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Pagan gods, ancient and modern

August 17, 2015

Judges 2:11-19                                             Monday 17th August

For the next four days we have readings from the Book of Judges. Remember my rule of thumb for working out where we are in Biblical history? Roughly 500-year segments…. Abraham: 2,000 years before Christ; Moses: 1,500 years BC.

The Book of Judges covers the period between 1,500 and 1,000 years BC. The word ‘judges’ is a bit misleading – they weren’t judges in the sense of people sitting in court, hearing cases and passing judgment. A better description would be ‘The Book of Princes’. Basically, it is a history of 12 rulers, inspired by God, who periodically saved Israel from its own folly over a 400 year period. The Jewish People went through what could be called ‘boom and bust’. The country became wealthy and successful, and promptly forgot about God. Then the nation went into decline, pagan gods flourished and the country descended into a mess, oppressed by its enemies. This happened six times, each time recovery coming through God appointing a new ‘judge’ to run the country and bring it back to its senses.

So to today’s reading, from Chapter 2 of Judges. Before the Hebrews entered the Promised Land, the Lord God warned against worshiping Canaan’s gods (Deuteronomy 6:14-15), but Israel turned to idolatry anyway….. we hear today that they worshipped Astarte and Ba’al, pagan gods of war and fertility.

Asparte is the Greek and Roman name for the female goddess worshipped in Syria and Canaan beginning in the first millennium BC; Ba’al (the apostrophe marks a glottal stop), was a male God, the name Ba’al means simply ‘lord’.

Oh dear, it’s the old story. The Hebrews had been in Egypt for 400 years and had adopted pagan gods; Moses brought them back to the God of Abraham, but the people did tend to keep reverting to superstition, magic and pagan gods. As I said, this happens when countries become wealthy. Pagan gods rear their ugly heads. Just look at our own society: very wealthy (although we don’t think we are) and the Christian faith is in decline. In the 2011 census over 85,000 people actually described themselves as pagans, witches, druids etc etc (double the figure from 10 years earlier).

But just look around you, at the TV and newspapers you’ll see there is an absolute obsession with the occult, witchcraft, horoscopes, lucky charms, luck lottery numbers… it’s everywhere. People get very serious about their star signs…..

And examples of modern pagan gods abound in or society, but they are more subtle today. They share the defining feature of pagan worship – they are human-centred. So nowadays our society worships youth and celebrity; we worship our bodies – magazines depict ‘perfect’ male and female forms; people are obsessed with how they look; the TV is full of programmes about luxury food or programmes about people who have eaten too much food; and, needless to say, we worship and exploit sex. These are all pagan cults, false routes to chasing what we think we want. And they have names. But today, our Western pagan gods are more likely to be international brand names rather than enormous stone monuments; and the temples of our gods are probably found in the cathedral-like shopping centres than on top of hills.

Back to Judges. Despite everything that had happened to them with Moses, why would these pagan gods in Canaan become so attractive to the Hebrew people? One of the reasons is not immediately obvious to us Christians after 2,000 years of Christian tradition and coming to understand our one true God, is that our pagan ancestors were convinced that they were in charge of the gods, that through their actions they could manipulate and control the gods. The relationship with pagan gods was completely the opposite of our relationship with God: they placed human beings at the centre of creation; we place God as the supreme creator and we are His servants. Pagans in effect created their own gods; we recognise, however, that it is US who are the created beings, subservient to an Almighty God. Pagan worship is focused on humanity, 100% the opposite of Christian worship which focuses on God, who is divine.

What is it that makes pagan worship so seductive to us? Maybe it is that the alternative seems less attractive. If people do not have a meaningful relationship with God, our one true God can seem rather frustrating, because we don’t always get what we want. Note that: ‘what WE want’. This is THE original sin – thinking that WE are greater than God, can do without Him. This is the difference between our sacramental religion, where everything we receive is a gift from God, and the superstition of pagan worship, where the worshippers of pagan gods think they can magically be in charge of events through using different gods to get what they want, achieve this mysterious manipulation of the gods, appeasing these pagan gods, keeping them happy with strange rituals. In contrast, it is an article of Catholic faith that our salvation is a free gift from God available to all, and is definitely not a reward given to a select few gaining credit with God through their ‘good works’.

So the fundamental difference between pagan and Christian traditions is that worshipping gods (like Ba’al) is human in origin, initiated by people, not by the pagan god. Pagan worship has its origins in humanity, who make idols to worship; whereas we believe God searches us out and chooses us; our God is not visible and our religion is a revealed religion, God gradually revealing more and more about Himself, starting with Abraham, then working through prophets and leaders of the Chosen People (such as Moses) before finally revealing Himself at the incarnation as Jesus – ‘God made visible’.

Worship in these cults of these gods focused on fertility – the fertility of the soil, of livestock and of humans. This was because the Promised Land Canaan’s depended on rainfall to keep it irrigated, (unlike Egypt and Mesopotamia, which were irrigated by the Nile and Tigris respectively). When people were worried about water supplies for crops and trees, they might in desperation, as perhaps a sort of insurance policy, pray to the God of Abraham, but (just to make sure), they turn to the appropriate pagan god for rainfall.

Remember, and 400 years of exile and slavery in Egypt, the Hebrews’ faith in the God of Abraham was shaky and immature. And it was not based on the privilege we have, of a personal relationship with God through Jesus, who showed us how to worship God from a human perspective.

Incidentally, gaining fertility for crops and livestock through worshipping Ba’al was inextricably linked to human fertility and sexuality. Human sexuality is central to our existence; it is a strong part of our make-up and is a strong motivating urge within each of us. The emotions and pleasure of this side of humanity was central to Ba’al worship. This worship was conducted by priests in temples or in the fields during good weather on hilltops. They sacrificed animals, ate ritual meals, and performed rituals, including the use of male and female temple prostitutes to bring worshippers to a state of ecstasy. This behaviour was believed to excite Baal, who then showed his pleasure with the worship by bringing rain to make the earth fertile.

So worshipping Ba’al was shocking for devout Jews – not only did it break the commandment not to worship any other god apart from the one true God, it also encouraged behaviour that would be considered deeply immoral.

The result of this godless behaviour, as we have heard today, was that God reduced them ‘to dire distress’. In other words, the nation sank into a complete shambles.

This is a lesson for us and our own nation today. Humanity cannot cope without a proper relationship with God. Given our own human stupidity of continually thinking as a nation that we can do everything without God, our role as Christians is to be that strand of faith in a hostile world, offering hope. The Church is the route to salvation from godless sin, and it comes through God’s gift of grace and patient forgiveness, based on Divine mercy. But always, always, we must remember that we as individuals (and our national leaders), are servants of God, doing His will. We endeavor to do what is right because God teaches us what is right and guides us. No matter how important we think we may be, we know who is really in charge.

And it is not us!

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