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Beginning Deuteronomy 12:29, Moses turns his attention to the religious beliefs and practices of the nations in and around Canaan, which Israel was not to learn.
29 When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations which you are going in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, 30 beware that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise?” 31 You shall not behave thus toward the Lord your God, for every abominable act which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.
The Israelites were expected to study the revelation of the divine law, rather than to study the ways and practices of the other nations. How far should a person take this, seeing that Moses himself already knew and understood those practices? In verse 31 he informs Israel of one of the worst of their practices—burning their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.
The prohibition is based on a person studying these religions with the idea of determining which might be true religion. The problem was that when Israel rejected hearing God’s voice at Mount Horeb in Exodus 20:18-21, they were left with a law written only on external stone tablets. Without the actual revelation of the law, it was not written on their hearts. Without such revelation, their carnal minds might be persuaded that the religious practices of the Canaanites might be superior to that of the divine law.
Ultimately, we follow our hearts, and either we are led by the fleshly Adamic nature, or we are led by the revelation of the New Creation Man, which is Christ in us. The problem in Moses’ day was that most of the people were led by the fleshly man in their personal lives, because they had rejected the voice of God. Hence, they were in a precarious position when coming into contact with the religions of other nations.
Only those who have a genuine revelation from hearing God’s voice and have overthrown the idols of the heart will be able to study those other religions without turning aside from the ways of God. The fact that many of the Israelites later turned toward those other gods and made alliances with ungodly people is clear proof of the wisdom of Moses’ words.
God Himself left those ungodly nations in Canaan in order that they might test the hearts of the Israelites (Judges 3:1). God could have empowered Israel to destroy them all and thus avoid failure on these tests, but this only would have given Israel a false sense of piety. It is easy to be good when no temptation is near. It is easy to love when no hateful person is near. It is easy to be religious and yet have no living relationship with God. It is easy to be a Christian when one is born and raised in a Christian family.
God, however, is willing to risk their apostasy, rather than to allow His people to remain good but ignorant religionists. The risk is worth it in the end, because God has the power, wisdom, and the right to save all mankind. He is patient, because He knows that He will eventually see the fruit of His labor (James 5:7). It is only a matter of time. Without such confidence, it would have been a cruel joke on the Israelites to test them in the way that He did, knowing that most of them would fail the test.
Moses mentions the specific example of burning children in the fire. We can read of this in Halley’s Bible Handbook, page 157,
In excavations at Gezer, Macalister, of the Palestine Exploration Fund, 1904-1909, found, in the Canaanite stratum, which had preceded Israelite occupation, of about 1500 B.C., the ruins of a “High Place,” which had been a temple in which they worshipped their god Baal and their goddess Ashtoreth (Astarte).
It was an enclosure 150 by 120 ft, surrounded by a wall, open to the sky, where the inhabitants held their religious festivals. Within the walls were 10 rude stone pillars, 5 to 11 ft high, before which the sacrifices were offered.
Under the debris, in this “High Place,” Macalister found great numbers of jars containing the remains of children who had been sacrificed to Baal. The whole area proved to be a cemetery for new-born babies.
Another horrible practice was what they called “foundation sacrifices.” When a house was to be built, a child would be sacrificed, and its body built into the wall, to bring good luck to the rest of the family. Many of these were found in Gezer. They have been found also at Megiddo, Jericho, and other places….
Archeologists who dig in the ruins of Canaanite cities wonder that God did not destroy them sooner than He did.
On page 185, we read,
"Prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth were official murderers of little children. This is a sidelight on Elijah’s execution of the prophets of Baal…."
These were the temples that God allowed to remain in Israel in order to test the hearts of the people. The utter contrast between God’s law and the religious laws of Canaan makes people wonder how Israelites would choose the ways of false gods. Failing such a test seems incomprehensible until we see that we fail the same tests today (with a few updates and modifications).
The most visible and appalling throwback to Canaanite religion is today’s practice of abortion. America alone has outdone Canaan in the murder of babies, except that we have killed them prior to birth, rather than afterward. In many false religions, sacrifice of the innocent has always been the highest form of worship. The more innocent the sacrifice is, the more effective it is in appeasing the false gods. Thus, to sacrifice the unborn innocent would have been a refinement that the Canaanites particularly would have admired.
Yet perhaps a greater concern lies in the heart of the church. Because of heart idolatry, Christians themselves have been in need of God’s tests—and the church has failed those tests as much as Israel of old. In the third century parts of the church began to adopt the idea of a literal burning hell as a penalty for sin. This was contrary to the law of God and (for the first four or five centuries) to the vast majority of Christians. See A Short History of Universal Reconciliation.
As the church felt the need to restrain sin and to compete with various sects, they found it useful to threaten the people with dire consequences in the afterlife for leaving mainstream “orthodox” religion. The lake of fire thus became a burning hell, as they adopted the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman views of hell. They forgot the Hebrew view that “fire” was a metaphor for the divine law (Deut. 33:2).
By substituting pagan views of divine judgment for that which is found in biblical law, they instilled heart idolatry in the people, enforced by the emperors who were attempting to retain unity in the empire. In time, the majority view of Universal Reconciliation became the minority, and in the end the church adopted the old Canaanite view that literal fire was God’s judgment upon sin, or that torture by fire was necessary to expiate sin.
Canaanite priestesses were temple prostitutes, and male priests were sodomites (now known as gay or bisexual priests). Canaanite religion accommodated everyone’s sexual orientation. When a betrothed bride went to such a temple to be “purified” by sexual relations with a priest, her firstborn son was often fathered by the priest. Because the priest represented their god, the child was considered to be a “son of God.” That child, then, being innocent or sinless, was sacrificed by fire to atone for sin.
It was a cruel parody of the only sinless Son of God who was to die for sin as the only effectual sacrifice to God. To make it worse, the Canaanites also misapplied the divine principle of eating sacrifices of the sin offering. Leviticus 6:29 says,
29 Every male among the priests may eat of it; it is most holy.
The Canaanite parody involved eating the flesh of the children that they sacrificed as well, and hence the English word “cannibal” is derived from canna-bal, or “priest of Baal.” (The Hebrew word for “priest,” cohen, is similar to canna.) Modern Babylonian culture has not yet openly practiced this, but I have no doubt that some have done so in secret.
Like ancient Israel, the church has been tested by these other ungodly practices. The belief that God endlessly tortures people for sins committed in a mere life time has been used to justify burning people at the stake for centuries. A few minutes of earthly torture, they reasoned, hardly compares with the eternal torture yet to come.
What they did not comprehend was how this could become a doorway into all of the other abominations of Canaanite religion. In other words, if the church as a whole failed one test, it would certainly fail other tests as the moral slide continued.
But God has decreed an end to this, for if the Holy Spirit is not poured out upon the church, its condition would only continue to worsen until the earth would be destroyed by its own fiery self-immolation. I believe that the time has come when the divine tests are concluding, and those who have passed the tests will be given new authority to implement the divine plan for the earth.
It is a plan of restoration, not destruction.