Throughout the ancient Middle East, various religions and forms of worship sprang up or evolved at different times. Many of these are mentioned in Biblical accounts and in the records of the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Assyria and Babylon. Along with these ancient accounts, the Middle East is filled with many temples, high places, and holy places.
One of the reasons we struggle to understand ancient religion, is because today we live in a world with a vastly different worldview than the ancients did. Almost all of the ancient civilizations lived in a world-view that included a strong mix of fear-power worldview. (See Honor and Shame in a Middle Eastern Setting.)
So, in order for Nabataea.net readers to grasp the larger picture of religion in the ancient Middle East, we have put together this short paper that will explain various important aspects that must be considered.
1. Much of the ancient Middle East was animistic in nature
Soon after this, H. W. Turner advocated the use of the term primal religion, meaning that "these religions both anteceded the great historic religions and continue to reveal many of the basic or primary features of religion."
Dave Burnett states in his book Unearthly Powers, "Power can be understood in many ways: physical, political, economic, social, and religious. The secular western worldview tends to regard all power as originating from within the material world. ... In contrast, primal worldviews see such powers not only as being real within the empirical world but as having their primary origin outside the visible world."
In this way, those whose lives operate in the fear/power paradigm see themselves living in a physical world that co-exists and is influenced by unseen powers. These powers may be present in people, animals or even in inanimate objects like trees or mountains. In some cultures, power may be perceived in personal terms such as we would use for living beings. These powers are often regarded as having their own particular character, feeling, and ability to relate to others, and often, even have a will of their own. Like people, they may be angered, placated, or turned to in time of need.
Power is an important concept in fear-based cultures. In the Pacific Islands it is called mana, while the Iroquois of North America call it orenda, which particularly refers to the mystic power derived from a chant. The Eskimos have the notion of sila, a force watching and controlling everything. The Chinese have the concept of fung shui, or the powers within the earth and sea. In folk Islam the term baraka (blessing or holiness) embraces many of these concepts.
In most fear/power cultures, the main way of dealing with a power was to establish rules to protect the unwary from harm and procedures to appease those powers that are offended. These rules and procedures are general referred to by sociologists and anthropologists as taboo. Taboos come in the form of things like special people, forbidden or unclean foods, sacred objects, and special names. Appeasements are usually made in the form of sacrifice or dedication to the invisible powers.
These powers can take various forms, such as: ghosts, ancestors who live around people, spirits in trees or groves of trees, large rocks, mountains, totems (clans associated with certain animals or inanimate objects,) and even special shapes (crescents, blocks, triangles)
In order to deal with these powers, rituals are established which people believe will affect the powers around them. Rituals may be performed on certain calendar dates (zodiac), at certain locations (pilgrimage), at certain times in someone's life (rites of passage), or in a time of crisis (special sacrifices). (See Forms of Worship for more information on these.)
In order to appease the powers of the universe, systems of appeasement were worked out. They varied from place to place. Some civilizations offered blood sacrifices to their gods, while some offered incense. Others offered money, some accommodated sexual intercourse with temple officials, and some offered children as sacrifices to gods. However it was done, this system of appeasement, based on fear of unseen power was the norm for their worldview.
Along with this, wherever this system of appeasement came into being, religious persons came to the forefront to control these systems. In some cases they were known as priests. In other cases they were known as holy men, prophets, witch doctors, or shamans. Whatever their title, their role is the same. They were the ones who understand the needs of the gods or demons, and they were the ones through whom the demons or gods communicated.
In every fear-based culture, the pattern was much the same. The religious officials controlled people through the use of fear. They were very effective in their roles, and as a result, whole cultures and people groups were held in the iron grip of holy men. As a result, the largest and most ornate buildings in most ancient civilizations were the temples.
2. Most locations in the Middle East had local gods
It is interesting to note that the so-called "Nabataean Pantheon" changed and evolved as the Nabataeans came in contact with other civilizations. As the Nabataeans entered Edom, the local god of the mountain (Dushares) became very important. Sea-going Nabataeans revered the dolphin, and Nabataeans in contact with the Romans incorporated Zeus into their pantheon, while those in contact with Egypt incorporated Isis. One has only to read Nelson Glueck's book Deities and Dolphins, The Story of the Nabataeans, to quickly become lost in the maze of changing influences.
3. Gods from one location moved to other locations
Sometimes because of intermarriage or alliances, gods became known. We are told in I Kings 11:4-8 that because of his wives' influences, King Solomon started to worship Ashtoreh the god of the Sidonians, Milcom the god of the Ammonites, Cheemosh the God of Moab, and Molech the god of Ammon.
Conquering armies also took their local gods with them, and taunted other people about the effectiveness of their gods. Rabshakeh, the representative of the Assyrian king (II Kings 18:17) made a public statement to all the Jews as his army stood before the city walls. "Have any of the gods of the nations delivered at all his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath, and of Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena and Ivvah? Who are they among all the gods of the countries, who have delivered their country out of mine hand?" (II Kings 18:33-35) He later brought a message to King Hezekiah of Judah (II Kings 19:8-13, 36-37) where he declared "Have the gods of the nations delivered them whom my fathers have destroyed; as Gozan and Haran and Rezeph and the children of Eden who were in Telassar?" We can also see the impact of conquering armies in the events that took place after Babylon conquered Israel. The Babylonians forced the Jews to worship Babylonian gods
In some cases, as the fame of a civilization grew, so did the worship of their Gods. This was true in ancient Egypt. As the fame of Egypt grew, the cult of Isis eventually came known everywhere.
For example: As the cult of Isis spread throughout the civilized
world she acquired distinct aspects, attributes, and symbols
that became common everywhere. The Egyptian goddess Isis possessed
the powers of a water goddess, an earth goddess, a grain or corn
goddess, and a queen of the Underworld.
As Isis became the supreme goddess of heaven, earth, the underworld,
and the sea, her symbols became grain, poppies, the cornucopia,
the zodiac, fish, the tyche, crown, lions, ships, pinecones,
and even a distinctive knot on her garment.
4. Monotheistic people compared their God to rock gods
These same monotheistic people did not have a made-up name for their god as they felt that no common name or sound could be ascribed to him. Moses asked God for his name and was simply told that the name he should use was "I AM." (Exodus 3:13&14)
Eventually the Jewish concept of God took on several forms.
These names all try to describe the monotheistic God. Along with this, Exodus 20:4 tells us that the Jews did not use any shape to represent their God.
These monotheistic people often adopted the name of a powerful god to use as a means of describing their deity. E.g.: El, Allah, & God. The name of the monotheistic God changes from location to location. The root of the English word God comes from an old German deity.
In some locations the monotheistic god as added to the pantheon of other gods that people worshiped in a local area. (Babylon in Daniel 6:25-27)
5. Deities were sometimes cross identified with others
6. Holy Places
There is a good example of this in the city of Petra, where a large altar dominates the courtyard in front of Qasr al Bint, or the temple to Dushares.
7. Development of the Ka'ba
The Ka'ba practice of the Middle East came to an end when Mohammed, the founder of Islam declared that Allah was more powerful than the other gods. His followers then went around the country destroying city temples and village Ka'bas, and elevating Allah, until he became the sole God, and thus a monotheistic religion was born. (Surah Ibrahim 13, Sura Al Hijr 4)
Also see Nabataea.net web pages on
Alim, ISL Software Corporation, The Qur'an and Haddiths in electronic form. 1999
Glueck Nelson, Deities and Dolphins, The Story of the Nabataean
Holy Bible, Scofield Edition, Oxford University Press,
Inc, 1909 & 1967
Muller, Roland, Honor and Shame, Unlocking the Door, Philadelphia, 2002? Xlibris Publishing
Strong, James, The New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996
|The Price of Honor||Pottery|
|Honor and Shame in a Middle Eastern Setting||Writing|
|Nabataean Graffiti||The Multi-Alphabet Theory|
|Writing Chart (Arabic base)||Writing Charts (German, English)|
|The Petra Scrolls||The Cave of Letters|
|Nabataean Pantheon of Gods||Burial Practices|
|Block Gods||Nabataean Zodiac|
|Making Sense of Middle Eastern Religion||Forms of Worship|
|Deifying Leaders||Pre-Islamic Gods in Arabia|