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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 (Exodus 20:3-6; Deuteronomy 5:7-10). The pagan nations made statues or images to represent the powers which they worshiped. Most of these idols were in the form of animals or men. But sometimes these 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.

Exodus 20:3-6

3 You shall have no other gods before or besides Me.
4 You shall not make yourself any graven image [to worship it] or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;
5 You shall not bow down yourself to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, [Isaiah 42:8; 48:11.]

6 But showing mercy and steadfast love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments. AMP

Deuteronomy 5:7-10

7 You shall have no other gods before Me or besides Me.
8 You shall not make for yourself [to worship] a graven image or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth.
9 You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me,
10 And showing mercy and steadfast love to thousands and to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments. AMP

Belief in these 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 these 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 was a jealous God who permitted no rivals: "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7). God's will is all-powerful and man must submit to it. He reveals Himself when He pleases and to whom He pleases, demanding that man obey His revelation. Nevertheless, the Hebrew people sometimes gave in to temptation and worshiped these pagan gods from the surrounding cultures.

Exodus 20:3

3 "Do not worship any other gods besides me. NLT

Deuteronomy 5:7

7 " 'Do not worship any other gods besides me. NLT

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, in Mesopotamia), "served other gods" (Joshua 24:2). Ancient Mesopotamia covered the region that is roughly equivalent geographically to present-day Iraq and Iran.

Joshua 24:2

2 Joshua said to all the people, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, Your fathers dwelt in olden times beyond the Euphrates River, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, and they served other gods. AMP

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 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 (Joshua 15:10) means house of the sun [god]. Jericho (Numbers 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 (Joshua 10:12-13).

Joshua 15:10

10 And the boundary went around west of Baalah to Mount Seir, passed along to the northern side of Mount Jearim, which is Chesalon, went down to Beth-shemesh, and then passed on by Timnah. AMP

Numbers 22:1
22:1 THE ISRAELITES journeyed and encamped in the plains of Moab, on the east side of the Jordan [River] at Jericho. AMP

Joshua 10:12-13

12 Then Joshua spoke to the Lord on the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, be silent and stand still at Gibeon, and you, moon, in the Valley of Ajalon!

13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance upon their enemies. Is not this written in the Book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of the heavens and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. AMP

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 (Zechariah 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 Kings 5:18).

Zechariah 12:11

11 In that day shall there be a great mourning in Jerusalem, as the mourning of [the city of] Hadadrimmon in the Valley of Megiddo [over beloved King Josiah]. [2 Chronicles 35:22-25.] AMP

2 Kings 5:18

18 In this thing may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master [the king] goes into the house of [his god] Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on my hand and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow down myself in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant in this thing. AMP

The ancient Babylonian and Assyrian goddess Ishtar symbolized Mother Earth in the natural cycles of fertility on earth. Many myths grew up around this female deity. 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, considered both divine and mortal (Ezekiel 8:14). 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.

Ezekiel 8:14

14 Then He brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the Lord's house; and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz [a Babylonian god, who was supposed to die annually and subsequently be resurrected]. AMP

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 HAMMURABI (about 1800 BC). 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 sea. This cosmic conflict, described also in ancient Sumerian, Indian and Canaanite myths, was believed to have estabiished order. Marduk established order by destroying the goddess Tiamat.

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).

Genesis 1
1:1 IN THE beginning God (prepared, formed, fashioned, and) created the heavens and the earth. [Hebrews 11:3.]
2 The earth was without form and an empty waste, and darkness was upon the face of the very great deep. The Spirit of God was moving (hovering, brooding) over the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.
4 And God saw that the light was good (suitable, pleasant) and He approved it; and God separated the light from the darkness. [2 Corinthians 4:6.]
5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
6 And God said, Let there be a firmament [the expanse of the sky] in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters [below] from the waters [above].
7 And God made the firmament [the expanse] and separated the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse. And it was so.
8 And God called the firmament Heavens. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.
9 And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be collected into one place [of standing], and let the dry land appear. And it was so.
10 God called the dry land Earth, and the accumulated waters He called Seas. And God saw that this was good (fitting, admirable) and He approved it.
11 And God said, Let the earth put forth [tender] vegetation: plants yielding seed and fruit trees yielding fruit whose seed is in itself, each according to its kind, upon the earth. And it was so.

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