Judgment of God is Described: Page 3 of 6 (series: Lessons on Judges)
by John Lowe
Article 2.2: Pagan Gods
GODS, PAGAN — the false gods and idols worshiped by people during Bible times—especially the false gods of Egypt, Mesopotamia (Assyria and Babylon), Canaan, Greece, and Rome.
Religion has always played an important part in civilization; in the ancient world it was a powerful force. The pagan civilizations of Bible times worshiped many gods. They had male and female deities, high and low gods, assemblies of gods, priests and priestesses, and temples and sacrifices. All the forces of nature that could not be controlled or understood were considered supernatural powers to be worshiped and feared.
Our knowledge of the pagan gods of the ancient world comes from the religious literature, idols, and other objects discovered by archaeologists. We have also learned from the meanings of names found in the literature from this period. People in Bible times were often named with sentences and phrases; sometimes they used the name of their favorite god in the compound name. Thus, names very often reflected popular religion. Most of the people of the ancient world were polytheistic; they worshiped more than one god.
The people worshiped these gods in the form of representative idols. This practice is called idolatry. The nation of Israel, however, was forbidden to make graven images of the one true and living God whom they worshiped (Ex. 20:3–6; Deut. 5:7–10). The pagan nations made statues or images to represent the powers they worshiped. Most of these idols were in the form of animals or human beings. But sometimes the idols represented celestial powers, like the sun, moon, and stars; forces of nature, like the sea and the rain; or life forces, like death and truth.
Belief in false gods was characterized by superstition and magic. The people believed that what happened to their gods would also happen to them. Puzzled by the workings of nature, they assigned the causes of various natural happenings to their gods. Rain was absolutely essential to life in agricultural societies. If it rained, they believed this was caused by a rain god. If it did not rain, they thought this was because that god had not sent the rain. They prayed and sacrificed to the god to send it.
In time an elaborate system of beliefs in such natural forces was developed into mythology. Each civilization and culture had its own mythological structure, but the structures were often quite similar. The names of the gods may have been different, but their functions and actions were often the same. The most prominent myth to cross cultural lines was that of the fertility cycle. Many pagan cultures believed that the god of fertility died each year during the winter but was reborn each year in the spring. The details differed among cultures, but the main idea was the same.
According to the Old Testament, God is a jealous God who permits no rivals: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:3; Deut. 5:7). God’s will is all-powerful, and people must submit to it. He reveals Himself when He pleases and to whom He pleases, demanding that we obey His revelation. Nevertheless, the Hebrew people sometimes gave in to temptation and worshiped pagan gods from the surrounding cultures.
The many pagan gods that served as a temptation to the Hebrew people may be conveniently grouped into four distinct types: the false gods of (1) Mesopotamia (Assyria and Babylon), (2) Egypt, (3) Canaan, and (4) Greece and Rome.
The Pagan Gods of Mesopotamia. The biblical references to pagan gods begin with the statement that Terah, Abraham, and Nahor, when they dwelt on the other side of the River (that is, the Euphrates in Mesopotamia), “served other gods” (Josh. 24:2). Ancient Mesopotamia covered the region that is roughly equivalent geographically to present-day Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
The prominent gods in Mesopotamia were those over heaven, air, and earth, personified by Anu, Enlil, and Enki (Ea). Another group was made up of those that controlled the heavenly bodies: the sun, the moon, and the planet Venus (the “morning star”). In fact, Ur, the city from which Abraham came, was the center for worship of the moon god SIN. As Mesopotamian religion developed, each god had his or her own star, and the worship of the stars became popular with the development of ASTROLOGY. Many of the astrological texts and charts of the ancient Babylonians read like modern horoscopes.
The worship of the sun, moon, and stars eventually spread across the entire ancient world. The Egyptians, Canaanites, and Phoenicians all incorporated features of this form of worship. Place names in pre-Israelite Canaan reflect the practice. Beth Shemesh (Josh. 15:10) means house of the sun god. Jericho (Num. 22:1) probably means moon city. Joshua’s miracle of the sun and the moon standing still takes on greater significance in light of this fact. It was a demonstration of the sovereign power of the Lord God of Israel over the pagan gods identified as the sun and the moon, worshiped in pagan cities (Josh. 10:12–13).
Another god of ancient Mesopotamia was Adad, who represented the storm—either the beneficial rains for the crops or the destructive storms with hurricanes. Identical with Adad, or Hadad, was Rimmon or Ramman, the Assyrian god of rain and storm, thunder and lightning. The two names, Hadad and Rimmon, were combined in one name, Hadad Rimmon, in one Old Testament reference (Zech. 12:11). In the Old Testament Rimmon was an Aramean (Syrian) god who had a temple at Damascus. Naaman and his royal master worshiped this pagan god (2 Kin. 5:18).
The ancient Babylonian and Assyrian goddess Ishtar symbolized Mother Earth in the natural cycles of fertility on earth. Ishtar was the daughter of sin, the moon god. She was the goddess of love, so the practice of ritual prostitution became widespread in the fertility cult dedicated to her name. Temples to Ishtar had many priestesses, or sacred prostitutes, who symbolically acted out the fertility rites of the cycle of nature. Ishtar has been identified with the Phoenician Astarte, the Semitic Ashtoreth, and the Sumerian Inanna. Strong similarities also exist between Ishtar and the Egyptian Isis, the Greek Aphrodite, and the Roman Venus.
Associated with Ishtar was the young god Tammuz (Ezek. 8:14), considered both divine and mortal. In Babylonian mythology Tammuz died annually and was reborn year after year, representing the yearly cycle of the seasons and the crops. This pagan belief later was identified with the pagan gods Baal and Anat in Canaan.
Another kind of god in both Babylonia and Assyria was a national god connected with politics. In Assyria it was Ashur, and in Babylonia it was Marduk, who became prominent at the time of HAMMURAPI (1792–1750 B.C.). The ancient ideas about the ordering and governing of the universe were taken over by these two gods. Marduk, for example, achieved his prominence by victory over Tiamat, goddess of the ocean. This cosmic conflict, described also in ancient Sumerian and Canaanite myths, was believed to have established order.
In contrast, the Bible makes it clear that the forces of nature are not pagan gods that war with one another annually to bring about an established order of the universe. They are part of the Lord’s creation (Genesis 1).
The Babylonian god Bel (Is. 46:1; Jer. 50:2; 51:44) is the same as Marduk, the chief Babylonian god. The Babylonian god Merodach (Jer. 50:2), an alternate spelling of Marduk, was the god of war and the patron deity of the city of Babylon.
Nebo (Is. 46:1) was the Babylonian god of education, literature, writing, wisdom, the arts, and sciences. The special seat of his worship was at Borsippa, near Babylon. The Akkadian form of his name is Nabu.
Nisroch (2 Kin. 19:37; Is. 37:38) was an Assyrian god with a temple in Nineveh. The idol representing this pagan god had a human form with an eagle’s head.
Sikkuth (Amos 5:26; Sakkuth, NRSV) was a name given by the Babylonians to the planet Saturn.
Succoth Benoth (2 Kin. 17:30) was a Babylonian goddess, identified by some scholars with Zarpanitum, the mistress of Marduk. Other scholars believe this god is a designation of Marduk himself as Sakkut Binuti, the supreme judge of the world.
When SHALMANESER, king of Assyria, deported the inhabitants of Samaria to far-flung regions of his empire, he also imported into Samaria settlers from afar to colonize it. These people brought their religions and their pagan gods with them. Among the gods were: Adram-melech (2 Kin. 17:31), an idol of the Sepharvites worshiped by child sacrifice; Anammelech (2 Kin. 17:31), another god revered by the Sepharvites; Ashima (2 Kin. 17:30), an idol worshiped by the people of Hamath; Nergal (2 Kin. 17:30), the war god of the men of Cuth; Nibhaz (2 Kin. 17:31), an idol of the Avvites; and Tartak (2 Kin. 17:31), an idol also worshiped by the Avvites.