by the Rev. Martin Emmrich
11And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. 12And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. 13They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth.
Failure to remember Yahweh's redemptive work on behalf of Israel (2:6-10) precipitated the symptoms shown in our three verses. A few observations are in order here. Cultic practices in the Ancient Near East and particularly in Palestine were heavily informed by concepts of fertility. In fact, fertility rites lay at the heart of this agrarian culture that, in the absence of any irrigation system, depended on rainfall for the growth of crops, fruit, and vegetables. Baal was the storm/weather god of Canaanite peoples. Canaanite mythology also knows this deity by the name of Hadad and some other titles. Baal was one of seventy children of El and Asherah, along with his opponent, Mot, god of the underworld, and Yam, god of the sea. Our text refers to Baal in the plural, "Baalim," yet the reference is not to a multiplicity of gods but to various manifestations of one and the same deity. Each town or region had its own local manifestation of Baal, so to speak. The same is true for the plural "Ashtoeths." Astarte, also known as Anath, was the consort of Baal, a female goddess of fertility.
Well, these were the gods of this land that Israel had entered, and they seemed to rule with effectiveness. Baal and Co. must have been doing something right, because the Israelites saw a fertile land, and they found it only natural to attribute apparent prosperity to these two gods who formed a powerful force in Canaanite spirituality. So, while Israel had experienced Yahweh's power in Egypt and in the desert, they could not conceive of Yahweh as the God of this land where local deities held sway. Of course, forgetting the mighty acts of Yahweh did not help either. The Canaanite religion seemed to work very well for the sedentary people of the land, so why change a winning team? It made sense to change allegiance. The Canaanite religious system also afforded exciting and often erotic cult rituals. In this way, Israel was enthused about these forbidden ways, and they made their choice. Israel fell for the Canaanite pantheon, and they became assimilated into the pagan culture.
When we hear these things, we may be tempted to think of Israel as a horde of buffoons who simply did not get their systematic theology right. "God is not limited to a country or a region, don't you know that?" But in reality, the issue remains as acute today as it ever was. We have often limited God in similar ways. God rules supreme in our church buildings and in our Christian circles, but out there, in the world, we adopt a different agenda. Here God is not quite so relevant, and this notion is manifest in the fact that we are less confident, and adopt a different code of conduct. The gods of our consumerist society seem to be working well for those who worship them. Indeed, there is tremendous peer-pressure to bow to them. Does America's and our well-being not depend on our playing by their rules?
In 2:20 Yahweh accuses Israel of breaking the covenant, and he calls them, "this nation." The word startles, because it is otherwise used only of the nations who do not know God (cf. 2:21, 23). God saw no difference anymore between Israel and the nations. What would God say of us today?
The author of these devotionals, the Rev. Martin Emmrich, is an ordained OPC minister (Westminster OPC, Corvallis, Oregon) as well as the author of Pneumatological Concepts in the Epistle to the Hebrews, a book on the teaching of Hebrews on the Holy Spirit. We are happy to make these devotionals on Ecclesiastes and other passages of Scripture available to you.