When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel. Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served the Baals; and they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. (Judges 2:10-12)
It seems obvious that the newer generation either had more exposure to the visuals of Baalism than to those of the Mosaic religion or found Baalism more aesthetically appealing than the faith of their fathers. Evidently, Baalism was suffused with images, idols, symbols, and shrines. The visual imagery had a grappling effect on the minds and imaginations of the adherents. Additionally, polytheism has a particularly pluralistic and diversifyingly liberating influence. The Canaanite religion was polytheistic with multiple Baals and gods and, unlike the Mosaic religion, it offered a “religiously-oriented” person a broader catalogue of visually satisfying divinities to choose from.
The Mosaic faith also had its visuals in the form of the visual elements of the Tabernacle, of the feasts of the Lord, and other leading imagery from the Torah.
Tie them as reminders on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates. (Deut 6:8,9)
Nevertheless, it could create a sense of being a legalistic system that was a “given” and not “chosen”. Even if they were given the option to choose between YHWH and the gods, such a choice was categorised as a choice between life and death.
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction…. if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed… (Deut 30:15-20)
Polytheistic cults, on the other hand, were not so exclusive. They, at least, seemed to provide some sort of freedom to choose any one of the many and yet stay religiously accepted and uncondemned. In fact, it would not be any problem for a polytheistic religion to accept YHWH as one of the pantheon, provided YHWH did not make claims to a supremacy that would only entail war.
The most important religious visual symbols in the Mosaic religion included the covenant symbols, the liturgical symbols, and the celebrative and commemorative symbols. The Israelites had very clear-cut commands against idolatry of any form whatsoever. Both the attempt to portray the divine in any visual form as well as worship of such a form was strictly forbidden.
So since you saw no form of any kind on the day the LORD spoke to you out of the fire at Horeb, be careful that you do not act corruptly and make an idol for yourselves of any form or shape, whether in the likeness of a male or female, of any beast on the earth or bird that flies in the air, or of any creature that crawls on the ground or fish in the waters below. When you look to the heavens and see the sun and moon and stars—all the host of heaven—do not be enticed to bow down and worship what the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. (Deut 4:15-19)
Visual representation of God was forbidden because any visual only led away from and not towards the true and living God. This view is contrary to the popular polytheistic view that the image helps to draw the worshipper closer to her deity; perhaps, it might draw her closer to the deity represented by the image in her mind, but it would not be able to draw her closer to the Biblical YHWH for sure. In that sense, the image only helps to reinforce the visual and sensible element of religious experience rather than the spiritual and infinite one.
But, the Mosaic religion did have its visuals, the foremost of which were the covenant ones. Among these, the circumcision was certainly prominent. In fact, the Hebrews regarded circumcision as the symbol that set them apart from the non-Hebrews; the non-Hebrews were the uncircumcised.
Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God? (1Sam.17:26)
Other related symbols were tassels with blue cords on garments (Deut 22:12, Num.15:38) and the phylacteries (in present day Judaism, converted into symbolism from Deut 6:8, 11:18, etc).
Then, there were the liturgical symbols of the Tabernacle itself with all its building material, tools, vessels, and articles. This included the formula of the anointing oil that was forbidden from being duplicated and used for any other purpose than for liturgical anointing.
And you are to tell the Israelites, ‘This will be My sacred anointing oil for the generations to come. It must not be used to anoint an ordinary man, and you must not make anything like it with the same formula. It is holy, and it must be holy to you. Anyone who mixes perfume like it or puts it on a layman shall be cut off from his people.’” (Exo.30:31)
One of the most powerful Tabernacle symbols was the fire of the Tabernacle itself which had fallen down from heaven, from the very presence of God.
And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces. (Lev.9:24)
Fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out. (Lev.6:13)
One may think that it would be impossible for someone to know about this fire from heaven burning on the altar throughout generations and yet abandon this altar for the altars of the Baals. However, given the fact that the Tabernacle was located at a single place in Shiloh which may not have made it possible for most of the Israelites to visit regularly, and the fact that the altars of Baal were everywhere around (since the Canaanites lived together with the Israelites pursuing their own religions), it seems more evident that the visual appeal of Baal would be stronger than the distant appeal of the Tabernacle. Of course, the Reubenites, Gadites, and the Manassehites had also built a memorial altar on the other side of the river Jordan to facilitate coming generations with a visual imagery that linked them to the Tabernacle (Joshua 22), yet it did not retain a towering visual influence on the minds of the Israelites amidst the countless edifices of polytheistic imagery that surrounded them. It may have retained the meaning of the symbol if the Mosaic religion was strongly in place. That altar did not take into account the divine foreknowledge.
“‘But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live.” (Lev.6:13)
The angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land I swore to give to your ancestors. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.’ Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? And I have also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you.’” (Judges 2:1-3)
But, it is the desire to change the practical symbols though retaining the theological form that is more threatening to faith.
When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations you are entering to dispossess, and you drive them out and live in their land, be careful not to be ensnared by their ways after they have been destroyed before you. Do not inquire about their gods, asking, “How do these nations serve their gods? I will do likewise.” You must not worship the LORD your God in this way, because they practice for their gods every abomination which the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deut 12:29-31)
Eventually, such an attempt to serve YHWH the way the world did only ended up in a breakdown of family and the sacrifice of their children to the gods of the world. The most serious example of this was Manasseh, the most anti-people king ever.
Manasseh also built altars in the house of the LORD, of which the LORD had said, “In Jerusalem I will put My Name.” In both courtyards of the house of the LORD, he built altars to all the host of heaven. He sacrificed his own son in the fire,a practiced sorcery and divination, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did great evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking Him to anger.
Manasseh even took the carved Asherah pole he had made and set it up in the temple, of which the LORD had said to David and his son Solomon, “In this temple and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will establish My Name forever. (2 Kgs.21:4-7)
The Bible cautions:
And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. (2 Cor.6:15-18)
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life— is not from the Father but from the world. The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God remains forever. (1John 2:15-17)