Why was the worship of Baal and Asherah such a struggle for the Israelites?

Idol worship was a persistent problem with the Israelites, especially the worship of two specific gods, Baal and Asherah (or Ashtoreth). God made it clear to the Israelites at multiple points that worshiping any other gods than Him was wrong (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7). In fact, they weren't even supposed to mention the names of other, false, gods (Exodus 23:13). They were not supposed to marry those who worshiped false gods or participate in rituals that were pagan (Leviticus 20:23; 2 Kings 17:15; Ezekiel 11:12). As God's chosen people, and the nation through which Jesus would be born, the Israelites were held to a high standard. So, why did they so consistently struggle with idol worship? And what was the particular appeal of Baal and Asherah?

After the death of Joshua, idol worship was an even more present problem among the Israelites—specifically, the worship of Baal and Asherah (Judges 2:10–12). Both of these false gods were worshiped by the ancient Phoenicians and Canaanites. Baal was the primary male deity, known as the sun or the storm god, while Asherah, the primary female deity, was known as the moon goddess.

There were a couple of primary reasons that the Israelites fell so easily into the worship of Baal and Asherah in particular: sex and status. First, the worship of Baal and Asherah involved sex and patterns of prostitution as a part of their religious rites. Israelite men began engaging in sexual immorality with women from other nations and, in doing so, they were explicitly disobeying God's commands to keep themselves separate from those who worshiped idols (Numbers 25:1–13). And the second reason was the pull for status. The other surrounding nations all worshiped Baal and Asherah, and Israel wanted to be like them. This desire to fit in with other nations more than they wanted to be set apart as a people belonging to God led to their idolatry (see 1 Samuel 8:5, 19–20).

God gave them multiple chances to repent, but the cycle of idol worship followed by repentance continued. In the end, the Israelites did not truly repent of their idolatry and they lost the Promised Land God had brought them to. They were conquered by the nations of Assyria and Babylon.

Idolatry distanced the Israelites from God and it can still distance us from God today. After a lengthy exile and true repentance, God once again restored them to their land. He was loving and patient with them, and He is loving and patient with us (1 John 4:8; Romans 8:38–39; 2 Peter 3:9).

Idolatry is a consistent temptation for most believers, even those who are passionate and devoted to God (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8—2:2; 5:21). Why? Because it is easy to miss. Idolatry takes many forms, but at the core, it takes something good (i.e., love, money, security, success) and turns it into a god. In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller writes about the idols of the heart: "A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would hardly feel worth living. . . If anything becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, then it is an idol."

As we continue on in our Christian walk it is important to walk in step with the Spirit and not let idolatry of any kind take root within us (Colossians 3:5; 1 John 5:21). Galatians 5 encourages us: "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh…If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit" (Galatians 5:16, 25). Jonah 2:8 says, "Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love." God is our only hope for steadfast love. We need to keep him as the Lord of our lives.

Related Truth:

Who was the god Baal?

Who was the goddess Asherah / Ashtoreth?

What was an Asherah pole?

Why is idol worship so tempting?

What are some forms of modern idolatry?

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