasmonean Kingdom, after the family line of Judah Maccabee.

 

Number Three: Did anyone mention anything about divine intervention?

“Then all the people fell upon their faces, worshipping and praising the God of heaven, who had given them good success. And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed the sacrifice of deliverance and praise.” 1st Maccabees 5

To say that the Maccabees did not believe that God had intervened on their behalf would simply be a untrue. The Maccabees were pious men, with scribes, priests, and teachers of Torah amidst their ranks, and they fervently believed that God would deliver them, sustain them, and rescue them from the wrath of Antiochus’ Seleucid war machine. A strong contingent of the Maccabee ranks, were made up of the Hasidim, or ‘pious ones’, who were be the descendents of the Pharisees and Zealots. These men were fiercely loyal to the Torah, the commandments and traditions of their forefathers and would gladly die in order to preserve their faith. The Hasidim guarded the Torah, building a fence of protection around it (as stated in Pirke Avot- Ethics of the Fathers), and were true men of faith in the God of Israel.

Upon the outbreak of the revolt, the Maccabees refused to bow the knee to Seleucid pressure which demanded that they cease: the practice and study of Torah, circumcision of their sons on the eighth day, gathering to worship in houses of prayer or the temple, prayer, and other elements of traditional, biblical Jewish faith. History clearly shows us that many Jews were intimidated and therefore compromised their faith in an effort to “fit in”, but the Jews of Judea, including the Hasidim and Maccabees, out rightly refused. The historical accounts of 1st and 2nd Maccabees demonstrate this refusal to obey Seleucid law as the Maccabees smashed down pagan altars, continued to study Torah, circumcised sons in the villages, and prayed openly as Jews.

david-goliathOver and over in the Apocryphal accounts of the Maccabees we see prayer to the God of Israel and a genuine faith that He will not abandon them, plastered across it’s pages. We especially see this character of God clearly defined in the Bible throughout the history of Israel. From Moses to King David, to the righteous kings of Judah or the Jews exiled in Babylon, the yearning hope that God will defend His people and avenge them is a strong tone. In the Bible, we see divine intervention, at times, strike down the enemies of Israel, such as the account in the book of Isaiah concerning the plague that wiped out most of Assyrian King Sennacherib’s army in the year 701 B.C.. However, most of the conflicts and happenings in the Bible, pertaining to the enemies of Israel, are displayed with God encouraging Israel to physically march to war through actions of divine judgement or self-defense. We see generals, prophets, prophetesses, and kings of Israel praying to God and seeking wisdom. Whether this is Moses against the Amalekites, Joshua on the eve of battle with Jericho, King David’s war against the Philistines, or King Hezekiah pleading to God about the Assyrian threat, the belief that God would never abandon His covenant people is not something to take lightly. This in no way should paint the picture of ancient Israel being a warmongering nation, as it is clear in the Scriptures that special service was to be given to strangers in the land or other nations who did not provoke them to war, but it should reveal the reality of those days and the hostile nations of the ancient world.

In the historical accounts of the Bible, we see a clear picture in which the ancient people of Israel invaded a hostile land (by the direct word of God) which was made up of wicked nations. Israel was to be at times a tool of judgement by God who had given these nations centuries of time to repent. Thus, the Maccabees viewed themselves as cut from the same cloth. These men and women, who were firmly educated in the Torah and history of their people, recognized the commonalities and dangers they now faced, as seen in past generations. They were a tiny fragment of righteous people, surrounded in a sea of paganism which sought to obliterate them. The Maccabees had no choice but to trust in the promises that God would uphold the covenant, see their righteous cause, and give them victory. The faith of the Maccabees, and the reflection of their strong biblical conviction, already cemented into their hearts, cannot be ignored when weighing out their actions against the Greek armies who marched against them.

By, Peter J. Fast

Like what you read? Keep an eye out for my second novel, 164 B.C. A War of the Jews – to be published this summer 2014 (click on the “Novels” link on my webpage for more info)

Advertisements

Discoveries at Shiloh may reveal that it was sacked by Philistines

Article from Arutz Sheva

Shilo Find May Show It was Sacked by Philistines

By, Gil Ronen

Published 7/01/13

A new archeological find at ancient Shilo fits in with the Biblical narrative regarding the war at Even Ha’ezer, and could confirm scholars’ conjectures as to how Shilo was destroyed.

The First Book of Samuel does not say when and how Shilo, which served as the Israelite capital for 369 years, was destroyed. The latest archeological find at the Shilo site – a broken vase and remains of ashes from a fire – indicate large scale destruction. The remains are from the same period in which the War of Even Ha’ezer against the Philistines was waged.

Israel suffered a crushing defeat in that war, which is believed to have been waged near present-day Afek. The two sons of Eli the High Priest were killed, and Eli himself died upon hearing the news. Worst of all, the Holy Ark, which the Israelites had brought to the battleground, was taken by the Philistines.

Archeologists and scholars now have more evidence to back the assumption that after defeating the Israelites at Even Ha’ezer, the Philistines advanced upon Shilo and sacked it.

img396088Other Biblical passages, in Psalms and Jeremiah, confirm that Shilo was destroyed by Phlistines.

http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/163934#.UOqx8m_qlCI

Dagon and the Ark of the Covenant

A look into the history of the Philistine god Dagon and the Ark of the Covenant of Israel

A glimpse into the past:

Like Greece and Troy, Rome and Carthage, or Norman and Saxon, the clash between the tribes of the Israelites and that of the Philistines has been one that has captured the fascination of Biblical scholars, historians, archaeologists, and professors. Historically, this clash found itself playing out along a narrow strip of land set against the shores of the eastern Mediterranean Sea and into the heart of Eretz Yisrael in the days of the Judges (i.e. Samson), and later during the time of King Saul and King David.

Biblical accounts of this struggle are well documented. For the players in this conflict, the Bible provides us a picture of what type of people the Philistines and Israelites were, where they lived, names of their kings and cities, how they fought, their military strategies, and what deity/deities they worshiped.

Looking closer at the Philistines:

Looking throughout scripture we see early examples of the Philistines settled in parts of the coastal plain and southern regions, as early back as Abraham (Gen. 21:34), and the Philistine King Abimelech who was operating around the region of Beer-sheva (Gen. 21:32). Later, when we see them in the Bible as a formidable enemy during the period of the Judges and King Saul, we see the Philistines established in five major coastal cities: Gaza, Gath, Ekron, Ashdod, and Ashkelon. Intense excavations have been done in some of these places, particularly recently at Gath which has uncovered incredible findings on Philistine pottery. You can read my post on the excavations at Gath : https://peterjfast.com/2011/07/11/in-israel-diggers-unearth-the-bibles-bad-guys/

Although many historians and archaeologists commonly believe the Philistines to be the illustrious “sea peoples” with their arrival from Crete or other parts of the Aegean, this brings about major complications and does not fit with scripture or realistic possibilities in those days.

Common misconceptions regarding Philistines and the “Sea People”

The “sea people” are seen as a “loose confederation” of people who originated either from the Aegean or Asia Minor and essentially sailed south due to famine and drought. This is depicted in reliefs in Egypt (i.e. Karnak, Medinet Habu, etc) and records that show a people invading northern Egypt, bent on conquering it. But who were these people? Many ideas and theories have been pitched around, but one of the most common is that the “sea people” (or a large segment of them) are unanimous with the Philistines who left Crete/Asia Minor in the 11th-12th century B.C. (time of Merenptah and Ramses III) and tried to settle in Egypt. The belief is that after Merenptah halted them in a bloody conflict, Pharaoh Ramses III finally blocked their way and engaged the sea people in a massive sea battle which the sea people eventually lost and therefore settled along the north coast and established Syro-Palestine (Land of the Philistines) and added their five major cities. This has been the idea of the settling of the Philistines into the land.  This theory has a number of major issues though which bear some holes. Although I am not debating the origins of the “sea people” I merely seek to start off upon their intended invasion of Egypt and the problems that arise once one attempts to explain them in terms of being Philistines.

First, the original reliefs are really divided into three major ones which are the most popular. One depicting the “sea people” engaged in a bitter sea battle with Egyptians (from Ramses III period), the second showing war-carts on land, and the third revealing prisoners of the “sea people” being led away. The first and third relief mentioned, are pretty self-explanatory, a battle happened, one side lost and was led away in chains. However, the complicated issue is in the second relief of the war-carts drawn by oxen.

This relief depicts the “sea people” as having many war-carts that are drawn by large animals as they gather on land for battle, yet the actual battle was fought at sea. The relief however, shows carts deployed for war and “sea people” filed into rank as they advance. So, this naturally begs the question of how did they get the carts over to Egypt? There are two possibilities. #1 They either would have had to try to sail them across, or #2 they simply crossed hundreds of miles of hostile land with all their carts as they headed for Egypt. Both are very difficult to swallow. Given the amount of ships needed for such an undertaking, the “sea people” would have had to double their fleet just to carry the carts, livestock, and supplies needed, especially animal feed. Along with this, if they were looking at resettling they would have had wives and children with them in the thousands. These people could never have been present for such a battle and so would have had to be left somewhere until after the battle, unless the army sailed without them intending to return to collect their populace once the battle had been won. Whatever the reason, major complications arise. Thus, the only explanation for ships and war-carts being depicted on different frescoes, of the same people in the same time period and supposedly during the same event is possibly that there were two battles: one at sea and the other at land. Another hypothesis is that the “sea people” engaged the Egyptians at sea with a land contingent that never actually fought due to the defeat. However, the presence of the war-carts does raise issues in still explaining their presence to begin with as they would have been brought by the “sea people” or possibly provided by an allied contingent. But this begins to change the story of people sailing across the sea to find new land in Egypt. Although this does not in fact disprove the “sea people” from being Philistines, this however demonstrates the difficulty in placing this people into the developed world of the Philistines, or make it plausible to forgo such an undertaking as settling the land after the near destruction at the hands of the Egyptians.

The “sea people” are also depicted in the frescoes as having feather head-dresses fixed to helmets, and unique sword styles. They are beardless and are fierce as they slaughter many Egyptians before eventually being outnumbered and overwhelmed. Although nobody has been able to state with absolute certainty where they actually originated from, it is possible they held alliances with the Libyans and also made up many small tribes from the north. There is a possibility they may have influenced Philistine culture along the coast, but nothing substantial as Philistine culture was firmly planted and we will explore that a little further. Yet, I do not wish to rule out future developments and cultural changes through trade, merchants, etc in Philistine culture as this evolution is prevalent through pottery discoveries and art (i.e. Cypriotic pottery at later dates).

The final evidence that the “sea people” cannot be the Philistines is that these theories do not take into account the Biblical history which places Philistine tribes already living in the land as natives. This is seen in scripture as Abraham interacts with them, Samson fights them, Saul is slain by them, and David joins them for a time before becoming King of Israel. More than likely they had Semitic roots, like the Canaanites, with linguistic similarities, and over time bands of them settled along the western coast and established their cities. We know they where there at the time of Moses (Ex. 13:17) as the Children of Israel were not to go the easier route through “the land of the Philistines.” Therefore, the Philistines were a nomadic, native, tribal people who dwelt in parts of the land and eventually settled en-mass along the coast to become Israel’s sworn enemies as they contested over land and power.

Looking closer at the Israelites:

The Israelites are a unique nomadic people who after the exodus from Egypt and the forty wandering years enter the land under their new commander Joshua ben Nun. The Israelites trace their ancestry through their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and are divided into twelve tribes (named after Jacob’s sons), have specific marching orders, a leadership system of elders and priests, roll calls for eligible military service among the men by tribe, worship one God, follow the same religious worship, and circumvent a tent like structure which is called the Tabernacle, when they set camp. As nomads, the Tabernacle is able to be packed up and transported to its next spot where it will then be set up again. The Tabernacle is like a mobile temple and bears sacred furnishings and specific calculations in how it was to be made, appear, set up, and taken down. The Tabernacle becomes the focus and center of the Jewish faith as priests form the tribe of Levi preside over it, and it is to contain the Ark of the Covenant (mercy-seat) which is where God’s glory resides in the camp.

However, throughout time the tribes of Israel invade the land that is promised to them by God, and through years of hard warfare, become experienced in war. Pagan kings, cities, tribes, and armies are crushed and the Israelites settle the land. But, after the death of Joshua ben Nun, it is clear that some of the tribes do not follow God’s commandments to fully conquer the land and they allow enemies to live, take slaves and seize possessions when they are to kill and destroy them, and over time begin to feel the backlash as those enemies become powerful once again. Thus enters the great rival and enemy of Israel in her early days, the Philistines of the eastern coastal plain. Despite similarities between the two, there is still a major difference and that is the idea of, who is God?

Dagon, god of fish and deity of the Philistine pantheon:

Like I mentioned, the Bible is an excellent tool in exploring who the Philistines were and who their gods were. In scripture we see one Philistine god rise above the others, Dagon the chief god. In Judges 16:23 we see the victorious Philistine lords and nobles take the captured Samson to place him as a human trophy before Dagon. It says, “Now the lords of the Philistines gathered together to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god, and rejoice.” Moving ahead in the story we come to verse 27 which states: “Now the temple was full of men and women. All the lords of the Philistines were there – about three thousand men and women on the roof watching while Samson performed.” They had gathered to mock Samson, but more importantly to present him to their god, Dagon, as a war trophy and proof that Dagon was stronger than the God of Israel. We see they brought Samson to the temple of Dagon and states in verse 25 that their hearts were merry, meaning they were drunk. In paganism it was common to drink and eat to the gods and toast them before a spectacle or offering. We see the same idea in 1st Chron. 10:10 where they put the suits of armor from Saul into the temples to their gods and fastened Saul’s head in the temple to Dagon as an offering which was a very common thing to do in those days. Yet, in this case of Samson, he was the offering and they were praising Dagon for defeating their enemies. Samson, however, ended up praying to God, receiving his strength back and collapsing the temple by pushing out the pillars.

Who was Dagon? Originally, Dagon had Assyro-Babylonian background as a fertility god that later spread into the Semitic west. The promotion of gods and goddesses was rampant in those times and easily spread through conquests, trade of goods, slaves, and other means of traveling people. We also see the locality of gods over certain areas and cities, like Baal and Asherah. Dagon eventually became such a locale deity of the Philistine people and in the Bible we see the effects and widespread worship of Dagon, not just in one or two cities, but as a national expression throughout the Philistines as a people group. Finally, as a fertility god, Dagon most likely had purpose in crops and as a provider of food and nourishment. Dagon also came to be expressed as a god of fish, although this tradition developed later as at the time of the Philistines we see in 1st Samuel 5:4 that when the god Dagon fell, “The head of Dagon and both palms of its hands were broken off on the threshold; only Dagon’s torso was left of it.” And what fish has palms and a torso? Although some say the image of Dagon may have been part man-fish (like a Centaur) there is nothing which says this was the belief held by the early Philistines until the fish-god adoption by later maritime Canaanites.

Ancient Israel’s Ark of the Covenant, a sacred symbol of holiness:

Setting Indiana Jones aside, the Ark of the Covenant was real and the most holy object in the Tabernacle (and later Temple’s) furnishings. It was built of a specific type of wood called Acacia wood, was inlaid in gold, with a lid that sealed the box. Upon the top were two shaped images of cherubim (angels) covered in gold, and through rings that were built upon the side of the ark were poles that would slide through for carrying. These specific instructions were given for the construction of the ark, including its exact size as seen in Exodus 25:10-22. It was also to be carried only by priests of the tribe of Levi (Deut. 10:8, Josh. 3:3). The ark was a holy, sacred symbol (Josh. 3:17, 4:9, 4:18) which represented God’s glory (shekinah) amidst the people of Israel, and this was not to be treated lightly. This explains the purpose of the ark to be separate and treated differently, and symbolized God’s judgment and mercy upon His people.

Some common Biblical facts about the Ark of the Covenant. #1 It was to be carried ahead of the people (Josh. 3:6, Num. 10:33). #2 The Ark of the Covenant also had the role as a military icon standing for God fighting the battle for Israel (Josh. 6:6-8). #3 Some of the Israelites came to see it as a magical charm in war because its presence terrified the Philistines, thus they treated it lightly and incurred God’s wrath (1st Sam. 4:3-5). #4 The Ark of the Covenant contained sacred items to the Jews and part of their history (Deut. 10:25, 1st Kings 8:9, Heb. 9:4). #5 The Ark of the Covenant was in Shiloh for 369 years before being moved to Jerusalem (Judges 20:27, 1st Sam. 3:3; 4:3, 1st Kings 6:19, 8:6). #6 King David wanted to build a Temple dedicated to God to place the ark inside it (1st Chron. 17:11, 28:2) and before this the ark was kept inside the Tabernacle (Ex. 26:33; 31:7).

Dagon and the Ark of the Covenant

Now, lets examine one of the most famous stories in the Bible where Dagon and the Ark of the Covenant meet. However, keep note that the Philistines, at this point, had grown to fear the Ark of the Covenant (1st Sam. 4:6-9) as they believed it to be a powerful, supernatural weapon the Israelites carried into battle. As accustomed in those days, often times before a battle, armies would bring their gods, charms, or hold sacrificial ceremonies in honor of their gods. So in the case for the Israelites to do the same, it was completely normal. Except that in the case of the ark, it was not to be paraded around like a good-luck charm or some trophy and because of the arrogance and recklessness of the Israelites we see in 1st Samuel 4:11;4:17-22 that the Philistines end up defeating the Israelites and capturing the ark.

After defeating the Israelite army we see an interesting play of events. The Philistines first take the ark as a trophy and seek to dedicate it to their god, Dagon. This was a typical thing to do in that day as a symbol of dominance, for as much as people were fighting against themselves, they also believed that the gods in the heavens were in constant competition. Thus, for Dagon in the eyes of the Philistines, he was tougher and mightier than the God of Israel.

So, we see the Philistines bring the Ark of the Covenant first to the city of Ashdod (1st Sam. 5:1) and they set it in the “house” or temple to Dagon. But, in this case they did not just put it in the temple, they placed it directly beside the image of Dagon as a superiority complex and boasting as the victors (1st Sam. 5:2). What happens next would have been a terrible shock to the Philistines for in verse 3 it says, “And when the people of Ashdod arose early in the morning , there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the earth before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and set it in its place again.” The interesting way this is recorded does not show the people’s shock and surprise at first, although it most definitely would have existed. Most likely the first ones to stumble upon this would have been priests or magicians of Dagon. These men would have held sway over the minds of the locals and no doubt would have perceived this as a bad omen.

The gods in ancient times, were seen as rulers of the earth, nature, wildlife, and actual sustenance for humans. They conducted the affairs of man and ruled the vast stars and planets, which to humans at that time was a very mysterious realm. So, to see the image of their god lying upon the ground would have been terrifying. Yet, the story only tells us that they simply stood Dagon back up and put it in its place. The “place” where Dagon most likely would have been was either on a pillar or stand of some sort, or possibly in a carved out niche in a wall (in verse 5 it calls the place a “threshold of Dagon” and a place to tread upon). Nonetheless, this was not the end of the story for we see that the next morning the people arose and this time find not only Dagon upon the ground, but broken and ruined. We see in verse 5 that this was such a terrible shock to them that “Therefore neither the priests of Dagon nor any who come into Dagon’s house tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.

What happens next is stunning. A plague breaks out in Ashdod as described in verse 6 as “the hand of the LORD was heavy on the people of Ashdod, and He ravaged them and struck them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory.” So plague and suffering broke out beyond the borders of the city and people were affected by this. God was judging the pride, arrogance, wickedness and folly of the Philistines for treating Him lightly and scoffing His name. God had already judged the Israelites for treating Him lightly as they were hugely defeated in battle, but now it was the Philistines turn. As we continue we see the Philistines get absolutely desperate. They know and feel the power of the God of Israel, yet at first they think it is a local power that burns against them, as if perhaps it was the sacred ground and region of Ashdod that somehow insulted the Jewish God, and by moving the ark will solve the problem. So, they send it to Gath in verse 8b, yet the same thing happens there. Here we see the pride of the Philistines and stubbornness to relinquish the ark for it is not only their war trophy, but by surrendering it is them saying that the Jewish God is more powerful than Dagon. So, they send the ark to Ekron, yet the people there, who have no doubt heard of all the tragedy in the other cities, cry out to send it away but it is too late and many are stricken and die (1st Sam. 5:10-12).

The opening of 1st Samuel 6:1 gives us a time frame to work with of how long the Ark of the Covenant was in the hands of the Philistines. It states, “Now the ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months.” Obviously the hand of the Lord burned upon them and plague continued to spread and devastate the people for we see in verse 2 of chapter 6, that the Philistines finally call for the priests and ask of them what they should do with the ark. Here we see the priests finally coming to grips with the power of the God of Israel and their fear. They know it has to be sent away, but to their understanding, appeasing the gods is always a smart move and so in verse 3 it states, “So they said, ‘If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty; but by all means return it to Him with a trespass offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be known you why His hand is not removed from you.” This loaded passage gives us a glimpse into the understanding of the pagan Philistines and pagan culture of that time. The priests have attributed their suffering to the relic of another God, a common superstitious belief in those days. They therefore naturally wish to appease the deity and send it back, not just to the people, but to God! They misconceive the purpose of the ark and no doubt believe it to be an idol of the Hebrews. They also identify the land with the deity (God of Israel) as His domain and believe that once the sacred relic is united with the land and people then it will cause the deity (God of Israel) to relent on His anger and heal them. The priests and Philistines realize this is a matter of life or death and actually believe that they will be healed once they send it back, and so, with much haste the Ark of the Covenant is safely delivered to the Israelites at Beit Shemesh.

By: Peter J. Fast

If you have any insights on this article, please leave your comments.

Part Three:”Let us worship the creation instead of the Creator!”: The clash between the pagans and the radical idea of monotheism

Part Three: Ancient Israel: The Radical Monotheists 2400 – 516 B.C.E. Date is based on the Biblical account from, “The Age of the Patriarchs” to Abram’s calling from God to the rebuilding of the second temple after its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E and seventy years of exile.

A Tale of a People called to be Different:In the Bible we see a man called, Abram, called by God to journey to a land that will be given to his descendents (Gen. 12:3-5). God promises Abram that he will be the father of many nations and through him, God will build up a people which He will have an everlasting covenant with (Gen. 15). From that moment on Abram’s name is changed to Abraham which means, “Father of many nations”. God demonstrates that all the nations around Abraham seek and worship false gods, and that He alone is the one true God. The Bible does not provide us with what Abram’s life was like prior to this incredible encounter, but the Midrash (literally means: between the lines- it is a collection of stories and narratives from Jewish Oral History), paints us a picture of when Abram was young growing up in the land of Ur.

The story tells us that Abram’s father was an idol maker and one day, Abram decided to test the validity of these “false gods” and so he smashed them all and then put a hammer in the hands of a large idol. When his father came home, Abram is said to have explained that there was a ferocious battle and the large god smashed all the other gods with the hammer. To this, Abram’s father exclaimed that this was simply ridiculous and impossible, to which Abram scoffed at the senselessness then in manufacturing such images and worshiping them. It was after this, he left Ur and it was then that the true God, called to him.

Whether true or not, this story would most definitely make sense aligned with the incredible test of faith and endurance we see Abraham go through. He and his wife are of old age, and are visited by an Angel of the Lord who tells them she will conceive of a son whom will be the promised son of Abraham with which this covenant between him and God will pass through. Abraham’s wife, Sarai, scoffs at the angel and her name is changed to Sarah which takes its meaning from, “one who laughs”. Later, when nothing seems to happen, Sarah convinces Abraham to take the Egyptian maid-servant, Hagar (Genesis 16) into his bedchamber and later a son is born and named, Ishmael.

This would have been acceptable in the culture which Abraham lived in, as sometimes a surrogate mother was available in times where a wife was barren. Once the child would be born, it would be considered that of the flesh and blood of the father and barren mother, so that it would take on their name to see their family line continue. In the case of Ishmael though, God was not pleased and he was not intended to be the promised son that we see God declare to Abraham in Genesis 12,15. Shortly after this, we see Sarah conceive and give birth to Isaac, who is to take the inheritance of his father, and through him to bear the covenant of God as His chosen people destined for a Promised Land which later is the land of Canaan as described in: Gen. 26:3-12, 28:4, 28:13, 28:15, 35:12, 48:4, 48:21; Ex. 3:8, 13:11, 23:31, 32:13, 33:1; Lev. 20:24, 23:10, 25:2, 25:38, 26:42; Num. 14:8, 15:2, 26:53, 26:55, 32:22, 33:53, 34:2, 34:12, 34:29, 35:34; Deut. 1:7-8, 1:21, 1:35-36, 3:18-20, 4:1, 4:21, 4:38, 4:40, 6:3, 6:10, 6:18, 6:23, 7:1, 7:13, 8:1, 8:7-15, 11:31, 12:1, 12:10, 25:19, 26:9, 26:15, 27:3, 28:11, 30:5, 31:7!!!!! (I have just listed passages from the Torah, which are the first five books of the Bible, although many more exist about Israel’s place in the land such as Psalm 105:8-11; Isaiah 56:5, 61:1-7; Jeremiah 31:35-36, Ezekiel 36:24, 37:21-28, and many more!)

From the father of Isaac, whose name was Jacob and later changed to Israel, we see a God who interacts with man desiring a relationship with them and to glorify His name through the entire world. Through this relationship, so different from all the other nations around, Israel was given the Law (Torah), covenant, responsibility to bear a witness of God, blessings and warnings if they should or should not choose to obey God. As we see in Genesis 15, God “Cut a Covenant” with Himself in the presence of Abraham who was seeing this in a vision.

Cutting a Covenant was an ancient custom seen through Mesopotamia where two parties would come together over a matter (real estate, purchase, goods, etc) and cut animals in half scattering pieces on either side of them. Then, the two people would walk through the center in front of witnesses, therefore declaring that if either one broke the promise that they would become like the dead carcasses. In Abraham’s case, he would have been baffled when God gave him this instruction. He would have known right away what was about to happen, but puzzled because the performance of Cutting a Covenant meant the two people were equal, and how could man be equal to God? However, we see something incredible, God puts Abraham to sleep and in a vision, Abraham see’s God as a fiery pot pass between the pieces by Himself, thus God makes the pact with Himself because man would never be able to uphold any kind of deal or covenant with God. God makes the covenant binding, and Abraham must have blown a sigh of relief because he would know he could never have upheld his end of the covenant.

Along with such a covenant, we see God outlining clear blessings and curses if Israel would not adhere to being a righteous people. If Israel was to follow God, trust in Him, and honor Him totally, there would be physical blessings (rain, crops, birthrate, wealth, national influence, etc). Yet, if Israel would turn away from God and chase after abominations such as false gods, taking foreign wives, and making covenants with pagan nations, God would judge His people. We see these warnings very clear in passages such as Exodus 23:33 and 34:15. In Leviticus 25:38 it states, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.” This land of Canaan, which would become the Kingdom of Israel/United Monarchy (1020-931 B.C.E.) and even though two millenia have passed, it is still the Land of Israel, God’s nation and God’s inheritance for His people. This amazing truth reemerged upon the world scene again on May 14th, 1948 when the State of Israel was reborn. It shows God’s stamp and that He is the God of history and the future, nothing catches Him off guard.

The High Places: (Mentioned 74 times in the Bible): In the Biblical book of 1 Kings 3:3 we see Solomon, who is the King of Israel, (and King David’s son) begin to offer incense and tribute to the gods of his foreign wives. All of this is done on, “the high places” and we see him build such places through “state sponsored” actions. In the Book of Hosea 10:8 the prophet (same name as the book) rebukes the Kingdom of Israel and proclaims that these high places are blasphemous and that thorns and thistles should grow on their altars. To add to this, Hosea shouts that because of such places mountains and hills should collapse and crumble upon them.

Sadly, despite the law, proclamations, warnings, judges, prophets, and righteous kings, this is a common theme we see interwoven through the Book of Leviticus to the end of the Hebrew Bible/TaNaK. The main problem exists in two realms. One, Israel is surrounded by pagan nations and so this, naturally would be an enormous pressure upon them to be like the other peoples, especially with the threat of intermarriage. Second, whenever Israel took her eyes off of God, they strayed away and did their own thing, which at that time was to adopt paganism and conform to those patterns. Thus, we see many times in the history of ancient Israel, the sinful Israelite’s bringing in foreign wives and idols, constructing temples and altars to false gods, and ascending up to the “high places” which were the seats of idolatry in the land that the true God had given them as an inheritance.

The perfect example is the Golden Calf (Ex. 32) which was set up at the base of Mount Sinai (or Mount Horeb) in the wilderness. Moses had ascended up the mountain to be with God, and had been away for weeks. The people, thinking he was dead, pressured Aaron into constructing a calf of gold (ironically like the idols in Egypt) and set this up next to an altar to the Lord. This early form of syncretism was evident as the people proclaimed to the gods of gold that they would serve and worship them. This account of apostasy ends with Moses destroying the tablets of the Law, rebuking the people, and God’s wrath swallowing up thousands. This even after God had led them from Egypt in glory, descended upon the mountain in smoke and fire while they were encamped around it (Ex. 19), and had revealed Himself in countless ways, showing to be true to His word.

Kingdom of Israel: (931-722 B.C.E.)

The prophet Amos states in Amos 7:9, “The high places (venishmol behmot- Hebrew for breathing idolatry) of Isaac shall be desolate, and the sanctuaries (temples) of Israel laid to waste. I will rise with the sword against the house of Jeroboam.” King Jeroboam of the Kingdom of Israel, in an attempt to steer his people away from pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship, is seen in the Bible as erecting two pagan temples, one in Bethal and the other in Dan. Scripture says he set up a golden calf in each, and declared them to be the gods of Israel. The prophet of Amos clearly speaks harsh judgment upon the Kingdom of Israel which would eventually be destroyed and carried off into exile by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. because of their wickedness. Through the warlike Assyrians, their practice of assimilation would later bring about the half-breed people called, Samaritans (discussed in the Christian Scriptures) as these people were considered half Jewish. The Assyrians took into captivity the brightest and best of the population, leaving behind the poor, and then would send its own colonialists back into the conquered land to farm it and settle. For Assyria’s reign in the ancient world, this proved to be an effective tool and method of gaining and controlling power for years.

Idolatry was clearly despicable in the sight of the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who ultimately would show His superiority over any fictitious belief in gods by allowing to be built His Holy Temple upon the “high place” of Mount Moriah and no where else. This was not to be any such high place, but one designated by God clearly and with specific detail. Except in this case, faithful Jews who worshiped at the Temple in Jerusalem, did not worship and sacrifice to a false gods.

Kingdom of Judah: (931-586 B.C.E.)

Finally, the tale of the high places ends for the southern Kingdom of Judah in the year 586 B.C.E. when the armies of Babylon under the kingship of Nebuchadnezzar, plundered the land, sacked Jerusalem, and destroyed the temple built by Solomon. This disaster would see a large segment of the Kingdom of Judah taken into exile for a period of 70 years before returning under Nehemiah, Zerubbabal, and Zachariah as the second temple would be built. The cause for exile laid in the hands of the king of Judah called Manasseh, who did horrible things which included offering up children as sacrifice into the fires of the Hinnom Valley to the god Molek, and later murdering the prophet Isaiah by sawing him in two. Like, king Jeroboam of Israel before him, Manasseh’s evil was the last straw for Judah as God would pour out his wrath upon them through the conquest of Babylonia.

In closing:

The ancient history of Israel is fascinating as it shows a unique people chosen by God, not because they were mightier, stronger, richer, or more numerous then any of the other nations around them, but for one simple reason, to have His name glorified in the earth. Despite their failings, the Jews have been true to preserving the Word of God, and through them giving birth to Christianity and the Jewish Messiah Yeshua (Jesus). Prophecy, written so long ago about the Jews returning to the land, and Zion being rebuilt, and prospering once more has come true as millions of Jews now reside in the reborn State of Israel. They have preserved their faith through their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and have survived countless attempts at annihilation by enemies throughout time. Through nearly four thousand years of trials, hardships, and blessings, God has been faithful to His word and preserved them. No other nation could have ever taken what the Jews have experienced and still come out on top. They stand apart from every other nation, as a people handpicked by the Almighty to show the world that God moves powerfully through men and that He has a plan to restore His name in a fallen, corrupt, and wicked world.

Israel exists today, God’s covenant with His people remains, and He has kept His word, because of that we have assurance that the Bible is truth and we can trust in Him as a faithful, just God who will see evil crushed and truth prevail.

By, Peter J. Fast

Part Two: “Let us worship the creation instead of the Creator!”: The clash between the pagans and the radical idea of monotheism

The Ancient Canaanites 2500 – 411 B.C.E. Date is based on period known as Late Bronze Age to the last recorded Canaanite king, Abdemon.

Although, as a people, the Canaanites cease to exist, they remain prevalent today through both Biblical and archaeological records. Located mainly in the region (Mesopotamia) , which today is the State of Israel, Syria, Jordan, and parts of Lebanon, the Canaanite people will be our second study on the link between the early roots of paganism in ancient times (and the deification of nature) compared with the modern expression of these commonalities.

Canaanite culture, as we know it today through archaeology and the Bible, took enormous leaps and bounds with its Mesopotamian flare from the influence of nations surrounding it and the kings that ruled them. The Canaanites were a Semitic, tribal people, divided into clans that governed sections of lands in an agrarian caste. They were warlike,  built cities, developed intricate pottery, worshiped many gods fervently, wrote in a cuneiform type script (with connections to Accadian) and were the major players during the time of the early Hebrews when they entered the land. We read in the Bible of such Canaanite cities as Hazor, Beit She’an, Jericho, and Ai (that have been excavated) to just name a few and they lived among and were surrounded by non-Semitic neighbors such as the Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, etc. Yet, the Canaanites had one main thing in common that we see among all the people’s of the lands and that was their belief that their gods directly impacted nature and existed within nature as a controlling, malevolent, factor.

In William Foxwell Albright’s masterpiece entitled, “YAHWEH AND THE GODS OF CANAAN” he writes that the pantheon of Canaanite gods and their religious practice has better come to light through the study and excavations of ancient Ugarit, which shared common culture and language with the Canaanites. Also, the myths, prose, songs, ballads, and legends are almost exactly the same between that of Canaan and Ugarit, so much as it is possible the two blended together, although there are sources that explicitly verbalize a difference between the two. Yet, similar to Ugarit, the Canaanites connected their gods and goddess to what they saw in nature, whether through the weather, seasons, and animals. They worshiped upon the high places (mountains) where they built temples, they tied in the natural changes of nature into an agrarian type calendar (for instance at the time of planting or harvest certain ceremonies would take place related to the deity that was in charge, i.e. Baal over wheat crops) and they worshiped the celestial heavens (sun, moon, stars, planets). Their religious expression was interwoven into the fabric of daily life in every facet. Let’s look at three such gods, El who was the head of the pantheon, Asherah the goddess of holiness and fertility, and Baal the god of harvest and crops.

Three is a Crowd: A Study of El, Baal, and Asherah

El: (El-‘elyon, El-‘olamknown as Baniyu binawati “Begetter of Creatures”) : El was the chief god of the Canaanites and has been identified with gods such as Kronos (Greece) and Re (Egyptian) and is translated as, “strong one”, or “the leader/master”. El  was also called by another name, “Bull El,”. According to Albright, El is pictured as the father of mankind and the creator of everything that man interacts with, the earth and the heavens. An image of a bull was associated with “El, or the Bull El,” for the significance of wild cattle and horses contained strength and majesty which was what the Canaanites wanted to emulate in the persona of such a chief god as, El. For in this image of the bull or stallion, Albright says, El would be viewed as “strong enough to vanquish all rivals.” The Canaanites, as did any other pagan group of people, wanted to view El as unstoppable and a god who commanded respect and was the highest authority among the pantheon.

For one to visit, meet with, and worship El, they had to come to a place known as, “the source of the two rivers, the fountain of the two deeps.” Albright lays out a geographical grid on where to find such a place. He states that this place referred to the region of Canaan itself (like a Mount Olympus), and that most likely this region was in the heartland called Aphaca (fountain), which later would house the sanctuary of a god Adonis. We see the common pattern throughout the pagan world in the visitations by men to the temples of their gods, built upon the peaks of mountains which were literally believed to be the celestial homes of the gods on earth. For El, within his temple or abode, it was believed that El would not communicate with gods or men, except through visions and visits.

Baal: Baal, the storm-god and king of heaven and earth, is by far the most active of the Canaanite pantheon. Known as the, “Son of Dagan” (Hebrew: Dagon) Baal took upon himself similar traits of fertility from his father who was worshiped around the Euphrates Valley in early times and later adopted by the Philistines. Baal’s personal name, Hadad (pronounced: Hudade) later took on the appellation of meaning “lord” (Ba’al). When this addition was applied to Hadad is not known. In the seventeen and sixteen centuries B.C.E. Hadad (like in most mythology) was identified to other gods in the regions around it, like ancient Egypt‘s storm-god, Seth, Greece’s god Zeus, or Babylon’s Marduk. Favorite terms to describe Baal would be, ‘Triumphant Baal’, ‘Cloud-Rider’, and ‘Majesty, Lord of the Earth.’  Baal struggled with gods, had power in the underworld, and effected the vegetation on earth. He had such great influence that often times human sacrifices would be offered to appease Baal or from an act of desperation (i.e. famine, death, sickness, drought, etc). The worship of Baal meant the worshiper would give everything and be kept in a state of fear and question. Baal left its adherents in the dark and sometimes demanded their very blood.

The expression of worship to Baal was something which we see in many different ways. One such example we will look at is in the account of the prophet Elijah and the 400 prophets of Baal upon Mount Carmel. Here we see an extreme and charismatic sadism in how the prophets of Baal react to calling on their god, Baal. The account in 1 Kings 18:28-29 reads, “So they (prophets of Baal) cried aloud, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out of them. And when midday was past, they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice. But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention.” In this showdown of who is real, Baal or the God of Israel, Elijah watches as the prophets of Baal cry out to him (the son of Dagon).  However, Baal says nothing and ultimately the true God, the God of Israel, shows Himself through fire from heaven which consumes Elijah’s altar covered in water. Thus, showing to all who the real God is. The interesting thing in this account are a number of items I will touch on before I continue.

Elijah and the Prophets of Baal: Quick points to note!

Baal among Israel: We see in 1 Kings 16:31-33 that Baal was brought into the land of Israel by way of the marriage between King Ahab of Israel and the Sidonian daughter, Jezebel, (notice the end of her name) of King Ethbaal (notice the name again!!!). We see Ahab build a temple to Baal in Samaria and erect within it a wooden image of the god. This no doubt provokes the anger of the Lord God of Israel and Elijah the Tishbite is sent to confront both Ahab and the paganism.  Season: Baal is considered to be the god over the crops and natural forces. He is seen as a god of fertility that helps fields grow and gives life. However, in the account by the hand of Elijah, God has allowed it not to rain on the land for over three years, thus bringing famine. This shows Baal to be powerless and incapable of changing anything in a climate he is assumed to be in control over. God or god?: The worship of Baal was rampant throughout the Canaanite world. We see many cultures apart from the Canaanites adopting the worship of Baal, chiefly among those were the ancient Israelite’s.  Elijah’s challenge is that Israel has strayed away from the real God and traded Him for a lie, to worship that of which is untruth. Elijah therefore proclaims that God will show Himself to be master over everyone and everything, including El, Baal, and all the other gods of Canaan. The end of the account proves this to be true with the God of Israel sending fire from heaven, consuming the altar of bull parts, wood, and water, which ultimately results in the prophets of Baal being put to death.

Asherah: (The Lady who traverses the Sea- known as Qaniyatu ‘elima “She who gives birth”):Asherah is seen as the goddess of holiness. She possesses a mystical approach as a goddess who has been seen (through myth) to consort and have relations throughout the Canaanite pantheon. She was usually depicted as a nude goddess atop of a lion, and was seen often, in Canaanite literature, as a sworn enemy of Baal and his sister Anath. Her holiness is seen as a designation of her very divinity, and she is equaled to El as his consort. Often times it is Asherah, who deals with the misbehaving of other gods as El instructs her and gives her advice.

The mention of Asherah in the Bible is frequent during the time of the Philistines and Canaanites when Israel was establishing herself. In the Book of Judges 3:7 it states that Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served both Baal and Asherah. In 1st Kings 15:13 it gives the account of King Asa of the Kingdom Judah, dealing with the evil of the queen mother who set up an image of Asherah which is described as being, “obscene.” We see Asa cut this object down and burn it by the Brook Kidron. However, none of the accounts of the Israelite syncretism of Canaanite gods/goddess into their religious system are as sacrilegious as the passage in 2nd Kings 21:7 where we see the wicked king of Judah, Manasseh, profane the temple in Jerusalem by setting up a carved image of Asherah. Further ahead in chapter 23:4, we see the next king of Judah, King Josiah, cleanse the House of the Lord (temple) of, “all the articles that were made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven,”. This is interesting because it shows that Manasseh in the previous passage which I mentioned, did not just stop with Asherah, but had filled the Jewish Temple with articles of Baal and the other gods and goddess, a despicable act! These are just three examples of the syncretism in which the Hebrews fall guilty to, as the enormous pressure to take part in the local norm of idolatry pressed in around them.

Conclusion of the Canaanites:

The Canaanites were a people developed and advanced like the nations surrounding it, but a people controlled by the whims of their deities in which they sought to understand the world in which they lived in. They explained natural patterns (such as storms, rain, and sunshine) as being guided by their deities, and things found in nature (rivers, lakes, animals, fields, trees, and mountains) as emulating the very existence of the gods and goddesses. For example, the common belief concerning pools of water, underground rivers and springs was that they were inhabited by mystical spirits like nymphs which gave the water power. They also went further in the belief that the spirits themselves which dwelt in the water would directly affect the growth of their crops and the prosperity of their families. When the harvest failed or was stunted, people naturally interpreted that as the wrath and anger of the gods, thus they would offer sacrifices or often perform extreme measures of worship, such as what is found in the Biblical account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal.

However, in all of their worship and practices, it was the exact opposite of what the God of the Bible had intended for man after his creation, in the book of Genesis 1:28 where it states, “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” In the lives of the Canaanites, it was creation that had dominion over them as they (along with all the other pagan nations) became slaves to it. The Canaanite pantheon was a cruel task master, and inevitably it led to their demise as the one true God, would judge them because of their idolatry and having sacrificed, even their own children, to quench the glutinous appetite of false deities such as El, Baal, and Asherah.

By: Peter J. Fast

Soon to come: Part Three: Ancient Israel: The Radical Monotheists 2400 – 516 B.C.E. Date is based on the Biblical account of Abram’s calling from God to the rebuilding of the second temple after the destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.

In Israel, diggers unearth the Bible’s bad guys

Peter’s Comments:

First, I would highly recommend you click on the hyperlink and take a peek at the official article and the great pictures of the excavation that is going on as we speak in Israel. Secondly, this is always exciting because once again it brings into light the validity of the Bible (against skeptics who would believe otherwise) as the scriptures are grounded in history, geography, and people groups that existed. Then it is also an incredible thing to unearth a city that has laid dormant since the 9th century B.C.E. and which is home to the illustrious people of the Philistines. This is a true gem to be able to excavate here as issues in the Middle East have prevented a lot of digging to go on in certain areas and the amount of things we could find out would be endless.

The Philistines are interesting people, most likely the “Sea People” we read about in history that warred with Egypt before settling upon the western shores of Canaan where they established the five cities of the Philistines: Gaza, Ekron, Gath, Ashdod, and Ashkelon, thus, becoming one of Israel’s most dreaded enemies. We know they were dwelling in this region during the time of Moses as it says in Exodus 13:17 when the Children of Israel left Egypt that God would not direct them via through the Land of the Philistines so they would not change their minds and want to return to Egypt having seen and experienced war (there is also an interesting Jewish Midrash on this subject which sometime I may write about:).  Anyway, most likely the Philistines would have come from the Aegean Sea region, as the Philistines are believed to be an Indo-European, seafaring, war-like tribal people. This is really proven by their pottery, much of which matches pottery from Greek settlements around the Aegean. Another interesting thing about the Philistines, was they were never fully conquered by Israel and always caused problems, especially in the days of King Saul and on which we read much about in the Biblical books of 1st and 2nd Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings. Anyway, a fascinating people, shrouded in mystery and question, which is why this dig is all the more vital and precious. I can’t wait to read about the findings, we can always learn so much.

In Israel, diggers unearth the Bible’s bad guys

By MATTI FRIEDMAN – Associated Press | AP – Fri, Jul 8, 2011

TEL EL-SAFI, Israel (AP) — At the remains of an ancient metropolis in southern Israel, archaeologists are piecing together the history of a people remembered chiefly as the bad guys of the Hebrew Bible.

The city of Gath, where the annual digging season began this week, is helping scholars paint a more nuanced portrait of the Philistines, who appear in the biblical story as the perennial enemies of the Israelites.

Close to three millennia ago, Gath was on the frontier between the Philistines, who occupied the Mediterranean coastal plain, and the Israelites, who controlled the inland hills. The city’s most famous resident, according to the Book of Samuel, was Goliath — the giant warrior improbably felled by the young shepherd David and his sling.

The Philistines “are the ultimate other, almost, in the biblical story,” said Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation.

The latest summer excavation season began this past week, with 100 diggers from Canada, South Korea, the United States and elsewhere, adding to the wealth of relics found at the site since Maier’s project began in 1996.

In a square hole, several Philistine jugs nearly 3,000 years old were emerging from the soil. One painted shard just unearthed had a rust-red frame and a black spiral: a decoration common in ancient Greek art and a hint to the Philistines’ origins in the Aegean.

The Philistines arrived by sea from the area of modern-day Greece around 1200 B.C. They went on to rule major ports at Ashkelon and Ashdod, now cities in Israel, and at Gaza, now part of the Palestinian territory known as the Gaza Strip.

At Gath, they settled on a site that had been inhabited since prehistoric times. Digs like this one have shown that though they adopted aspects of local culture, they did not forget their roots. Even five centuries after their arrival, for example, they were still worshipping gods with Greek names.

Archaeologists have found that the Philistine diet leaned heavily on grass pea lentils, an Aegean staple. Ancient bones discarded at the site show that they also ate pigs and dogs, unlike the neighboring Israelites, who deemed those animals unclean — restrictions that still exist in Jewish dietary law.

Diggers at Gath have also uncovered traces of a destruction of the city in the 9th century B.C., including a ditch and embankment built around the city by a besieging army — still visible as a dark line running across the surrounding hills.

The razing of Gath at that time appears to have been the work of the Aramean king Hazael in 830 B.C., an incident mentioned in the Book of Kings.

Gath’s importance is that the “wonderful assemblage of material culture” uncovered there sheds light on how the Philistines lived in the 10th and 9th centuries B.C., said Seymour Gitin, director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem and an expert on the Philistines.

That would include the era of the kingdom ruled from Jerusalem by David and Solomon, if such a kingdom existed as described in the Bible. Other Philistine sites have provided archaeologists with information about earlier and later times but not much from that key period.

“Gath fills a very important gap in our understanding of Philistine history,” Gitin said.

In 604 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded and put the Philistines’ cities to the sword. There is no remnant of them after that.

Crusaders arriving from Europe in 1099 built a fortress on the remains of Gath, and later the site became home to an Arab village, Tel el-Safi, which emptied during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948. Today Gath is in a national park.

An Israeli town founded in 1955 several miles to the south, Kiryat Gat, was named after Gath based on a misidentification of a different ruin as the Philistine city.

The memory of the Philistines — or a somewhat one-sided version — was preserved in the Hebrew Bible.

The hero Samson, who married a Philistine woman, skirmished with them repeatedly before being betrayed and taken, blinded and bound, to their temple at Gaza. There, the story goes, he broke free and shattered two support pillars, bringing the temple down and killing everyone inside, including himself.

One intriguing find at Gath is the remains of a large structure, possibly a temple, with two pillars. Maeir has suggested that this might have been a known design element in Philistine temple architecture when it was written into the Samson story.

Diggers at Gath have also found shards preserving names similar to Goliath — an Indo-European name, not a Semitic one of the kind that would have been used by the local Canaanites or Israelites. These finds show the Philistines indeed used such names and suggest that this detail, too, might be drawn from an accurate picture of their society.

The findings at the site support the idea that the Goliath story faithfully reflects something of the geopolitical reality of the period, Maeir said — the often violent interaction of the powerful Philistines of Gath with the kings of Jerusalem in the frontier zone between them.

“It doesn’t mean that we’re one day going to find a skull with a hole in its head from the stone that David slung at him, but it nevertheless tells that this reflects a cultural milieu that was actually there at the time,” Maeir said.