Disclaimer: Although we found limited historical evidence through research that could substantiate some of the stories stated in this post, the fact that these stories have been passed down through history shows their significance in people’s lives.
Once upon a time, Joseph went to Egypt and served under the Pharaoh. As Egypt had fertile land and abundant food, Joseph brought his fellow Hebrews over and settled down, propagating Egypt with Israelites.
However, the Egyptians eventually enslaved them, and Moses later led the Israelites out of Egypt to find a new home. This new home was the Promised Land, also known as Israel in c. 1250 BCE. Israel was a nation under one god, Yahweh.
Israel thrived, yet as it drew more contact with other nations, their faith in Yahweh gradually eroded away. Some Israelites were swayed to worship other gods, and Israel’s spiritual standing became divided. This turning point is of historical significance and worth discussing.
It begs the question: Israel was a nation that initially followed one god, Yahweh, but why did some of them end up worshipping many other gods afterwards? Worship of other gods contradicts the Jewish values that Yahweh is their one true god, and to worship others instead of Yahweh alone is considered to be an infidel.
We want to find out what factors can draw people to believe in gods one after another, and how this has impacted their religion timeline and society. Rather than this post being a theological discussion, we focus more on the socio-political factors involved in this turning point.
Royal Intermarriage - Wives and foreign beliefs
King Solomon, who ruled from c. 970–931 BCE, was first of many kings to stray away from Yahweh. He was also known as “The Wisest Fool” in the Bible.
Back then, it was not forbidden for a man to be polygamous according to Yahweh’s words. However, Yahweh had discouraged the marrying of foreign wives. In 1 Kings 11 of the Bible, Yahweh warned King Solomon “they will surely turn your hearts after their gods”. Despite that, King Solomon married many wives originating from foreign lands, and along came their respective foreign religions. This began Solomon’s dividing faith.
King Solomon worshipped Yahweh and the gods of his wives’ culture, for example Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek, god of the Ammonites. He also built shrines for the gods his wives worshipped, which were labelled the “false gods” by the Hebrews (“Woman, Don’t Be Stoopid,” loc. 83). However, these temples were not exclusively built for his wives, and his people could also access them for worshipping. Hence, some eventually relented to worship these gods despite their initial resistance.
A similar story involves King Ahab, who reigned from c. 874–c. 853 BCE and began worshipping Ba’al, the god of storms and fertility originating from Canaan, which was brought in by his wife, Jezebel. It is implied that kings serve as role models for the people, and hence the trickle-down effect of spiritual devotion is felt by Israel.
Practices by Canaanite cults
When Israel has accumulated enough military might, they invaded Canaan in 1407 BCE, seeking to eradicate Canaanites under Yahweh’s command.
Ironically, in the Book of Exodus, Canaan did not get fully annexed by Israel. While Israel occupied most of Canaan after the invasion, the remaining Canaanites had existing fertility cults, which could still influence Israelites who were in contact with them.
These cults’ practices revolved around sexuality. They consecrated sexual intercourse outside of marriage and engaged in orgies, hoping the gods would bless the people with fertile land. In contrast for Israelites, sexual intercourse was forbidden until after marriage according to Yahweh. Hence, the Israelites found the former especially alluring to them, leading them to turn their faith towards the Canaanite gods.
Being conquered by other nations
The conquest by other nations was another factor that resulted in Israelites turning towards other gods. In the Book of Daniel, Babylonia invaded Jerusalem, the capital of Israel in 597 BCE and caused the Israelites to be exiled.
In Daniel 3, the Persian king, King Nebuchadnezzar, made a gold statue and decreed that when music was played, everyone regardless of nationality and religion must bow down to this statue. The king received the Mandate of Heaven to rule over his people. The Mandate of Heaven is an ancient belief that kings were being given the right to rule by heaven, which confers these kings divine power and therefore be “gods” too.
The First Commandment from Yahweh was that his people could not bow down to any idols or gods other than himself. Therefore, by bowing down to the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar, it would mean that the Israelites would have broken the First Commandment.
However, the king punished anyone who failed to obey his decree to be “thrown into a blazing furnace”, which threatened people to bow to his statue against their will. This would mean that by obeying the king’s decree in order to save their lives, the Israelites would have turned to another “god”.
Conclusion and Take-aways
It is evident that Israel has changed in terms of religious diversity due to environmental factors like intermarriages, influence of other cult practices and the nations that conquered it afterwards. These factors have played a pivotal role in the inclusion of other gods in Israelite culture.
We have also learned that the definition of “gods” may not always refer to omnipotent higher beings, but also championing of kings as gods according to the Mandate of Heaven. Be it worship of other gods by or against Israelites’ will, Israel has never remained monotheistic.
In lieu with our thesis, we have gained insight as to how such changes in faith does not necessarily always stem from one’s inner self, but also from external factors. The Israelites might have emerged out of Egypt with one god, Yahweh. But with other gods acquired along the way, the religious timeline is no longer monotheistic, implying that the society then held diverse beliefs.