As previously discussed, polytheistic/pantheistic/pagan religions have been most notable for flexibility and adaptation to societal changes. Deities changed names, new deities were added, new practices are blended or adopted, and selective application is permitted. This accentuates the contrast of monotheism. Judiaism, Christianity, and Islam are the only monotheistic religions. God has been called by many different names, each of which describe his attributes. But it is the same God, the God of Abraham as the creator of heaven and earth. Another distinction is the unchanging nature of word of God. The Bible contains God’s law, the Ten Commandments, which provided the moral instruction used in most societies.
The Old Testament reads like a history book, noting specific people, places, and timing of events. It also describes surrounding civilizations and their deities with great accuracy. It contains not only miraculous events, but also events that show the Hebrews in an unfavorable way. specific prophecy, and evidence of prophetic fulfillment. There are no other texts from any other civilization that even begin to compare with the comprehensive historical accuracy of the Bible. Another distinguishing aspect was God’s expectations for his chosen people. The pagan societies were servants to the gods, and they were expected to keep the gods happy. If the gods were happy they would be blessed, but if they angered the gods they would experience their wrath. The expectations of the Hebrew God were completely different.
“Is not this the fast that I choose:Isaiah 58:6-8
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
God had chosen Abraham to be the father of a people who would be God’s ambassadors to the rest of the world. All of the other nations had turned away to worship other gods. They no longer knew the one true God, and they participated in abominable worship practices. For this reason, God was driving out these nations and giving the land to the Israelites to fulfill his covenant. In this land, the Hebrews would form a new holy nation.
After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.were being practiced in the area that were detestible abominable and so forbidden.Deuteronomy 9:4-5
Because the Israelites were God’s chosen representatives they needed special instruction that would make them different than the surrounding nations which were all pagan. God was very specific about the things they should and should not do.
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons ,for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.Deuteronomy 7:1-8
The graven images of their gods you are to burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it for yourselves, or you will be snared by it, for it is an abomination to the Lord your GodDeuteronomy 7:25
Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the Lord your God in their way.Deuteronomy 12:1-3
After they took possession of the land, the Israelites proceeded to do the very things that God had warned them not to do. They made treaties with several of the nations, and before long they began to intermarry with them. Likewise, they did not destroy all of the idols or high places as God commanded. The influence of these pagans upon the nation of Israel led them to perform practices that God had expressly forbid.
If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns the Lord gives you is found doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God in violation of his covenant, and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars in the sky, and this has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly.Deuteronomy 17:2-4
You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.Deuteronomy 12:31-32
When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God.Deuteronomy 18:9-13
The success of the Israelites created pride, and they forgot the God who had blessed them. They had been warned against the sin of pride before they entered the land.
You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today. If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God.Deuteronomy 8:17-20
When the Israelites prospered, they continually turned away to idol worship and sacrificed to the Caananite gods of Asherah, Ba’al, and Molech. They were tempted by the self-gratifying practices of the Canaanites which included ritual sex and prostitution, fortune-telling, and magic. Yet, when they were threatened or oppressed by other nations they would return to God for help. Despite this cycling unfaithfulness, God still didn’t want to destroy them. God sent them 16 prophets over the course of about four hundred years to bring them back.
Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’Ezekiel 33:11
Instead of repenting, they persecuted and killed many of the prophets that God sent to them. Eventually they had become so openly sinful and unrepentant that judgement had to come. God withdrew his protection and the Northern tribes were completely destroyed by Assyria and Judah was conquered by the Babylonians and taken into captivity. Still prophets had foretold of this defeat and exile, but had promised after 70 years in captivity they would return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. The prophets also foretold of a coming messiah who would be their king and savior. The Persians conquered Babylon in 539 BC and Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to the homeland. The time from captivity to rebuilding the temple was 70 years. The Jews had learned the hard way the importance of following God’s law.
Approximately 400 years passed between the Jews return from exile and the teachings of Jesus. To ensure that Israel did not stray from God’s law again, the Sanhedrin was formed. This was a tribunal (court) that consisted 71 elder rabbi who acted as judges and was headed by the High Priest. They exerted considerable power having religious, civil, and criminal jurisdiction within Israel. Unfortunately, as we correct one problem a different problem also develops. The religious leaders were so focused on fulfilling the letter of God’s Law, that there were missing the spirit and failed to apply it to their lives. This hypocrisy is a point that Jesus frequently spoke about.
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”Matthew 23:2-3
The religious leaders rejected Jesus, despite the evidence of prophetic fulfillment for their Messiah. They wanted a powerful king who would free them from the control of the Romans, and Jesus wasn’t what they were expecting. He was instead labeled as a heretic because he threatened the status quo. The religious leaders feared losing their position of power, and this blinded them to the truth. That fear resulted in an appeal to the Roman governor which resulted in Jesus’ execution. Much in the same way that their ancestors had persecuted and killed the prophets God had sent to warn them long ago.