Transcript for the video “Did God have a wife?”video is here!
Transcribed by Sean
Proofread by Jean Ai
Israel, the home of monotheism. Here, for thousands of years, people have worshiped just one God. Or so the Bible says. But there’s something about this ancient world that the Bible is not telling us.
Jerusalem, the epicenter of the world’s most widespread monotheistic faiths. The Bible states time and again that the forefathers of Jews and Christians believed in one God. But I believe that hidden in its pages is a secret. A very different story, which fundamentally changes the Bible’s claims.
My name is Francesca Stavrakopoulou. I am a Biblical scholar. In this program, I will be looking at the Bible not as holy scripture but as ancient literature. Literature with a religious agenda, which distorts the past.
I’ll also be looking at archeological finds which show that the ancestors of Judaism and Christianity believed in many gods and even that God had a wife. It is a radical revision which rocks the foundation of monotheism to its core and challenges what the religious past means for faith today.
Rabbi: “Okay, there are three classes. The first is definitely my most politically incorrect class but as they always say reality is sometimes politically incorrect…”
For Jews, monotheism is the ancient foundation on which their faith and morality is built and they trace this belief system to Moses and other legendary ancestral figures including Jacob, Isaac and Abraham.
Rabbi: “But what Abraham brought into the world was a concept monotheism, it didn’t evolve…”
In this, Jerusalem yeshiva, a Jewish School, Rabbi Ken Spiro reminds his students of their heritage.
Rabbi: “And they said that Abraham is unique for two reasons. A) He is a freethinking super genius. He is able to think outside the box and come to the realization there is one God. But like I said in the first class, imagine being the only person in the whole world to believe an idea which no one else could comprehend or accept. Few of us have the chutzpah, like the nerve, to whisper to our best friends.
The nature of the God of Judaism, who is the God of all humanity, is an infinite being. That outside time and space, no parts, wasn’t born, doesn’t die, doesn’t need anything,”
Francesca: “And has this always been the nature of the Jewish…”
Rabbi: “Yeah, absolutely. The very unique concept that Judaism brought in was this, this one God, that is the only God, that there’s nothing besides that God. In Judaism, we say that the most essential statement of theology in Judaism is called the Shma, we say, “Here is the Lord our God, the Lord is God, the God is One.” And it doesn’t mean that He’s one versus many. It means that He’s one meaning the only.”
Francesca: “What was about polytheism that was so problematic?”
Rabbi: “I mean in essence, it’s a lie. You just look at the morality of the ancient world which is polytheistic and you will see the radical contrast between the Jewish idea on one hand, and what came out of the pagan world on the other. And it is very, very clear.”
But it is not only the Jewish faith that upholds monotheism as a core belief. The Jewish Bible is virtually the same as the Christian Old Testament and for this reason monotheism is at the heart of Christianity too.
Walter Moberly is a Christian theologian who believes that monotheism isn’t just an ancient belief. As the first of the 10 commandments, it’s a moral imperative as relevant today as ever.
Walter Moberly: “The false gods would be money, sex and power. And treating those as gods, as ultimate is, I think, an enduring problem.”
The belief in one God is also the first pillar of Islam. In Jerusalem, I met up with Mushin Yusuf, a leading Islamic scholar. He explained to me the Islamic view of God.
Yusuf: “God is the greatest, God is everything. It is the only thing, in the universe. In Islam, there is one God. There is nothing besides God and that’s it. And believing in two, in Islam, is the worst thing that you can think about, you will definitely go to hell. So, you have to believe in only one, not in two.”
Yusuf: “Abraham that we have in Islam is definitely different from the Abraham which is mentioned in Judaism or Christianity. Abraham in Islam, well he was the first Muslim, and according to Islam, he believed in only one God. And supposedly there is no difference in the belief of Abraham and in the belief of Mohammed or the other Muslims.”
As a scholar from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, it’s the early history of the Jewish and Christian God that interests me. A history the Bible claims to preserve in its pages.
According to the Bible, the roots of monotheism can be traced back 3500 years, to the legendary Abraham and the pact he made with God.
“Worship me and me alone, and I will give the land of Canaan to your descendants.”
So, the Bible’s claim is that Abraham arrived in Canaan and founded an entirely new belief system, a belief system in which the people worship just one God. In the Bible, God’s pact with Abraham was honored by his heirs, Isaac and Jacob. Joseph then took this belief into Egypt. Moses brought it out of Egypt. And then Joshua led the descendants of Abraham, the Israelites, into a war to conquer Canaan and wipe out its indigenous polytheism, establishing monotheism for further thousand years.
Well, that is the story the Bible tells us, but I disagree. When submitted to rigorous analysis, the Biblical texts actually reveal quite another story. I think that the evidence now shows that the people of the Bible believed in many gods and the scribes who composed the Bible did their best to conceal this, but not altogether successfully.
A close reading of the Bible reveals that its people found it hard to stick to monotheism. There was a competitor to the solitary God of Israel, another god whose name appears in the Bible over 130 times, the god Baal. The Bible presents him as a Canaanite God and the most dangerous of foreign gods. The Book of Kings vividly portrays this competition between Baal and the God of Israel.
Prophets gather on Mount Carmel in Northern Israel. The solitary God of the Bible is represented by his faithful prophet Elijah, but fighting against him are 450 prophets of Baal.
They face off, taking turns to summon their God to set alight a sacrificial offering. The prophets of Baal process ritually around the altar calling out to their God, but there is no response. They begin cutting themselves, slashing themselves, deeper and deeper, until the blood flows but there is still no response.
It’s the God of the Bible who likes the sacrifice, who wins the battle. The Bible presents Baal worshipers as ranting, frantic and entranced deviants whose practices are nothing more than impotent superstitions. But in my view, this crude caricature of Baal worshippers is a warning to people to not lapse from faith in one God. It is a sign that the Biblical writers believed that the people were straying.
Such warnings against Baal worship are found again and again in the Bible. So what was the appeal of the God Baal? The answer is revealed by archeological discoveries.
I am on my way to a site which, in terms of our understanding of the Bible, I think is the most important archeological discovery ever, more important than Qumran, the home of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I am in Syria, on my way to the ancient city of Ugarit.
Standing on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Ugarit was in its prime between 1500 and 1200 B.C. Ugarit was a Canaanite city. Until its discovery in 1929, our only guide to Canaanite religion was the Bible. But now, scholars can piece together a detailed and more objective picture of their gods.
As we’re filming, an odd shaped stone is seen sticking out of the ground. It could be a significant find.
We seem to have, at the moment, what looks like three figures. It’s not clear what they might be, but there seems to be a figure right at the bottom there, on the left, who is in a very striding position. Well, that, it could be a God or it could be a king, or a lead figure of some sort.
The dig supervisor believes that this could be a remnant of Canaanite worship. Together, we suspect that the figure on the left could be the God Baal.
Francesca: “So, this, this could be Baal. So, he has got the conical headgear, he is in a smiting position.”
Dig supervisor: “Yes, yes, yes.”
Francesca: “Oh look, there’s Baal.”
Other examples of Baal unearthed at Ugarit are now on display in museums across Syria and France.
Baal’s appeal explains why time and time again, the Bible rails against Baal worship. The Biblical texts themselves admit that the people repeatedly failed to be loyal to their God. The monotheism of the Bible wasn’t such a solid foundation after all, but I think this foundation is weaker still. The Bible covers up a much more inconvenient truth about God himself.
The Bible claims that the deity at the heart of its monotheism is unique and distinct, quite separate from Canaanite religion, but amongst the discoveries found at Ugarit, is a Canaanite God whose status, character and name challenged this claim. A God who is even more powerful than Baal, the God El.
The text often described him as an ancient deity, the father of the gods, with a long grey beard. This figurine portrays him in his role as the head of the pantheon. He sits enthroned and enrobed, his hand raised in a gesture of blessing.
He is a very benevolent God. His role is to hold the cosmos in order. The other gods praise his wisdom and mercy and his justice. They ask for his permission to carry out various activities. He is also the father of the gods. It’s El who sits at the very apex of the cosmos.
The discovery of this chief Canaanite God uncovers a religious reality disguised in the Bible, for El is also the God of the ancient Israelites. El is God, and the evidence is there for anyone to see.
I have left Syria and I am back in Israel, in what the Bible claims was the heartland of Israelite monotheism. In the Bible, God reveals his personal name. His proper name’s Yahweh. But even today, it is a name so sacred that observant Jews won’t say it out loud. Instead, they refer to HaShem which means “The Name”, or Adonai which means “Lord”.
The divine name Yahweh is unique to ancient Israelite religion. But the reality is that he wasn’t always known as Yahweh. God used to be known by another name, a name still embedded in this part of the world today. A name that contradicts the Biblical claim that its God of monotheism is unique and distinct.
Across the green line from Israel and the West Bank stands an Israeli settlement. Jewish settlers have occupied this Palestinian land because they believe it is close to the setting of a pivotal moment in the Bible. It is the place where one of their legendary patriarchs, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham falls asleep and has a vision. He dreams of a stairway adorned with angels ascending to heaven. God stands next to Jacob and pledges to give him and all his descendants the land on which he is lying.
Upon waking, the Bible says Jacob names this place after the God he has encountered there. He calls it Bet-el, which means, The House of the God El. Jacob is clear – later on even later he calls his God El, the God of Israel.
The Bible itself reveals that its God has the same name as the chief Canaanite God. The name El occurs elsewhere in the Bible but it tends to be hidden in English translations. For example, here in the Book of Numbers, the writer celebrates a tradition about God leading his people from slavery in Egypt and into The Promised Land, and then in this verse it says, “God, who brings them out of Egypt.” But when we turn to the original Hebrew, the same line, actually it says. “El, who brings the people out of Egypt.”
So according to this poem, El is the God of the Exodus. It is El who liberates the people and brings them to The Promised Land. So is El of the Israelites the same as El of the Canaanites?
‘El’ can be used simply as a generic term for ‘God’ much like we use the word ‘God’ today and there are a lot of examples of that in the Bible. But there are also lots of cases where it’s being used as an actual name.
Here in the Book of Exodus, God is talking to Moses and he says, “I am Yahweh. I revealed myself to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El of the Wilderness but by my name Yahweh, I did not make myself known.” This text is really clear. It is asserting that Yahweh, the God of the Bible, the God of the Israelites, used to be known as El.
The word ‘El’ is even found in the name of one of the peoples and nations of this land.
Rabbi: “Now, most of us have a lot of confusion about monotheism, like what is monotheism? We think of monotheism as one God. I mean, I’ve heard…”
A hallmark of monotheism is the claim that God is unique but in fact, I think he was a Canaanite God.
I realize that this challenges those for whom the Bible is a book about the one and only true God. So I suggested to Rabbi Ken Spiro that what his faith professes is not what the Biblical text actually show.
Francesca: “Did you think that Israelite religion was always separate and distinct from Canaanite religion?”
Rabbi: “Absolutely. I mean obviously Abraham himself emerges out of the Canaanites and Middle Eastern religions of the ancient Near East but theologically-speaking, radically different from the beginning and has constant warnings throughout the Bible to avoid of all those Canaanite gods.”
Francesca: “When I read the Hebrew Bible closely, it would appear that God is sometimes called El and we know El as a Canaanite God. What do you make of that?”
Rabbi: “The interesting thing about the Jewish God is that it has many, many different names. As a matter of fact, God Himself says to Abraham, several times, “I am giving you a new name and my names are not who I am. They just deal with different attributes of how I interact with you.” We should not confuse the similarity in the use of name ‘El’ being like a force, with the very radical difference between that Jewish concept which may share a similar-sounding name but is very different from the Canaanite God.”
Francesca: “So, how do we understand that reference to Jacob worshipping a God who appears to be called El, the God of Israel?”
Rabbi: “Depending on how you are approaching the text. If you want to look at this as a way of seeing that the ancient Hebrews were polytheistic, you can read it that way. But the traditional Jewish understanding is that it’s God is making a general statement about the spiritual reality, and He is the only power and there is nothing else beside Him.”
But the Bible makes yet another false claim. The claim that, apart from occasional lapses, the ancient Israelites were essentially true to one God. Evidence now casts serious doubt on this claim. The Israelites worshipped and believed in many gods. Polytheism wasn’t the exception. It was the norm.
Thanks to the finds at Ugarit, we now have a detailed understanding of what polytheism entailed. As the Chief God of the pantheon, El ruled over a Divine Council, a form of heavenly parliament.
This collection of gods was responsible for maintaining order in the cosmos. But the gods were also responsible for what was going in the human, earthly realm. There were gods of dawn and dusk, plague and pestilence, fertility and death. Each god was responsible for his or her patch of earthly and heavenly affairs. Amongst these gods was of course the weather God Baal, and I think there is evidence that show that ancient Israelites also worshipped many gods.
I have come to the very place where the Bible says monotheism was practiced. This is probably where the temple of Jerusalem once stood. Supposedly, the sanctuary where only one God was revered. And yet, if you examine the Biblical texts, you find within them clear references to more than one God here in Jerusalem itself. God, it seems, didn’t always act alone.
“I saw Yahweh sitting on his throne with all the hosts of heaven standing beside him, to the left of him and the right of him.” ~ 1 Kings 22:19
“God has taken His place in the Divine Council. In the midst of the gods He holds judgment.” ~ Psalm 82:1
“Let us make mankind in our image, according to our likeness.” ~ Genesis 1:26
“Who is like you Yahweh among the gods?” ~ Exodus 15:11
The Bible itself is telling us that Israel had its own Divine Council, its own pantheon of gods.
In other words, the religion of the Israelites was polytheistic just like that of the Canaanites. It’s not the conventional view, and it weakens further the foundations of monotheism.
But Herbert Niehr, a Professor of Biblical History, has researched the real beliefs and practices of the ancient Israelites. He feels we are blinded to the polytheism in the Bible’s pages.
Francesca: “So, do you think Israelite religion was polytheistic?”
Prof. Dr Herbert Niehr: “Of course, I do think that and we have many traces of it conserved in the Old Testament. Only if you read the Old Testament through the lens of monotheism, you should neglect several important texts, and you could come to the conclusion that Abraham and Moses were monotheistic believers of Yahweh. But as we now know, it was quite different. In the Old Testament, we have several texts which speak about a Divine Council for example, also in The Psalms and The Prophets. So there are divine beings helping Yahweh to fulfill his duties. For example, if something has to be done on Earth, Yahweh has to send his messenger.
Francesca: “So, when we read texts like, “Who is like you, O Yahweh, among the gods?” this is a reference to the Divine Council, to a polytheism?”
Prof. Niehr: “Yes, and a very clear reference. Of course.”
Francesca: “So, polytheism was normal in ancient Israel too.”
Prof. Niehr: “Yes. It was normal like in any other ancient Middle Eastern cultures.”
It strikes me that Israelite and Canaanite religion were almost one and the same. I asked Rabbi Ken Spiro if the Jewish faith could acknowledge this.
Francesca: “In reading the Hebrew texts, it would seem that the God of Israel is one of many gods. Who are those other gods?”
Rabbi: “They are intermediary forces between the physical world and God that He puts into motion that sort of operates systems in the lower world. So He is talking to His ministers, His council, but He’s supreme and these are not beings that exist alongside Him but underneath Him, that are also His creations that serve a purpose too.”
Francesca: “Does that mean that God is not alone in the heavens?”
Rabbi: “So to speak, on a certain level, yes. Insofar, as God creates intermediary that He holds Council, whatever that means, that in itself is a very interesting statement. And yes, there is such an idea that there are other beings that are below God, subservient to Him.”
I am convinced that these other beings are Gods. For me, the evidence undermines the basis on which the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity is built.
We are now discovering that the ancient Israelites had a great deal more in common with their neighbors and enemies, and that for almost the entire period in which the Biblical story is set, the ancient Israelites were not monotheistic. The Bible is an unreliable source. It’s not telling us the truth about these ancient people.
In fact, I once argued that the Bible is concealing the biggest secret of all. A secret that shakes the very heart of monotheism. God had a female counterpart. A Goddess.
A clue to Goddess worship in the religion of ancient Israel appears in the Bible itself. For most of the readers of the Bible, it’s a secret overlooked, hidden in the text.
It is the word ‘Asherah’. The word is found 40 times, and it describes something which must be destroyed.
Some people think an Asherah is a wooden stick or a pole because in the Bible it can be planted, cut down, pulverized, crushed, uprooted and burned.
But why is the Bible so unsettled by this apparent object? What is it about this Asherah that’s so dangerous?
Archeology now shows us that Asherah wasn’t always an object.
Asherah’s role was as a life-giving goddess. She was a very respected Goddess. She was the mother of all the gods. She’s associated with fertility and the perpetuation of generations. And as a result, her iconography associated with her is often very distinctive. She has a very distinctive hairstyle that we find associated with many other fertility goddesses in the ancient Near East.
She has very heavily emphasized breasts, and a very prominent pubic triangle, emphasizing this life-giving quality. This bodily imaging of Asherah has led some scholars to argue that this is erotic imagery, that somehow this imagery is designed to stimulate and titillate. They’ve even argued that in cults of Asherah, cultic prostitution and ritual sex were the order of the day, but I really don’t think there’s much evidence for that at all. This isn’t about Asherah being a sexy goddess, this is about Asherah being a life-giving goddess.
What’s so striking though is this association of a tree or a branch motif, above her pubic triangle. This motif is often known as the Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life was frequently used to represent the Goddess. It symbolized her powers of regeneration, fertility and protection.
In some text, she’s called the Divine Creatrix and in others, she is the Lady of the Sea. But her most important role seems to have been to act as an intermediary between the other gods and her husband El, demonstrating her strong, powerful position.
So is there any evidence to suggest that Asherah was also worshiped in Israelite religion? Well, not if you take the Bible at face value. But all across Israel in almost every excavation of ancient domestic buildings, archeologists are unearthing female figurines.
They appear consistently at ancient Israelite sites, dating between the 9th and 6th centuries B.C., the period in which much of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament is set.
I’ve come to Ramat Rachel near Jerusalem, the site of a 7th century B.C. palace to assess the evidence.
Prof. Judith Hadley: “Many of the figurines like this one have molded heads. This would seem to indicate that these are in wide production.”
Judith Hadley is a Professor of Biblical Studies. She thinks it’s possible that the figurines could represent the Goddess Asherah, but opinions are divided.
Prof. Hadley: “We have no record of exactly what they are. As you can see with this one, they have very exaggerated breasts and the arms are coming down, holding the breasts. People say that they are used for magic, and it’s true that with the exaggerated breasts on most of them, it maybe for some type of lactation, because of course lactation was very important in the ancient world and if you couldn’t nurse your child, then the child was gone.”
Francesca: “So to you these figurines represent a Goddess?”
Prof Hadley: “I think they do. I think that’s the most logical explanation. Because actually, it’s the Goddess who was the one who you would pray to for help with nursing your child and many scholars say that it’s a generic Mother Goddess or a mother of fertility. Now, in this period, the goddess who was most worshiped that we know is the Goddess Asherah. So I think it is very possible these are representations of the Goddess Asherah.”
At the very least, what these figurines do tell us is that there was a strong feminine element in the religious practices of ancient Israel, and that’s a revelation that’s completely counter to the male-centered monotheistic message in the Bible.
But it’s difficult to conclude from these figurines alone that Asherah was worshiped by ancient Israelites. They lack many of Asherah’s signature features, her pubic triangle and the Tree of Life.
However in 1968, a relic was discovered that appeared to link the Goddess Asherah with this part of the ancient world. It was found in the North at a site called Taanach. It dates to about the 10th century B.C. and is now displayed in the Israel Museum.
So the Goddess Asherah, whom the Canaanites revered, was clearly known in this region. But was she actually worshiped by the ancient Israelites? Well this time, the clues in the Biblical texts are much more revealing. They say that she was once worshiped in the Jerusalem Temple itself.
The Bible is actually giving us some very significant information. In one text we’re told tjat a King of Jerusalem set a carved image of Asherah in the temple, and in another we are told that women were weaving for Asherah in the Temple. Asherah worship was clearly going on at the very highest levels of society, at the very heart of Israelite religion, in the Temple of Jerusalem, the very place where the God of Israel resided.
The Bible itself reveals that the God of Abraham, his sons, was not unique, but he was the deity El, a Canaanite God. And those Israelites claiming descent from Abraham worshiped a Divine Council or Assembly of Gods, and included in this pantheon was a Goddess, Asherah. Despite the Biblical insistence that the religion of the ancient Israelites was monotheistic, the reality is that it was polytheistic. But goddess worship is not in itself the biggest secret of the Bible. In the Canaanite system, Asherah was the wife of the Chief God El. Did she also hold such an exalted position for the ancient Israelites? Could she been Yahweh’s other half, the Wife of God?
This is Mount Nebo in modern day Jordan. It overlooks the river Jordan and on a clear day, you can just about see Jerusalem. According to the Bible, this is where Moses and the Israelites first see the land promised to them by God.
One of the oldest clues to Asherah worship in the Bible is found in a poem recited by Moses to the Israelite tribes just before he dies. It hints at the real relationship between the Israelite God and Asherah.
In this poem, he talks about Yahweh coming down from Sinai, with what seems to be a divine being on his right hand side. Now, we are not really sure what this divine being is. The problem is in the Hebrew text, and one of the key issues here is this word, esh dat. Now it is usually translated as something like “his host”, most English translations will say something similar. But actually that does not make much sense at all. Now, recently scholars have suggested that actually this could be a reference to the Goddess Asherah. As you can see, this is the word ‘Asherah’, here is esh dat. Now, these two words are very similar and these letters are often confused. So it is quite possible that originally, this text contained a reference to the Goddess herself.
So if this is a reference to the Goddess Asherah, it is pretty incredible because it is saying that she had a close intimate relationship with God.
Look where she is, at his right hand side. If Asherah was God’s wife, it would seriously damage the foundations of monotheism.
Some people would argue that the language is just too ambiguous to say for sure. A few would flatly reject the possibility.
Francesca: “One of the gods that appears in the Hebrew Bible is Asherah, a goddess, and a lot of scholars think that she was actually the consort of the God of Israel. What do you make of that?”
Rabbi: “That is sort of a notion that almost all ancient gods had a female consort. But the traditional Jewish understanding is absolutely not. God, being above any physical needs, would not even need a consort and certainly shares the world with no other powers. So, the need for anything else would be antithetical, theologically, to the whole Jewish world view.”
There’s no explicit statement in the Biblical texts coupling Yahweh and Asherah, God and his wife. But evidence has been found which does show them together.
The Sinai Desert, the wilderness where the Bible says Moses received the 10 Commandments from God. It was here just over 30 years ago that an amazing discovery was made. For the first time, we had evidence outside the Bible for the wife of God. It is an inscription written on a piece of pottery.
In 1975, an Israeli archeological team began excavating an ancient travelers’ resting place. It dates to the 8th century B.C., a period in which Israelite culture was flourishing. Just days into the dig they struck gold.
A room filled with shards of pottery and nearly all were covered in ancient scripts.
Unfortunately, I am not able to get access to the actual site. A terrorist group has recently fired on a nearby Israeli tourist resort and the Egyptian army have declared the site too dangerous for me to visit. So I have arranged to meet Ze’ev Meshel, the leader of the dig, in a safer location nearby.
Dr Ze’ev Meshel: “We built a camp down below…”
He remembers the growing excitement on site, as more and more inscriptions were uncovered, fragments of correspondence calling out the diggers from the distant past.
Dr Meshel: “Really people became crazy. It’s the only excavation I did, in weeks, I see guys getting addicted to the excavation. Everyone wanted so hard to find by his own hands, a piece of inscription, a stone bowl with the…”
And among these pieces, written clearly in Hebrew on a fragment of a large pot, was the name ‘Asherah’. But it was how her name appears which startled everyone.
For here, Asherah’s name was found coupled with the word ‘Yahweh’. The name of God.
But before the inscription could be displayed to the world, it fell victim to the politics of the region. In 1979, during the Camp David peace talks, Israel agreed to give the Sinai and all the discoveries back to Egypt. But both countries have since denied ownership of the artefacts, and the inscription, which could transform our idea of God, is currently missing.
Francesca: “When was the last time you saw the inscription?”
Dr Meshel: “We returned all the finds I think about 20 years ago or maybe 15 years ago. And this was the last time.”
Francesca: “Has the original inscription ever been exhibited?”
Dr Meshel: “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
It’s distressing to think that perhaps the most important artefact in the history of God has been lost but the recent Egyptian revolution has brought a glimmer of hope.
This is a replica of the piece of pottery that’s got everybody so excited. There are three figures plus an inscription running along the top. The inscription is the key part. It is a blessing and the blessing is from Yahweh and his Asherah. It shows for the first time that people in the 8th century B.C. were coupling Yahweh and Asherah, the God of Israel and his wife.
It tells us that the ancient Israelites believed that God had a wife.
This isn’t just my opinion or even that of a minority. The majority of Biblical scholars throughout the world now accept it as compelling evidence that God once had a consort. But it is a view of God unacceptable to millions of believers today.
Walter Moberly: “On a classic understanding, God, although the Biblical language is consistently ‘He’, God transcends gender. God is not male in the sense that humans are male. But therefore to give God a consort is very much to anthropomorphize, to make God to male in a way that Jews and Christians have wanted to say, “No, that is actually misunderstanding what God is like.””
The traditional view is that the Bible is a book about just one God.
From the time God revealed himself to Abraham through to the founding of Israel, the Israelites promised to worship one God and one God only. That’s generations and generations of a monotheistic ideal. An ideal that’s corrupted from time to time by idolatrous, rebellious Israelites but an ideal nonetheless.
And yet the evidence in the Bible and in archeology reveals that Abraham’s God was not unique. The Israelites were polytheists and God had a wife.
Dr Niehr: “If we take the Old Testament text at face value, we are indeed convinced that there are two different cultures in this land: the culture of the Canaanites who already inhabited this land when Israel came out of Egypt, and then entered Israel entered as a new population with only one God. But nowadays, we know from archeology, from mythology, from ritual text and so on, that Israel is the offspring of Canaanite culture.”
Francesca: “So, the Israelites are essentially a subset of the Canaanites.”
Dr Niehr: “Yes, indeed. And we know that especially, on the background of the text from Ugarit which shows how closely related Israel was to its ancient neighbors.”
Francesca: “And so, the Biblical distinction between Israelite religion and Canaanite religion is essentially a false one.”
Dr Niehr: “From a historical point of view, it is false of course.”
In my view, the Biblical basis for an archaic monotheism just doesn’t stand up, and that suggests to me that the Bible cannot be taken at face value. It is misrepresenting the past. It’s a fictitious account of Israel’s religion.
Today, Jews and Christians practice monotheism. The Bible is read as the story of just one deity, one God. So what happened? What made the people of ancient Israel abandon the worship of many gods and switched to the veneration of just one God.
Something forced a seismic shift in the Israelite religion that led to a systematic purge of polytheism. Traces of this purge can be detected in polemical stories in the Bible itself, stories in which Yahweh takes on the other gods in a celestial war.
In a way, the Bible is a battleground for the gods. The aim is to assert Yahweh, the God of Israel, over all others and even to kill off the competition. It says so in Psalm 82: “Here Yahweh presides in the great Council of Gods and criticizes the other gods for being unjust.” He says to them, “You are all gods, children of the most high, but you will die like mere mortals.”
The Psalm tells how the other gods are defeated. Only the God of the Bible survives, standing unique and distinct. At the end of the Psalm, the God of Israel takes over the world. This shift in the history of Israelite religion can be traced to a traumatic turning point.
Yahweh had been the Chief God in Jerusalem, but he has just been vanquished by rival Gods. It’s around this time, from the 6th century B.C. onwards, that the Bible as we know it begins to be written down.
Scribes try to make sense of the fall of Jerusalem. In reflecting on this catastrophe, later writers of the Bible conclude that this is a punishment from Yahweh for the people worshiping other gods. They resolve to appease Yahweh by annihilating all the other deities.
The idea is to make Yahweh more omnipotent and fearsome than ever. He inherits the powers of other gods. Abraham’s God El and the Divine Council get buried in the text.
Even God’s own wife is rendered impotent. Asherah, once symbolized by the sacred Tree of Life, is now insultingly portrayed in Biblical stories as nothing more than a dead piece of wood. Her powers of fertility are stripped and reassigned to Yahweh. Scribes in effect create a new myth of origins, a new religious history of their people. Old and new stories are spun so as to conceal their polytheistic past.
Dr Niehr: “We have to see the theology behind it. They wanted to make a division between Israel on the one side, and the Canaanites and all other cultures on the other side. So it is an attempt of self-definition, of inventing something new. And with the same for example, in Greek culture, where difference is made between the barbarians on one side and the Greeks on the other side.”
Francesca: “And in the Hebrew Bible, monotheism is one of those aspects of religion that is used to distinguish Israelite religion and Canaanite religion.”
Dr Niehr: “Between the 10th century and the beginning of the exile in 586, there was polytheism as normal religion also here in Israel. Only afterwards things began to change and very slowly they began to change. I would say it is only correct for the last centuries, maybe only from the period of the Maccabeans, that means the 2nd century B.C., so in the time of Jesus of Nazareth, it is true but for the time before it is not true.”
Judaism and Christianity are proud of their ancient monotheistic pedigree but in my opinion the secret buried in the Bible is that this history has been skillfully manufactured by the scribes who composed these ancient texts. The claims that Abraham and his disciples worshiped a unique and distinctive God just don’t stand up.
The truth about the Bible is that for most of the time, its people were polytheists and their Chief God had a wife. That undermines the foundations of modern monotheism to its core, but it also sheds a great deal of light on how we understand faith today, for the worship of many gods isn’t just a thing of the past.
Scratch the surface of modern day monotheism and you will find vestiges of polytheism. Take the God Baal. He is assimilated and demonized by Christianity. He lives on today through his title, the Lord of the Flies, Beelzebub. Other deities don’t completely disappear. They become the angels of Judaism and Christianity. But perhaps the most painful loss would have been that of Asherah, the wife of God.
As a result of monotheism, these religions have become very masculine, but traces of the feminine survive. Asherah’s symbols took on new forms. The sacred Tree of Life gradually evolved into the Menorah, a central feature of modern day Judaism. But perhaps the most conspicuous homage is in Christianity itself. People the world over still pray to the ultimate fertile heavenly female: Mary, the mother of God.
Dr Niehr: “We have saints, we have the Virgin and so on. So we do not escape such a Divine Assembly, it is impossible. Pure monotheism is nearly impossible.”
Francesca: “And the heavens are still very busy today then?”
Dr Niehr: “Yah, why not?”
The traces of polytheism and monotheism today show how hard it is to suppress it but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. Monotheism, when it finally came, brought with it a terrible consequence: God is exclusively male and so to be male is to be like God. And this has colored attitudes toward women for centuries and centuries. In toppling the Goddess from heaven, monotheism disempowered women.
The evidence I have presented rocks the foundation of modern monotheism and for some, that may have a severe impact but it seems to me that the loss of God’s wife had an even greater impact on the history of humanity and that’s the painful truth of this story.
Next week, I go in search of another secret buried in the Bible, the real Garden of Eden.