“Since Ephraim has multiplied altars for sin, they have become altars of sinning for him.” Hosea 8:11
I love Hosea 8:11. I love it almost more than any other verse in the Bible. I love every bit of its confusing archaic glory and its repetitive words, because one day long ago in the equally confusing days of early parenting, its words spoke directly to my heart. It is a verse I quote often to my children, and I want to tell you why. But first, we’re going to start with some context.
If you can stay with me in this post while we delve into the history surrounding this ancient prophecy, I think you’ll find the next post’s application worth the work. So put on those thinking caps!
ALTARS OF SIN
In ancient times altars were erected from wood or earth or stone, placed upon high places, within temples, or upon sacred grounds, and used to worship a god. Sacrifices were carried out upon them, as were religious rituals of all kinds. This sounds primeval to you and I, but to the people of that time they were like Baptist churches in the South–everywhere, and a part of the common fiber of life.
In ancient Israel, Yahweh God made explicit commands to the people of Israel, teaching them not to engage in practices such as altar building, sacrificing, or religious ritual for any god but He. He also drew very clear lines in the sand differentiating Israelite worship from Canaanite (the Canaanites being the nations surrounding Israel), teaching his people what true worship really is. The religion of the Israelites was, and was to remain, unique.
But time passed, and the Israelites began to adopt the practices of the heathen nations surrounding them. They set aside the distinctiveness of Yahweh worship and created a blended religion. Altars to false gods were erected “on every high hill and in every green place,” and it was for this falseness–a falseness that eventually rotted their hearts to the core–that God sent Israel into exile by the hands of the Assyrians.
GODS NAMED EL AND BAAL
Altars of sin are not so preposterous as we imagine. In this instance Israel was surrounded by heathen cultures which worshipped gods named “El” and “Baal.” These are the same names given to Yahweh in the Biblical text. El simply means “god” (think “El Shaddai”), and Baal simply means “master/husband,” or in our English translations, “Lord.” These words, Lord and God, are used in the Bible for reference to the true God, as well as in reference to false gods. Every time we see God or Lord in the Old Testament, the Hebrew is using El and Baal.
These are neutral words. But the Beings to whom they are applied are by no means neutral.
AN UNHOLY TRINITY
Now, the pantheistic El worshippers–the Canaanites of the Bible, and many peoples throughout ancient Mesopotamia–believed that El was the father of all life and the god of all gods. They believed he possessed a wife named Asherah (mother of the living, goddess of fertility) and a son named Hadad, who was also called Baal. Baal Hadad was viewed as the gateway to El. (Do you recognize a trinity?) Both El and Baal were portrayed by golden images of a bull with horns, while Asherah was portrayed by an ornately carved tree or pole. (Wikipedia has a very brief but fascinating history of Israel’s affair with Asherah here.)
You see, it was a simple slope down which to slide for the Israelites to view the Yahweh of Israel as synonymous to the El of the Canaanites–both were considered to be Creator God. Over time, the people of Israel even began to consider Baal Hadad (Lord Hadad) the same as Baal Yahweh (Lord Yahweh), and the nuances of religion began to blend. Building an altar to one baal began to seem as valid as building an altar to another.
ALTARS OF SINNING
I always imagined it might have been more black and white for them, that on the left hand there were the gods of the surrounding nations, and on the right hand, Yahweh; that there was no comparison between the two and so in order to move into the worship of false idols, people had to make deliberate, obvious decisions. But it seems instead that as people began laying off certain of the distinctive commandments which kept them a separate people from the Canaanites, that the clear lines between the gods themselves also faded away. Even today scholars will say that Yahweh was a concept which emerged out of pantheism, and is just the Hebraic version of the pantheistic El.
(The Bible, on the other hand, instructs that Yahweh was the true and only God forever. I believe that when the Bible says God revealed himself to Abraham by calling him out from the Canaanite gods, it was just that: a revealing. God always has been, our human understanding of him has altered over time. One could say pantheism was just a human effort to understand, or a demonic effort to undermine, who Yahweh really is.)
So you see, the people, when erecting Asherah poles, creating alters to Baal, making images of God as a bull or a calf, may have considered these things not to be worship of foreign gods at all. Having put aside the commandments of Yahweh in other contexts of their lives, their discernment was weak, their desire for aesthetic passion and pleasure strong, and they began what they thought was worship of the true God using compromised and abominable means.
The point is this: idol-making and altar-building are not always black and white. Oh, they are black and white to God. But we’d better understand that if we are making idols of anything in life, and building altars in our hearts toward these idols, chances are we’re not calling them by name. In fact, there’s a good chance we don’t even see them for what they are.
Hold this thought. In the next post we’ll bring it home.