Sunday, October 21, 2018
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Did God Have a Wife?


Syllabus

  • Origins of the Israeli people
  • Archaeological evidence and Old Testament -  Biblical accounts favor propaganda from Southern Judah
  • Iron Age I  Settlements from hillsides from which the Israel and Judah territorial states emerged
  • Israelites were Canaanites
  • Early Judaic religion was polytheistic
  • Important distinctions notes between State, or "Book Religion" and Folk Religion
  • Archaeological evidence supports the claim that folk religion was quite prevalent in Israel until about 586 BCE 
  • Extended discussion of reasons for folk religion in Israel and distinctions between folk and state religion
  • Asherah as god's wife or consort and an important goddess
  • Archaeological findings that Canaanite religion and the early Jewish religion were quite similar
  • Yahweh took precedence over Baal or El with the writers of Deuteronomy
  • Ancient names of Hebrew god, especially the name of El-Shadday which appears in Exodus
  • The writers of Deuteronomy tried to wipe out evidenced of Asherah after the Jewish people returned from Babylonian Exile in the late 500's BCE
  • Archaeological and biblical evidence for Asherah in the Jewish religion and the probability that she was god's wife
  • Kuntillet Airud site- an inscription asking for blessings from "Yahweh and his Asherah"
  • An extended discussion of trees as a symbol of Asherah. Biblical and archaeological evidence for Asherah in Hebrew religion and attempts to banish her worship
  • Writers of Deuteronomy rewrote history, tried to remove all polytheistic articles and evidence- an extended discussion
  • An extended discussion of the prevalence of polytheism and Asherah in Judah well into the 1500's BCE
  • Some evidence of Israelite burning of children as a sacrifice to their god or gods similar to the Canaanite and Phoenician practices
  • Female figurines, inscriptions, inscriptions on seals, other archaeological evidence for Asherah- an extended discussion
  • Asherah's association with the tree symbol- an extended discussion
  • Extended discussion of flourishing polytheism in both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah
  • Most Jewish citizens were rural. How the rise of cities and social changes weakened the traditional folk customs and religion
  • An extended discussion of the history of the decline of the Northern Kingdom and the rise of both Northern and Southern prophets as Southern Judah rose- how prophets of both areas were populist but most were advocates of the "Yahweh Alone" party rather than of polytheism
  • "Yahweh Alone" movement remained in the minority through the centuries- reform movements of Hezekiah and Josiah fairly unsuccessful- extended historical discussion
  • The Babylonian Conquest in 586 BCE and the exile of most people of Judah into Babylonia- the Jerusalem Temple destroyed- an extended discussion
  • The scrolls the Judeans took into Babylon became the focus of their religion and formation of Pentateuch of the Old Testament
  • Ezra, a famous scribe from either 458 BCE or 398 BCE, and his cohorts convinced Jews returned from Babylon to embrace "Yahweh Alone". History from the party of Deuteronomy prevailed
  • Jewish people convinced by Ezra that their defeat had been punishment for their sins against Yahweh
  • Jewish people left the non-Jewish wives they had married and their children- they determined to follow Jewish Torah Law to the letter in the future
  • Male god, Yahweh, made exclusive and vengeful- Asherah and other gods, folk religion ultimately vanquished
  • Conclusion- why atheists must keep the light of reason alive when many people are frightened by misfortune and turn to the myth of god


Did God Have a Wife?



The focus of this paper is to attempt an answer to the question of whether the mythical Israelite god, Yahweh, had a wife. Before assaying into the evidence for such a claim, which this study endorses, it is necessary to delve into the origin of the ancient people of Israel.  There are myriad theories about the origin set forth by many excellent scholars.  The most convincing has been framed by the Jewish scholar and archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein.  

Finkelstein relies on archaeological evidence combined with study of Old Testament sources.  Archaeology, if undertaken properly, does not lie.  Sometimes the interpretation of it is biased and/or incorrect. Therefore painstaking scholarship is necessary to extrapolate hard fact from reliable evidence and interpret it accurately. Finkelstein has been one of the researchers able to sift through the falsehoods and mythology of the ancient literary sources of the Old Testament and to compare them to the hard evidence of archaeological research.

The myth that depicted the rise of early Israel as a singular event was not correct. The separation of the Judahite state from other Palestinian occupants most likely came centuries after Iron Age I, generally dated from 1200-1000 BCE, and was "shaped by the history of that state in the late Iron Age II period," dated from approximately 1000-550 BCE.  Professor Finkelstein maintains that the Deuteronomistic historians wrote a biased account of early Israel.  Their endeavor spanned  the years of the 7th Century until the early 5th Century BCE.  Their version of the history of the rise of Israel served the "southern, Judahite-centered ideology and its historical/national aspirations" as well conveying its theological message. The biased account prevailed for many centuries. But recent archaeology has provided a corrective to that narrative.

Finkelstein states that the outcome of Iron Age I settlement activity was the "emergence of the Israelite and Judahite territorial states."(The Israelite states were in the North and Judah was in the South.) He maintains that "one can say that the early Israelites were in fact, Canaanites." Finkelstein is not the only scholar who maintains this view. It is being accepted in many quarters and is obtaining the consensus of many experts in the field.

Archaeological evidence gleaned from the remains of animal husbandry has shown that pig husbandry was practiced in the highlands of Canaan in the Iron Age and other periods.  But starting with Iron Age I, pig bones had virtually disappeared from many settlements in that area. The pig bones remained in significant numbers at Heshbon on the border between Ammon and Moab in Transjordan. The same patterns occurred in Iron Age II. Such  findings suggest that during Iron Age I, the taboo on pigs was already in place in the Iron hill country. Pig bones were not present in proto-Israelite sites in the highlands. But the pig bones remained popular in a proto-Ammonite site and in numerous Philistine areas.

Professor Finkelstein provides two important reasons for the disappearance of Iron Age I pig bones from the proto-Israelite highland sites. The proto-Israelites may have regarded the consumption of pork, widely popular in Philistia, as a Philistine ethnic marker, and so avoided raising pigs.  But one must keep in mind that those proto-Israelites had a pastoral background. Pigs cannot be herded over large distances and pig husbandry was likely a "symbol of sedentary life". "Pastoral Near Eastern nomads would likely avoid raising them."

From the available evidence, Finkelstein has concluded that the rise of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which had originated in the highlands, ultimately expanded into the lowlands as well. The Northern kingdom formed an actual territorial state, a "revolution in the social history of Canaan-Israel". The so-called exceptional event in the Palestinian highlands was not the "Israelite Settlement" of them claimed by biblical traditions, but "the historical emergence of the Israelite state around 900 BCE in the Northern Highlands."

The early Judaic religion was polytheistic and slowly underwent a lengthy process from which it emerged as monotheistic, with Yahweh as the dominant, and finally the only god, to be worshipped. One of the most significant studies of that process is Mark S. Smith's "The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel," in particular the 2002 Revised Edition. Not only is that edition arguable the best study of that topic to date, but Smith makes considerable use of archeological evidence that he believes has "reached a near level of sophistication."

William G. Dever has successfully attempted to make important distinctions between State Religion and "Folk Religion". Most of the people who could loosely be labeled as Israelite did not live in cities but in rural districts and villages. In the ancient world, most of the population was generally illiterate. Dever points out that even kings and priests could not read and had to depend on a small group of professional scribes to communicate and carry on business and theological affairs. In ancient Israel, writing did not become widespread until the 8th Century BCE, and even then it served a functional role. Most people still could not read literate productions, such as the Hebrew bible.

Some families, along with various related families, set up their own shrines, that served as their holy places of worship. There is now excellent archaeological evidence to support this fact. Archaeologists have found and studied more than a dozen such sites ranging from the 12th to the 7th Century BCE. Those sites have offered evidence of a folk religion which co-existed with the official religion.  Some of the sites, which were of the Canaanite style of building, remained in use for many centuries, even though the Old Testament claimed that all worship had come under priestly dominance very early and was centered in Jerusalem.  There are remains of horned altars, animal bones and food remains, terra cotta female figurines and more items, none of which were related to the mainstream priestly practices.  Women frequently play a significant role in worship at family shrines, and they surely did in the folk religion of Israel.

The rural families were isolated and most could be expected to have been traditional or conservative, kin-based and somewhat inbred. Dever maintains they were isolated from "the centers of political power, religious authority and international tensions". Most of the people would not have had contact with the orthodox religious views of the Old Testament. They were living in extended families and worshipped partly extempore. (Please see William Dever's "Did God Have a Wife," listed in the Bibliography of this paper for a description of the location of the sites, their architecture and the various cultic objects listed.) This paper will focus almost exclusively on the Goddess Asherah's objects, which were mentioned frequently in the Old Testament.  Many have been discovered and indentified in those popular family sites.

Professor Dever has made erudite observations concerning many people's hopes and expectations of religion.  He has also made important distinctions between "Book Religion," or state religion, and "Folk Religion". He defines religion as a significant aspect of "Ultimate Concerns." Such concerns include the desire and struggle for survival, the attempt to align oneself with the universe (including the personalizing of the powers ruling the universe and trying to "get on their good side"), as well as placating the deities and securing their blessings. Professor Dever maintains that worshippers believe it is important to give back to the gods what the gods have given to humans: food, sustenance (including beverages), and even life.

Dever has listed the significant distinctions between state and folk religion because they are so important to understand  ancient Israelite religion in both of its aspects. State religion included the following traits. It was literate, verbal and had texts, canon, belief, mythology, theology, ideology, intellectuality, dogma, rationality, and ceremonial functions, public, social and national.

"Folk religion" was popular and had artifacts, improvisational practice, magic, symbolism, cult, action, emotiveness, praxis, mysticism, ritual. Its practices tended to be private, individual and local.  Book, or state religion, was most concerned with the state, ethics, the political order, "sacredness" and orthodoxy. "Folk religion" was more concerned with family, piety, right relations, and was more "profane," and taken up with customary practice. The two systems always overlapped and there is in actuality, no true history of one "Israelite" religion.

ASHERAH AS GOD'S WIFE OR CONSORT AND
AN IMPORTANT GODDESS IN HER OWN RIGHT


Asherah was a Canaanite goddess and the consort, or wife, of the god, El, and then the god, Baal. But scholars and archaeologists have found that the Canaanite religion and the early Jewish religion were quite similar.  It was only with the Deuteronomistic writers that Yahweh took precedence over Baal, or El, in the Jewish religion. Frank Cross's 1973 work, "Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel", was the first volume that made the case for the fact that Jewish patriarchal religion was indebted to the much earlier Canaanite religion, especially when the mythical texts in Ugarit were studied.  Ugarit was an ancient port city on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. Ugarit is an extinct Northwest Semitic language discovered by French archaeologists in 1929. Biblical scholars have since been using it to help clarify the way the cultures of Judah and Israel were similar to the religions of neighboring cultures.

Cross and other scholars have noted that in the "oldest literary strands of the biblical Pentateuch, it is the Canaanite deity, El, who regularly appears, not Yahweh." In fact, there are many names under which the early Hebrew god appears.  A few of them were: El-Shadday, El, Elyon, El-Olam, El-Bethel, El-Elonay Israel, and El-Roi. Over time, authors of the Old Testament Pentateuch attempted to explain the name change of the Hebrew god. In Exodus 6:1-9, God appeared to Moses and explained that he had revealed himself to the earlier patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as "El-Shadday," but had not revealed his true name, Yahweh. Yahweh told Moses that it was under this name that he was now creating a covenant with the people of Israel and would deliver them to freedom in the Promised Land. There are numerous passages in the Pentateuch that illustrate the name change of the Israelite god into that of Yahweh.

Asherah, originally a consort of El, Baal, and most likely, El-Shadday, was surely the wife,or consort of Yahweh. The "Yahweh Alone" (as god) party was probably responsible for the attempts to edit Asherah out of the Hebrew bible after the Babylonian exile of the defeated Jews in 586 BCE.  The attempts to edit Asherah out of the bible continued for centuries. Many English translations of present day editions of the bible translate "Asherah" as "Sacred Tree". The tree was the most common symbol for the powerful and fecund Asherah.  In fact, the tree stood for the goddess.

Raphael Patai's 1967 "Hebrew Goddess", was a definitive work on Asherah's role as a Hebrew goddess worshipped along with Yahweh by the ancient Israelites. Patai had access to some archaeological data. Since then many more discoveries have been made at Near Eastern sites that confirm Patai's thesis.  But Patai was arguably singular among the scholars writing in that area of religion because he had access to the "rich lore of medieval Rabbinical scholars." Since then, ancient texts, amulets and figurines, particularly from the afore-mentioned area of Ugarit, have been unearthed by archaeologists that confirm that Asherah was a powerful fertility goddess.

The present day scholar, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, senior lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter, and William Dever, Professor Emeritus of near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tuscon, have been able to carry Patai's theories forward based on archaeological discoveries in Ugarit and other important sites.

Stavrakopoulou cites the 8th Century pottery inscription found in the Sinai Desert at a site called Kuntillet Ajrud. She explains that: "The inscription asks for a blessing from 'Yahweh and his Asherah'". That important inscription is evidence that Yahweh and Asherah were considered a divine pair by worshippers.  Now a handful of inscriptions have been discovered which emphasize that the biblical god once had a wife whose identity was carefully edited out of the Old Testament.

Stavrakopoulou explains that there is also biblical evidence which remains in the bible. She states that in the Book of Kings, a statue of Asherah was said to be housed in the Temple of Jerusalem and that female temple personnel wove ritual textiles for her. The most common translations of the bible denote Asherah as a tree symbol which was chopped down and burned outside the temple. The destruction of Asherah was undertaken according to the decrees of some of the Jewish rulers who were attempting to purify the faith from its polytheistic roots. Their objective was to make the worship of the single male god, Yahweh, the only religion to be followed by ancient Israel.

Professor Dever explains that in the early Hebrew religion, Asherah was Yahweh's consort, but that the orthodox Deuteronomistic parties wrote of her as "the whore of pagan gods." Deuteronomy 16:21, 22 puts these words in Yahweh's mouth in his directions to the Israelites as they are about to take over the land of Canaan (which most likely never happened.) "You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of Yahweh which you shall make and you shall not set up a pillar (massebah) which Yahweh your god hates."

There is more written evidence from Judah about the Israeli cult of Asherah during the reigns of the only two reforming kings approved of by biblical writers, Hezekiah and Josiah. In 11 Kings 18:4, the 8th Century BCE Hezekiah is said to have "removed the high places (cult sites), broken the pillars and cut down the Asherah." But Hezekiah's son, Manasseh, turned back to the worship of Asherah.  He set up "a graven image of Asherah in Solomon's Temple." The Deuteronomistic authors of "Kings" insisted that only "Yahweh's name" should have been established forever. They described Manasseh as the worst king of all, the ruler who "made Judah to sin." Obviously Hezekiah's reform failed and Asherah remained in the Jerusalem Temple.

Deaver points out that II Kings 23 was written by Deuteronomistic historians who carried out a revisionist history of ancient Israel. Their history concerns itself  principally with the later reforms of the "good King Josiah," of the late 7th Century BCE. Josiah was the scribes' hero, and as Dever explains, most likely their patron as well. The scribes wrote that Josiah banished all the "high places" as well as removing the Asherah from the Temple and burning it. The writers also created an inventory of "pagan practices" attacked by Josiah, which provides scholars of the present day with details of the folk religion under siege at that time. Some of those so-called heinous objects and practices included: "idolatrous priests, high places (cult shrines) in every city of Judah and even at the gate of Jerusalem, incense burned to Baal, standing stones, worship of the sun, the moon and constellations, and all the hosts of the heavens in the Temple, as well as horses and chariots dedicated to the sun at the entrance to the temple".

The scribes described more objects and practices which had been banned by Josiah: "...vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the hosts of Heaven in the Temple, cult prostitution in the Temple (doubted by many contemporary scholars), and child sacrifice in the Kidron Valley."

The vociferous and angry condemnation of such worship of Asherah and of fertility cults raises the question of why the condemnation was so severe.  I think the answer may be inferred.  The condemned practices continued to remain popular in the religion practiced by many Israelites and proved very difficult to eradicate.

Dever lists ten points from "Kings" which "may have to do particularly with Asherah and women's concerns."  He maintains that the "high places" were associated with Asherah's symbols so often that it is clear that many shrines were devoted especially to the goddess. The fact that the vessels made for Asherah were burned may mean that they were pieces of furniture more connected to Baal and Asherah rather than to the one god, Yaweh.

The passages from the Old Testament about child sacrifice raises many questions. The practice was generally harshly condemned and judged.  Many of Old Testament texts describe child sacrifice as a pagan practice and expressly forbid it.

Yet in addition to Kings 23:10, other texts openly describe child sacrifice among the Israelites, as in the "Wandering in the Wilderness", a late psalm. There is also mention of a Hiel of Bethel who "laid the foundations of Jericho" at the cost, or sacrifice of his youngest son, Segub. (Kings 16:34). Professor Dever cites two texts: II Kings 23:10 and Jeremiah 32:35, in which "the sacrifice of children in Jerusalem is said to have taken place at a site called "Tophet" in the valley of Hinnon below the Temple mount. The god to whom the children were sacrificed was called "Molech", known from Phoenician and Canaanite sources.

According to Dever, the 7th-4th Century BCE Tophet, or cemetery, at the Phoenician Punic port of Carthage in North Africa, was a large site of child sacrifice. Thousands of burial urns have been discovered there.  Most had a dedicatory inscription that the sacrifices were made to "Tanit", or Ba-al Hamon, which was the Phoenician version of Asherah's name. The sacrifices there were not made to "Molech" but to the Canaanite, Kronos and the Canaanite-Israelite god, "El". It is quite possible that child sacrifice was felt in some quarters to be a legitimate outlet of faith in Yahweh.

One cannot disregard the tale of Abraham agreeing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at Yahweh's command. Most scholars believe that Isaac's body would have been burnt at the altar after Abraham murdered him. God allowed Isaac to live.  Some scholars think that Isaac's reprieve was the biblical negation of continued child sacrifice.  At any rate, we know nothing of what the Israeli women, particularly those who worshipped and maintained Asherah's altars, felt about such sacrifices.

Many people must have believed that by giving back to god the food, drink and even life he had bestowed on them, they would propitiate and honor him and ensure future food, beverages and new life from him. The covenant between El-Shadday as he was known to the early Jews, and Abraham stipulated that Israelite men should be circumcised. Abraham agreed. Was circumcision considered a substitute ritual for the taking of children's lives and spilling of their blood if it had been practiced by the early Israelites? Some scholars think so.

So far this paper has cited various written evidence concerning Asherah and her relation to fertility goddesses and to Yahweh as his wife in the Jewish religion. But there is also iconographic evidence unearthed by archaeologists. This paper has already mentioned a few of them. I am once again gratefully indebted to William G. Dever's volume, "Did God Have a Wife?," for this portion of my paper. There are far too many representations, altars, seals and so on concerning Asherah to be described within the limited scope of this discussion. The paper will touch on the most significant evidence. For more information concerning Asherah's iconographic depiction in Israeli sites, please see the Bibliography at the end of this presentation.

With the discovery of the female figures in various areas which are obviously depictions of goddesses, many of them most likely of Asherah, an odd fact emerges. None of the biblical language "fits" what archaeologists have unearthed. Professor Dever has several explanations for this curious fact.

The first explanation, which is the notion that the biblical writers simply did not know about the female figurines, is unlikely. That is not possible as there was a plethora  of such female representations with prominent nursing breasts at that time. The Canaanite figurines were generally more sexualized.  It seems as though the Israeli versions were more focused on portraying the nourishing aspects of the representations. The figures were most common during the late 8th to early 6th Centuries, just as the literary tradition was beginning to take shape. Even though the writers were elitists, they were familiar with and described many other aspects of folk religion in great detail.  They chose to ignore the figurines.

The second reason for the writers' omission of the figurines is that they were not interested in them and chose to ignore them. That explanation is also unlikely, as they were interested in all aspects of folk religion, generally to express disapproval of it.

Professor Dever believes that the third and last answer is most likely the correct explanation. The biblical writers deliberately refused to make any mention of the figurines.  They were quite aware of the popularity and influence of the female figurines and feared and disliked that popularity. Many of the figurines were likely depictions of Asherah. They were shaped not only with prominent nursing breasts, but often had some depiction or resonance with lions or trees. Lions and trees were well known symbols associated with Asherah.  For illustrations of the presumably votive figures and where they were found, Dever's volume, "Did God Have a Wife?" is an excellent source.

There are many examples of Asherah's depiction and this paper will briefly discuss a few. There is the late 10th Century BCE "cultic structure" at Ta'anach, a large square three foot high terra cotta offering stand.  It is organized in several portions of registers.  The bottom register depicts two lions firmly held by the ears by Asherah, who is wearing her distinctive bouffant style of Egyptian Hathor wig. There is also a small group of terra cotta temple models that have been dated from the 10th to 8th Centuries BCE. Asherah is depicted on many of them, with her characteristic lions and Hathor wig.

Asherah was finally recognized (see Dever on the fascinating story) on the famous "ewer" or dedicatory vase found at the Judean site of Lachish, which was not excavated until the 1930's.  "It was found in a 'favissa', or depository pit dated very close to the 13th Century BCE.  At the top shoulder were two wild goats munching on branches, which looked very much like a menorah, the Jewish seven-branched candlestick.  Old Canaanite script ran around the top that said: "Mattan: an offering for my lady, Elat."

"Mattan" might be a devotee's name or it could signify simply "gift". Elat is the feminine name for the Canaanite god, El, and also, according to experts, can be translated as one of the names of the Great Mother Goddess of Canaan. That name was often used for "Asherah".  An offering for Asherah was also in the vase: a mutton bone. A female curator noticed that there was a similar scene on another offering from a Lachish temple goblet. But instead of the traditional tree, there was a female pubic triangle depicted, always a symbol of all human conception, birth and life. The tree and pubic triangle were both painted so as to be interchangeable.

The same curator, Ruth Hestrin, realized that quite a few late Bronze Age pendants of gold or electrum depicted Asherah as a torso, but with the traditional large breasts and a vulva.  There is no mistaking the identity of the goddess on the pendants. It is Asherah. She is depicted with the bouffant wig of Hathor, the Egyptian cow goddess. Hestrin also realized there was a tree growing out of the goddess's vulva. The tree and the pubic triangle were interchangeable in the iconography of the Mediterranean.

Dever concludes that with these discoveries came the true reason why the biblical writers and editors were so opposed to trees and "groves." They knew that such iconography and/or such groves were dedicated to the popular Asherah.  Another scholar, Othmar Keel, was able to take the dating association between the goddess and tree iconography back to the early 2nd Millennium, BCE.  He has also discovered several Canaanite plaques since that time that have "specific" connections. A few Egyptian plaques represent "a tree nursing an infant." Concerning Asherah, Keel has concluded that "it is safe to assume that the tree, natural or stylized and named after her, was connected with her."

There is a plethora of seals with which women in ancient Israel addressed their special concerns to the Great Mother of Canaan whose worship continued into the Iron Age. She was often named Asherah, Ishtar or Astarte. She was the Queen of Heaven and was considered either the consort of Yahweh, or a personification of Yahweh's feminine attributes. However, Dever is convinced that not only women, but men participated in the folk religious practices condemned by the orthodox biblical writers. Since many of the places of folk worship were family sites, it would seem that men would necessarily participate in many of the rites. The folk religious practices were a genuine popular religion.

There have been many studies of women's rituals, the so-called "little traditions" that were as legitimate in the Jewish tradition as the "great" tradition of Torah Judaism. The two religious systems existed side by side for centuries.  It is important to keep in mind that only one percent or less of men happened to write the bible. Most families did not live in Jerusalem and could not even have read whatever was written about the Jewish religion.

Many Jewish people were a part of family units, where women would play a significant, and even possibly dominant role.  Those women must have felt that Asherah, their goddess, was present with them at their folk religious sites.  Dever maintains that "Yahweh, the male deity, was far off in the distant heavens- a warlike god, often angry and vengeful, and even at best, not very approachable. Asherah was at hand, nurturing, loving and helping her worshippers with life." This paper has merely touched on the plethora of archaeological finds concerning the goddess Asherah's relation to the Israeli religion.

Asherah is mentioned in the Old Testament some forty times.  Why were Asherahs, wrongly translated as being simply trees, taken out of the Temple and burned? Why are there inscriptions found about Yahweh and his Asherah?  Are we to believe that such inscriptions meant "god and his tree?" Then why was there never any explanation of what the tree had to do with Yahweh? Yahweh, under his early name from its Canaanite roots, El-Shabbady, appeared to Moses as a burning bush.  He explained to Moses that his new name was Yahweh, a change from his earlier name of El-Shabbady.  That story seems to be the only time that Yahweh is connected to a bush, but never a tree or grove.

Trees are not part of the iconography of god, or Yahweh. With accurate translations and the unearthing of artifacts, a picture has emerged about the important role folk religion and the goddess, Asherah, occupied in ancient Israel.

It has become an established conviction among most mainstream scholars of Israel's religious history, that the Jewish religion was originally polytheistic and quite similar to the Canaanite religion. The Old Testament, particularly Deuteronomy, written by lettered men with a definite political and theological agenda, would have readers believe otherwise. Those writers were successful for a long time in their attempt to conceal or wipe from memory Israel's devotion to other gods than Yahweh. They were also successful in subverting the memory of important goddesses, such as Asherah.

The truth of the matter is that polytheism flourished in both the northern kingdom and in the southern one of Judah for centuries.  William Dever and other scholars have used archaeological evidence and written testimony to piece together a history of the growth of the state of Israel. They have accomplished this partially by referring to the "state" formation process elsewhere. Dever cites five significant developments and their consequences for popular religion's evolution into a "book" or state religion.

It has already been determined that young Israel was exclusively rural. There are merely three hundred 12th and 11th Centuries developed sites we know of and those small (less than 100 people) sites were scattered over much of the central hills of the area. By the mid-late 10th Century, the Age of Solomon, Dever explains that many of the villages were abandoned and newer towns developed. Nevertheless, the bulk of the population remained rural.  But statehood, developed in the cities, began to give rise to an urban, privileged class whose religious practices and beliefs were in conflict with the rural folk religion.

Economic specializing began to happen with the rise of cities. Before that, most of the population was concerned with farming. Families planted, harvested and made many of the articles of clothing and cooking they needed. Sometimes they cooperated with other families, but there were no specialists, artisans, merchants or priests.  Rural societies were traditional and most often held together by folk religion.

Social stratification began to take place in the cities.  In the rural areas, people had been more egalitarian. There was a certain domestic economy in which no one became wealthy or built up great estates.  Urbanism changed that. People came to cities to try to seek fortune. It was a more anonymous existence, also a stratified and competitive one. Many people found themselves trapped in urban poverty. There arose a powerful, successful class of people, however, around the capital in Jerusalem, made up of officials, bureaucrats, priests, aristocrats and the literati.  Many of those classes depended on crown subsidies.

The Israeli state became centralized. The King and court usurped power and citizens became less independent.  Religion became official and a priestly class emerged, which grew into a bureaucracy aligned with the state. The official religion was in conflict with the traditional one.

There also arose a class of well-educated people with enough leisure and motivation to try to write and collect Hebrew history. Those men, for they were always men, sought out the old oral traditions and the few Hebrew poems that had been preserved. They began to try to write a national history of their people with eventual keeping of archives, eyewitness accounts, and reporting of national events.  Most sources agree that a specialized class of literati arose relatively late in Israeli history. It was a very small group of literate intellectuals who had vested interests with the state and its kings. The literature they wrote thus reflected the concerns of a very small class of people.  By the 8th Century BCE, the conflict between their "book religion" versus the folk religion gave rise to a "powerful crisis."

A symbol of the state religion that was coming to the fore in Israel was the building of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. It was not as grand as scribes described it in the Old Testament, but there is physical evidence that such a temple was built. Moreover, the construction was significant and had to have been carried out by conscript laborers and with huge tax levies.  Oddly enough, the Temple was built along the lines of a Phoenician temple, further distancing traditional citizens from the royal court.  The temple was truly the province of the King and his court.  It was meant to demonstrate the power and prestige and national unity of the state, eclipsing the traditional family.

Most citizens never set foot in the Temple, and were disenfranchised from it, but it had been their taxes that had paid for it.  Yahweh's name dwelt in the Temple.  The building became a symbol of the state cult, emphasizing the Davidic Kings and the Deuteronimists' royal theology. One may see how many traditional families and citizens were alienated by such "Royal Theology" and felt more and more distant from it. The idealized state religion would have had little to do with the everyday survival and flourishing that was the concern of the general population. That is one reason why the Deuteronomistic party, which promoted the state and "book religion," often found itself in conflict with much of the population by the 8th and 7th Centuries BCE. The reforms the Deuteronomistic party tried to put forward were largely ignored by most of the population.

The northern kingdom of Israel and the southern one of Judah had a schism by the end of the 10th Century BCE. When the North kingdom parted from the South, it was unable to retain its tradition of Davidic kings. There was no central uniting symbol, such as the Jerusalem Temple, and with the possible exception of "E," there was no Northern bible. The accounts of the Northern kingdom's decline are problematic for present day scholars, because they were written by authors in the Southern kingdom of Judah.  But it appears that many of the Northern rulers not only clung to the old Canaanite-Israeli religious customs, but some of them also tried to introduce Phoenician customs and religion.

Prophets such as the 9th Century BCE Elijah and Elisha, as well as Amos and Hosea in the 8th Century BCE, arose partly as the result of the practices of the corrupt Northern rulers. Most of the prophets were populists who spoke against the corrupt royal and elite classes. However, most of them also embraced the "Yahweh Alone" concept of one superior god and rejected folk religion.

The Southern kingdom retained its line of Davidic kings. Jerusalem, its capital, was a stronghold of political and religious centrality, with the Temple retaining "Yahweh's name" exclusively.  But much of the state cult promoted by the Deuteronomistic party was theoretical rather than actually practiced.  William Dever and other scholars maintain that by the 8th Century BCE, "monotheism was presented as the only acceptable ideal, and the writers attempted to claim that it had been so from the very first days of the wilderness.” By the 7th Century BCE, "...Mosaic monotheism was the enshrined ideal as the newer literary tradition grew up. Some scholars believe the tradition was normative, but in fact, many experts see it as "a late literary construct- a book religion."

The Southern party of Deuteronomistic writers and its promoters of  orthodox agenda had powerful allies in the prophets, both North and South.  But it is important to keep in mind that the "Yahweh Alone" movement continued to remain in the minority. Isaiah was the greatest Southern prophet in the 8th Century BCE. The prophet Michal, though less popular, was a significant influence as well. Isaiah's prophetic period overlapped with the "first Judean reformer King, Hezekiah (715-687 BCE). Much of Isaiah's "prophetic ability" is due to the later editing and supplementing of the book which bears his name.  But it seems  that Isaiah was a mentor and advisor to Hezekiah's reforms.

Dever states that the specifics of the prophet's reform movement as listed in the Old Testament are not surprising.  Isaiah was most likely not of the "Yahweh Alone" faction.  Even so, he advocated (1) removing the high places (cultic shrines), (2) tearing down the standing stones, (3) cutting down the "Asherah" trees or poles and (4) breaking up a bronze serpent called Nehustan which was used for burning incense.  In his book, Isaiah claimed to see a day when "...they will not look to see what their own fingers have made, either the Asherim or the altars of incense.." (Isaiah 17:78).  Apparently since incense was often burned for the sake of Yahweh, it was only incense burning to pagan gods which was forbidden.

King Josiah (approx. 640-609 BCE) seems to have been inspired by the most likely "put up" discovery of the so-called long lost Moses "Book of the Law" hidden in the Temple archives.  The book was surely planted by some members of the Deuteronomistic party, the "Yahweh Alone" group (II Kings 22:3- 23-30). Scholars have noted the numerous references to the cult of Asherah in those sections of Kings.

Many of the attempted reforms were somewhat unsuccessful. The adherents to the folk religion resisted and/or ignored the bidding of the reformer kings and prophets. Folk religion has been shown to survive well into the exile into Babylon and beyond. But paradoxically it was the end of the Southern kingdom of Judah and the fall of Jerusalem brought on by the conquering Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, in 586 BCE that culminated with monotheism prevailing as the Jewish religion.

The Northern kingdom of Israel had previously collapsed.  The discussion will now turn exclusively to Judah in the South and to how the Neo-Babylonian victory affected the future of religion not merely for Judaism but for the later Christian world.  The Temple, which had been a symbol of national unity, was destroyed; the priesthood was diminished.  The elite classes were exiled into Babylonia and it was mostly the poor of Judah, the farmers and tenders of the vines, that were left. Since families were disrupted, the focus of the old folk religion was disrupted as well and little context was left for that religion.

But against conventional expectations, the exiled survivors, who were forced to march hundreds of miles to Babylon, managed to pack and bring with them a few religious scrolls. Scholars are agreed that such scrolls would be the core of the Hebrew bible, the Pentateuch. Dever comments on the "irony that the first edited version of the first five books of the bible was not a product of the Jerusalem Temple and court in their heyday," but of the experience of slavery, destitution and despair in a foreign land. Yahweh and book religion triumphed.

Monotheism was partly the result of reflection and regret after the disaster of Judah's destruction. The Israelites learned that Yahweh was truly a jealous god and that he was punishing them for their desertion of him.  Or so they imagined.

Ezra was a "scribe skilled in the law of Moses (Ezra 7:6, 12, 21). In most quarters, it is he that is considered the prime mover of the reform movement of "Yahweh Alone." His career dates are either 458 BCE or 398 BCE. Dever explains that Ezra based his ideas on the Pentateuch, which had been edited into a form very near the present day editions. The Pentateuch consists of the first five books of the Old Testament and contains Torah Law. Ezra and his cohorts, or disciples, would also have had access to "Deuteronomistic History." Those scriptures would contain Joshua through Kings and most of the prophetic works. It was the Word, the bible and the holy writings, that took the place of the destroyed Temple for the displaced people.

Most of the exiles were allowed to return to Judah by the order of Cyrus, the Persian emperor and new ruler of Babylon, around 538 BCE, although the process of return took many years to complete.  Many Jews remained in Babylon. Ezra was also allowed to return and he soon assumed leadership in Jerusalem, bringing together a large group of returned Israelites along with their community leaders. He insisted that the Hebrew people had been defeated because of their wrongdoings.

Ezra was successful in persuading the people that they were now permitted a "brief window of opportunity and of hope".  The despondent people resonated with his message. They agreed that they had broken faith with god and had been punished.  They were most remorseful that many of the men had married foreign women brought into Israel by the Babylonians. They vowed to leave their non-Jewish wives and children. They decided that they would, in the future, do everything according to the Law. One can hardly imagine Israelites breaking the family bonds that had been so close prior to the Babylonian disaster.  But Yahweh, according to Ezra, insisted on it. God was now male and exclusive, warlike and extremely vengeful. Dever ironically notes that finally the reformers "...had their god in their hand and in control. Asherah was vanquished and with her banishment, women lost what small voice they had."

William Dever raises the question that atheists ask themselves over and over after every tragedy on the world stage- after every tsunami, flood, fire, earthquake, hurricane and so on. It is asked after every mass killing of people, by evidence of crushing injustices, by bigotry, by dictatorship, by ignorance.  Why did tragedy issue monotheism into ancient Israel?  Should not the end of Judah, the destruction of its Temple, and the exile of its people result in the death of all gods, including Yahweh?

I think after reading this history we must consider how so many people cling to the belief in a god, even one so vengeful, so petty, so unjust and so ridiculous as the god of Israel, the same god Christians would also worship in later centuries, including the present one.  People seem to be afraid to be alone in the world. They willingly put aside their freedom, their reason, and their free choice. They embrace the childish desire to be safe. If a wrathful and petty god will help keep them and their loved ones safe and alive, even without proof that such a god had done so in the past and will do so in the future, they will comply with his irrational demands.

They never look into the control room behind the curtain as Dorothy and her friends did in the 1939 movie, "The Wizard of Oz". Dorothy discovered a small man who projected the increased volume and bass of his voice.  If the Israelites had not been so fearful and distraught by tragedy, they could have pulled back the imaginary curtain behind which Yahweh dwelt and found a human voice enlarged by bigotry and ambition that issued directives that made no sense and were often puzzling and imbecilic.

Atheists must keep pulling the curtain back on religion, its priests and the corrupt politicians and dictators that partner with it to keep people in fear and bondage. Let us keep pulling the curtain back with science, with reason, with facts, and with common sense. Let us continue until the world is freed from all the made up gods that are the result of fear and irrationality.  Let us make the world and future generations free and focused on the flourishing of this world, this life, this earthly destiny. It is a good mission and a good fight.  We shall never abandon it.


This paper is gratefully indebted to William G. Dever's "Did God Have a Wife?" for his facts, theories and ideas. The discussion on these pages could not have happened without Professor's Dever's erudition. Please see the Bibliography for the particulars of Dever's important book.



Bibliography


Ackerman, S. Under Every Green Tree: Popular Religion in Sixth-Century Judah. Atlanta: Scholar Press, 1992

Becking, B.; M. Dijkstra; and K.J.H. Vriezen. Only One God: Monotheism in Ancient Israel and the Veneration of the Goddess Asherah. New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001

Berlinerblau, J. The Vow and the "Popular Religious Groups" of Ancient Israel. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996

Davies, G.I. Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions: Corpus and Concordance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991

Day, J. Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000

Dever, William G. Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing CO., 2005

____________. What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids, MI., William B. Eerdmans Publish CO., May 10, 2001

de Moor, J.C. The Rise of Yahwehism: The Roots of Israelite Monotheism.  Louvain: Louvain University Press, 1990

Finkelstein, Israel and Amihai Mazur. Ed. Brian B. Schmidt. The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007

Fritz, V. The City in Ancient Israel. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995

Keel, O. Goddesses and Trees, New Moon and Yahweh: Ancient and Near Eastern Art and the Hebrew Bible. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998

Hadley, J.M. The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000

Hestrin, R. "The Lachish Ewer and the Asherah," Israel Exploration Journal 37 (1987): 212-23

Kletter, R. The Judean Pillar Figurines and the Archaeology of Asherah. Oxford: BARInternational Series, 1996

Matthews, V. H. Manners and Customs in the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to Daily Life in Biblical Times. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1991

McNutt, P. Reconstructing the Society of Ancient Israel. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999

Olyan, S.M. Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988

Patai, R. The Hebrew Goddess. Third Enlarged Edition. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990

Smith, M.S. The Early History of God: Yahweh and Others Deities in Ancient Israel. (Revised Ed.) Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002 (= 2002 a)

Stager, L.E. "The Archaeology of the Family in Early Israel." Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 260 (1985): 1-35

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