One of the hardest problems in tackling false religion is defining what false religion is so that it may be tackled. There are of course some instances of false religion that are sufficiently blatant that it is impossible for any reasonable person to declare otherwise. However the lesson of the Jewish people is that religion can go wrong in so many diverse ways that almost any deviation from total scriptural obedience does, or soon will, constitute false religion.
It is almost impossible to do a full survey of false religion in the Old Testament without writing a commentary on the majority of the Bible. As that is outside the scope of this essay I intend instead to pick a number of instances of false religion between the Exodus and the return from Babylon to act as examples of what can happen. Whilst I will show that certain forms of falsehood were indicative of different stages in Israeli history it would really be misleading to say it developed. Instead the pattern that will appear is really one of recurrent problems.
It is important to understand that one of the most blatant and defining moments in the history of false religion within Israel actually came as the Ten Commandments were being given. Moses had been gone for a little over a month; the people had seen the fire and cloud of the Lord. They had been saved miraculously; given miraculous provision. Yet just over a month later enough of a groundswell had grown that they wanted gods to be made for them to worship. Astonishingly, Aaron immediately acquiesced and instructed the gold should be brought that he used to fashion into a molten calf which he then presented to the people.
However the most telling expression comes in Ex 32:5 where he stated that the following day would be a feast day unto the Lord. We therefore see that whilst Aaron was willing to yield to their idolatry it was his intent to integrate this with the true Jewish religion. This was an attack on the second commandment; not the first. The people were happy enough to do this; they ate, drank and played. We therefore see that true religion when adapted to the desires of the people can be very appealing to man; and appalling to God.
The remainder of the narrative is chilling. Whilst the people thought God was too distant and remote He was actually well aware of what they were doing and but for the intercession of Moses the whole Jewish race could have stopped then and there. As it was three thousand men died that day because of their impatience.
Incredibly this lesson was not learnt. It was not even learnt in the specific case of calves of Gold let alone false religion in general. Some five hundred years later we read of Jeroboam, who would have had the Pentateuch available to him, building two golden calves and telling the people exactly what they had been told in Ex 32. During the years that followed there would be some reforms such as that under Jehu but the two golden calves remained. In fact right up to the deportation under Assyria the sins of Jeroboam remained at the forefront of Israeli existence.
A more direct attack on the true faith and the first commandment also commenced during the wilderness wanderings. In Num 25:1-3 we see that Israel joined himself to Baalpeor. Baalpeor (Baal) was the name of the principle male God of the Phoenicians. A quick look at a Bible dictionary to see the Canaanite city names that start with 'Baal' gives an idea of how firmly he was entrenched in the culture. Baal is also identified with Molech of the Ammonites and Chemosh of the Moabites. The principle feature of the god under the latter names is that he demanded child sacrifice. This was something the Jews had been warned about, that was expressly forbidden and that the congregation had a duty to stamp out.
The numbers passage also shows the manner in which the worship of Baal commenced. The men of Israel had begun to interact with the women of Moab, something which was forbidden. Pretty quickly there were invited to join in with the sacrifices that these people made to their gods. It is quite possible that the people doing it were essentially being polite rather than actually switching their personal allegiances. Yet from the heavenly perspective they had joined themselves. This one cost the nation twenty-four thousand people. That is almost 5% of the population they had; equivalent to the United States loosing fifteen million people.
Again this lesson was not readily learnt; the entire period of Judges shows oscillation between the worship of Baal and the worship of God. There had been a time of relative purity; we know that under Joshua and the other elders that had experienced the Exodus the people served God. However the next generation started to serve Baal. We are explicitly told that they switched from God to Baal. So here we don't see true religion falsified or even true religion co-existing with false; the false religion has usurped the true. We even know that some were willing to execute an individual for defiling a grove dedicated to Baal.
The result of this false religion was a highly repetitive cycle. God would hand them over to the nations whose gods they worshipped. The people would cry under the persecution. God would raise up a judge to save them. They followed the judge and worshipped God; then the judge died and the people returned to Baal. This continued until the time of Samuel when the worship of Baal was purged from Israel. Baal and his pseudonyms then disappear from the pages of scripture other than in historic reference throughout the time of Samuel, Saul, David and the majority of the lifetime of So.
But Baal returned in the guise of Moloch and Chemosh; this time he was introduced by Solomon. In addition Baal now had a companion Ashtoreth the Phoenician moon goddess. As on the first occasion in Numbers it was the female influence that turned Solomon's heart to these gods. However the result was even more drastic than previously. It was this chasing of false gods that caused God to tear the kingdom from the line of Solomon. Further, as God had promised David a continuing throne Judah was set aside to remain loyal. This caused the divided kingdom and ultimately paved the road for civil war, the complete destruction of the northern kingdom and the captivity of Judah.
In the northern kingdom the worship of false gods was greatly exacerbated under the rule of Ahab influenced by Jezebel. Elijah won some victories but Baal worship was now too entrenched; at one point only seven thousand non-Baal worshippers remained. It wasn't until the time of Jehu that Baal was once again removed from Israel.
In the southern kingdom there was a return to the oscillation of the period of Judges. Under some kings where were reforms and under some there was a return to the worship of Baal. The final and greatest purge of false religion came under Josiah. Unfortunately it was a case of too little and too late. The southern kingdom had become worse than the heathen it had displaced. The Lord has already declared that the southern kingdom was to be made an example of. This led to the captivity when the worship of Baal was finally removed from the southern kingdom by God.
As far as we know the first and second commandments held up pretty well subsequent to the captivity. Instead the problems become more social relating to matters of integrity, spiritual zeal and care for the weak. We know that this developed during the intertestamental period to the point where the religious leaders of Israel could be described as a generation of vipers even though the first two commandments had remained externally intact.
In this brief tour we have seen that false religion started at exactly the same point as the Mosaic covenant. The rest of Jewish history to the deportation was really a pendulum swinging between true and false religion. The impetus was usually caused by a leader urging for good or evil. The latter was often caused by simple carnality leading to far wider ramifications. We also saw the effects escalate from three thousand dead to a divided kingdom with one piece destroyed and the other piece in bondage in Babylon. Ultimately we saw that wickedness comes from the heart and can only be purged by God Himself.