In the first Testament, Marduk was one of many gods that plagued the Israelites. his image astride a dragon at one time decorated the Ishtar Gate, an entrance to Babylon, and many biblical commentators perceive allusions to Marduk’s evil presence in the references to the serpent in Eden that tempted and beguiled Eve.
Marduk, of course, was not the only noteworthy deity in the ancient near-east. In fact, there were several such prominent figures in the First Testament.
Ba’al, for example, was dominant among the ancient near-eastern cultures of the Bible. Known as “the Storm God,” Ba’al and his wild warrior consort, Anat, were revered for their supremacy over and above many of the other gods. They contended for bragging rights and an elevated position in the pantheon of Mesopotamian deities by first defeating Prince Yam—the god of chaos—and Divine Mot—the god of death. The people of that time believed that Ba’al had vanquished chaos and could now bring peace to the land; just as they later believed that Ba’al had destroyed death itself and could grant eternal life, or at least a quality of life worthy of eternity during our time alive in the world. Dagon was a Philistine god who, according to the rabbinical interpretation of 1 Samuel 5, was a kind of merman, having the torso of a man but the lower extremities of a fish (“dagon” derives from the Hebrew word “dag” which means “fish”). The last noteworthy deity was Asherah, the goddess of fertility and sex, called by some the “Queen of heaven.” She was famously revered, as both Jews and Gentiles devoted themselves to her through the use of Ashtoreth poles—totem poles, carved from living trees, bearing the image of the deity and objects of her rule.
You may be wondering why I’m rattling off the details of these gods and goddesses, so let me quickly get to the point. These gods, which people worshipped, to whom they prayed, and of whom they were afraid, were not real.
Let me clarify: They were really worshipped—they had real temples, real servants, real statues and idols representing them to the world, real rituals and supplicants and acolytes and congregants—but there was never a time when Marduk actually walked the earth. unlike Christ, or for that matter Mohammed or Moses or Martin Luther King Jr., no one has ever set eyes on Anat or Dagon bathing in the river or reclining for a meal. And yet, despite the fact that they only truly ever existed as manifestations of the spiritual imagination, Marduk and Ba’al, Dagon and Asherah, and Anat and company all affected the lives of real people. Real people perceived them to be powerful, and so they became powerful. Real people perceived them as worthy of worship, and so those people became devoted—deceived, we might say—to such a degree that it cost them money, relationship (family ties as well as religious ties within pious Judaism), and—ultimately— their freedom.
Though our spiritual ancestors never understood it, and though we ourselves seem willfully blind to this universal truth, at some point we must come to acknowledge that unreal things affect our reality.
Invisible, immaterial, insubstantial things become powerful motivators, creditors, and critics when we allow them to dictate our behavior. And so inanimate objects became animated in the aspirations and anxieties of their followers, and they took on a kind of power over them. This power led the people to do strange and unholy things, things that went against their better judgment and their national traditions and beliefs as practicing Jews.
King Manasseh, for example, erected Ashtoreth poles in the Temple because he was afraid that, without her help, Israel’s crops and Israel’s children were in trouble. King Solomon worshipped the gods of his many wives, among them Marduk and Ba’al, because he was afraid that it would cause trouble in his home if he declined. The Prophet Jeremiah vehemently declaimed the worship of Chemosh (national god of the Moabites), which had become prevalent among God’s people during the time prior to their exile. The people ascribed power to these previously powerless things, gave those things the authority to control them and to make them afraid. They took something lifeless and gave it authority, trading away their God-given dignity and responsibility in the process.
We do this today. Instead of revering God and following him, we empower other people, other things, other systems and institutions to rule over us. I’m not referring to the political or judicial systems—this is not an anti-establishment rant—but to the power we give other people. We allow others to determine our worth through their words, or through their approval, or through their opinions, and we make our own happiness contingent upon whether or not we appease their social and relational authority. We work hard to please our boss, because if we don’t, we feel worthless. We work hard to please our father, because if we cannot, we feel like failures.
We work hard to please our spouse, our in-laws, our mentors and coaches and teachers, all the while giving them more and more power over us, more and more control over us, to dictate to us how we ought to behave, how we ought to live, and how we ought to believe, never once considering that this is a power they should not have.
This power—the power to approve and have it matter— is a power that rightly belongs only to God. Yet still we empower them, all of the time, thoughtlessly and with great neglect, and then we fear the power we have just given away. Consequently, we feel like our value is determined by our productivity and we become victims of the fear-driven marketplace in our world. This relationship between fear and power is a potent one, for when we are afraid we can be controlled. We enslave ourselves to our own power, out on loan.
This is how false gods work.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com