GODS AND GODDESSES
The Bull on Wall Street, New York - a Golden Calf? Who do you worship?
WHAT IS GOD? WHO DO YOU WORSHIP?
'Worship' is putting all your faith in something outside yourself, trusting it to bring you happiness. And trying to control how it will respond. A good part of the world today worships Money, and dedicates their life to acquiring it.
The people of ancient Israel were divided between two concepts of God, and two ways of worshipping.
The southerners, centered on Jerusalem, generally put their faith in Yahweh.
The northerners seem to a large extent to have preferred the ancient gods of fertility. A case in point was the city of Dan, criticised by the biblical writers for building an altar to the fertility gods.
Excavations of the ancient altar at Dan
THE SHRINE AT DAN
Why was it built?
A shrine to the gods and goddesses of fertility would be popular with devout worshippers. It is relatively easy for a modern person to see God as a single being, but at the time Dan built its altar, the concept of Yahweh was revolutionary. This single spirit god, all powerful but without human characteristics and warmth, was meant to replace the family of gods who had ruled since time immemorial. He (it?) seemed remote and intangible to the common people.
As far as ordinary people were concerned, the gods of fertility were all around, a daily experience. They were not remote or invisible, but here, now, part of normal life, in the earth and the air around you.
They were easy to identify with, since they reflected humanity. The gods and goddesses did all the things that people do. They had sex, got angry, fell in love, quarreled with their families, and generally expressed what was best and worst in human nature. Their stories made sense of the human experience - which is what religious stories are supposed to do.
The gods were woven into all the cycles of human life, particularly the cycle of life, death and rebirth. For farmers, this was an immediate issue, since each year they experienced the death of vegetation in winter and its resurrection in spring. Farmers needed to predict and possibly control this cycle, which could mean the difference between a good and a bad harvest.
It was this cycle that absorbed wroshippers of the fertility gods. They had a special devotion to Baal and Asherah, the gods who controlled the resurrection of Nature in springtime.
The Egyptian fertility goddess Hathor
CONTROLLING THE WEATHER
The worship of Asherah, Anat and Baal was especially important after the harvest, when the summer drought had baked the soil hard, and crops had to be replanted.
It was essential that the first rains of winter fall on the land, to soften the sun-baked soil for ploughing and sowing the new crop.
The priests of Yahweh instead promoted the idea of a single god who controlled everything, rather than a confederation of gods who acted out the tensions of human behavior and daily life. Unlike the fertility gods, who were inclined to live and let live when it came to other forms of worship, Yahweh reacted angrily if other gods were worshipped.
Phoenician image of a bull calf, representing vitality and fertility in Nature
BESTIALITY AND THE BIBLE
Neither side could understand the other, and the Jahwists became increasingly hostile to worship of Baal and Asherah. They associated Asherah's image, the figure of a cow feeding her calf, with bestiality, a practice that certainly occurred in ancient Israel.
Bestiality involved having sex with an animal, usually a calf or heifer. Reliable sources say it is not difficult to do. You wait until the heifer is on heat, which happens every twenty-one days or so, and then stand behind her. As soon as she sense there is someone there, she becomes perfectly still, waiting to be mounted. In no time the deed is done. Kinsey's Report says it is a relatively common practice in agricultural communities.
We know that it happened in biblical times because is specifically forbidden four times in the Bible (Leviticus 18:23, 20:15-16, Exodus 22:19, Deuteronomy 27:21).
Curiously enough, it may have been part of a religious ceremony practised by the ancient Canaanites. An Ugaritic myth tells of Anat, Baal's sister, trying to find Baal, god of water in all its forms. He has died (there is a drought), but Anat eventually finds him. When he sees her he is overcome with love. He has intercourse with her in the form of a cow (Anat, like the Egyptian goddess Hathor, is often represented with the ears of a cow). Since no-one in ancient myths seems to have sexual intercourse without becoming pregnant, the myth ends with the announcement to Baal by Anat that "A wild ox is born to Baal, a buffalo to the Rider of the Clouds" (Baal).
Pink granite statue of the goddess Hathor, University of Sydney
The official policy of the rulers of the northern kingdom of Israel, a multi-ethnic country, was to let each person worship as they wished. It was a brave effort, and in hindsight it was doomed to failure. There simply was no spirit of compromise around to make this ideal work.
Building a shrine/altar to the fertility gods in Dan was not simply a matter of personal choice for the king who did it. There was politics to think of. In the ancient world, any treaty between two countries involved paying respect to each other's gods. It was only a formality, but a necessary one in the diplomatic world of the time. As in the Mafia, showing respect really meant something.
Other Online Bible Websites
Study famous and historical people, places, artwork and archaelogy of the Holy Bible online.
For more online Bible study resources and activities, visit the following websites:
www.bible-people.info - stories of the Bible's most famous men and women - Moses, Judas, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene and more
www.womeninthebible.net - all about Bible women, good and bad: Ruth, Deborah, Mary of Nazareth, Jezebel
www.bible-archaeology.info - archaeological evidence and the Bible - what can we prove?
http://www.bible-art.info/ - Bible paintings and artworks: Nativity, Resurrection, Esther, Martha and Mary
http://www.bible-topten.com/ - Top Ten heroes, bad women, ways to hell, young people, villains, murders, films
http://www.bible-architecture.info/ - more about houses, palaces, temples and fortresses
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