The Israelites of the Old Testament times came into contact with the Canaanites, Egyptians, Babylonians, and other people who worshiped false gods. YHWH warned H[IS] people not to imitate their their pagan neighbors, yet the Israelites disobeyed H[IM]. They slipped into paganism again and again.
What did these pagan nations worship?[, and] [H]ow did it pull the Israelites away from the [O[NE]] [T]rue God?
By studying these pagan cultures we learn how man attempted to answer the ultimate questions of life before he found the [L]ight of I AM'S [T]ruth. Also, we come to understand the world in which Israel lived - a world radically different, both ethnically and ideologically.
Before beginning such a study, we should note some cautions.
First, we need to remember we stand at least two millennia from the pagan cultures we are about to describe. The evidence (texts, buildings, artifacts) is often very sketchy. So we need to be cautious in drawing conclusions.
Secondly, we should realize that we live in a pluristic society in which every person is free to believe or disbelieve as he chooses; but ancient peoples felt that some sort of religion was necessary. An agnostic or "free thinker" would have had a hard time living among the Egyptians, the Hittites, or even the Greeks and Romans. Religion was everywhere. It was the heart of ancient society. A person worshiped the deities of his town, city, or civilization. If he moved to a new home or traveled through a foreign land, he was duty-bound to show respect to the deities there.
I. COMMON FEATURES OF PAGAN RELIGIONS
I-A. MANY GODS
I-B. WORSHIP OF IMAGES
Certain features were common to most of these pagan religions. They all partook of the same world view, which was centered on the locality and its prestige. The differences between Sumerian and Assyro-Babylonian religions or between Greek and Roman religions were marginal.
Most of these religions were polytheistic, which means they acknowledged many gods and demons. Once admitted to the pantheon (a culture's collection of deities), a god could not be eliminated from it. He or she had gained "divine tenure".
Each polytheistic culture inherited religious ideas from its predecessors or acquired them in war. For example: What Nanna was to the Sumerians (the moon god), Sin was to the Babylonians. What Inanna was to the Sumerians (the fertility goddess and queen of heaven), Ishtar (Easter - misnomered 'Passover' in ACTS 12:4) was to the Babylonians. The Romans simply took over the Greek gods and gave them Roman names. Thus the Roman god Jupiter was equal to Zeus as sky god; Minerva equaled Athena as goddess of wisdom; Neptune equaled Poseidon as god of the sea; and so forth. In other words, the idea of the god was the same; just the cultural wrapping was different. So one ancient culture could absorb the religion of another without changing stride or breaking step. Each culture not only claimed gods of a previous civilization; it laid claim to their myths and made them its own, with only minor changes.
The chief gods were often associated with some phenomenon in nature. Thus, Utu/Shamash is both the sun and the sun god; Enki/Ea is both sea and the sea god; Nanna/Sin is both the moon and the moon god. The pagan cultures made no distinction between an element of nature and any force behind that element. Ancient man struggled against forces that could be either beneficent or malevolent. Enough rain guaranteed a bumper crop at harvest, but too much rain would destroy that crop. Life was quite unpredictable, especially since the gods were thought to be capricious and whimsical, capable of either good or evil. Human beings and gods participated in the same kind of life; the gods had the same sort of problems and frustrations that human beings had. This concept is called monism. Thus when in PSALM 19:1 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.", it mocks the beliefs of the Egyptians and the Babylonians. These pagan people could not imagine that the universe fulfilled an all-embracing divine plan.
The Egyptians also associated their gods with phenomena of nature; Shu (air), Re/Horus (sun), Khonsu (moon), Nut (sky), and so on. The same tendency appears in the Hittite worship of Wurusemu (sun goddess), Taru (storm), Telipinu (vegetation), and several mountain gods. Among the Canaanites, El was the high god in heaven, Baal was the storm god, Yam was the sea god, and Shemesh and Yareah were the sun and moon gods repectively. Because of this bewildering array of nature deities the pagan could never speak of a "universe". He did not conceive of one central force that holds all together, and by which all things exist. The pagan believed he lived in a "multiverse".
Another common trait of pagan religion was religious iconography (the making of images or totems to worship). All of these religions worshiped idols. Israel alone was officially aniconic (i.e., it had no images, no pictorial representations of God). Images of Jehovah, such as Aaron's and Jeroboam's bull-calves (EXODUS 32; 1 KINGS 12:26 [and verses following]) were forbidden in the [S]econd [C]ommandment.
But aniconic religion was not always the whole story. The Israelites worshiped pagan idol's while they lived under Egypt's bondage (JOSHUA 24:14); and even though God banished their idols (EXODUS 20:1-5), the Moabites lured them into idolatry again (NUMBERS 25:1-2). Idolatry was the downfall of Israel's leaders in different periods of her [[H]IS]tory, and God finally allowed the nation to be defeated "because of their sacrifices" to pagan idols (HOSEA 12:19).
Most pagan religions pictured their gods anthropomorphically (i.e., as human beings). In fact, only an expert can look at a picture of Babylon gods and mortals and tell which is which. Egyptian artists usually represented their gods as men or women with animal heads. Horus was a falcon-headed man, Sekhmet was a lioness-headed woman, Anubis was a jackel, Hathor a cow, and so forth. Hittite gods can be recognized by the drawing of a weapon they place on their shoulder, or by some other distinctive object such as a helmet with a pair of horns. The Greek gods also are pictured as humans, but without the harsh characteristics of the Semite deities.
What is the significance of portraying the gods like human beings? The opening chapters of GENESIS say that God made man in H[IS] Image (GENESIS 1:27), but the pagans attempted to make gods in their own image. That is to say, the pagan gods were merely amplified human beings. The myths of the ancient world assumed that the gods had the same needs as humans, the same foibles and the same imperfections. If there was a difference between pagan gods and men, it was only a difference of degree. The gods were human made "bigger than life". Often they were projections of the city or township.
Most pagan religions sacrificed animals to soothe their temperamental gods; some even sacrificed human beings. Because the heathen worshipers believed their gods had human desires, they also offered food and drink offerings to them (confer ISAIAH 57:5-6; JEREMIAH 7:18).
The Canaanites believed sacrifices had magical powers that brought the worshiper into sympathy and rhythm with the physical world. However, the gods were capricious, so worshipers sometimes offered sacrifices to secure a victory over their enemies (confer 2 KINGS 3:26-27). Perhaps this is why the decadent kings of Israel and Judah indulged in pagan sacrifice (confer 1 KINGS 21:25-26; 2 KINGS 16:23). They wanted magical aid in fighting their enemies, the Babylonians and Assyrians - preferably the aid of the same gods that had made their enemies victorious.
I-A. MANY GODS
I-B. WORSHIP OF IMAGES
II. OFFICIAL RELIGION vs. POPULAR RELIGION
Ancient polytheistic religions operated at two levels: the official religion of the archaic religious state and popular religion, which was little more than superstition.
II-A. CATEGORIES OF GODS
Each ancient religious system had a chief god who was more powerful than the rest. For Egyptians, this might be Re, Horus, or Osiris; for the Sumerians and Akkadians, it might be Enlil, Enki/Ea, or Marduk; for the Canaanites, it would be El; and for the Greeks, Zeus. In most instances, the pagans built temples and recited liturgies in honor of these high gods. Usually the king presided over this worship, acting as the god's representative in a ritual meal, marriage, or combat. This was the official religion.
"The temple was the home of the god, and the priests were his domestic staff. . . . Every day it was the duty of the staff of the temple to attend to the god's 'bodily needs' according to a fixed routine. . . .
"But the god was not merely the householder of the temple, he was also the lord and master of his people, and as such entitled to offerings and tributes of many kinds. . . ."1.
1O. G. Gurney, The Hittites (Baltimore: Penquin Books, 1952), pp. 149-150
The gods of the official state religion were too far removed from the local man to be of any practical value.
Ancient Egypt was divided into districts called nomes. In the early days of Egypt there were 22 of these in Upper Egypt (the southern part) and 20 in the northern delta area. Each nome had a key capital city and a local god who was worshiped in that territory: Ptah in Memphis, Amun-Re in Thebes, Thoth in Hermopolis, and so on. In Mesopotamia too, each city was sacred to one god or goddess; Nanna/Sin in Ur ([Abram's] Abraham's birthplace), Utu/Shamash in Larsa, Enlil in Nippur, and Marduk in Babylon. The Canaanites worshiped "the Baal" (the local fertility deity) but the people of each community had their own baal, as we can tell by place names like Baal-zephon, Baal-peor, and Baal-hermon (all mentioned in the Old Testament - e.g., EXODUS 14:2; NUMBERS 25:5; JUDGES 3:3). In the ancient Near East, official religion was orientated to the state, while popular religion was orientated to the geographical locale. Ancient man saw no inconsistantcy between believing in gods "up there" and another god "right here" - all competing for his attention and servitude. This was a partial recognition of the ultimate problem of immanence and transendence.
II-B. ABSTRACT PHILOSOPHY
The ancients began to move away from pure superstition and deified various abstract ideals under the names of ancient gods.
In Mesopotamia, "Justice" and "Righteousness" appear as minor deities in the retinue of Utu/Shamash, the sun god; they were called Nig-gina and Nig-sisa, respectively. Their "boss" was Shamash, the Mesopotamian god of law. Ancient thinkers conceived of these abstract ideas as gods, rather than dealing with the ideas themselves.
The Egyptians did this more than anyone else. Some of the Major Egyptian gods fell into this category. For example, Atum expresses the concept of universality. The name Amon means "hidden" - the Egyptians thought he was a formless, unseen being who might be anywhere, and anyone could worship him. For that reason, they later grafted the idea of Amon on to Re, and the god became Amun-Re, "the king of eternity and guardian of the dead."2. The most massive temples of Egyptian history were built in honor of Amun-Re at Karnak. The goddess Maat was another Egyptian idea-become-god. She was supposed to personify truth and justice, and was the cosmic force of harmony and stability.
2George Steindorff and Keith C. Seele, When Egypt Ruled the East, rev. ed. by Keith C. Seele (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 77.
The Canaanites represented truth and justice with the gods Sedeq and Mishor, who were supposed to serve under the god Shemesh. But even though pagan thinkers could deal with these ideas more easily this way, few of the gods lived up to their ideals, according to legend. Canaanite religion continued the ancient desire for sexual harmony with nature, and it encouraged particularly obsecene rituals.
II-C. AKHNATON'S BELIEF
The pagan religions of Mesopotamia never broke out of their polytheistic mold. One scholar of ancient religions, W. W. Hallo, speaks of the Mesopotamians' "unsurmountable antipathy to an exclusive monotheism."3. The same can be said for other people of antiquity: Hitties, Persians, Canaanites, Greeks, and Romans.
3W. W. Hallo and W. K. Simpson, The Ancient Near East: A History, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971).
There is perhaps one exception. Typically Egypt was polytheistic; but during her eighteenth dynasty she produced the famous pharaoh Amenhotep IV (1387-1366 B.C.). He outlawed the worship of all gods except Aton (the "sun disk"), and then changed his own name to Akhnaton. Prior to Akhnaton, the Egyptian deities had often been merged or coalesced into a single god-concept (usually Re); this however, is not monotheism. But the Egyptians called the god Aton "the sole god, like whom there is no other.". This had far-reaching political effects and could not have been accomplished without the support of the army and the priests. But Akhnaton's religion fell far short of saying anything like "Hear O Israel, the LORD our God is one" (DEUTERONOMY 6:4). Ankhnaton's "reform" was short-lived, however, and his successors purged Egypt of this "heresy". The old political priesthood returned to power and supported their own pharaoh.
In the ancient world, only Israel was fully monotheistic. But let us be sure we understand what this means. Monotheism is not simply a matter of arithmetic. Perhaps the most succinct statement is that of W.F. Albright, who says that monotheisim is "the belief in the existence of only one God, who is the Creator of the world and the giver of all life, . . . [Who is] so far superior to all created beings . . . that He remains absolutely unique." This made Israel radically different from her pagan neighbors.
III. PAGAN RELIGION IN LITERATURE
When we return to literature of the ancient world we get the clearest picture of pagan religions. Almost all ancient literature reflects the religion of its culture: hymns, prayers, royal inscriptions, incantations, historical texts, and epics. The beliefs of a people are seen most clearly when they address themselves to questions such as: Who am I? Where did I come from? What is the world? How does one explain pleasure and pain? We find their answers to most of these questions in ancient creation stories (technically called cosmogonies), and hardly any group of people is without some tradition at this point.
III-A. EGYPTIAN CREATION STORIES
Egypt had at least five different stories that explained the origin of the world, the gods, and man. Two of these five will be enough to illustrate what the Egyptians believed.
The city of Heliopolis hands down the story that Amun-Re came forth from the watery mass (Nun) by his own power. He then reproduced from himself the first divine couple, Shu and Tefnut (air and moisture, male and female). This couple mated and produced another generation of gods, Geb (earth) and his wife Nut (sky). And so the process of life started.
In another story (this one from the city of Hermoplois), creation began with four couples of gods. These four couples created an egg from which the sun (Re) was born. Re then created the world.
Egyptians told these creation stories to try to prove that their city was the place of creation. Memphis, Thebes, Heliopolis, and Hermopolis claimed to be the territory where it all started.
III-B. BABYLON'S CREATION STORY
The most complete creation account from Babylon is usually called the Enuma Elish. These are the first two words of the narrative, and they translate into English as "When on high. . . ".
In the beginning there were two gods, Apsu and Tiamat, who represented the fresh waters (male) and the marine waters (female). They cohabitated and produced a second generation of divine beings. Soon Apsu was suffering from insomnia because the young deities were making so much noise; he just could not get to sleep. He wanted to kill the noisy upstarts, despite the protests of his spouse, Tiamat. But before he managed to do that, Ea, the god of wisdom and magic, put Apsu to sleep under a magic spell and killed him.
Not to be outdone, wife Tiamat plotted revenge on her husband's killer and those who aided the killing. Her first move was to take a second husband, whose name was Kingu. Then she raised an army for her retaliation plans.
At this point the gods appealed to the god Marduk to save them. He happily accepted the challenge, on the condition that if he was victorious over Tiamat, they would make him chief of all gods.
The confrontation between Tiamat and Marduk ended in a blazing victory for Marduk. He captured Tiamat's followers and made them his slaves. Then he cut the corpse of Tiamat in half, creating heaven from one half of it and the earth from the other half. He ordered the earlier supporters of Tiamat to take care of the world.
Shortly thereafter, Marduk conceived another plan. He had Kingu killed and arranged for Ea to make man out of his blood. In the words of the story, man's lot is to be "burdened with the toil of the gods.". To demonstrate their gratitude to Marduk, the gods then helped him to build the great city of Babylon and its imposing temple. The story ends by describing the gods' great feast in Marduk's honor and by listing Marduk's fifty names, each of which is supposed to indicate some power or accomplishment that characterizes him.
Note some of the emphases of this story. It says that in the beginning there were two gods, Apsu and Tiamat, male and female. This is markedly different from the creation account of GENESIS 1 - 2, which states that in the beginning there was one God, not two. Why is it important to know that God had no spouse or consort, and was alone? Because it shows that God finds fulfillment in Himself, and needs no resources outside Himself. The opening chapters of GENESIS refer to nothing else that finds fulfillment in itself. All of God's creatures find fulfillment in something or someone outside themselves.
The pagan Babylonian had no problem believing there were two gods in the beginning. as far as he was concerned, there could be no future with only one god. How could there be creation or procreation if there was only one god? When the pagan talked about his gods, he talked only in human categories. He could not imagine a god who was any different.
It seems strange that the Babylonian god Apsu complains that he wants to sleep. But when the Psalmist said that our God "shall neither slumber nor sleep" (PSALM 121:4), he was stating something that was not obvious in his day. It underscores the fact that Israel's belief in God was radically unique among the people of the ancient world.
Apsu was ready to kill because his children kept him awake. He had no clear-cut moral motive. The god was angry - not because man has filled the earth with violence or corruption, but because it is so noisy he cannot sleep! It seems strange that a god like Apsu could act out of such selfish motives. But the pagan mind reasoned that if mortal man conducts himself this way, why not the gods, too?
The real purpose of the Enuma Elish is not to tell about the creation of the world. The story is intended to answer the question: How did the god Marduk become chief god of the mighty city, Babylon? More than likely, the Babylonians read this particular composition at their New Year's festival, in the hopes of guaranteeing a good year ahead. Marduk represented the forces of order and Tiamat the forces of chaos. This line of thinking concludes that, if a person says the right words at the right time, his chances of success will increase. It sees celebration or invocation of the gods as a kind of magic charm.
Pagan myths view the creation of man as an afterthought. They say that man was created to be servant of the gods, to do their "dirty work". The Babylonians believed that man was evil because Marduk had created him from the blood of the rebellious god, Kingu. Certainly this account has none of the majesty that we find surrounding the creation of man in GENESIS.
The Bible says God created man IN H[IS] O[WN] I[MAGE] (i.e., 'in Our image'), distinct from all else that God had made (GENESIS 1:26-27). And the separate account of the creation of woman (GENESIS 2:21-25).
III-C. PAGAN FLOOD MYTH'S
In the Bible, the creation story is soon followed by the Flood, God's response to man's repeated iniquities (GENESIS 6 - 9). In both Egypt and Canaan we find narratives about angry gods who unleashed their fury on mankind, sometimes accompanied by a great flood.
In Egyptian mythology the goddess Sekhmet intended to wipe out the human race. She was thwarted only when others flooded the world with beer, which had been dyed blood-red. Bloodthirsty as she was, Sekhmet drank all she could and was put to sleep by the beer.
Canaanite literature tells a similar story about the goddess Anath (wife of Baal), who went on a rampage against man. No gory detail is omitted from the story as she wades into battle with a club and bow: "Under Anath (flew) heads like vultures/Over her (flew) hands like locusts . . . She plunges knee-deep in the blood of heroes/Neck-high in the gore of troops . . . Anath swells her liver with laughter/Her heart is filled with joy/For in the hand of Anath is victory."4.
4J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princton, N.J.: Priceton University Press, 1969).
The literature of Mesopotamia includes a crucial text that describes a flood as divine punishment. This particular text is called the Gilgamesh Epic. The main character is himself a combination of history and legend. He was in fact the fifth king of the Uruk (around 2600 B.C.), and appears in legend as a Samson-like individual. Two things stand out in the traditions about Gilgamesh. First, the story says he was one-third human and two-thirds divine. Second, he supposedly was of mixed human and divine parentage; his mother was the goddess Ninsun and his father was Lugal-banda, and earlier king of Uruk.
The Gilgamesh Epic tells how Gilgamesh brutalized his subjects. To tone him down, the people of Uruk persuaded the goddess Aruru to create a man named Enkidu. Enkidu eventually met Gilgamesh and the two became the best of friends. Subsequently, they waged war against all types of monsters, such as the evil dragon Humbaba. Gilgamesh is handsome - so handsome that the goddess Ishtar (Easter - misnomered 'Passover' in ACTS 12:4) proposes marriage. Gilgamesh rejects her proposal because she is a promiscuous wife and lover. Fuming, Ishtar (Easter - misnomered 'Passover' in ACTS 12:4) obtains permission from her father, Anu, to destroy Gilgamesh with the Bull of Heaven. Ferocious fighting follows, and again Gilgamesh and Enkidu are victorious.
But then Enkidu becomes ill and dies. Brooding over the death of his companion, Gilgamesh determines to find a man called Utnapishtim, the only mortal who had ever become immortal by surviving the flood, because Gilgamesh wants to learn how to do the same. After much hair-raising adventure through the underworld, Gilgamesh finally meets Utnapishtim.
Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how the gods secretly decided to send a flood on the earth, principally through the storm god Enlil. One of their own, Ea, divulged the plan to Utnapishtim and urged him to build a boat to save himself, his family, some precious metals, and various species of animals. Utnapishtim took all of these aboard, along with several skilled crewmen. The rains fell for seven days and nights, after which Utnapishtim's boat landed on a mountain. Utnapishtim sent out various birds to determine whether or not the waters had receded. When he finally left the ship he made a sacrifice to the gods, who "gathered like flies" around it. Enraged that two humans had escaped his catatrophic blow, Enlil at first threatened but then conferred divinity upon Utnapishtim and his wife - not as a reward, but as an alternative to destroying humanity.
But all this means nothing for Gilgamesh. Utnapishtim's rescue was an exception, not a precedent. As a consolation, Utnapishtim offers Gilgamesh the Plant of Life; but even this is stolen by a serpent. Frustration upon frustration! Drearily Gilgamesh trudges home to Uruk. He knows he must die, but at least he will be remembered for his building accomplishments - his immortality being in great poetic epices of the Akkadian language.
Woven into this myth is a Mesopotamian flood story, with fascinating parallels to Scripture. But in no way does the Mesopotamian myth cast doubt on the authenticity of GENESIS.
There are many ideological differences between the two flood stories. The Gilgamesh Epic gives no clear-cut reason for Enlil to send the flood. Certainly he was not moved by the moral degeneracy of mankind. How could he be? These pagan gods were not paragons of virtue nor did they champion it. One modern scholar, C. H. Gordon says, "The modern student must not make the mistake of thnking that the ancient Easterner had any difficulty in reconciling the notion of divinity with carryings-on that included chicanery, bribery, indecent exposure for a laugh, and homosexual buffoonery."5.
5C. H. Gordon, "Ancient Near Eastern Religions", Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., Vol.12 (Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corporation, 1974).
Also, note, that the Gilgamesh Epic emphasizes Utnapishtim's use of human skill in saving himself from the flood. That's why there were navigators on board; it is a match of human wits and divine wits. There is nothing like this in the GENESIS account; there were neither navigational equipment nor professional sailors on board. If Noah, his wife, and family were to be saved, it would happen by God's grace, not human expertise or ingenuity.
Third, the Gilgamesh story is basically without educational and long-range moral value. Scripture explains the significance of the Flood for subsequent generations by the words of a covenant from God: "And I will establish my covenant with you; . . . neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth" (GENESIS 9:11).
Fourthly, the Bible shows that God saved Noah to preserve the human race. The myth of Utnapishtim does not reflect any such divine plan. He was saved by accident, because one of the gods tattled to him about Enlil's intentions.
Texts dealing with divination represent the second largest single category of the cunniform literature of Mesopotamia (after economic texts). At its most elementary level, divination is an attempt to dechipher the will of the gods through the use of magical techniques. The pagans believed they could use human skill and ingenuity to acquire from the gods knowledge about certain situations. In the words of Yehezkel Kaufmann, a diviner is "a scientist who can dispense with divine revelation."6.
6Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1960), p.21.
Divination usually followed either the inductive or intuitive method. In the former, the diviner observes events and then draws conclusions from them. The most common method was to observe the inner parts of slaughtered sheep or goats. Diviners usually studied the liver (a technique called hepatoscopy). A typical divination formula might run something like this: "If the liver has the shape X, then the outcome of the battle/sickness/journey will be as follows. . . ."
This particular system was fine for the king and the wealthy, but for the average citizens a variety of cheaper techniques was needed. There were at least half a dozen of these, such as lecanomancy (letting drops of oil fall into a cup of water and observing the patterns that appear) or libanomancy (watching the various shapes from the smoke of incense).
In the intuitive type of divination, the diviner is less active; he is more of an observer and interpreter. The best-known type of intuitive divination was a dream interpretation (oneiromancy). This method produced a body of dream interpretation literature that said, "If you dream such and such, it means. . . .". Other means of divination were the texts known as menologies and hemerologies. The first type listed the months of the year and told which months were favorable for certain kinds of tasks. The latter listed activities that a person should engage in or avoid for each day of the month. From all of this, astrology was born.
The Old Testament forbids all techniques of divination (confer DEUTERONOMY 18:10; LEVITICUS 20:6; EZEKIEL 13:6-8). The Bible calls divination an "abomination"; for that reason there were no professional diviners in Israel. The confidence that divination put in human wisdom was an insult to God, for it reflected unwillingness to trust H[IS] [R]evelation of [T]ruth.
III-E. RITUAL LITERATURE
The vast majority of the texts that tell of pagan temples, offerings, sacrifices, and clergy are describing the religion of the king. They are not usually applicable to the commoner's religion. Leo Oppenheim has said correctly, "The common man . . . remains unknown, the most important unknown element in Mesopotamian religion."7. The same could certainly be said for Egypt. It was unthinkable that "the man on the street" could receive revelations from the gods. This was a prerogative of the king.
7A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, 2nd ed. (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1976).
The chasm between Christian Scripture and pagan religions is enormus here. In the Old Testament, God speaks not only to leaders like Moses and David, but also to harlots, outcasts, sinners, and others. For example, note that the first person of whom Scripture says, "He was filled with God's Spirit," was a man named Bezaleel (EXODUS 31:3), the foreman in charge of building the tabernacle.
Whether in Egypt or in Mesopotamia, pagans believed that their gods lived in temples they built for them. As such, they considered the temple to be sacrosanct. Hymns to temples are quite common in pagan literature.
In this respect, Solomon's prayer of dedication at the Jerusalem temple reveals a clear anti-pagan emphasis. Consider this verse: "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!" (1 KINGS 8:27, RSV).
The pagan king administered the temple and performed the priestly services for his gods. He was thought to be the mediator between man and the gods. He reigned for gods (as in Mesopotamia) or as god (as in Egypt).
Incidentally, here we meet one of the most distinctive characteristics of biblical faith. The pagan religions never produced a spokesmen who ventured to contradict the king, as the biblical prophets did. The pagans had no concept of "prophetic immunity.". Only in Israel could a king be reproached by a prophet with the words, "Thou art a man!" (2 SAMUEL 12:7). After all, if the king is sovereign, divine, and the head clergyman, who can tell him that he is out of line" This is why Jezebel, being of Phoenician background, could not understand why her Israelite husband cowered before the prophet Elijah (confer 1 KINGS 16:31; 21:6, 20-27).
IV. HOLY DAYS
The Israelites celebrated a number of religious festivals during the year. (See "Jewish Rituals."). Their pagan neighbors had holy days of their own, and these observances give us further insight into their spiritual outlook.
The Babylonians observed moon festivals on fixed days of the month: the first, seventh, fifteenth, and twenty-eighth. In addition, they had special "seventh" days - the seventh, fourteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth of each month. They took special precautions to avoid bad luck on these "seventh" days. And they did not work at all on the fifteenth day of the month, because they believed there was no chance for good fortune on that day; this day of rest was called shappatu. On the shappatu, the Babylonians tried to pacify the gods and appease their anger with a day of penitence and prayer.
In pagan religions a sacrifice was a meal for the god, the source of his nutrition. "Like flies" the gods converged on the sacrifice of Utnapishtim after he got off his boat. It is hard to believe that anyone really believed the idol ate a morsel when no one was looking. Probably the dishes were brought to the king for consumption after being presented to the image. The food, having an aura of the holy, was supposed to sanctify the consumer - in this case, the king. When very large amounts of food were presented for sacrifice, as in Egypt or Persia, the food would go to temple personnel. The apocryphal story of Bel and the Dragon describes this practice.
In addition to the lucky and unlucky days we discussed earlier, the greatest festival in Babylon was the akitu (i.e., the New Year Feast). The Babylonians celebrated akitu in March and April, when nature began to revive. They spent the first four days making prayers to Marduk, the chief god of Babylon. In the evening of the fourth day they recited the creation story (the Enuma Elish). By recounting the original victory of order (Marduk) over chaos (Tiamat), the Babylonians hoped that the same victory would be evident in the new year. The Babylonians believed the spoken word had power. And so on the fifth day, the king appeared before Marduk's statue and declared his innocence from faults and his fulfilment of his obligations. We are not sure what the people did for the next few days, but on the ninth and tenth days they held a banquet. On the eleventh day soothsayers divined the destinies of the following year.
V. VIEWS OF THE AFTERLIFE
Two radically different concepts of the afterlife appeared in the pagan Near East. In Mesopotamia, very few people believed there was life after death. The Gilgamesh Epic had this to say: "Gilgamesh whither runnest thou? Life, which thou seekest, thou wilt not find. When the gods created mankind, they allotted to mankind Death, but Life they wthheld in their hands."8.
8The Tree of Life (New York: Viking Press, 1942), p.263.
At the other end of the spectrum were the Egyptians. Their religion was saturated with a belief in the afterlife. The Egyptians believed the dead go to a territory ruled by Osiris, where a person must give an account of his good and bad deeds. Behind this was the Osiris legend, which tells how the the benevolent ruler Osiris was killed by his wicked brother Seth, who cut his body into pieces. His wife, Isis, searched for his dismembered body and restored it to life. Eventually Osiris descended into the underworld as the judge of the dead. His son, Horus, avenged his father's death by killing Seth. Subsequently the myth of Osiris' death and resurrection stimulated the Egyptians' hope for immortality. For Osiris, life won over death; good won over evil. So the Egyptian reasoned the same could happen to him.
At this point, however, we meet another basic contrast between Egyptian religion and biblical faith. The Old Testament affirms that, at least for the religious, life continues after physical death (confer PSALM 49:15; PROVERBS 14:32; ISAIAH 57:2). So in the biblical faith there is an afterlife for everyone who is faithful to God, whether that person is king or slave. The Egyptian religion was obsessed with the afterlife; but this afterlife was only for the pharaoh and his high-ranking officials. The Bible teaches that no man has a special claim on the presence of God, and no man is exempt from God's moral law. In essence, the difference boils down to a religion for the king (pagan) versus a faith for all believers (biblical).