Saturday, March 26, 2011

God's ex-wife

So, have you heard about God's divorce?

A recent article in Time magazine skims the surface of the rather complex issue of how monotheism developed in ancient Israel, by discussing with a few religion historians the nature of God's relationship to Asherah. The implication of the article is that Asherah was worshiped as the consort of God at one point in Judaism, and then eventually was edited out of the Bible by patriarchal apologists appalled by the notion that their male deity would ever have a dalliance with a female deity.

And you know, I think they're half-right.

Stuff like this is why I'd love to get a full scholarship to attend seminary, and study progressive revelation. I'd love to get the broader picture of how Judeo-Christian thinking has developed over the past few millennia, beginning from the straightforward relationship of a group of nomads to their tribal god, down to this really complex theology we've got now, with all that it entails about redemption, social justice, labor unions and the Trinity.

Because there's no doubt that our understanding of God has changed considerably since Moses came down from Mount Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments, and I wouldn't be surprised to discover that there were many Yahwists who worshiped Asherah and understood her to be the wife of their male god.

Let me explain.

The books of 1 and 2 Kings in the Bible relate the history of Israel, beginning with the end of David's reign and continuing down to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. Along the way, the writer rates each of the kings in terms of how faithfully they served the God of Israel. Kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, who made religious reforms that favored Yahwism and desecrated the altars of other gods, were rated highly; other kings like Manasseh, who erected altars to other gods, sometimes in the Holy of Holies, were viewed as wicked.

Religious life in ancient Israel went back and forth a lot during this time. One king would come in and destroy all the altars dedicated to foreign gods, then the next king would come in and build new ones. And, undoubtedly, each king thought he was doing the right thing. In essence, it was an multigenerational battle over the soul of Yahwism.

Asherah gets a lot of press in these pages. A fertility goddess, Asherah was the consort of the Phoenician deity Baal. Baal was the head god in his pantheon, making him in a sense the equivalent of Zeus. One of Asherah's titles was "Queen of Heaven." People all around Israel -- and even among the Israelites -- worshiped Asherah, Baal, and other gods.

In contemporary religious experience, monotheism is normative. Ask someone if she believes in God, and you're more likely to be told yes or no than you are to be asked, "Which one?" In the time of ancient Israel, monotheism was anything but normative. Yahwism was utterly unique in its disavowal of other gods. A Canaanite might be relocated to Assyria, to Greece or to Egypt, and although he might find they had unusual names and statues, he'd still recognize some form of his familiar gods in his new land. That's one of the reasons the Romans were able to adapt all the Greek myths so easily. In terms of religion, the Yahwist would find nothing in common with his new neighbors, which is one of the reasons the Jewish people didn't assimilate when they were taken to Babylon or fled to Egypt after the Temple was destroyed.

The difficulty of maintaining your religious uniqueness in these situations, is that you can't help but pick up some of their practices and attitudes over time. This process, called syncretism, is why Hanukkah has become such a major holiday to Jewish Americans, despite its relative unimportance in Judaism. It's why a lot of churches today have worship led by rock bands, and why people who have no idea that Easter used to be the name of a divine rabbit, go to church and hide colored eggs for their kids to hunt.

And in ancient Israel, where most people couldn't read and were guided in their religious practices by oral traditions of how their parents had done things, syncretism led people to equate their all-powerful deity with somebody else's almighty deity, and then pick up some of the trimmings. Like his wife. (Or even his identity. There was a place in ancient Israel named Jobaal, or "Yahweh-is-Baal.")

It scarcely seems imaginable today that changes so fundamental to the nature of a religion would fly, but for much of Israel's history, there wasn't much of a Bible against which to measure such practices. Even the Torah -- the first five books of the Bible, traditionally ascribed to Moses -- didn't reach its final form until around 450 B.C.E., more than 500 years after Israel's Golden Age under David and Solomon, and about a thousand years after the Exodus. All you had to go by was "how things had always been done," and what the priests told you. And if you had one set of priests saying that God was married, and another set saying he wasn't, it became a matter of which set of priests you listened to, and more to the point, which set of priests the king listened to.

2 Kings notes that during the reign of Josiah, one of the last kings of Judah before the kingdom fell to Babylon, the priests "found" the book of the Law, which no one had seen in their lifetimes. And not surprisingly, the discovery led to a number of reforms that favored the sort of primitive Yahwism that they espoused, one without all the syncretic additions like his marriage to Asherah.

Prophetic writers like Isaiah, a contemporary of King Hezekiah, who had made significant religious reforms that favored Yahwism, took the notion of God's marriage in a direction radically different from where the pro-Asherah faction had taken it. One of the central tenets of Yahwism had been the special relationship between God and the Israelites. He had been their king and their military leader; now he became their suitor, and Israel, not Asherah, was his intended bride. Any attempt to claim that God had another consort would be to diminish the relationship between him and Israel.

It was after the time of the Babylonian captivity that the Hebrew Scriptures as we have them today took their final form. The canon wouldn't be settled for hundreds more years, but the redactors had the final word. Asherah was out of the picture, and the only wife God wanted was his people.

Copyright © 2011 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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