“Do not learn the ways of the nations.” This passage from Deuteronomy 18 is a common refrain in the Hebrew Roots movement and is often used to discourage observance of traditional Christian holidays (which I have dealt with here). It is meant, usually, in a way to emphasize the biblical holidays and practices over against what is deemed pagan derived practices of Christians. However, the Bible itself derives many of its elements from non-Israelite custom and practice putting into serious question what is meant by this passage and how it should be applied. In the following paragraphs I will look at these passages and as well as history to attempt somewhat of an answer.
In the beginning, God called Abram out of the nations and made his descendants his own inheritance. Abraham and his descendants after him lived among nations and was even enslaved in Egypt for generations. The point to be taken here is that the Israelites were never in a cultural vacuum. They were in constant contact with their neighbors and interacted with them through the literature of the Bible. In fact, the biblical account contains many allusions to Canaanite, Egyptian, and Greco-Roman literature. The Bible even goes so far as to copy these forms of literature and use them to worship Yahweh instead of the pagan gods they were originally meant for.
The Psalms and Canaanite Mythology
The book of Psalms is in itself a literary masterpiece as well as the song book for worship at the temple of the One true God. What is interesting is that several of these psalms contain imagery that is derived from Canaanite mythology. For example, Psalm 104 characterizes Yahweh as a storm god: “He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants.” This interesting imagery comes from the legend of Baal. In 1929 on the coast of Syria, Ugarit was excavated and the myth of Baal was discovered. We see in the text Baal as a storm god and struggling with Mot (the god of grain and death) and also with Yam, the sea god. Since then, we have come to see the parallels between this myth and the Psalms, especially 104. The Psalm goes on to state, “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took flight…” In the Baal cycle, Baal defeats Yam (which also happens to be the Hebrew word for sea), but in the Psalms we see that it is not Baal who defeats the sea, but Yahweh. It is not Baal who makes the clouds his chariot, but Yahweh. The writer of the Psalm is making an argument here. He is saying that it is not your silly pagan gods that do these things, but it is the creator God Himself who does this. While Baal is killed in the cycle, Yahweh lives forever. The Israelite writer was making a comparison of his God with that of his neighbors and using their language and context to state that their gods were false, while the God of the Israelites is the one true God.
This is not an isolated incident either, Psalm 48 compares Zion to mount Zaphon, the home of the Canaanite pantheon (Michael S. Heiser deals with the rich theological implications here). Psalm 38 is similar to an Akkadian prayer to Marduk, a Babylonian god. The Israelites were not simply aping their neighbors and worshiping God in their ways, they were taking elements and styles that were known to them and the truth of the matter; the God of Israel is the one true God.
The book of Job also has similar element to the Psalms. In Job 41, Yahweh claims to have power over leviathan, the great sea monster of pagan myth. In fact, the Hittite mythological gods have trouble defeating leviathan, yet Yahweh pulls him in with a fishhook and “puts a cord through his nose.” Job also mirrors in many ways the Kirta Epic of Babylonian origin. Not only is the book of Job teaching an important lesson in how Yahweh reveals Himself, it also uses a medium that Israelites and other Near Eastern peoples would be familiar with. Obviously this did not pose a problem for the ancient Israelite to use these types of literature, so they must not have seen this as part of the prohibition against “learning the ways of the nations.”
This passage is often used by Hebrew Roots believers to condemn any practice that is suspected of paganism. It would benefit us to read the passage as a whole.
9 When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 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,11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 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. 13 You must be blameless before the Lord your God.
Verse nine is immediately telling when it is read in its entirety. The Lord is commanding the Israelites not to imitate the nations that they are going to drive out of the land. This is not a blanket statement for the entire world and every practice that has been thought up by a non-Israelite. To pay attention to the entire passage would be helpful too in interpreting this passage. Verses ten and eleven gives a litany of the forbidden practices that they are not to imitate, which again shows us this is not a blanket statement. Were this truly a blanket statement condemning any practice whatsoever of gentiles then we would have to throw out much of the Psalms, Job, much of the prophets and the New Testament. In fact, we would have to throw out Deuteronomy itself as it is modeled on a Suzerain covenant common in Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. God is not being inconsistent here, He is simply revealing himself in a way that made sense to the people with whom He was forming this covenant relationship.
The New Testament
The New Testament is also rife with examples of using examples and literature that the people of the time would have been familiar with. Mark uses elements from Greco-Roman ghost stories to highlight that Jesus is God in the episode where He walks on water (for full treatment of that check this out). Paul uses the standard form of letter writing familiar to the Greek speaking world. Furthermore, when Paul goes to the Areopagus he uses the elements that the Greeks would be familiar with.
22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
Paul pointed to an altar of pagan worship and stated, just like in the Old Testament, that these people were mistaken, it is not the gods you think it is, but the One true God. We see over and over that the Bible takes these elements of pagan belief and uses them as a polemic saying these gods are false, but there is a true God that is more powerful and loving than anything you have thought of.
Some try to hearken back to legends (rather late legends from my understanding) that missionaries into pagan areas took elements of their worship and redirected them to the deeper truth that the God of the Bible is behind the world they experience. If this is true, like, missionaries using evergreens to explain the eternal life of God, then they are in good company with the biblical writers. If the folk ways of egg dying or wreath making were originally pagan (again, we have no direct evidence that it was, only speculation), then they are not under the ban in Deuteronomy 18 and seem to be in line with common practice by biblical writers and characters.
Does this mean that we should go learn any pagan practice that we find neat? Probably not. This is where Church tradition can be helpful. Reading through the early Church Fathers you will see many arguments against pagan worship and what was false about it. Christians have always been wary of syncretistic practices, which is why I don’t believe there is much paganism in Christian practice, but only organic growth of local customs. Deuteronomy then is a ban on specific practices of the nations that were being driven out of Canaan, not a wholesale statement about the entire world. Those who would use this passage for their own agenda touted as respect for the commandments of the Bible need to look at the wider context of this specific passage and the Bible as a whole before jumping to unwarranted conclusions.
Thanks to Michael S. Heiser’s Nakedbiblepodcast.com, Biblegateway.com and the NIV Archeological Study Bible for information on this subject.