Fertility and Vegetation Cults (in the Bible)

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After Israel's conquest of Canaan one of the greatest dangers to the covenant made with yahweh at Mount sinai was the widespread practice of vegetation and fertility cults by the Canaanites who had not been entirely eliminated by the invading Israelites (Jgs 2.2023). The Canaanite farmer had been accustomed for ages to attribute a fruitful harvest to the mythical powers of his gods. The sexual activity of the male and female gods, baal and Anath (Baalath), were considered by him to be the source of the land's fertility.

The texts discovered at ugarit from 1929 on give extensive information about this cult (Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 129155). Baal, the god of rain and vegetation, was killed each summer and carried off to the underworld by Mot, the god of death (no rain falls in Palestine from late April to late October). Anath went searching for her brother (and consort), and when she found him, she killed Mot and brought Baal back to life. Because of the reunion of the lovers, the rains returned, mingled with the earth, and stirred up again the powers of fertility. Man was not merely a spectator of this mythical union. By ritually enacting the drama of Baal and Anath through sexual union with a temple prostitute, as it was believed, man aided in bringing the divine pair together again in a fertilizing union, thus assuring a bountiful harvest.

Many of the Israelites in their transition from a nomadic to a sedentary existence were attracted to this cult and turned away from the God of the Sinai covenant to Baal, the lord of the farm lands that they had conquered. The syncretistic adoption of Canaanite fertility superstitions is attested by the numerous mother-goddess figurines uncovered in Israelite archeological sites, although the figurines may not have been used as idols, but merely as amulets assuring successful childbirth. It is attested also by the constant polemic carried on by the Prophets against the worship of Baal, astarte, and Asherah (identified in Israel with Anath).

The struggle against the fertility cults was obviously the source of the characterization of unfaithfulness to Israel's God as adultery and fornication (Hos 2.415). In Dt 23.1819 cultic prostitution is expressly forbidden, undoubtedly as a reaction to the practice of fertility rites in the Temple itself during the reigns of Manasseh and Amon (2 Kgs 23.7). Evidence of the continued popularity of fertility rites, even after the fall of Jerusalem, is found in Jer 44.1530, where the cult of Ishtar, the queen of heaven (Astarte), is condemned. The main argument against these cults was that Yahweh is the Lord of all in fruitfulness (Gn 27.28; Dt 7.13); He is not part of the process of fertility, has no female consort, but loves Israel as a husband loves his wife (Hos 2.163.5; 2.13).

Bibliography: c. m. edsman, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 2:116668. a. closs, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 195765) 4:410. w. f. albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Baltimore 1946; 4th ed. 1956). j. l. mckenzie, Myths and Realities: Studies in Biblical Theology (Milwaukee 1963) 85132. h. g. may, "The Fertility Cult in Hosea," American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 48 (193132) 7398.

[h. mueller]