Throughout the Old Testament in the Bible, we find what seems a confusing trend of idol worship among the Israelites, who especially struggled with the worship of Baal and Asherah (or Ashtoreth). God had commanded Israel not to worship idols (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7)—indeed, they were to avoid even mentioning a false god’s name (Exodus 23:13). They were warned not to intermarry with the pagan nations and to avoid practices that might be construed as pagan worship rites (Leviticus 20:23; 2 Kings 17:15; Ezekiel 11:12). Israel was a nation chosen by God to one day bear the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. Yet, even with so much riding on their heritage and future, Israel continued to struggle with idol worship.
After the death of Joshua, the worship of Baal and Asherah became a plague upon the Israelites and was a perennial problem. Baal, also known as the sun god or the storm god, is the name of the supreme male deity worshiped by ancient Phoenicians and Canaanites. Asherah, the moon goddess, was the principal female deity worshiped by ancient Syrians, Phoenicians, and Canaanites. The Israelites neglected to heed the Lord’s warning not to compromise with idolaters. The ensuing generations forgot the God who had rescued them from Egypt (Judges 2:10–12).
Of course, the period of the judges wasn’t the first time Israel had been tempted by idol worship. In Exodus 32, we see how quickly the Israelites gave up on Moses’ return from Mount Sinai and created an idol of gold for themselves. Ezekiel 20 reveals a summary of the Israelites’ affairs with idols and God’s relentless mercy on His children (also see 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles).
As for why the worship of Baal and Asherah specifically was such a problem for Israel, there are several reasons we can cite: first, the worship of Baal and Asherah held the allure of illicit sex, since the religion involved ritual prostitution. This is exactly what we see in the incident of Baal of Peor, as “the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods” (Numbers 25:1–2). It was during this episode that an Israelite named Zimri brazenly brought a Midianite woman into the camp and went straight to his tent, where the two began having sex (verses 6–8, 14).
Another reason that the worship of Baal and Asherah was a perennial problem for Israel is due to what we could call national peer pressure. Israel wanted to be like the other nations (see 1 Samuel 8:5, 20). The other nations worshiped Baal and Asherah, and so many Israelites felt a pull to do the same.
Of course, we cannot overlook the fact of Satan’s temptations and mankind’s basic sinfulness. The enemy of our souls tempted Israel to worship idols; the sacrifices made to Baal and Asherah were really sacrifices to demons (1 Corinthians 10:20). The stubborn willfulness of humanity works in tandem with Satan’s seductions and causes us to jump at any chance to rebel against God. Thus Israel repeatedly forsook God’s commands, despite losing God’s blessings, and chased after the Baals and Asherahs to their own destruction.
The book of Hosea aptly uses adultery as a metaphor in describing Israel’s problem with idol worship. The Israelites were trapped in a vicious cycle of idol worship, punishment, restoration, then forgiveness, after which they went back to their idols once more. God’s patience with Israel is unfathomable by human standards; God’s nature is the essence of love, and He gives His sons and daughters chances to repent (1 John 4:8; Romans 8:38–39; 2 Peter 3:9).
The problem of Baal and Asherah worship was finally solved after God removed Israel from the Promised Land. Due to the Israelites’ idolatry and disregard of the Law, God brought the nations of Assyria and Babylon against them in an act of judgment. After the exile, Israel was restored to the land, and the people did not dally again with idols.
While Christians today may be quick to judge the Israelites for their idolatry, we must remember that idols take many forms. Idolatrous sins still lure and tempt the modern-day believer (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8–10), though perhaps they have taken new shapes. Instead of ancient forms of Baal and Asherah, we today sometimes honor possessions, success, physical pleasure, and religious perfection to the dishonoring of God. Just as God disciplined the Israelites for their idolatry and forgave them when they repented, He will graciously discipline us and extend the offer of forgiveness in Christ (Hebrews 12:7–11; 1 John 1:9; 2 Peter 3:9).