As long as Moses lived, Israel seldom worshipped other gods directly. She broke the First Word by breaking the Second, worshipping God through the calf. As we shall see, God always treats such Liturgical Idolatry as Covenantal Idolatry, but it is far more serious because it is committed by those He has called to Himself, who therefore should know better. To some extent, God overlooks the folly of the pagans; He does not overlook the folly of His own people, as we shall see.
After Moses, however, the people fell into full Covenantal Idolatry, worshipping the gods of the tribes round about. They “forsook Yahweh” and served other gods. Therefore, God brought them under the cultural dominion of those other gods by putting them in bondage to the tribes who created them. When they refused to worship Yahweh, who brought them out of Egypt and gave them the land, then they lost the land and went back into Egypt, so to speak.
By way of contrast, in the Kingdom period we no longer find Israel forsaking Yahweh for other gods; instead they “worship Yahweh and serve the Baals,” seeing to worship Yahweh through the media of images and shrines (image houses) on high places. Thus, in this second period it is the Second Word that is the main problem. As we shall see, however, God refuses to accept such false worship, and counts it as rejection and hatred of Him. Thus, whenever the Second Word is defied, the First is as well.
When Israel entered the land to conquer it, they initially obeyed Yahweh and destroyed the Canaanites and their idols. In time, however, they grew lax, so that Yahweh brought this charge against them: “I said, `I will never break My covenant with you, and as for you, you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed Me” (Jud. 2:1-2). The Israelites were sinking into the worship of other gods.
This is made more explicit in Judges 2:11-13: “Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of Yahweh, and worshipped the Baals, and they forsook Yahweh, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them; thus they provoked Yahweh to anger. So they forsook Yahweh and served Baal and Astartes.” Notice in this statement that “doing evil in the sight of Yahweh” is defined, as far as Judges is concerned, as worshipping other gods, perhaps because “in the sight of Yahweh” is equivalent to “before My face.” Notice also the language of the First Word, “who brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
We read that the sons of Israel “did evil in the sight of Yahweh,” that is, worshipped other gods, in the following places:
Judges 3:7, introducing the bondage to Cushan-Rishathaim, with eventual deliverance under Othniel.
Judges 3:13, introducing the bondage to the Moabites, with eventual deliverance under Ehud.
Judges 4:1, introducing the bondage to the Canaanites, with eventual deliverance under Deborah.
Judges 6:1, introducing the bondage to the Midianites, Amalekites, and “Sons of the East” (Ishmaelites), with eventual deliverance under Gideon.
Judges 8:33, introducing the bondage to the half-Canaanite Abimelech.
Judges 10:6, which makes the sin explicit again: “Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of Yahweh, served the (1) Baals and the (2) Ashteroth, the (3) gods of Aram, the (4) gods of Sidon, the (7) gods of Moab, the (6) gods of the sons of Ammon, and the (7) gods of the Philistines.” For this seven-fold apostasy Israel was sold to the Ammonites in the northwest and to the Philistines in the southeast.
With the possible exception of Cushan-Rishathaim of Mesopotamia, these were all essentially tribal groups that worshipped powers in nature and ancestors. During this period, God broke His people of this tendency, and we almost never find Israelites worshipping other gods again.
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons.