“We will not listen to the things you’ve said to us in the name of YHWH. On the contrary, we will certainly do all that we’ve vowed. We will make offerings to the Queen of Heaven, and pour libations to her as we used to do – we and our ancestors, our kings and princes in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem – because then we had plenty of bread and we were satisfied, and suffered no misfortune. But since we ceased making offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pouring libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by sword and famine. And when we make offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pour libations to her, is it without our husbands’ approval that we make cakes in her likeness and pour libations to her?” – Jeremiah 44:15-19, translation by Graham Harvey, from the Hebrew text of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, excerpted from “The Paganism Reader”.
I suppose it is somewhat appropriate that I mentioned a Christian sect obsessed with battling the “Queen of Heaven” yesterday, because today I’m looking at a new flurry of press about Her, or as they phrase it, “God’s wife.” The notion that the God of the Jews, and later the Christian God, was once part of a polytheistic landscape is fairly uncontroversial among scholars. Several books have been published on the subject, “The Hebrew Goddess”, “Did God Have a Wife?”, “Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan”, and “The Early History of God”, among several others. NOVA on PBS even mentioned it back in 2008 for their “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” program. But modern journalism has a short memory, and the story has a new hook via Exeter University’s Francesca Stavrakopoulou, who’s presenting a new BBC production (coincidentally) entitled “The Bible’s Buried Secrets”. Stavrakopoulou and her BBC series have been making the rounds at
The Daily Mail (sorry, I still don’t link to them), The Guardian, and The Telegraph.
“Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou has been given a primetime BBC Two series, The Bible’s Buried Secrets, in which she makes a number of startling suggestions. [...] The idea that God had a wife is based on Biblical texts that refer to “asherah”. According to Dr Stavrakopoulou, Asherah was the name of a fertility goddess in lands now covered by modern-day Syria, and was half of a “divine pair” with God. Dr Stavrakopoulou is a senior lecturer in the Hebrew Bible at the University of Exeter, and gained a doctorate in theology from Oxford.”
Her suggestions are so startling that the story got picked up in America by Discovery News.
“In 1967, Raphael Patai was the first historian to mention that the ancient Israelites worshiped both Yahweh and Asherah. The theory has gained new prominence due to the research of Francesca Stavrakopoulou [...] “After years of research specializing in the history and religion of Israel, however, I have come to a colorful and what could seem, to some, uncomfortable conclusion that God had a wife,” she added. Stavrakopoulou bases her theory on ancient texts, amulets and figurines unearthed primarily in the ancient Canaanite coastal city called Ugarit, now modern-day Syria. All of these artifacts reveal that Asherah was a powerful fertility goddess.”
Her conclusions may indeed be “colorful,” but they are hardly new, as I pointed out above. Discovery News actually does a decent job in taking what were mostly warmed over press releases in the UK and giving the story some depth. Showing that Stavrakopoulou’s research is part of a long continuum of thought and study on this topic, interviewing other scholars to emphasize the points being made in her new show.
The ancient Israelites were polytheists, [Aaron] Brody [director of the Bade Museum and an associate professor of Bible and archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion] told Discovery News, “with only a small minority worshiping Yahweh alone before the historic events of 586 B.C.” In that year, an elite community within Judea was exiled to Babylon and the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. This, Brody said, led to “a more universal vision of strict monotheism: one god not only for Judah, but for all of the nations.”
The Discovery News report is also refreshing in that it avoids discussing her “fragrant air” and “good carriage” as John Preston at The Telegraph does. There’s a certain bitter irony in discussing the looks of a presenter on a program that touches on how the power of women was willfully erased from history. In any case, while the subject of God’s wife may not be new, reminding the world that monotheism didn’t spring forth whole-cloth, that it was artificially constructed and forcefully maintained by its early adopters is still quite needful. Especially in an age where the mere hint of a resurgent Western polytheism, and the endurance of polytheism around the world, seems to bring out irrational anger, fear, and hatred in certain corners.