The book of Judges describes the settlement of the Israelites in the land of Canaan, and also tells us how the miracles of Moses' and Joshua's time were eventually forgotten. "When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel" (Judges 2:10).
After the Israelites entered Canaan they found themselves surrounded by idolaters worshipping pagan gods. God had warned them about the dangers inherent in this situation, but they ignored God’s instruction (Judges 2:2-3).
During this period of more than 300 years, God periodically raised up judges to lead His people and at least 12 of them are mentioned in the biblical account. These judges ruled simultaneously with each other in various regions of Israel, with the surviving Canaanites frequently attacking and reconquering territory taken by the Israelites.
Archaeological evidence from this time shows a gradual, slow change from a more urbanised Canaanite culture to a less-advanced Israelite culture: "...[around] 1200 B.C. certain cities in Palestine were demolished. A flowering culture of Late Bronze [Canaanite] was obliterated. The new developments . . . were of a lower culture... and points to semi nomadic groups in process of settling down. This evidence is clearly to be connected with the invading Israelite tribes" (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1982, Vol. II, p. 1158).
This description is consistent with the biblical record, with the book of Judges indicating the Canaanite culture survived for years, resulting in the Israelites worshipping the false, degenerate gods of the Canaanites: "And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord...they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed ...the gods of the people who were all around them... and served Baal and the Ashtoreths" (Judges 2:11-13).
Archaeology sheds much light on the Canaanite religion and helps us understand the deadly allure of their religious practices. During 1929 excavations in Ras Shamra (the ancient port town of Ugarit) in northern Lebanon a library containing hundreds of ancient documents providing a wealth of information about the Canaanite religion was discovered. "The texts show the degrading results of the worship of these deities; with their emphasis on war, sacred prostitution, sensuous love and the consequent social degradation" (The New Bible Dictionary, Tyndale House Publishers, 1982, p. 1230).
This pagan religion enticed the Israelites for two primary reasons: "It was a great temptation for the Israelite invaders to respect the existing gods of the land which were regarded as being responsible for the country's fertility. In addition, the worship of these gods was much less demanding than the rigid Israelite laws and rituals. Consequently, many of God's people yielded to this temptation. The result was a gradual moral decline of the nation" (The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible, Lion Publishers, 1983, p. 153).
Recognizing the great danger to fledgling Israel, God insisted the degenerate religion be wiped out. "... according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do...You shall observe my judgments and keep My ordinances, to walk in them: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 18:3-4). "And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire [be sacrificed] to Molech . . . You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination . . . Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you." (verses 21-24).
"The pagan world of the ancient Near East worshipped and deified sex." So intertwined were sex and religion that "the term 'holy ones' [was used] for its cult prostitutes" (Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Abingdon Press, 1971, p. 79).
Canaanite religion was grossly sensual and perverse, requiring the services of both male and female cultic prostitutes.
Included in these Canaanite practices was child sacrifice, described in the Bible as having children "pass through the fire to Molech" (Jeremiah 32:35). Some unrighteous kings in Israel actually instituted the practice of sacrificing infants to Molech. God, through the prophet Jeremiah, denounced this ghastly ritual. "For the children of Judah have done evil in My sight," and "they have built the high places of Tophet [related to Molech worship] . . . to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into My heart" (Jeremiah 7:30-31).
In the ancient Phoenician city of Carthage—part of the Canaanite culture—some 20,000 urns containing the remains of sacrificed children were found: "the Carthaginian Tophet is...the largest cemetery of sacrificed humans ever discovered. Child sacrifice took place there almost continuously for a period of nearly 600 years" (Lawrence Stager and Samuel Wolff, Biblical Archaeological Review, January-February 1984, p. 32). Kleitarchos, a Greek from the third century B.C., described this sacrifice as the heating up of a bronze statue with outstretched arms upon which the infants were placed.
When righteous kings such as Josiah ascended the throne, they obeyed God and abolished the practice. "And he defiled Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom [in Jerusalem], that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire to Molech" (2 Kings 23:10).
The book of Judges is not just documentation of ancient victories and heroic acts. It is a realistic description of a fledgling nation that began to assimilate the perverse culture of its defeated foes, candidly revealing Israel's struggle against the barbaric Canaanite religion. It explains Israel's frequent relapses and resultant humiliating defeats at the hands of its enemies, and shows God is concerned about the moral and spiritual life of His people.
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