Many Christians have just concluded the season of Lent, that time they fast, pray, and give alms as a means of separating themselves from the things of this world and re-orienting their lives toward God. The fundamental idea is to remove the obstacles to worshipping God alone.
Jews undergo a similar time of preparation as Passover approaches. Like Lent, Passover is a time for meditation on the one, true God — indeed, part of the famous Shema prayer, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the LORD is one,” is recited at the Passover Seder.
What all of us (to include some atheists!) share in this time of sacrifice, self-denial, and preparation is a recognition that we humans often seem to require dramatic crises to clarify problems and direct our attention to what is truly paramount. One of the most striking examples of this paradigm is the story of the Jewish people in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament.
We’re often inclined to view Judaism as a monolithic source of monotheistic religion, fundamentally influencing Christianity then Islam in their assertion of the one, true God. Yet the story from Abraham to the time of Christ is not linear, as if Judaism’s unique monotheistic tendencies were always a dominant, instinctual force driving this peculiar people across the Middle East.
In truth, the inclination towards polytheism in the second and first millennia B.C. was a perennial problem for the Jewish people, one so deeply ingrained in their self-identity that it wasn’t fully expunged until the centuries directly preceding the life of Christ. Their story communicates to us how truly hard it be to eradicate harmful habits.
In the Beginning, There Was Paganism
In Genesis 31, Rachel, wife of the patriarch Jacob, stole her father Laban’s idols as she and her husband sought to flee back to Palestine. She just couldn’t imagine a life without those pagan gods. Later, Jacob and his 12 sons, the origin of the 12 tribes of Israel, move to Egypt after a great famine. They stay 400 years, during which they drunk deep of the Egyptian polytheist pantheon.
Although retaining some manner of unique ethnic identity, the Jews became increasingly wedded to those pagan gods, so that the ten plagues God inflicts on Egypt are all aimed at invalidating the authority of Egypt’s religious system. In one way or another, the Egyptian people worshipped the Nile, frogs, livestock, even the firstborn.
Moses finally leads Israel out of Egypt to Sinai, where they are to enter a covenant relationship with God. The first commandment in this covenant is: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Yet while Moses speaks to God on the mountain, Israel quickly returns to pagan religious practices, crafting a golden calf to worship and rising up “to play,” a euphemism for indulging in an old-school, pagan fertility-themed sexual orgy.
This is a remarkable rebellion, given the Israelites’ proximity to their miraculous salvation at the hands of pharaoh at the Red Sea. Their constant “stiff-necked” disobedience ultimately results in God’s punishment that they wander in the desert for 40 years, allowing an entire new, untainted generation to rise and enter the promised land of Judea. Unfortunately, all that discipline didn’t have much of an effect in eradicating the people’s idolatrous inclinations.
Despite strict orders from God, Moses, and Moses’ successor, Joshua, the Jewish people refused to expel all pagan peoples and their idolatry from the Promised Land. Joshua warns them shortly before his death: “If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”
The Israelites pledge monotheistic faithfulness to their God, only to waver in Joshua’s absence. Judges 17:16 explains: “Every man did what was right in his own eyes,” serving the local gods (“the Ba’als”) they had failed to eliminate from the land.
Eventually, Israel asks for a king like their neighbors, and they are awarded with Saul, a man who disobeys God and at one point consults a pagan medium. Saul is eventually overthrown by David, one who in the words of the prophet Samuel, was a “man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam 13:14).
Royally Endorsed Polytheism
David represents one of the few times in ancient Israel monotheism reigned supreme, as he sought to defeat the surrounding pagan nations and promote a monotheistic religious cult. Yet after his death, David’s son Solomon, despite all his legendary wisdom, built “high places” to foreign gods like Ashtoreth, Milcom, Chemosh, and Molech (the last a god to whom child sacrifices were offered).
Solomon’s death is followed by an Israel torn between a northern and southern kingdom, the former called Israel, the latter Judah. The writers of the Hebrew Bible make it clear that the northern kingdom was particularly egregious in disobeying God and embracing polytheistic practices and idolatry. Few men (7,000, according to 1 Kings 19:18) could be found in the northern kingdom who remained loyal to their covenant God, YHWH. Eventually, the northern kingdom was wiped out by the Assyrians.
Things weren’t so much better in the south — most of the southern kings likewise embraced pagan religious practices. One of the few exceptions in Judah was Josiah, who succeeded his father A’mon, whom the biblical authors claim “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD,” serving idols and worshipping them.
Josiah, a righteous young ruler, sought to reverse his father’s errant ways, beginning with a modest refurbishment of the great temple in Jerusalem. In this politically savvy move, he was essentially trying to purge idols from the temple without inciting the many pagan-leaning Jews within his court.
During that renovation, the high priest, Hilkiah, declared, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD.” Many scholars believe the book in question was probably Deuteronomy, though it could very well have been the entire Torah. In effect, someone during the cleaning found the book, perhaps lodged behind some pillar or even an idol to a pagan god.
What happens next is almost comical: Hilkiah gives the book to the royal secretary Shaphan, who comes to Josiah and explains, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” Reflect on this: one of the most senior officials in the entire kingdom of Judah calls the text that provides detailed instructions and prohibitions on every aspect of Jewish life “a book,” as if he had no clue what he was holding. Josiah has this mysterious book read to him. He promptly tears his clothes, and orders his cabinet to “inquire of the LORD” regarding the book’s contents.
In seeking to be faithful to God, Josiah realized his kingdom was in gross rebellion against the very heart of Jewish law handed down by Moses, the great intermediary between God and the Jewish people. He makes a covenant to obey God’s law, and decrees that the Passover be celebrated. That’s a religious festival 2 Kings 23:22 tells us had not been kept “since the days of the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or the kings of Judah.”
This story means one of the most important religious holidays in the Jewish calendar was rarely ever honored! Indeed, 2 Chronicles 30 tells that another Judaic king, Hezekiah, invited all of Israel to celebrate the Passover with him. Barely anyone besides the tribe of Judah showed up.
A few terrible kings follow Josiah, culminating in the Babylonian invasion, which destroyed the southern kingdom and resulted in the exile of thousands of the Jewish people to distant Babylon. The Jews would remain there 70 years.
Idolatry Even After Exile
When the Jews returned to the Promised Land generations later, they are led by men like Ezra, a priest-scribe, and Nehemiah, the Persian-installed governor of Judea. Both men are righteous, and eager to serve their god alone. After many years, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt.
In celebration, Ezra reads the “Book of the Law” (again, either Deuteronomy or the entire Torah) to a large assembly of Jews in Jerusalem. On the second day of the festivities, the book of Nehemiah tell us: “they found it written in the law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the sons of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month.”
The feast of booths, dictated in Leviticus 23:33-43, was intended to be one of the three major feasts of the Jewish calendar, of similar importance to the modern American Christmas or Thanksgiving. By the time of the New Testament, Jesus makes one of his great religious pronouncements during this feast, called there the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7). Yet the Jews at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah had apparently never even heard of it.
Indeed, the text goes on to explain, “And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths; for from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day the sons of Israel had not done so” (Nehemiah 8:17). This is remarkable: the Jewish people hadn’t celebrated the feast of booths since they first entered the Promised Land directly after Moses’ death!
After the Babylonian exile, the Jewish people were far more diligent in preserving monotheism, although the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees tell us that many Jews made a “covenant” with the Gentile Greeks who conquered their territory during the time of Alexander the Great and his successors. These “collusionist” Jews embraced various pagan practices, ultimately culminating in offering sacrifices to the Greek gods (1 Maccabees 1). Only after years of Jewish revolt in the second century B.C. were the Greeks defeated and does the brand of Jewish monotheism we find in the gospels of the New Testament become once more dominant.
Warnings and Exhortations
The story of ancient Israel, a people we associate with the first great monotheistic religion, is often at odds with our understanding of Jewish religion. The Jews, from the patriarchs down to the generations shortly before Christ, were constantly indulging in pagan religious practices. This, despite the fact their most important law, stipulated in the Ten Commandments and repeated by all God-fearing Jews in our own day, was to have “no other gods” before YHWH.
As we have seen, biblical Israel rarely obeyed this. Consider: if Israel had such trouble keeping the first commandment, should we really expect them to do much better with the rest? Including the Ten Commandments, Israel had 613 laws, yet they didn’t even keep the easiest ones, the Passover and Feast of Booths, which were essentially big parties!
It took many centuries, much hardship, and much discipline for biblical Israel to be weaned off polytheism. Given their inter-generational resistance to worshipping a single God, it’s amazing, if not miraculous, that Judaism became the forefather of the other two great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam.
As we reflect on our own negative habits and need for inner renewal during the times of Lent, Easter, and Passover, the story of Israel should give us both hope and caution. Hope, that there is always mercy and forgiveness for us, regardless of the severity of our crimes. Caution, that those things we so deeply cherish were fiercely acquired, and can be easily lost. Thankfully, as for God’s own people, even what is lost can once more be found.