Saturday, March 8, 2008

Goddess in the Bible

Linguistic, archaeological, and scriptural studies reveal that the people of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) worshipped the Goddess. Their literature is suffused with female images of the Holy One. This information came to me primarily from Raphael Patai in The Hebrew Goddess, Asphodel Long in The Absent Mother, and Phyllis Trible in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality.

An exclusively male God-image does not meet the psychological needs of humanity, and—here’s the surprise—it does not fully reflect our Judaeo-Christian heritage.

According to Patai, "historical scrutiny" shows that for centuries following the Law of Moses, sole worship of Yahweh by the Hebrews "remained a demand rather than a fact," because the people chosen by Yahweh also worshipped Canaanite deities. In light of the thundering Bible prophets, that did not surprise me. What dumbfounded me was the scope, the popularity, and the legitimacy of Goddess worship as revealed by researchers free of male bias.

With scriptural evidence meticulously presented, Patai concluded that, for almost two-thirds of the 370 years during which Solomon's Temple stood in Jerusalem, the statue of Asherah was present in the Temple and her worship was led by the king, the court and the priesthood. At relatively long intervals Yahweh’s prophets cried out against it.

I found Patai's conclusion, so contrary to our familiar mindset, confirmed by other scholars independent of Christian doctrine. And it is supported in Jeremiah 44:16-19:
We will not listen to what you say in the name of the Lord. Rather will we continue doing what we had proposed; we will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and pour out libations to Her, as we and our fathers, our kings and princes have done in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem. Then we had enough food to eat and we were well off; we suffered no misfortune.
But since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out libations to Her, we are in need of everything and are being destroyed by the sword and by hunger.
Just as the male-imagined God has many names—for instance, “Yahweh,” “Allah,” “Lord,” and “Elohim” (Gods),—the female-imagined Goddess had many names—for instance, “Isis” and “Mary.”

The most common name for Her in the Bible is “Asherah.” Two more are “Astarte” and “Anath.” Readers may not find them in their Bibles because translators have hidden feminine references.

In Deuteronomy 7:5 and 12:2-3, the Lord orders a campaign against Asherah:
Destroy without fail every place on the high mountains, on the hills, and under every leafy tree where the nations you are to dispossess worship their gods. Tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, destroy by fire their sacred poles, and shatter the idols of their gods that you may stamp out the remembrance of them in any such place.
First Kings 18:19-40 tells of a contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal and Asherah. Elijah slits the throats of Baal’s priests, but not those of Asherah’s priests. Perhaps, writes Asphodel Long, “Asherah was too well loved to be offended."
In 1 Kgs 19:1-4, Elijah flees for his life after being threatened by Jezebel—a bit of evidence that supports Long's interpretation.

Jeremiah 7:17-18 and 44:17 describe the Hebrew ritual in honor of Astarte:
Do you not see what they are doing in the cities of Judah, in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, their fathers light the fire, and the women knead dough to make cakes for the Queen of Heaven, while libations are poured out to strange gods in order to hurt me.
Long emphasizes that the families of communities who joined in these religious rites "were Hebrews," the people of the Bible.

The Bible has forty references to the Goddess. I found names for Her in Judges 3:7 and Second Kings 17:31, but most references mentioned by Patai are obscured in my New American Bible. Exodus 34:13, Deuteronomy 16:21, First Kings 14:15, Second Kings 18:4 and 21:7, Second Chronicles 31:1 and 33:3, and others talk about a "sacred pole," the correct name for which is “the Asherim.”

Of the passages I checked, about half named the Goddess and half used the word "pole." The latter refer, not to the Goddess Herself, but to Her symbol, a carved wooden image standing for the tree of life (Yes, the tree in our familiar Eden myth). Trees represent nature, which is identified with the Goddess.

In addition to condemnations of the Goddess, there are many Bible passages in which the male God speaks as the female Goddess. I’ll have to leave details for a later writing.

Goddess in the Bible 2
In my first “Goddess in the Bible” post, I promised to address Bible passages in which the male God speaks as the female Goddess. I quoted a passage attributing to Goddess Astarte the title “Queen of Heaven” and women making cakes in honor of Her.

In the Christian world Mary is “Queen of Heaven.” The mother of Jesus got little attention until the fourth century, when worship of the Goddess was wiped out by Roman emperors beginning with Constantine, who was converted before 313. Then the psychic need for a female image of divinity was transferred to Mary. This is why the Catholic Church declared her Mother of God (Theotokos) in 431.

In the early centuries Mary was worshipped by a Christian sect who baked cakes in her honor, an obvious parallel to Holy Communion. As I explain in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, the ritual eating of God-food occurs in many traditions and honors a variety of God-images, male and female.

Much, much more can be said about worship of Mary, but now I'll go back to the female God in the Bible.

From Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, we learn that the Hebrew word for "womb"—rehem—is metaphorically and grammatically linked to the Hebrew word for compassion or mercy. As compassion and mercy saturate the scriptures, they are filled with this female image of God.
Citing some of the abundant womb metaphors found in biblical poetry, Trible observes,
The entire process of birthing has been attributed to the deity. In various passages, God conceives, is pregnant, writhes in labor pains, brings forth a child, and nurses it.
But translations fail to render the images accurately. Consider Deuteronomy 32:1-43. My New American Bible (NAB) states as Verse 11,
As an eagle incites its nestlings forth by hovering over its brood, So he spread his wings to receive them and bore them up on his pinions.
Notice that the image of a mother eagle is corrupted by the pronouns “its” and “he” and “his.”
Verse 18, “You forgot the God who gave you birth,” should read “the God who writhed in labor pains with you.”

In Jeremiah 31:20 God says,
"My heart stirs for him; I will surely have mercy on him."
Trible’s translation reflects the original female metaphor for God:
"My womb trembles for him; I will truly show motherly-compassion upon him."

Deuteronomy 32:18 states, "You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, You forgot the God who writhed in labor pains with you."
Only a woman can have birth pangs, but The Jerusalem Bible translates the Hebrew verb for giving birth as "fathered." This attribution to Father what naturally refers to Mother became a pattern in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Finding feminine images in the Bible requires no scholarly credentials, only an open mind. In Isaiah 42:14, Yahweh cries out “as a woman in labor, gasping and panting.”
More images of God as Mother appear in Psalm 22:9-10: Isaiah 66; Jeremiah 1:5 and 31:15-22; and in many more passages.

The poem in Jeremiah 31 ends with this climactic verse:
Yahweh has created a new thing in the land: female surrounds man.
My NAB translates it, “The Lord has created a new thing upon the earth: the woman must encompass the man with devotion.” And a text comment stutters, “No fully satisfactory explanation has been given this text.”
More on Bible translations hiding the Goddess next time.

Yahweh, adam, Jesus, Asherah
The Bible contains myths, which express truth but not facts.

Genesis 1 and 2 present two different stories of creation and two different orders of creation. The first has God creating animals and then humans, male and female. The second creation myth has God creating what is translated in our Bibles as “man,” then animals, and only then a woman out of man’s rib. Following this comes the Eden story with tree and serpent. It is used to blame women for evil.

Phyllis Trible in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality explains why the traditional woman-hating interpretation is incorrect. She writes,
Over the centuries this misogynous reading has acquired a status of canonicity so that those who deplore and those who applaud the story both agree upon its meaning.
They agree—erroneously—that the myth depicts woman as inferior, subordinate, and the greater sinner.

Trible’s extensive linguistic/literary analysis, which refutes the accepted reading, cannot be stated here. I’ll say only that it hinges on the word adam, which means “earth creature,” not “man.” This changes everything. After God creates adam and tells it to care for the earth, God creates gender, female and male, issa and is. So we have to conclude that female and male receive equal status in the original version. I apologize for my inadequate rendering of the Hebrew and I direct readers to Trible’s book for the full analysis.

I’ll change the subject. We don’t know what the ancestors of the Jews called God because they avoided saying aloud the name of God because of “superstitious fear” (John L. McKenzie, S.J. Dictionary of the Bible). In place of the name was said Adonai—“Lord.”

Their name for God was written YHWH, known as the Tetragrammaton, but we know only the consonants of the word because ancient Hebrew was written without vowels. YHWH is now rendered “Yahweh” or “Jehovah,” using vowels taken from Adonai.

McKenzie states, “There is general agreement that the name is derived from the archaic form of the verb to be, hawah.” This carries no gender bias. But the God of the Bible is exclusively male; patriarchal bias reduced inclusive and vast “Beingness” to a male individual. A patriarchal bent and steady pressure to personify Spirit, to give It human qualities, resulted in a male Yahweh.

The Hebrews invaded a land that worshipped Goddess as well as God imagined male. “He" was so reduced to a humanlike male that an inscription found in the Sinai asks for blessing by Jahweh and “his Asherah,” the most common biblical name for the Goddess. In other words, She was His consort; they were perceived to be a couple.

Like the ancient Hebrews, Christians of today like to think of the Vastness that is God in human terms. Thus they cling to the God-image Jesus Christ.

Again I leave this subject with a promise to return.

Goddess in the Bible 4
My post titled “Yahweh, adam, Jesus, Asherah” really was my third “Goddess in the Bible” post. Together these four writings give evidence that exclusively male God-language does not fully reflect our Judaeo-Christian heritage.

Unlike most Christians, I’m guessing my readers know perfectly well that Ultimate Reality--what we call God—is no more male than female, but I’m not so sure they realize our Christian heritage agrees.

In prior posts, I cited surprising information about the Hebrew ancestors of the Jews worshipping Goddess. They had both female and male God-images. But the female images were condemned and the non-gendered YHWH, which means something like “Beingness,” was rendered “Lord.”

In many Indo-European languages other than English, nouns have genders, so that pronouns, adjectives, and even verbs referring to each noun express the same gender, thus reinforcing it. In Hebrew, writes Patai, most names of God are masculine, so that "every Hebrew-speaking individual from early childhood was imbued with the idea that Yahweh was a masculine deity."

“He” was so much a “he” that some considered Goddess Asherah to be his consort. A few writings suggest Yahweh and Asherah were perceived as a couple.

The male-only “Lord God” who’s always referred to with the pronouns “He, Him, His” dominates our religious language so much that some Christians—perhaps it’s even a majority—think God really is more male than female. One person even sent me a writing that argued this.

It takes a cleansed imagination to accept Phyllis Trible’s revelation that in many Bible passages, “God conceives, is pregnant, writhes in labor pains, brings forth a child, and nurses it.”

I ask readers to review my prior posts for etymological and historical evidence of Goddess consciousness in the Bible (etymology studies word origins).

And here’s a telling anecdote to help counter our tradition’s gender bias. A Bible translator for a tribe in southwestern Chad, Africa, wrote that the work of translating for them was difficult because the Bible’s male God-language clashed with their idea of Great Spirit and their language to express it. Their word—Ifray—for what we call God was related to their word for "mother." Translator Rodney Venberg wrote,
To speak of God (Ifray) with such terms as ‘he’ and ‘Father’ was totally inconsistent with their grammar and went against their whole notion of the creation (after all had a man ever given birth to a child?).
And now another bit of information to dispel the notion that the Judaeo-Christian God is male. Daniel Stramara, OSB, writes about El Shaddai, a name for God used 48 times in the Bible but usually translated “the Almighty.” He states that the name
is based on the Akkadian word shadu meaning mountain. But shad is a perfectly normal Hebrew word meaning “breast” . . . Hence the most probable meaning of El Shaddai is “God, the Breasted One.
El Shaddai appears in Genesis 17:1-22; 28:3; 35:11: 43:14: 48:3: and 49:25. The author of Job uses it 31 times, and it occurs in other books of the Bible.

The Bible has many male God-images—Jesus its prominent one. Of the female God-images, Sophia is the most prominent. She is, in fact, the prototype for Christ, as I explain in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky.

But the people for whom Rodney Venberg was translating the Bible would have resonated with the God-image called Zion in Isaiah 66. Verses 11 and 12 sing:
Oh, that you may suck fully
of the milk of her comfort,
That you may nurse with delight
at her abundant breasts! . . .
As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms,
and fondled in her lap.
God-images are only images, that is, beloved metaphors for the Eternal One revealed in Exodus 3:14. Naturally, other religious traditions have their own God-images just as good as ours.

2 comments:

darvish said...

Fascinating and of course, Goddess worship predates God worship, the female as the creative force of the universe is evident in even male dominated religions. Thank you for a fascinating series :)

Peace and Many Blessings!

Michael A. said...

Thank you very much, dear Jeannette, for an academically rigorous and spiritually astute presentation. Of course Goddess worship predates other forms, and of course the creator of us all is not a 'him' (or a her) exclusively much less 3 guys in the sky. Best wishes with your important work and in life -- Michael A.