Did God Have a Wife? Archeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel by William G. Dever, (Eerdmans 2005) hardcover.
This book establishes with strong archeological evidence that the Goddess Asherah was among the deities worshiped by Israelites, Judeans, and other peoples of the Ancient Near East (ANE). It’s a shame that William G. Dever couldn’t accomplish this without being unfriendly to today’s Goddess folk, a good number of whom came to this conclusion a while back. More about that later. First let’s get my objection to the book title out of the way and look at the book’s very positive accomplishments.
I’ve got to tell you, when I saw the title, Did God Have A Wife? my first response was: “You mean ‘Did Goddess have a husband (and who performed the ceremony)?’” In his bibliography, Dever lists among his previously anthologized articles, “Folk Religion in Ancient Israel: Did Yahweh have a Consort?” My guess is that “Did Yahweh have a Consort?” may have also been the book’s original title, but that someone (Dever? the publisher?) wanted a wider readership than this title would likely attract and so dumbed it down. Still, I wish they had compromised and made the current subtitle,Archeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel, the title. To Dever’s credit, the book, though packed with scholarly material, is written in a way that is easy for most non-academics to understand and even contains a few jokes.
Dever has, as he himself says several times in the book, an interesting background for this work. His grew up in a Christian fundamentalist family in the southern and mid-western USA, his father a preacher and “tent evangelist.” He attended a church college in East Tennessee, then a “liberal Protestant seminary,” and served as a parish minister. Then it was on to Harvard to study Old Testament theology. After finding he had “no talent for that discipline,” he got into archeology which eventually led to 40 years of fieldwork in Israel and Jordan. He became what he calls a “nominal Jew,” is active in the Reform Jewish community but is non-observant and considers himself a secular humanist. (p. xi) He claims to be “politically-speaking” a feminist, but when it comes to scholarship, he says he doesn’t want to be identified “as either a ‘feminist’ or a ‘masculinist’.” (p. xiii). He is professor emeritus of Near Eastern Archeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona.
The time period Dever examines is 12th Century to early 6th Century BCE (which Dever calls BC – I’m beginning to favor the new time-reckoning term, BP [Before Present], but since the present is always changing this is only good for long estimated eras not specific years. I will use BCE/CE in this review, as is most common among both Jews and Pagans). The book has a number of helpful charts and lists, among them chronological correlations with history and cultures (p. xvi), the differences between a “State religion” and a “folk religion,” (p. 5), differences between texts and artifacts (pp.53-54). There are numerous pictures of artifacts and buildings throughout the book.
Dever says that since 1982, he has recognized Asherah as the consort of Yahweh (p. 201), making him one of the first outside of the Goddess community to acknowledge that Asherah was a deity. (The earliest was probably Raphael Patai in his invaluable book, The Hebrew Goddess(1967), to which Dever pays homage [p. 207-8] ). Other scholars, especially biblical theologists, whom Dever repeatedly takes to task, clung – many still cling – to the idea that the terms “asherah” and “asherim’ in the Bible refer only to poles. Dever defines the religion of most ancient Israelites and Judeans as “folk religion.” He says archeology supports it being polytheistic, including both female and male deities, and although women were very active in the religion, it was a religion of both women and men. (p. 251).
Once an advocate of biblical theology, Dever now lists 11 reasons why it is “useless in the attempt to reconstruct a reliable portrait of ancient Israelite religion.” The first two reasons? “Clerically dominated” and “androcentric.” (p. 38) Dever also parts ways with postmodernists, calling their view that biblical texts don’t refer to any reality, “piffle.” (p. 9) About the Hebrew scriptures themselves, Dever says:
– “All biblical texts in their present written form were produced relatively late in Israel’s history,” that is, no earlier than the 8th Century BCE.
– The writers of the Bible were highly selective in the material they allowed in, and were “mostly elites, literati” and male, making up less than 1 percent of the population.
– “…all the biblical literature…constitutes what is essentially ‘propaganda….the Bible is ‘revisionist history’ on a grand scale.”
–The Bible doesn’t portray the Israelite religion as it really was, but rather as what the authors wanted it to be, and suppressed and condemned “folk religion”–that is the religion of at least 99% of the people.
(pp. 69-73, 251)
Asherah: The Archeological Evidence
Dever presents the evidence for polytheism in general and worship of the Goddess Asherah in particular until the mid 6th Century BCE (p.299). He concludes that
…triumphant monotheism tends to foster cultural imperialism. Monotheism defined exclusively by a male clergy in term of their male deity almost inevitably results in a hierarchical and patriarchal system.(p.315)
The book is packed with explanations of folk religion and State (or book) religion, descriptions of ANE culture and family life, “Old Testament” theology and various approaches to studying these.
From archeological and anthropological evidence, Dever concludes that the “high places,” “standing stones” and “poles,” against which biblical prophets railed are all connected to worship of Asherah and other deities, such as the gods El, Ba’al, and Yahweh, and the goddesses Astarte and Anat. He also takes a look at stone and terra cotta offering tables and basins, incense burners, family shrines, and temples (at Jerusalem and elsewhere), all of which support polytheistic practices.
Here are a few items of particular interest:
– a Hebrew inscription found in an 8th Century BCE bench tomb near Hebron that Dever excavated and reported on in 1969 (“which was ignored by scholars for a decade”). Roughly translated, the inscription reads: “Blessed is Uriyahu by Yahweh. From his enemies he has been saved by his a/Asherah.”(p. 132) Dever and other archeologists subsequently found Asherah and Yahweh paired on a number of other inscriptions (pp. 162-163).
– Male figurines were rare in ancient Israel in 10th-6th centuries BCE. (p.147)
– A mold for making female figurines was found in a 10th century BCE in a “Cultic Structure” which appears connected to “Asherah, the Lion Lady” (p 151).
– At least three types of figures representing Asherah:
(1) 10th-9th century BCE: Nude figures with long hair, usually similar to “the bouffant wig worn by the Egyptian goddess Hathor, whom the texts clearly equate with the Levantine Asherah as ‘Qudshu,the Holy One’.” She is sometimes shown on or with a lion. (p. 176-178)
(2) 10th-9th century BCE: Figures, either nude or wearing skirts, holding either a drum or a cake.
(3) Late 8th-7th century BCE: Judean “pillar-based” figures with prominent breasts, whose lower body resembles a tree trunk. Hundreds to thousands of these have been found.(pp. 179-180) [To get to link, click on “cancel” in response to query about foreign language. The Israel Museum and others often label an artifact of Asherah, Astarte. ]
– In the mid 1980s CE, Ruth Hestrin, a curator at the Israel museum, Jerusalem, pointed out, after examining a ceremonial vase excavated in Lachish, that in Israelite iconography both the tree and the downward-pointing triangle are not just symbols of, but are literally interchangable with, the Goddess Asherah. Many Israelite artifacts show either a tree or a downward-pointing triangle with two lions (or other animals) on either side. These were understood by the Israelites as being the Goddess Asherah (“the Lion Lady”) accompanied by her animals. (Egyptian iconography shows a human being nursed by a tree with a human breast; another drawing shows a human-bodied goddess and tree as one.) (pp. 225-229).
When Dever ventures into areas that he’s not as familiar with as archeology, he’s prone to misstatements. For example, in his discussion of laws for kosher foods promulgated in Leviticus, he can’t understand what makes one animal “unclean,” while another is “acceptable.” He asks:
Why do the “holiness laws” in Leviticus specify that animals that “chew the cud or part the hoof” (11:4) are unclean?….Why are pigs non-kosher?…(p.267)
Well, I got out my handy-dandy KJV, and extended my reading to Lev.11:3-7, which reads:
Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is cloven-footed, and cheweth the cud among beasts, that shall ye eat. Nevertheless, these shall ye not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but not the hoof; he is unclean unto you….And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you. And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he isunclean unto you.
So Leviticus doesn’t say that animals that “chew the cud or part the hoof” are unclean. It says “that shall you eat” – they’re clean, baby, eat up. The animals that are unclean are those that don’t both have cloven hoofsand chew cuds. For example, the camel chews a cud but doesn’t have a divided hoof. Ain’t kosher. And the delicious little piggy has a cloven hoof but doesn’t chew a cud, so the Bible says, feh!!!!
In his brief broaching of Kabbalah (p. 302), which is part of Dever’s discussion of the Shekhinah as a post-biblical Jewish female or feminine divine personification, Dever says that kabbalistic literature and thinking is “too divergent…and too fluid to permit a summary here.” I agree. Nevertheless, Dever goes on to write a few sentences in which he talks about “the feminine figure” and “the male figure” in Kabbalah. This is misleading as there are several female/feminine and male/masculine “figures” in Kabbalah even as far back as the book called the Zohar (1280-1286 CE), which is Dever’s reference point. Dever writes that the “male figure” is “obviously God,…called the Father; she [the “feminine figure”] is “Mother, Supernal Mother, Matronit, the Shekinah (even Bride in some texts).” I’m willing to bet that it’s not obvious to most kabbalists that any single “figure” is “God.” In kabbalah-speak, what Dever calls “figures” are usually called emanations or sefirot (Heb.) The most common understanding is that the main kabbalistic symbol or glyph, the Tree of Life, in its entirety represents the Divine. The “Father” sometimes called the “Supernal Father” is the emanation called Hokmah, the 2nd emanation from the top of the Tree of Life (there are 10, sometimes 11 if you count one invisible emanation. They are probably best understood here as aspects of the Divine.) The way Dever describes the “feminine figure” is also misleading because he makes it sound as though “Mother, Supernal Mother, Matronit, and the Shekinah” are all the same in Kabbalah. They’re not. Shekinah is considered synonymous with Malkut, the bottom emanation on the Tree, also sometimes called Matronit. But “Mother” and “Supernal Mother” are used to refer to Binah, the third emanation from the top. (See, for example, Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 219) Dever also says,”the pair are lovers.” But, you see, we have two pairs of lovers. In the Zohar, during creation, the Supernal Father (Hokmah) impregnates the Supernal Mother, Binah, who gives birth to the emanation, Tiferet. One of Tiferet’s titles is “The Holy King.” It is Tiferet/Holy King who couples with Malkut/Shekinah as the Sabbath Queen or Bride. (See, for example, Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah. And if you’re interested in a Goddess take on Kabbalah, check this out.) In other words, Kabbalah portrays a type ofhieros gamos (sacred marriage), yet Dever insists that there is no cultural or historical evidence for hieros gamos in the ANE (p.216). (Not even in theSong of Songs?) I also find it very odd that Dever doesn’t even mention The Tree glyph in his Kabbalah sentences, given that he has previously pointed out that archeologically Asherah and the tree “are interchangable”( p. 228).
Shirking the ‘Goddess Movement’
With these inaccuracies, and with the vigor with which he attacks other types of scholars that he perceives not being on the same wave length as he is, perhaps his attitude towards and inaccuracies about Goddess scholarship are less surprising. Although he mentions some feminist authors, to him they are a mixed bag, some he at least leaves uncriticized while others, such as Maria Gimbutas, he writes of with disdain. And still others he omits. I was sorry to see he neglected to mention either in the text or in his extensive bibliography important authors whose works are strongly related to his topic including: Savina J. Teubal, author of Sarah the Priestess: the first matriarch of Genesis (1984); Asphodel P. Long, who sources him in her 1993 book, In A Chariot Drawn by Lions; and Jenny Kien, who sources him in her 2000 book, Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism. In addition to these slights, he seems either uninformed or sloppy about some of the feminist authors and works he mentions. For example, he misspells Naomi Goldenberg’s name (p. 309 and index), rendering her last name “Goldberg” and then, in a list of “Jewish works” that follows, omits her name before her book’s title, making it seem like Goldenberg’s book,Changing of the Gods (1979) was written by Judith Plaskow. In addition, identifying Changing of the Gods as a “Jewish” work is inaccurate; although it includes some Jewish material, Goldenberg is not writing within the Jewish tradition and the book also discusses Christian and feminist Witchcraft material. (Goldenberg is now professor of religious studies at the University of Ottawa). Dever identifies Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father(1973) as a “later work” when actually it was one of her earlier works.
In what has become de rigueur for all too many of those in the academy, Dever accuses the “Goddess movement” of assertions and approaches that while they may possibly represent views of a very few people, are certainly not a majority view and cannot be said to be representative of the “movement” as a whole. Typically, this tactic is an attempt to discredit the entire “movement” or community of Goddess scholars by attributing to them outlooks or statements, which they didn’t/don’t make and then refuting them. For example, Dever writes:
Some doctrinaire feminists have gone to extremes, of course, arguing without any evidence that originally there was only one Great Mother who…was dethroned by upstart male deities in later historical times and was thereafter suppressed. This was most forcibly argued by the European archeologist Marija Gimbutas in books like Language of the Goddess (1989). Such pseudo-scholarship has been embraced by various New Age Goddess cults and “Neopagan” religions….Some of these groups want to adopt me when I give public lectures, but the portrait I am painting here should give them no comfort.
He goes on to refer to the “foolishness perpetuated by ‘Goddess movement’” that there was a single ancient …”monolithic Goddess.” (p.306-307)
I’m surprised Dever is joining in on these baseless accusations to discredit Goddess scholarship despite refutations made again, again, again, and again. And what does Gimbutas actually say? In The Language of the Goddess, p. 316, Gimbutas specifically rejects the general term “Mother Goddess” calling it a “misconception.” She says there was “a Mother Earth and a Mother of the Dead but the rest of the female images cannot be generalized under the term ‘Mother Goddess’.” She goes on to reject Eric Neumann’s Jungian concept of the “Great Mother” because “it does not allow appreciation of her total character.” It’s also noteworthy that when Gimbutas uses the term “Great Goddess” she is using it as a term in which to gather a great variety of “goddess images,” and that she also speaks of goddesses, plural. And she is referring to the geographic area of her excavations, mostly southeast Europe (she excavated mostly in Bosnia, Macedonia, Greece, Italy, and probably most famously, Catalhoyuk, Anatolia [Turkey]).
Though the term is used in the singular, and although other Goddess scholars may sometimes use the term “the Goddess,” or “Great Goddess” the vast majority of those who use these terms are not asserting “a single ancient Goddess,” or any sort of monotheism. Rather, the term “the Goddess” or the “Great Goddess” is used as an umbrella term which includes a multitude of goddesses. Based on anthropological and archeological research to date, it does seem reasonable to assume that at some time in each individual culture’s history one or more female deities were worshipped and that these deities sometimes had similar traits. And it’s possible that within these particular cultures, there may have been a Goddess whom those within that culture perceived as being universal, as in the way Dever himself uses the term, “Great Goddess”:
In earlier Canaan, the Great Goddess may be a cosmic deity who could be known by several names: Asherah; ‘Anat; Astarte; or Ba’alat or Elath….(p.166)
I don’t take Dever’s use of the term, Great Goddess, to mean that Dever believes that all cultures in the world worshipped only a single goddess at some time in the past. Why should he accuse us, as a group, of asserting that? (Whether some of us today understand deity as a single Goddess is another issue, and certainly understandable considering the monotheistic religions most of us come out of.)
Why does Dever jump on the Goddess feminist-bashing bandwagon? Some other scholars who use this tactic may simply be misogynist, but I don’t think this is true in Dever’s case. I think he is attempting to keep (or gain?) credibility in the academic community. I think his attempt at discrediting the “Goddess movement” and something else he calls “New Age Goddess cults” is to signal to his colleagues that he is not part of that “cult,” that his work, though it asserts the same ideas, should be taken more seriously than that of Goddess feminists. I don’t understand how such a learned man can conflate Goddess feminism and New Age thought. The very significant differences between the two have been clearly stated by a number of people including Monica Sjoo in Return of the Dark/Light Mother or New Age Armageddon (1999), Jacqui Woodward-Smith in “The Goddess vs. the New Age,” (Goddess Pages, Issue 1, 2006), and my blog comments on Woodward-Smith’s article.
Regarding his concern that “Some of these groups want to adopt me,” I didn’t know we were so intimidating or that our attentions were unwanted, but now that I know, in this review I restrained myself from heaping superlatives of praise upon Dever’s archeological findings and his assessment of biblical narrative lest I embarrass him by my approval. If you feel you are one of those Goddess folk Dever may be trying to avoid and you’re in a position to give presentations, to write on the subject, or to add texts to courses or bibliographies, you might want to consider taking similar precautions to protect his feelings.
As we close, I have a final paradox to share with you. Inexplicably in light of his own criticism, near the end of his book Dever himself invokes what sounds like a single ancient “Great Mother”; he writes:
With the full recognition of women…in religion and society, the spirit of the Great Mother will at last be freed. (p.317).
Now what do you make of that?