God’s Forgotten Wife

Asherah (aka Astarte) was one of the forms of the feminine aspect of God in the ancient Middle East.

Is God a man or a woman? Put baldly, this question seems ridiculous. And yet over the centuries it has proved almost impossible to keep from imagining the Supreme Being in a human form, and a human form immediately implies gender.

Most pantheons have had no trouble accommodating male and female deities. Or, like the Chinese, they have envisaged the masculine and the feminine principles, the yang and the yin, as the warp and woof of the universe. But the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – offer us a weird paradox. God is unique and supreme – and God is male. While theologians equivocate about this fact, and the subtler of them remind us that this is only a metaphor, it has proved a powerful one.

And yet the Hebrew Bible, the source and origin of all three of these faiths, is not quite so clear about this point. Genesis 1:27 is frequently quoted: “God created man in his own image,” but the second part of this verse is usually left out: “In the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” An androgynous God may not be as alien to the religion of the Hebrew Bible as we may think.

Indeed the iconography of the God of ancient Israel is in its way androgynous as well. Descriptions of the First Temple (c.940-586 BCE) in Jerusalem say that its innermost chamber, the Holy of Holies, contained two cherubim (im is the masculine plural ending in Hebrew) made of olive wood overlaid with gold, and each of them “ten cubits high” (1 Kings 7:23). In the ancient Near East, cherubim were not fat little babies but fully grown winged human figures, often with the body of a lion. While there are no remnants of Solomon’s Temple left, the surviving image that comes closest in time and place is taken from the palace of King Ahab in Samaria (see the previous article, “The Bible: Myth or History?”). It is made of ivory and, characteristically, shows winged female figures.

The cherubim in the actual Temple may have been, like the God described in Genesis, both male and female. And while the biblical account describes these cherubim as chastely touching their wings, some rabbinical traditions say they were locked in embrace. One Talmudic sage, Rabbi Qetina, who lived in the late third and early fourth centuries CE, said, “When Israel used to make the pilgrimage, they [i.e., the priests] would roll up for them the Parokhet [the Veil separating the Holy from the Holy of Holies], and show them the Cherubim which were intertwined with one another, and say to them: ‘Behold! your love before God is like the love of male and female!’”1 Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century CE, gives an eyewitness picture of the Second Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE) but is rather equivocal in describing the Holy of Holies. In some passages he insists that it contained nothing at all, but in others he says that what was in it “we are not at liberty to reveal to other nations.”2

But the story of the feminine face of the Hebrew God is even more intricate than this. Archaeological findings and extrabiblical texts again show a reality that is at variance with the theology of the Hebrew Scriptures. And again, this reality was rooted in the religion of the Canaanites, Israel’s neighbours and relatives.

Yahweh’s Consort?

The supreme high god in the Canaanite pantheon is named El. This is a proper name, although in later Hebrew usage the word came to mean “god” in a generic sense. Like many pagan gods, El had a wife, a female consort, whose name was Asherah. Her name is probably derived from a phrase from the Ugaritic language spoken in Syria in biblical times: atiratyammi, “she who treads upon Sea,” “Sea” being a personified chaos monster.3 Her role in the ancient Hebrew religion is a nebulous and controversial one.

As we have seen already, some scholars believe that Yahweh was originally a manifestation of El, and rarely in the Hebrew Bible is a radical distinction drawn between the two; sometimes they are explicitly identified.4 And contrary to what the Bible would have us believe, archaeological remains indicate that Asherah was sometimes viewed as Yahweh’s consort as well. A number of artefacts have been found that link the two: one inscription, dating from the eighth or ninth century BCE, reads, “I [b]lessed you by (or ‘to’) Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah.” Another inscription reads, “To [Y]ahweh of Teiman (Yemen) and to his Ashera[h].”5 Teiman, or Teman, is interesting here because some Bible texts portray Yahweh as being revealed in this region, the southern part of the Transjordan (also connected with Midian): “God came out of Teman” (Habakkuk 3:3). If so, Asherah might have been with him from the beginning.

These texts are puzzling, partly because of the reference to “his Asherah.” In Hebrew, possession is indicated by a suffix (-hu) added to the word for the thing possessed, and some scholars insist that this is not grammatically possible for a proper name. They would say that “Asherah” is not to be read here as the proper name of a goddess, but as kind of a manifestation of Yahweh.

This argument is hard to sustain, because it presupposes a theological sophistication that a folk religion in the first millennium BCE is unlikely to have had. But it is true that asherah, in the Hebrew of the Bible, can serve either as a proper name for the goddess or as a common noun for a cult object representing the goddess, possibly a wooden image. One ancient Jewish tradition says that the asherah was either a tree or a tree with a cult object beneath it. Hence translators have rendered asherah variously as “tree” and “grove.” The Bible invariably characterises these “trees” or “groves” as abominations. In the Deuteronomic account, the priests in the Temple discover a lost scroll of the Law of Moses and read it to the young King Josiah (2 Kings 22:8–11). Shocked by his nation’s infidelity, Josiah orders a purge of the Temple artefacts. He “commanded Hilkiah the high priest, and the priests of the second order, and the keepers of the door, to bring forth out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels that were made for Baal, and for the grove, and for all the host of heaven: and he burned them without Jerusalem in the fields of Kidron” (2 Kings 23:4).

The “grove” here was almost certainly an image of Asherah. Certainly she was connected with a tree motif. The biblical archaeologist William G. Dever contends that this was partly because (especially in a semiarid climate) a tree is a symbol of life. But he also points out that some images portray Asherah with a tree growing out of her pubic triangle. Hence Asherah and the tree symbolise life in this sense too.6

What was her connection with Yahweh in the Hebrew religion of the First Temple? Raphael Patai, whose book The Hebrew Goddess is one of the most important works on this subject, sums up the picture from the Bible’s point of view: “It appears that, of the 370 years during which the Solomonic Temple stood in Jerusalem, for no less than 236 years (or almost two-thirds of the time) the statue of Asherah was present in the Temple, and her worship was a part of the legitimate religion approved and led by the king, the court, and the priesthood and opposed by only a few prophetic voices crying out against it at relatively long intervals.”7 Saul M. Olyan, a professor at Brown University in the US, writes that Asherah “was an acceptable and legitimate part of Yahweh’s cult in non-deuteronomistic circles. The association of the asherah and the cult of Yahweh suggests that Asherah was the consort of Yahweh in circles both in the north and the south.”8

Rise of the “Yahweh Alone” Movement

Where, then, did the opposition to Asherah arise? The remarks by the scholars quoted above tell us: Asherah’s foes were the prophets and the Deuteronomic circle, which eventually produced the long historical saga that comprises Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. Where did this Deuteronomic history come from? Remember that Josiah initiated his purge of the Temple after hearing a rediscovered scroll of the Law read by the priests. The standard view today is that this scroll was an early version of the book of Deuteronomy, and that it was not rediscovered but had been written specifically for the occasion: it was forged by the priests to prove to Josiah that their version of monotheism went back to Moses. And Deuteronomy condemns Asherah worship. This is how it tells the children of Israel to deal with the Canaanites: “Ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire” (Deuteronomy 7:5; emphasis added). The “groves,” again, are asherim, images of Asherah. But, as we see in 1 and 2 Kings, even the Deuteronomist has to admit that Asherah was welcome in the Temple throughout most of the period of the monarchy (c.1000-586 BCE).

Distilling all this evidence, biblical and nonbiblical, into a comprehensive picture, we come up with something like this. The worship of Asherah in Canaan goes back far beyond the arrival of Israel on the historical scene in the thirteenth century BCE. And in Israel and Judah up to the end of the monarchy in 586 BCE, Asherah was worshipped alongside Yahweh, often as his consort, both in the popular religion and for the most part in the Temple itself. At some point in the history of Israel – and we do not know exactly what this point was – there arose a “Yahweh alone” movement, as some biblical historians have dubbed it: Yahweh was to be worshipped as the sole god, the lord of the universe – without a consort. This “Yahweh alone” movement was associated with the prophets in particular. It is the prophet Elijah who condemns the worship of foreign gods at Ahab’s capital in Samaria. It is prophets such as Amos, Hosea, and Micah that shape the theology that was later to be codified in the Deuteronomic history.

The kings were more equivocal. The rulers of the northern kingdom of Israel apparently had little use for the “Yahweh alone” movement; that is why, according to the Deuteronomist, every last one of them “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Indeed the prophets said that the northern kingdom was destroyed because it had abandoned the true worship of Yahweh. The rulers of the smaller southern kingdom of Judah were more sympathetic to the nascent monotheism: some of them, notably Hezekiah and (as we have seen) Josiah, tried to purge these supposedly alien elements from Yahweh’s cult, with uneven success.

As for the priests, who administered the sacred cult of Yahweh at the Jerusalem Temple, they too were not quite so firmly on the side of Yahwistic monotheism as we might believe. As Raphael Patai has shown, the images of Asherah were worshipped in the First Temple for about two-thirds of its lifespan, so the priests of this period could not have had too much difficulty with her. It is only around the time of Josiah in the late seventh century BCE that the picture changes. The priesthood becomes dominated by the monotheistic Yahwists, who write up a scroll of the Law and convince Josiah to purge the Temple.

Josiah died in 609 BCE, and the Temple was sacked by the Babylonians only a couple of decades later, in 586 BCE, so the worship of the goddess probably did not return in the meantime. The book of Jeremiah has an interesting passage on this score. After the Temple’s destruction, people who “had burned incense to other gods” tell Jeremiah: “We will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth, to burn incense to the queen of heaven and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: for then had we plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil. But since we left off to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine” (Jeremiah 44:17-18). This passage indicates that some, perhaps many, in Judah believed that the Temple was destroyed not because it had been profaned by the worship of the goddess (as Jeremiah said) but because her worship had been abandoned.9 The “queen of heaven” may in fact be Astarte, another Canaanite goddess, who was worshipped as well as Asherah – but then the two were sometimes conflated even by the worshippers themselves.

The subsequent history was written by the monotheists. When the Jews returned from exile in Babylonia and rebuilt the Temple (after 539 BCE), the priests and the prophets were now all the “Yahweh alone” party. It was they who were responsible, not only for completing the Deuteronomic history, but for editing and compiling previous sources to create the books of the Pentateuch as well as the writings of the prophets. This is the core of the Hebrew Bible as we now know it, and it explains why we see biblical history the way we do.

But the goddess was not completely expunged from the Jewish faith. Later parts of the Bible, such as the book of Proverbs, as well as apocryphal works mention a personified figure of “Wisdom,” who has a female form. (The Hebrew word for wisdom, hokhmah, is grammatically feminine.) Still later, the mystics of Judaism speak of the Shekhinah, the “presence” of God. In the Bible, this word does not seem to mean much more than its face value, but in later Judaism, the Shekhinah herself is personified as a kind of feminine aspect of God, and she is spoken of almost as a separate being. The medieval Kabbalists spoke of the Matronit (a name derived from the Latin matrona, “matron”), a divine feminine figure who resembles not only the Virgin Mary as conceived by the Catholics, but the now-forgotten goddesses of the Near East. The divine feminine has long survived the demise of Asherah – just as Christianity adopted the doctrine of Mary as “Mother of God” almost immediately after the pagan temples were closed. No matter how much the authorities and the scriptures insist on their concept of the Supreme Being as a male, there is something in the human mind and heart that refuses to assent completely.

Current times have seen a resurgent fascination with the divine feminine both in Judaism and Christianity, and there is a widespread sense that these long-forgotten archetypes are reappearing to claim their rightful place in the spiritual consciousness of humanity. That may be the case, but it is more likely that they had never really gone away.

This article was published in New Dawn 123.
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Sources

Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.

Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of Religion of Israel, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1973.

William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005.

Leah Novick, On the Wings of Shekhinah: Rediscovering Judaism’s Divine Feminine, Wheaton, Illinois: Quest, 2008.

Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, 3d ed., Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1990.

Footnotes

1. This is from the Talmudic treatise B. Yoma 54a, quoted in Patai, 84. Bracketed insertions are Patai’s.
2. Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, 2:7, 8. Quoted in Patai, 82.
3. Cross, 15, 37, 66–67.
4. Cross, 44.
5. Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 162. Bracketed insertions are Dever’s.
6. Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 225–28.
7. Patai, 50.
8. Quoted in Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 201.
9. Barker, 51.

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