Today I want to continue my study on the gender of God. One reason some theologians are calling for the use of feminine language to address the God of the Bible is the view that ancient Israel worshiped a goddess alongside Yahweh. According to this view, the writers of the Bible suppressed the worship of God the mother in order to promote a monotheistic worship of Yahweh.
According to some writers, there is evidence in the Hebrew Bible that ancient Israel worshiped a goddess alongside Yahweh. In today’s post I want to introduce some of the goddesses that appear in the Hebrew Bible.
In his book, Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel, William Dever uses the results of archaeological work to study popular religion in ancient Israel. Dever believes that the elements of folk religion that we find in many texts of the Old Testament reflect the true religious practices of the average Israelite before monotheism became the religious norm in Israel.
According to Jeremiah, before the exile, the people of Israel worshiped many gods, in violation of the First Commandment. Jeremiah said: “For your gods have become as many as your towns, O Judah; and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame” (Jeremiah 11:13).
According to Dever, popular religion was focused on the worship of the goddess. The worship of the goddess was done by both men and women, young and old. However, those who wrote and preserved the text of the Old Testament suppressed the worship of the goddess and promoted the worship of Yahweh alone.
Dever believes that the presence of iconic representations and motifs related to the cult of Asherah found at several cultic sites, including household shrines, indicate that the worship of Asherah was primarily a woman’s cult.
In the Canaanite pantheon, Asherah was the consort of the god El and the mother of the seventy gods in Canaanite mythology. In the Ras Shamra texts, Asherah was known as the mother goddess Athirat. The worship of the goddesses was associated with most religions of the ancient Near East. Many goddesses in ancient Near Eastern religion were portrayed as mothers.
Asherah was mostly associated with fertility religion. In fertility religion, the worshipers come to the temple to reenact sexual acts in order to induce the gods to bless the crops, the flock and the herd, and to bless the fertility of the womb. The Bible condemns the servants of Asherah by calling them “temple prostitutes” (1 Kings 15:12). There were male temple prostitutes (2 Kings 23:7) and female temple prostitutes (Hosea 4:14).
The worship of Asherah was found both in the Southern and the Northern Kingdoms. When Jezebel came to Israel to marry Ahab, she brought 400 prophets of Asherah with her (1 Kings 18:19). Maacah, the mother of king Asa, made an image of Asherah and placed it in the temple of the Lord. Manasseh also placed an image of Asherah in the Lord’s temple (2 Kings 21:7). During his religious reforms, Josiah destroyed the image of Asherah that was in the house of the Lord (2 Kings 23:6). He also “broke down the houses of the male temple prostitutes that were in the house of the LORD, where the women did weaving for Asherah” (2 Kings 23:7).
Kuntillet ‘Ajrud was an ancient caravanserai located in northern Sinai. At Kuntillet ‘Ajrud archaeologists found some important inscriptions dated to the late ninth or early eighth century B.C. in which Yahweh is mentioned in conjunction with Asherah. The image nearby shows Yahweh, the Egyptian god Bes and Asherah playing a musical instrument. One of the inscriptions found at the site reads:
“May you be blessed by Yahweh of Shomron (Samaria) and his Asherah.”
Since the caravanserai was also a religious site, in which many religious artifacts were found, it is evident that Yahweh and Asherah were worshiped together at that place. A similar inscription was found at Khirbet el-Qom, a place located southwest of Lachish.
The inscription found at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud seems to indicate that Yahweh and Asherah appear together in a consort relationship. In his book Dever asks the question: “Did God Have a Wife?” Dever answers his own question by saying “Yes, and her name was Asherah.” The evidence discovered at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom indicate that in the eighth century B.C., many Israelites worshiped Asherah as the consort of Yahweh.
The Queen of Heaven
In the days of Jeremiah (seventh-sixth centuries B.C.), the women of Judah worshiped a goddess called the Queen of Heaven. According to Jeremiah 7:18, men, women, and children worshiped the Queen of Heaven: “The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven.” The women of Judah worshiped the Queen of Heaven in order to ensure fertility and material prosperity.
After the deportation of the population of Judah in 587 B.C., after Jerusalem was conquered and the temple of the Lord destroyed, a group of Judean refugees found refuge in Egypt. In Egypt, the women of Judah continued to worship the Queen of Heaven. In fact, they even blamed Jeremiah for their situation:
“As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we are not going to listen to you. Instead, we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials, used to do in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. We used to have plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no misfortune. But from the time we stopped making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have perished by the sword and by famine. And the women said, ‘Indeed we will go on making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her; do you think that we made cakes for her, marked with her image, and poured out libations to her without our husbands’ being involved?’” (Jeremiah 44:16-19).
Many feminist theologians speak of Sophia-God. According to Gnostic tradition, Sophia was also known as the “Mother of All” and existed as the feminine aspect of God.
The Greek word “sophia” literally means “wisdom.” The Hebrew word is “hokmah,” a word also translated as “wisdom.” Because of the feminine gender of Hokmah in Hebrew and Sophia in Greek and because of the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 8, Sophia became a divine feminine apotheosis, the goddess of wisdom and a copartner with God in the work of creation. In Gnostic tradition, Sophia became the feminine personality of God.
Some Christians have associated the Shekinah glory with the Holy Spirit. This identification is false and is based on Gnostic identification of Sophia with the Holy Spirit. In some places, Sophia is identified with the goddess Asherah. The worship of Sophia is common among women who seek to worship the feminine aspect of God.
Whether Asherah was worshiped as God’s wife, remains a matter of debate. Although folk religion accepted the worship of the Mother Goddess, it remains a fact that no Hebrew word for “goddess” appears in the Hebrew Bible, that Yahweh is never called “mother” in the Old Testament, and that he was never worshiped as a female deity.
To call God “mother” and to worship him as a female God is to return to Canaanite religion and to the pagan practices of the religions of the ancient Near East. In the Hebrew Bible God is presented as the father and husband of Israel. The Bible never refers to God as mother or wife.
To address God as a “she” or as “mother” is to return to the worldview prevalent in Canaanite religion. The prophets of the Old Testament struggled against the syncretistic tendencies of the people of Israel. To return to the practices of the folk religion of Israel is to abandon the prophetic struggle to desacralize sexuality in Israel.
My last post on the gender of God will deal with the masculinity of God. In that post I will discuss the attempt at eliminating all masculine language for God and emphasize that the masculine language for God is part of God’s revelation of himself to the world.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Other Posts on the Gender of God:
Dever, William G. Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.