Hosea 05 – Biblical Context: Canaan

3 I know all about Ephraim;
    Israel is not hidden from me.
Ephraim, you have now turned to prostitution;
    Israel is corrupt.

“Their deeds do not permit them
    to return to their God.
A spirit of prostitution is in their heart;
    they do not acknowledge the Lord.
Israel’s arrogance testifies against them;
    the Israelites, even Ephraim, stumble in their sin;
    Judah also stumbles with them.
When they go with their flocks and herds
    to seek the Lord,
they will not find him;
    he has withdrawn himself from them.

(Read the rest of the chapter here!)

 

I’m going to pause on Hosea here to talk a little about Canaan and Baal.  Neither of which are explicitly mentioned today, but there are allusions to both, depending which scholars you ask, in this chapter; and both Canaan as a place and people, as well as the deity Baal (or Ba’al) are entities we encounter often in Hosea and throughout the Bible at large.  Early Judaism, and, later, Christianity stood staunchly against Caananite religious practices while at the same time being influenced by them.  So it seems that if we want a fuller understanding of the Bible and Christianity, we should spend at least a little time learning about something mentioned well over 100 times in the case of Canaan/Canaanite, and about ninety in the case of Baal.

The Canaanites were an ancient people that lived near the Israelites.  In fact, they were the ones living in the promised land to which God led Moses.  They were, through-out much of history, seen as a people much separate and distinct from the Israelites.  Then, in 1929, the Ugaritic texts were discovered.  These texts, named for where they were found on the Mediterranean Coast of Syria, are a collection of writings, mainly epic poems, written in a cuneiform that is more similar to early Hebrew than the more common contemporary language, Akkadian.

The Ugaritic texts are some of the only first-hand documents from the Canaanites, everything else we know about them comes from second-hand sources, such as the Bible or Herodotus, a 5th century Greek scholar dubbed “the Father of History.”  These latter sources are important, to be sure, but we must remember that they were written with agendas:  The authors of the Bible saw Canaan as “separate” at best and an enemy at worst, and sought to highlight that distinction.  Herodotus sought to establish the primacy of Greek culture and therefore often exaggerated or vilified the cultural practices of non-Greek peoples.  But these Canaanites may not have been as different from early Israelites as we originally believed, and there are strong parallels in some of their religious stories and practices.

Canaanite religion was not Judaism, or even proto-Judaism (if that’s a term).  I like to think that both religions are tapping into some greater truths, kind of like the proliferation of flood stories I talked about when discussing Noah’s ark, and that’s what we see reflected in the two religions’ parallels.  So just what are these parallels?  I’ll share a few that I found.  First, the Canaanites were polytheistic, but there was one supreme ruler of all the gods, and his name was El, or Elohim.  That is also a name for God in Genesis.  The Ugaritic texts and the Old Testament also use the same word that means something like death or the grave, a word that doesn’t have an exact translation in my NIV Bible and hence is written without translation: Sheol.  It is used in the same way in both texts.  Also, there are strong similarities between Baal and Jesus:  Baal is basically “second in command” after El.  He is also a resurrected diety, as Jesus is.  Finally, the simple geographical proximity of the two peoples, plus the similarity of the two written languages, suggest that there must have been some overlapping cultural practices, including religious ones.

And there-in lies the problem.  If your religion is so similar to someone else’s religion, how are you to keep your followers from switching between the two at will?  One way is to vilify that other religion by playing up appalling and lurid practices, such as cultic prostitution and child sacrifice, whether they actually happened or not.  Baal was a fertility god, and there may have been some cultic prostitution connected to his worship, but solid historical evidence is scarce.  Child sacrifice is more often associated with the other rival deity Moloch – which some scholars say is another title for either Baal or El. Again, scholars seem to agree that it wasn’t as common a practice as the Biblical authors make it out to be. Either way, writers in the Bible make it clear that even if there is a suspicion of such practices, you are putting your relationship with God in serious danger should you go hang out with those degenerate Canaanites.

This bit of knowledge makes reading the Bible even that much more interesting.  This chapter is a great example of the tension between Canaanite aversion and Canaanite influence. “When they celebrate their new moon feasts, he will devour their fields,” Hosea says of God in verse seven.  Baal is a fertility god, and celebrating the new moon a common fertility rite. It’s extra-ironic that God will destroy the fertility of the fields while people are celebrating a fertility god, and that point would not be lost on Hosea’s listeners.  But then, at the end of the poem, God tears Judah and Ephraim to pieces, and leaves them with no hope of rescue while Xe “returns to [his] lair.”  Their only possibility for redemption is to wait for God’s return.  This could be true of any deity, I suppose, but again closely follows a story of Baal leaving his people in disgust, hiding in a cave, and only when he is good and ready does he come back to save his people.

I do not suggest that El is interchangeable with the Christian God, or that we can all pray to Baal just as well as God or Jesus.  Nor do I claim that Christianity has a singular hold on the Truth.  To do so would be arrogant in the extreme, and, in my opinion, offensive to God.  If you want to know more about why, even believing this, I am still a follower of Christ, I explain it here.  The whole reason I point out these similarities between Canaanite and Judeo-Christian beliefs is because I want to deepen my understanding of the Bible and God’s message.  Understanding the context in which the Bible was written is one way to do this.  And again, I want to stress, it is one way.  I also think you can pick up a Psalm and enjoy it’s beauty without knowing anything about its original context.  Or be moved by Jesus’ teachings without knowing anything about his life.  But why limit ourselves?  I want to learn everything I possibly can about God, about Jesus, and about how I can be better in their eyes.  A full understanding of the Bible: its context, its controversies, different translations, what was left out of it as well as what was included, can all help us understand God’s message more.

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