return to front page

The Stories of Elijah and Elisha

By Leila Leah Bronner

"The Spiritual Clash between Israel and Canaan"

The Story of the Hebrew Bible can be described as a struggle to destroy the heathen deities of the ancient world and replace their worship by the belief in one God. The Bible as a whole, can be regarded as a protest against paganism of every description. The God of Israel made a covenant with His people imposing on them the obligation to obey Him and to become, "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation"(Ex.19:6). The prophetical books according to the Hebrew canon generally read, trace how far Israel lived up to this great calling placed upon her and how often she deflected from it. Without dealing with problems of historical criticism, the author accepts the data of the books from Judges to Kings on their face value. Thus the story of the Hebrew religion could be told in terms of a tension between a spiritual conception of God and His worship, the hallmark of the genuine faith of Israel on the one hand and the various pressures from idolatry which attempted to debase and materialize the national consciousness and practice.

As J.A. Motyer states in The New Bible Dictionary, "we do not find in the Old Testament an ascending from idolatry to pure worship and a spiritual theology constantly fighting through the medium of divinely raised spiritual leaders, religious seductions which nevertheless often claimed the mass of the people. Idolatry is a declension from the norm not an early stage gradually but with difficulties superseded" (p.551).

The charge that accompanied the Hebrew tribes on their entry into Canaan was not beyond their power. All evidence shows, that when Israel reached Canaan under Joshua, they were already imbued with a national consciousness which made them feel and act as one people, with a common resolve to take possession of the land to which they were drawn by the thought that it had been the home of their fathers. This national consciousness was shaped by the national religion, and fostered by a code of ethical, civil, and religious laws. But this national and religious unity did not survive the days of Joshua, which followed by a period of almost complete political anarchy (Jud.17:6). Corresponding with the loosening of the national bond was the loosening of the religious bond. For the book of Judges tells us, whatever the views as to the date of the particular documents, that in settling down to an agricultural life the Israelites had to learn matters from the Canaanites and in this process they often came under the influence of the sensuous fertility cults of the natives, with their child sacrifices, depraved godlets, and immoral religious practices. According to the description given in the book of Judges, the people in settling down to an agricultural life succumbed in a large measure to the seductive nature worship which was the religion of Canaan. Whenever they did this, we are told that God sent "oppressors" to afflict them (Jud.2). In other words the author wishes to tell us that the more paganism they adopted, the weaker the covenant bond between them became and the more each tribe tended to live by and for itself, isolated from the other tribes, this disunity made subjugation and oppression by outsiders relatively easy.

Apparently there was in between military clashes, as the one described in Judges 4-5, ample opportunity for peaceful contact between the Israelites and Canaanites during the early period of Israel's dwelling in the land. However, Noth therefore maintains, that "with the settlement in Palestine, the change over to agriculture as their main activity and the concentration of the population in cities,' or places like the cities, the Israelites' way of life approached that of the indigenous Canaanite population, which lived mainly in special parts of the country but was also represented here and there in the mountains occupied by the Israelites, they entered into neighborly relations with them in many places. This led in time to a development of a particular kind of relationship between the two parties. We have only sporadic and more or less fortuitous information about this, but what we have shows that their mutual relations varied enormously according to time and place" (The History of Israel, p. 142).

It was the threat of foreign nations which eventually influenced the Israelites to appoint a king and endeavor to rid the country of these political dangers. Already the capture of the Ark and the destruction of Shiloh by the Philistines had made a deep impression upon the tribes. Samuel had taken advantage of the situation, and had brought about the reform which led to the abolition of Baal worship from Israel. Though Baal worship is mentioned also under Solomon, it was restored with great vigor one century later by the Phoenician princess Jezebel. The revival of the national religion coupled with the Philistines' advance, which threatened to reduce Israel to hopeless servitude, worked in favor of a centralization of authority. The nation began to clamor for a king. Saul became the first king in Israel but he did not realize the hopes placed in him. He was followed by David, whose sagacious politics and a series of brilliant victories over external enemies made him king over all the tribes, north and south. He succeeded in effecting true unity, and cementing it by making Jerusalem both the royal residence and the seat of the Ark and thus the symbol of religious not less than national unity. The work of centralization which was begun by David was developed by his son Solomon whose reign was marked by systematic administration of the country and the building of the temple.

The conquests of David who established a powerful empire greatly changed the relationship between the Israelites and the Canaanites. The latter primarily remained in their city states as Judges 1:19-36 describes, and lived apart from the Israelite tribes, as shown above by the quotation from Noth's book. David's military attainments altered the situation greatly. Their submission was enforced on the whole by the superiority of David's power which had been so clearly revealed in his victory over the Philistines. We do not hear that war-like undertakings were required to secure their submission. The Israelite tribes were the uppermost and decisive element, but the Canaanite inhabitants were now more or less an important factor as well. The subjugation of the Canaanite cities must be ascribed to David according to Noth, since Solomon did not wage wars, he merely consolidated the empire which is father bequeathed to him (Noth, p.193).

The historical events that took place in the reigns of David and Solomon evoked great changes in the Israelites' way of life. A strong government with a king at its head, had relieved many of them of the concern from self-preservation in their particular historical setting and they now enjoyed the privilege of living in a state that was not merely powerful but also well governed. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that Israel was not a completely centralized state as we know it today. Judah was a separate and so also Jerusalem. But they were united by personal union, for the king of Judah was also the king of Jerusalem. In the days of David and Solomon the same applied to the kingdom of the northern tribes. In these kingdoms the states and this also brought about considerable changes in their position. It is true, as is shown by the division of the kingdom of Israel into districts under Solomon (1 Ki.4:7-20), that the historically evolved frontiers between tribal territories were taken into account in the administrative subdivision of the kingdom. But as a result of being united in the compact kingdoms of Judah and Israel, tribes and cities inevitably came into closer touch with one another, and this living together with the Canaanites was bound to affect the Israelites way of life. Even though the feeling that the Canaanites were strangers continued to prevail among them, and urban ways presumably began to exert a stronger influence on them (Noth, p.142, 217).

Solomon's reign is characterized by its tendency of toleration toward alien ideas and cultures. The Israelites began to have intellectual and cultural contacts with the Canaanites under his rule. The Canaanite elements were responsible for the main divergences from the worship of the Lord. Economic and political co-operation between Israel and Phoenicia led to a free exchange of cultural and religious practices as well. The worship of Baal and other prominent Phoenician deities, including some of their orgiastic elements spread in Israel. Intermarriage with Phoenician and other non-Israelite peoples also became less rare now. The king himself "d many foreign women, besides the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites" (1 Ki.11:6ff). It is true that Solomon's acquisition of many of the alleged total of seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines, was motivated as royal marriages frequently are, by the dictates of diplomacy. But these marriages with foreigners brought in their train additional concessions to alien gods. The biblical writers did not overlook the fact that Solomon built shrines to the various gods which his wives worshipped. The author of the book of Kings blamed Solomon for this apostasy from the Lord, which in his opinion accounted largely for the disruption of the kingdom and other disasters which followed his death (1 Ki. 11:9ff).

That is why we find Ugaritic literary influences in the later books of the Bible, after the days of David and Solomon. For instance, the word, Leviathan," which occurs in the book of Isaiah 27:1, Ps.104:26, Job 3:8 and 40:25, is also to be found in the Ugaritic texts. Likewise Psalm 68 contains certain phrases to be found in Ras Shamra sources. This then indicates that the contact between the Canaanites and Israelites actually took place from the reign of Solomon and onwards. David prepared the ground for this relationship by his conquests, but it became a reality under the rule of Solomon who worked in the sphere of culture more than his father, who was continuously engaged in waging war. We should not exaggerate however, the impact of Canaanite culture on the Israelites as Cassuto points out in his "H?'l?h n?t" (1953), Israel merely took the literary forms of expression and vocabularies from the Canaanite people. They, however, filled these old vessels with new meaning. For the God of Israel has nothing in common with the mythological beliefs of the people of Canaan. We never hear in the Bible of the God of Israel having a partner, being married, eating, drinking, going hunting, or having other human frailties or shortcomings. He is above nature and controls it, but is never part of it. Ethical concepts are not emphasized in the Ras Shamra texts while they abound in Scripture.

The division of the kingdom opened a new phase in the history of Israel's relations. Whereas the Judeans continued to worship in the temple we observe the rise of sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel, in the northern kingdom (1 Ki.12, 2 Chr.10). Jeroboam, that founder of the separate monarchy in the north, elevated these two places to a status of royal shrines. In the latter places, golden bull calves provided the visible pedestal for yhwh's invisible throne, the function fulfilled by the Cherubs in the Jerusalem temple. However, some scholars feel that these bulls were not meant to be only the footstool of God but were actually intended to represent God himself. For the king told his people, "behold they gods, O Israel" (1 Ki.12:28). A further support for the alter view is Hosea's denial that the "calf of Samaria" was a god. His statement: "A smith made it, and it is not God," shows that the people considered the image as being a god (Hos.8:6, compare also Hos.8:2).

In the northern kingdom, a syncretism developed which resembled idolatry far more than that in Judah. In fact this syncretism evoked the castigations of the prophets. One might state that there were three types of worship in the ancient Israelite states of Judah and Israel. The state religion both in Judah and the northern kingdom on the one hand, which was ostensibly the worship of yhwh, but the people introduced into it many Baalistic elements. So we may distinguish between the state religion, the Canaanite religion and the prophetic religion. The prophets endeavored to introduce a pure prophetic religion of the worship of the God of Israel. As we shall see, in the next chapter, Jezebel made the first attempt to introduce Canaanite worship in Israel on a large scale and as a state religion and eventually her daughter Athaliah did the same in Judah. Elijah's activities were called forth by the activities of Jezebel.