Rebirth and Restoration: Canaanite Cults Versus Living Water
Manna 83: Spring

Vincent Yeung—Cambridge, UK

One of the positive aspects of travel is encountering new cultures, and seeing things from a different perspective. A brief encounter with a Peruvian tour guide on the Inca Trail left me pondering why people living in the technologically advanced twenty-first century still worship Pachamama (a fertility goddess) as the deity who presides over planting and harvesting, and can sustain earthly life. Things took an even more bizarre turn in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. I saw a couple kneeling before a life-sized wooden effigy of Maximon. The worship of Maximon is an indigenous folk cult which has been integrated with the local Catholic faith. Ironically, in the room where Maximon reposed was a wooden statue of Jesus. For some reason, the worshippers did not see the contradiction. 

We may chuckle at the follies of others, but syncretism—the amalgamation of different religions and belief systems into one—is nothing new. It even plagued God’s chosen people for centuries. Ezekiel witnessed women weeping for Tammuz in God’s temple (Ezek 8:14). Josiah found all sorts of paraphernalia of Baal-worship in the temple—wooden images, sacred pillars, ritual booths, and horses and chariots of the sun (2 Kgs 23:4–12).

Why were God’s chosen people influenced by these local Canaanite cults? And what significance does this ancient practice of syncretism hold for us today?

THE CANAANITE CULTS 

The Canaanite cults associated observations of natural phenomena with life.[1] [2] Spring and summer ushered in a plenitude of food which sustains life. The harsh winter, with its cold, short days, brought starvation, suffering and death. Since procreation produces life, everything associated with procreation served as symbols of life: penis, semen, breast, milk. These associations constitute the essence of the Canaanite cults. Baal and his consort are the god and goddess of the earth. Ancient people believed that these gods revitalized the forces of nature upon which agriculture depends. Hence, worship rituals involved a sacred marriage which, in turn, comprised sexual acts between male members of the community and sacred prostitutes dedicated to Baal. The man represented Baal and the sacred temple prostitutes, his consort. It was believed that these rituals would cause Baal to send rain to the earth, yielding abundant harvests.

These Canaanite cults proved to be a strong attraction to the Israelites. Many succumbed to the allurements of the fertility-laden rituals and cultic practices. After Joshua died, the sons of Israel forsook God and followed the gods of the people around them by serving Baal and Ashtaroth[3] (Judg 2:12–13). Periodically, under the duress of a national crisis and the guidance of God’s servants, the Israelites would put away their idols (1 Sam 7:4). But these temporary returns to the one true God did not last long. Baal-worship was too entrenched in the fabric of Israelite society.

The kings of Israel were not immune to foreign religious influences either. Solomon built a high place for Chemosh on the hill before Jerusalem (1 Kgs 11:7, 33) which was maintained until the reforms of Josiah (2 Kgs 23:13). The Bible describes Omri and his son Ahab as having “walked in all the ways and sin of Jeroboam” (1 Kgs 16:26, 29–31). 

Despite such dalliances with foreign gods, the worship of the Lord in Israel never ceased. The Canaanite cults were not a replacement, but an addition, to the traditional worship. On the one hand, people still went to the temple to offer sacrifices (Isa 1:11–13) and call on God’s name (Jer 7:9–10). On the other hand, the prophets prophesied by Baal (Jer 2:8). Clearly, then, serving two masters—God and foreign deity—was the sin that plagued the Israelites of old. But this practice still ensnares the multitude today. 

MODERN IDOLATRY

In parts of Asia, it would not be uncommon to see devout adherents of traditional religions bringing offerings of fruits, flowers, or more to man-made images of their deities. However, this would be a rare sight in western society. Nevertheless, worshipping idols is not just about paying homage to an image; for example, Paul equated covetousness to idolatry (Eph 5:5). As well as covetousness, idol worship is manifested in many other forms today. What are the modern “Cannanite cults” that have the potential to ensnare us?

Liberal Values—“Everyone did what was right in his own eyes”

Some of us live in democracies which allow us to do whatever we like within the constraints of the secular law. However, the law and public opinion change with the passage of time. Behaviors that were once unacceptable have become the norm, and vice versa. Homosexuality was legalized in the UK in 1967, and same-sex marriage was instituted in 2014. The USA also legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. Many people perceive religion as something mired in the past, with teachings that are out of sync with modern society. This is compounded by the information explosion that has become integral to our everyday lives. Besides genuine knowledge, we are constantly bombarded with misinformation, extreme biased views, and values and beliefs that are contradictory to the church’s basic beliefs. 

When the Israelites settled in the promised land, the same temptations beset them. From just believing in the one true God, they were exposed to rich foreign cultures, elaborate religious practices, and myriad foreign gods. Seeing what the neighboring nations did, they wanted to do the same. 

As previously mentioned, one of the attractions of the local Canaanite cult was the sexual element. Sexual acts were part and parcel of religious activities. Adherence to this form of religion enabled the Israelites to legitimately indulge in licentiousness. At Acacia Grove, the people began to fornicate with the daughters of Moab. To avert the plague that had broken out among the children of Israel, righteous Phinehas pierced through a man and woman during their sexual act (Num 25:1, 8). A psalm describes the couple’s act as “[joining] themselves to Baal of Peor” (Ps 106:28). In the modern context, our members are exposed to the same enticement. Their secular peers can cohabit, break up, start new relationships, divorce and remarry with impunity—and not necessarily with just people of the opposite gender. Such liberal, carefree norms must seem an attractive alternative to a restrictive biblical regimen characterized by many “dos” and “don’ts.”

God warned His people not to be assimilated by the indigenous people. To enable His chosen people to avoid the pernicious influence of the Canaanites, God commanded the Israelites to completely destroy them—their altars, images, groves, graven images—on entering into the promised land (Deut 7). Intermarriage was forbidden, lest the idol-worshipping locals turn God’s people away from following Him. It was emphasized time and again that the Israelites were a “holy people” and “special” to the Lord (Deut 7:6). 

In the New Testament, Paul exhorted the believers to hold on to the word of life, and to shine as lights in a crooked and perverse nation (Phil 2:15–16). We must separate ourselves from the influence of this generation as we are of Christ; we are created in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24). The people in this world may appear free, but they are enslaved by sin (Rom 6:17; Col 1:13). God’s Spirit has set us free (2 Cor 3:17); we are empowered to make the right choice, a choice that frees us from sin and death (Rom 8:2).

The co-existence of religions, ideals and values of the world with true faith is abhorrent to God; such syncretic beliefs have no place in God’s kingdom. God is a jealous God (Ex 20:5) and demands undivided devotion; the first of the Ten Commandments tells us that we shall have no other gods (Ex 20:3). The incident at Acacia Grove caused many to perish in the wilderness (Num 25:9; cf. 1 Cor 10:8). This should be an enduring warning to everyone who has experienced the grace of God and is baptized into Christ (1 Cor 10)—they should not concurrently hold the doctrine of Balaam (Rev 2:14).

Variety and Innovation—“There is nothing at all except this manna”

The Israelites complained against Moses in the wilderness because they found life monotonous. There was nothing to do other than to trudge along and eat the same food day in and day out. God had promised them a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex 13:5; 33:3; Num 13:27; 14:8). But the people lost faith in this promise, as their minds wandered back to their perceived good lives in Egypt (Num 11:4–6). Things came to a head when Korah revolted, accusing Moses of failing to lead them to the promised land (Num 16:14).

Such impatience to see promises fulfilled was repeated in Peter’s time. People mocked Christians and their hope in the future, asking derisively, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Pet 3:4). Today, it would be easy to sympathize with the sceptics. Two thousand years have gone by, but Jesus has clearly not come again. No wonder people have lost faith in this promise.

Such disbelief extends beyond biblical promises. There are Christian denominations today that do not believe in the teachings of the Bible; some even reject the existence of heaven and hell. Examples of “Christian disbelief” include the following:

1.     Some denominations find it embarrassing to tell non-Christians that they are going to hell. They thus compromise with a Universalist view—all humankind will be saved, even the worst mass murderers of history;[4] this is an increasingly popular position in mainstream western Christianity.

2.     Another group cannot accept that the majority would be condemned and only a handful—those who believe and are baptized—would be saved. They ignore the key biblical message that Jesus died for humankind, and all those who do not believe in Jesus are condemned (Jn 3:18); that no-one comes to the Father but by Jesus (Jn 14:6). Worse, this group compromises by reasoning that the soul is not inherently immortal—unbelievers do not suffer eternal torment, they are simply extinguished.[5] Some modify the concept of hell to a state of consciousness to be suffered here on earth. 

3.     Some do not believe in the spiritual effect of sacraments such as water baptism. They de-emphasize the doctrine, but keep the ritual as a symbolic act.

We must thus be wary of desire for “fresh insights on an old faith.” Modern heresies are prompted by the perceived need to repackage God’s teaching. The proponents believe God’s messages are outdated, that they need to be modernized to meet the need, and gain the acceptance, of the public at large. To them, daily manna is boring—the “same old” biblical teachings need to be embellished to make them palatable for new audiences. Like Job’s three friends, they use human thinking to defend God’s justice, resulting in muddled, adulterated and confused messages. 

For instance, the heresy regarding Satan’s self-existence developed as people attempted to address the question of the origin of evil. By saying that Satan is the source of evil, would that imply that God created evil? To “defend” God’s absolute righteousness and the goodness of His creation, the explanation of Satan’s self-existence was proposed. Unfortunately, such reasoning is only human thinking; the attempt to defend God’s righteousness ends up contradicting God’s word. Therefore, the Bible warns us to be on guard against “contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim 6:20b), and we must beware of “philosophy and empty deceit…[that is] not according to Christ” (Col 2:8).

Non-religiosity—“A faithless generation”

Jesus bemoaned the faithless generation who had witnessed miracles and wonders, and yet did not believe (Mk 9:19; Lk 9:41; Mt 17:17). Today we live in an irreligious society—a 2014 British Social Attitudes survey found that 48.5% of the population in England and Wales claimed to have no religion. There is an increase in the number of people who not only do not practise their faith on a regular basis, but are not even ticking the box as a believer! Another report claimed that for every person they recruit, the Church of England loses twelve followers, and the Catholic Church loses ten.[6] And among those who label themselves as Christian, not many are practising their faith.

A reason for the decline in religiosity is the conflict between biblical principles and the liberal attitude and ideals of the west. As a result, people choose to reject the Bible and even God’s existence. To retain public mindshare, some churches choose to temper the tone of their teachings; like modern corporations, they transform to suit the taste of the customers. Instead of proclaiming that Jesus is the only way to salvation, they are prepared to teach that there is no absolute right or wrong—“it is true if it is true to you.”

Worryingly, we have True Jesus Church (TJC) members who want to camouflage themselves and blend into such liberal societies. While they continue to maintain their belief in the truth, they are too afraid to tell others about the doctrines of the church, or invite their friends and family to evangelistic services. They do not want to embarrass themselves or upset their friends with “narrow-minded” teachings about the one true church, the unacceptability of homosexuality, and so on. Some of them may even agree with their non-believer friends that churches should “preach moralism instead of preaching Jesus,” because, after all, religion is meant to be a force for good in society. Paul had long warned that people in the last days would hold a form of godliness but deny its power (2 Tim 3:5), leading to the immoral behavior and distorted ethics that we witness around us today (2 Tim 3:3-4). The Bible warns us that God’s word brings no profit to those who do not have the faith, believer and non-believer alike (Heb 4:2; cf. Jas 1:22).

After settling in the promised land, the chosen people did not expel the Canaanites as the Lord had commanded (Josh 1). As a result, the same problems were perpetuated for generations to come. God told Samuel that from the moment His people left Egypt, they had forsaken Him (1 Sam 8:8). When Elijah confronted the people and forced them to choose between God and Baal, the people remained silent because they could not make up their minds (1 Kgs 18:21). This type of half-baked and lukewarm faith has plagued God’s elect up till today. Many second- and third-generation TJC believers in the western world have literally lost faith—some no longer believe in the true church, others believe that all religions are the same, and some do not even believe in God. No wonder Paul repeatedly reminded Timothy to guard what had been committed to him, and hold fast the pattern of sound words in faith and love, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:12–14). Only when we set our minds to safeguard our faith, and rely on the empowerment of the Holy Spirit—the source of love and faith—will we be able to uphold our faith in the Lord.

 

Control of Destiny—“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves”                                   

The Canaanites believed that they could secure their harvest by worshipping Baal. To some extent, ancient cultic religions were a form of primitive science with no methodology—a pseudo-science.  Applied to modern contexts, there are many who believe that advances in science and technology can secure our future, obviating the need for religion. It has been argued that religion is a static set of values, whereas science is dynamic and nothing is absolutely true. Religion was once used to explain natural phenomena, but science has now replaced it. Science transfers control of the universe into our hands, while religion takes it away and gives it to a higher power. Science is for people who like facts and not interpretations, for people who like to understand, not to believe. Of course, the above comparison between religion and science is somewhat sweeping. There are many scientists who believe in God, and science is indeed critical to our lives. Notwithstanding this, there are people who trust only in themselves, and believe their abilities and actions enable them to manage, if not control, their own future. They thus feel they do not need to trust in God; in fact, they do not need a God at all.

The “other gods” in the first commandment does not just refer to Baal or other graven images, but represents anything that supplants or supplements God, or dilutes our trust towards Him. What are some of these usurpers of God’s throne in our hearts?

 

1.     Money

Money has become an idol for many. Money itself is not evil; instead, it is the love of money that causes man’s downfall. For example, greed can drive people to unlawful actions. During His ministry, Jesus sternly warned that “no one can serve two masters” (Mt 6:24). Inevitably, if we try to have both God and mammon, part of our love for God will be diverted towards the world and its glittering pleasures (1 Jn 2:15). Money can also be a stumbling block if it engenders in us the belief that it can bring power, prosperity and peace. The rich fool in Jesus’ parable was condemned for putting his trust in his wealth (Lk 12:15–21). Paul warned the rich that they should not trust in uncertain riches (1 Tim 6:17).

 

2.     Allies

For some, their ability, authority and alliances are their gods. The prophet Isaiah condemned the leaders in his time because they took refuge in the strength of Pharaoh and his chariots and horses, rather than trust in God (Isa 30:1–2; 31:1). As a society becomes more developed, its institutions necessarily become more complex in order to meet society’s multifarious and multifaceted needs. People in Samuel’s time demanded a king so that they could have someone to judge them and fight their battles, just like “all the [other] nations” (1 Sam 8:5, 20). Similarly, the modest apostolic church became more institutionalized as it transmogrified into the colossal Catholic Church (Mt 13:32). Modern management theories tell us that a more sophisticated and professional church system, comprising networks, by-laws and governance practices, will mobilize resources more efficiently compared with a group of less educated and disorganized amateurs. However, one cannot ignore the fact that the early church thrived despite such amateurism, and achieved much more than we today. Therefore, the church must know how to balance between “doing our best with God’s help” and “taking matters into our own hands.” We must be vigilant to avoid falling into the trap of hubris based on human sophistry.

 

3.     False teachings

Paul decried the Galatians’ turning to another gospel (Gal 1:6), turning to the Jewish Law (Gal 4:9) on top of believing in Jesus. Specifically, the Galatians were told that believing in Jesus alone was insufficient, and that they needed to be circumcised to make them complete. Today, there are people in the church who over-interpret the Bible and add on many rules and regulations to biblical teachings; they believe these rules are essential guidelines on how they should lead their daily lives. However, as the rules multiply, they obscure the original and true meaning of the teachings. Mishna Hagiga 1:8 describes the Jewish Sabbath regulations as “mountains hanging by a hair”—indicating that there is little scriptural basis for many laws. We should be mindful of human traditions that blind us from the true meaning of the Scripture (Mk 7:8; Mt 23:23).   

 

In short, anything that we trust and rely on other than Jesus can constitute an idol that pulls us away from God.

 

 

RESISTING IDOLATRY, REMEMBERING THE TRUE GOD

 

The Canaanites sought rain for their crops by worshipping Baal. But Moses emphasized that the rains come from the Lord (Deut 11:14, 17). He warned the chosen people that they should not be deceived into worshipping other gods (Deut 11:16). God’s people were ensnared because they did not trust in God’s words.

 

Today, we are surrounded by people who worship foreign gods, be it worldly riches, glamour or status, philosophies of different kinds, or simply dumbed-down Christian teachings. They seek to fill the voids in their hearts with transient and immediate gratification. They are temporarily satisfied but always crave more; human desire and imagination are bottomless pits that can never be filled. They labor for what never satisfies (Isa 55:2). 

 

So wherein lies true and enduring satisfaction?

 

 

Seek Living Water

 

Jesus reminds us that physical water can slake our thirst, but we will thirst again (Jn 4:14). Physical water represents all the things that man can imagine and invent. No matter how amazing, these earthly creations are ultimately temporal, and will soon lose their novelty. In contrast, the living water that Jesus gives springs up into everlasting life (Jn 4:14). 

 

The Jews seek signs, the Greeks seek wisdom, and the world seeks freedom and enjoyment, but we only have the crucified Christ. The world ignores Jesus and has no trust in Him or His words. As God’s chosen people we must fully trust in Him; only He can give life in its fullness (Jn 10:10).

 

God is a faithful God (Deut 7:9) and He fulfills the promise of giving rain in its season (Deut 28:12).  Likewise, the coming of the Messiah, and the giving of the Spirit to all who seek Him in the last days are God’s eternal promises (Heb 1:1–2; Acts 1:16; 2:33). We have every confidence that His promises will come to fruition because God has given us His Spirit as a guarantee (2 Cor 5:5). The latter rain has come in the form of His Holy Spirit dwelling in us—the living water that flows out from our heart ushering us into eternal life (Jn 7:37–38). We have the abidance of God because He dwells in us and has given His Spirit to us (1 Jn 4:13). The Spirit teaches us all things (Jn 14:26), sanctifies us (Rom 15:16; 1 Cor 6:11), renews us (Tit 3:5), instills God’s love in us (Rom 5:5), and sets us free from the law of sin and death (Rom 8:2). As a result, we are of God, and are worthy to be called His sons as long as we are willing to be led by His Spirit (Rom 8:9, 14).

 

Remove False Gods and Teachings

 

The post-apostolic era saw a decline of the church as heresies crept in, and false teachers wrought havoc. As the revived apostolic church of the last days, the true church must be ready to contend for the faith (Jude 3). She must undertake the reforms of Josiah, removing all false teachings from God’s temple. She must seek to be guided by the Holy Spirit to become the pillar and foundation of the truth.

 

On an individual basis, we must never take our faith for granted. There is no room for complacency. We may have achieved great works for the Lord but we cannot rest on our laurels. Many who drank of the spiritual drink from the spiritual Rock did not make it to the promised land (1 Cor 10:4–5). They failed to enter into the Lord’s eternal rest because the word they heard was not mixed with faith (Heb 4:1–11). Therefore we must cast away our unbelief and strive to enter into His rest (Heb 4:10).

 


[1] EW Heaton, The Hebrew Kingdoms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1968), 42–48.

[2] JB Pritchard, ed., vol. 1 of The Ancient Near East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), 119, 123, 127, 129.

[3] The plural form of Ashtoreth, or Astarte, the Canaanite queen of heaven. Ashtaroth “became a general term denoting goddesses and paganism.” Source: “Astarte,” Encyclopadia Britannica, Inc., last modified November 22, 2000, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Astarte-ancient-deity.

[4] “Universalism,” Encyclopadia Britannica, Inc., last modified July 20, 1998, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Universalism.

[5] Gavin Ortlund, “J.I. Packer on Why Annihilationism Is Wrong,” The Gospel Coalition, Inc., accessed April 25, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/j.i.-packer-on-why-annihilationism-is-wrong.

[6] Harriet Sherwood, “People of no religion outnumber Christians in England and Wales - study,” The Guardian, May 23, 2016, accessed April 21, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/23/no-religion-outnumber-christians-england-wales-study.

Date
Jul. 13, 2017
Author
Vincent Yeung
Publisher
True Jesus Church
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