Updated: May 19
Last week, I posted that I’d learned that the God of the Bible has a wife. I then received three responses from believers: One person told me I’m confused, another said I’d missed the mark, and the third cautioned me to “be careful.” Interestingly, nobody asked me why I thought god had a wife. Nobody seemed curious to know the reason I’d posted such a strange statement.
If someone told me something which I thought was absurd, such as the earth is flat, my first response would be “why do you think that?” I’d be curious to know their reason for saying such a seemingly ridiculous statement. Maybe they’ve got a good reason...and wouldn’t that be fascinating!
Intrigued by my own curiosity, as well as the seeming lack of curiosity on the part of believers, I’ve purchased this book which claims to make the case for God’s wife. I’m going to take a break from my Bible study while I read it. I’ll keep you posted. And I promise I’ll “be careful” though I’m really sure what I’m supposed to be careful about.
Let’s meet the author of our book, Did God Have a Wife? William G. Dever is professor emeritus of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the university of Arizona in Tucson. His other books include: “Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?” and “The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect.” Raised a preacher’s son, Mr. Dever gained “an early love of the Bible” and was educated at protestant seminary and Harvard University before becoming a scholar and parish minister. Mr. Dever is today a nominal Jew, active in the Reform community in Israel. He is not a theist and describes himself as a secular humanist who “finds value in the Jewish tradition.”
Chapter One Summary
In chapter one of “Did God Have a Wife?” the author defines and contextualizes the religion of early Israel, where there were two classes of religion defined as “folk” and “book.” Folk religion was practiced by the vast majority of early Israelites and consisted of family observances and practices handed down through tradition, centered upon the household shrine and overseen by women. Folk religion was ancient, with roots extending beyond the Bronze Age into the myths and traditions of Canaanite culture. Book Religion came much later during the Iron Age, when a literate class of clerics and scribes began to emerge in the larger towns and cities west of the Jordan River. Both the folk and book forms of religion persisted in ancient Israel, though it’s the book form we know best today given the simple fact these beliefs and tenets were recorded, copied and passed down to the present. The folk religion of the people though can be reconstructed through the use of archaeology and anthropology to give us some idea about what the everyday people of ancient Israel believed and how they worshiped. The context of ancient Israel was hardship. Life was short then, perhaps thirty years for men and less for women. Almost nobody could read or write and nearly everyone lived in impoverished conditions in small family households consisting of roughly twenty people who knew next to nothing of the world beyond their fields, neighbors and the nearest towns. In the world of these people, their folk religion was everything. The book religion of the big cities (“big” means up to 2000 people) was either non-existent during the Bronze and early Iron Ages or irrelevant during the later periods. It is within the folk religion of these early people where we will find both the origins of the Biblical Yahweh, as well as His wife Asherah.
I couldn’t quite figure out why the man at the next table was giving me such a funny look... But then I realized he could see the title of the book I was reading: Does God Have a Wife?
Chapter Two Summary
I’d like to share my summary and review of chapter two of “Did God Have a Wife?” In chapter one we learned that ancient Judaism consisted of the Book Religion of the priests and scribes as well as the Folk Religion of the village, and more particularly the home. We also learned that it is largely the Book Religion (as well as the corresponding oral tradition of the rabbis) which has come down to us today. As a result, we know comparatively little about how early Israelite and other Semitic people such as the Canaanites practiced their religion in the home. In chapter two, we discover how the fields of history, theology and philosophy have dominated our understanding of ancient Judaism, and how archeology has played a largely peripheral role in developing our knowledge of religious practice, and more particular religious belief. We then learn how scientists of the last few decades have begun to employ the tools of archaeology and anthropology to begin filling out the larger picture of Judaism from the perspectives of not just the synagogue, but also the village, the home and everyday life. it is from this new perspective of the stories of the things which people owned and used, that researchers are forming a more accurate and compelling account of the world view of the ancient Semitic world - and not just the learned literate few, but the everyday people who believed and practiced their religion as part of their daily life. It is within this context that we will discover God’s wife, Asherah.
J, E, P and Dtr
I’ve learned a lot last night and this morning about the origins of the first five books of the Bible. There’s scholarly consensus that Genesis through Numbers were written during the 7th and 8th centuries BCE. The book of Deuteronomy (with content extending all the way to Kings) is thought - again with strong consensus - to have been added by reformers after the return from Babylon and the building of the second temple. I also learned that Bible scholars ascribe Old Testament authorship to largely anonymous writers and editors using the following system of classification: The “J” document Bible content written by authors preferring to name God “Yahweh” (Jahweh in German). This content runs mostly through Genesis, Numbers, and Exodus and describes much of the central story including the creation, the flood and the stories of the patriarchs. This content dates from the 8th century BCE. The “E” document Content where God’s preferred name is “Elohim.” ThIs material has been interlaced with J and more often deals with the themes of the covenant at Sinai and the establishment of God’s relationship to His people. This content is dated to the 8th century as well. The “P” document This is the “Priestly” material appearing mostly in Leviticus. This writing was added late by priestly editors who did much of the work of weaving J and E with P to create a story of Israel’s prehistory in Canaan and wandering through the desert. We owe much of the Old Testament’s form and storyline to P. The Deuteronomistic history or “Dtr” Added after the return from Babylonian exile, this content was likely produced to form the basis for Josiah’s 7th century “Second Law” reforms which are outlined in the book of Kings II. Dtr content reflects the bitter lessons of Israel’s fall and near extinction at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, and interestingly may represent the Jewish people’s first expression of the sentiment “never again.” J, E, P and Dtr are the shorthand labels used by modern Bible scholars to discuss and write about the content of The Old Testament. And though we may never know who actually wrote these books, we can recreate a compelling picture of the character and motives of the various authors through the classification of their authorship and writing styles.
Chapter Three Summary
Let's review chapter three of the book Did God Have a Wife? In chapter one we learned of the "Book" and "Folk" religions of ancient Israel, while in chapter two we saw how the science of archaeology has been largely neglected as a tool of understanding the way ancient people actually practiced their religion in the community and the home. Chapter three now makes the case for historians and scholars to take a closer look at what the abundance of archeological evidence has to say about the lives and beliefs of the people of ancient Israel. Important points include:
Biblical Perspective The actual writers of the Old Testament were recounting events and ideas from the perspective of a very specific world view as well as a distinct social, political and theological agenda. These are not unbiased or objective writings about the life and times of ancient Canaan. The Torah and other books which form the basis of the Bible had a very distinct agenda, which filters and clouds our ability to see how people of the time really thought and lived.
Biblical Scope There is strong consensus among scholars that the contents of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) were composed and edited between the 7th and 8th centuries BCE which gives us a very limited scope of perspective on earlier times. When we read the Torah we are peeking at the ancient world through a very narrow (yet important!) crack in history.
Archaeological Perspective We need not rely on just books to tell us stories of the past, as things tell their stories too. In fact, objects such as ancient household artifacts and religious items may tell us more and better stories than the written texts from the time. This is because old religious writings are often constrained by theological or political limitations which the objects are not. The writings are further produced by literate scribes and clerics - the elite of the time - while objects are produced by craftsmen such as potters and metal workers from the common classes. In short, archeology can tell us the story regular folk, including the unprivileged and illiterate. Furthermore, objects come down to us largely unedited except by way of the damage and wear of time, while written texts may suffer many translations and interpretations as they cross the historical divide between the ancient world and today. "Things" on the other hand, take us directly into the homes and lives of the people who made, owned and used them, often being preserved precisely as they were made, and in the very place they were used, providing a direct window into the past. This is the archeological perspective.
Archaeological Scope While the original writings of the Torah are constrained to just a few centuries, the scope of archaeology knows no such constraints. And while our Bible content is largely static today, with very few new texts being added to what we currently possess, there is a non-stop and constantly growing abundance of archaeological evidence being added each year and just waiting to be studied to tell us more.
Summary of Chapter Three Scholars should no longer regard archeology as merely an interesting supplemental source of knowledge about the religion of the ancient Israelites as well as the people of Canaan, but instead should be embraced as a new and rich source of primary information about that world. And archaeologists must begin to exercise not only their picks and shovels to unearth evidence of the past, but also to start using their knowledge and training to help tell the stories contained within the objects they find and share. To add to the Biblical Perspective, providing a more complete and comprehensive picture of the past.
Chapter Four Summary
Let's do a quick review of where we've been so far before moving on to chapter four of Did God Have a Wife?
Chapter One Introduction of Israelite "Book" and "Folk" religions
Chapter Two Archaeology as a tool to understand religious practice
Chapter Three How artifacts tell the story of past religious belief
Now, on to Chapter Four! In chapter four we discover the foundations of both the official theology outlined in the Torah (Book Religion) and the story of belief and practice described through the available archaeological evidence (Folk Religion). The religion of the Torah (Book) is largely theological and not likely grounded in the regular religious practices of the common people. The Torah was originally for the kings and the priests and was centered on the following seven propositions:
The revelation of God to Abraham and his descendants
The promise of the Land to the Patriarchs
Liberation from Egyptian bondage as a sign of God's power
The giving of the Torah at Sinai and the covenant
The conquest of Canaan as fulfillment of God's promise
Jerusalem (Zion) as the eternal abode of Yahweh
The primacy of faith and loyalty to Yahweh alone
Contrast this to the more down-to-earth facts of how the common people of ancient Israel and Canaan actually practiced their faith, which is better told to us by the "things" they left behind which are uncovered and explained through the science of archaeology. Here's a list of the types of "things" archaeologists have to work with:
High Places (aka "Bamot" in Hebrew) These were literally high spots on the earth where religious rites such as sacrifice were performed. Such sites are often mentioned in the Bible, though they are increasingly denigrated by Bible writers as time goes on and these authors attempt to distance their theology from its pagan roots.
Family and Household Shrines By far the most common type of religious shrine in the ancient world. The altars used in the homes of the ancient Israelite people contained objects representative of their Canaanite past and probably connected little with the official dogma of the developing Torah at the time. The statues and implements used on such household shrines offer researchers a wealth of understanding, not only about what and how the common people of Israel believed, but also about the roots and connections to their many gods, one of whom may have become the God of the Hebrew Bible.
Temples Official temples to Yahweh were few, in fact the ideal was only one at Jerusalem. This fact, along with the difficulty in visiting or even entering a temple at the time, caused a disconnect between the worship style of the elite, the kings and the priestly class and the worship of the common people who understandably relied more on their family and household shrines as well as local customs and tradition. However, what we do know about the remains of temples in ancient Israel is the connection they hold to temples elsewhere in the Levant. The point, again, is that though today we may "remember" the temple at Jerusalem as the heart and seat of the worship of Yahweh, this was probably not true for everyone in ancient Israel and perhaps only for a select minority of the most elite.
Cult Paraphernalia Ancient Israel and Canaan are littered with cult objects which were in use from ancient times right up through the Biblical period. We know this, as these items are often mentioned within the Bible itself, causing the curious paradox of the Bible author's efforts to discredit pagan beliefs as being a source of information that such beliefs were indeed held and practiced. Such objects include: - Standing Stones to serve as markers or god images - Altars where sacrifices were performed - Asherahs representing god's female consort These objects - and their evident use - tell us much about what the common people were thinking during the time of the Bible. The role then of archaeology is to help us piece the together the puzzle in order to form a more complete picture of religious life in ancient Israel.
This is my summary of Chapter Four of Did God Have a Wife.
I’m reading chapter five of the book “Did God Have a Wife?” which describes the practice of Israelite folk religion from before and through the period when the Torah was written (12th to 7th centuries BCE). What’s described is exactly what I remember in Japan, with communities and families celebrating and “worshipping” a pantheon of deities with interest and influence over every aspect of life. Of principle importance in the keeping of this “faith” was the role of women in ensuring established rituals are followed and necessary propitiation offered at the correct time and place. Simply substitute the Japanese goddess Amaterasu with Yahweh and I suspect the rest is the same. Even the ritual public drunkenness described by the Hebrew prophets Amos and Jeremiah are identical. Humans are humans after all. And I feel very lucky to know from my own first-hand experience what religious life was likely like for the common folk followers of the God of the Hebrew Bible in the time when the Bible was written.
This image shows an Israelite family altar. The room was likely used by several closely-related families. The object at lower left is an offering stand where incense was burned in the stand's lower section. Note the "windows" in the stand which allow the smoke to rise up and over the removable offering bowl. The horned altar at lower-right was a centerpiece of the shrine. Archaeologist believe family members visited the shrine on an irregular basis in order to place offerings to Yahweh and other gods on the bench running along the wall. Women, in particular, played a key role in attendance to such shrines as is evident elsewhere in the region and in other parts of the world. "Folk religion" shrines like this had almost no connection to the "Book religion" which later became Judaism as we know it today, though both religions shared a common God in Yahweh (El).
I previously thought there was no afterlife in Judaism. However, I learned this week that not only does the God of the Hebrew Bible provide an afterlife, but He also provides reincarnation for those of us who need a second chance prior to entering Purgatory. This reincarnation is called “Gilgulim” in Hebrew and there are four types:
DOMAIM = mineral reincarnation
TZOMAI’OCH = vegetable reincarnation
CHAI = inanimate reincarnation
MIDABAIR = human reincarnations
I’m fascinated by the idea of being reincarnated as a rock or a drop of wine. How does a rock atone for past sins? What virtues might a drop of wine extol?
I learned this week that Jews believe in reincarnation as a second, third, fourth, etc. chance at becoming worthy of entering God’s presence. But this doesn’t match the one chance opportunity offered by Jesus. Yet it’s the same God/Trinity. The only way I can make sense of this is to assume that if you worship the Father you get a redo, but if you worship the Son you better get it right the first time. Doesn’t that make Judaism the far more sensible path to choose? It’s the same God, after all.
After learning that Jewish people believe in reincarnation (Gehinnom) I did a little more research and found out they also seem to believe in Purgatory (which I think the Catholics now argue does not exist). So I poked around a little more to see if Jews also believe in Hell. It turns out they do, and it's the same Gehinnom referenced above. According to the linked source, Hell is a process by which we get seemingly unlimited chances to redress whatever wrongs we did during life. Hell therefore, is a good thing that simply doesn't feel very good while going through it, though we end up better off when it's done. This seems much nicer than that other idea of Hell. More like going to the dentist than going to a torture chamber.
I learned this morning that there are three reasons the Jewish people do not accept Jesus as the messiah: 1. JESUS AS GOD The Jewish people believe that God would never take human form, as this would violate his omnipresent nature. The messiah will be a man - although a very special man. 2. THE SECOND COMING The true messiah will complete all of his work when he comes and will not require a second coming. This work includes: -Returning the Jews to Israel -Rebuilding the temple -Establishing world peace 3. NEW COVENANT Jews reject the idea that God has replaced the covenant at Sinai with salvation through faith
For this morning's Bible study I'd like to ask a question to my Christian friends. However, it's a question I'm rather uncomfortable asking, as I'm certain it will appear insensitive or disrespectful, which is truly not my intent. So, I apologize if this question might offend or upset anyone. Yesterday, when I saw those flowers tied to the light-pole beside the intersection where my student and I witnessed that terrible traffic accident last Saturday, I knew then that the woman who was struck by the van had indeed died. I was quite upset and unsettled by the fact. I thought about the event and the woman a lot last night. Later - in the middle of the night, in fact - a question arose in my mind which I thought was relevant to my Bible study. The question will probably seem insensitive, though I think it's a good and valid question and I'm hoping someone more studied in the Bible - and perhaps in touch with God - might be able to provide an answer. But first, there are a few details about last week's accident which I had previously left out and which I'll now need to share. Namely, there are two points which I need to add to fill out the picture of what happened. The first point is the fact that the old woman who was struck by the van did see the vehicle coming at her. This was clear as she raised and waved both arms in an attempt to get the driver's attention. She clearly did not want to be hit. And I don't think she wanted to die. The second point is that there was another woman in the crosswalk coming the other way who arrived beside the struck woman before anyone else. By the time I got there this other woman was kneeling on one side of the old woman lying on the ground while the driver of the van was on his knees on the other side. The old woman was still somewhat conscious then, though it was clear she'd been very badly hurt, suffering an enormous head trauma. The kneeling woman was talking loudly then to the old woman, attempting to get her attention, and trying to follow her eyes while speaking in a very loud voice - practically yelling - the following words:
"IN THE NAME OF JESUS STAY WITH US!! IT IS NOT YOUR TIME TO GO! YOU HAVE PEOPLE WHO LOVE YOU! LORD JESUS, KEEP HER WITH US!"
She kept repeating the same "prayer" over and over again, improvising and changing a little as she went, but with the same basic idea of invoking the name of Jesus to intercede on the dying woman's behalf and to keep her with us. This went on until the paramedics arrived and took over. By then, the old woman was unconscious, though she still appeared to be breathing. I didn't mention any of this in my post last week as such details seem irrelevant to the tragedy of what happened. However, these points are quite relevant to the question I would now like to ask my Christian friends. Here goes... In Mark 11:12 Jesus says:
"Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." (NIV).
My question is this: Clearly the old woman did not want to die by virtue of the fact she tried to stop the van by waving her arms at the driver. And clearly the other woman is a believer, and a follower of Jesus, and was praying - quite sincerely and emphatically - to Jesus on behalf of the terribly injured old woman. But yet, the woman died (as evidenced by the flowers). Why? What did the praying woman do wrong in this case? Was it a failure of faith on her part in not believing that her prayer had already come true (which is Jesus' suggested prerequisite to having a prayer answered)? And this begs the larger question of what kind of prayer would indeed meet the requirements outlined by Jesus to be fulfilled? In short, how should the woman have prayed to cause Jesus to keep the woman alive? And if there was no prayer she - or anyone - could have offered which would have worked, then why did Jesus say what he did in Matthew 11:12, especially if God is not the author of confusion as stated in Corinthians 14:33? Thank you in advance for any thoughts you'd like to share. And again, I'm sorry if this question seems insensitive or disrespectful in any way. That is not my intent. You can bet I'll be thinking of this old woman each and every weekend when I drive passed this light pole. She will always be remembered by me.
I spent a little time this morning reviewing and thinking about your responses to my question yesterday on the nature of Christian prayer. It's unsettling to see answers all over the place to a question so fundamental to the nature and practice of belief. Still more unsettling is the silence.
Prayer has long been a mystery to me, as I do not understand why we would petition God for anything if we think He has a plan. Why would we wish to interfere with His plan? The author Ralph Waldo Emerson beautifully summarized this idea in his famous essay, Self Reliance:
"Prayer that craves a particular commodity,--any thing less than all good,--is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends." -Ralph Waldo Emerson
My interest this week in Christian prayer has led me to the The Lord's Prayer as outlined by Jesus himself in Luke 11:1-4. This is, of course, Jesus' advice to the disciples about how they should pray.
He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation."
This prayer seems quite humble - requesting nothing more than meager sustenance, fortitude and guidance. There is no asking for exceptional favors. It's quite beautiful, actually. But then I read on from verses 5-13:
"Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
These latter verses seem to reinforce Jesus' words in Mark 11:12 which I quoted in my post on this topic a few days back:
"Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."
There is no qualification here that you might not recognize your answered prayer as delivered by the Holy Ghost. Furthermore, the only seeming prerequisites to having a prayer answered are the "shameless audacity" to ask, and a leading certitude that your prayer will be answered. This seems very clear. So again I wonder and ask...what did that praying woman on the street do wrong? In other words, what was malformed in either her prayer or supplication while kneeling over the dying woman such that God did not prevent the woman from dying? Was her prayer not "audacious" enough (she was practically shouting)? Was her faith simply not strong enough? What went wrong? I'm sorry to ask the same question twice... However, it seemed worthwhile in the context of the further examples from Jesus. Thanks in advance for any comments or thoughts. Your participation is greatly appreciated.
This writing (below) - called the Ketef Hinnom - is our oldest surviving scrap of Biblical scripture, predating the Dead Sea scrolls by almost four hundred years. It’s a folk or “popular” version of the blessing of Moses recorded in the Book of Numbers. The writing was inscribed on a silver amulet found among a collection of women’s jewelry less than one thousand yards from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Researchers believe the amulet was worn around the neck as a good luck charm and is illustrative of how the folk religion of ancient Israel included magic to invoke Yahweh’s blessing and ward away bad luck. 7th and 8th century writers later appropriated such folk magic involving Yahweh into the books which would become the Biblical canon. I snapped this photo from page 130 of the book “Did God Have a Wife?”
I learned this morning that the Samaritans (as in “the Good Samaritan”) considered themselves Jews (the word “Samaritan” means “Guardian of the Torah”). I furthermore learned that the Samaritans were surprised in 538 BCE when Jews who were formerly held captive in Babylon, returned to Jerusalem announcing, “The Jewish people have returned!” The Samaritans were like...”We’ve been here all along. The ‘Jews’ never left.”
I’m beginning to notice something about my interactions with Christians, Jews and Muslims during this Bible study. The most engaging, studied and well-considered Christian responses and interactions seem to come from members of the less mainstream groups like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness and Seventh Day Adventists; while Evangelicals, Protestants, Catholics, Baptist’s, etc. seem to have almost nothing to say. Jewish people are almost always up - and prepared - for a discussion. But nobody beats the Muslims in arriving joyful, eager and ready to discuss their belief.
During my Bible study this morning I had cause to visit the book of Deuteronomy in pursuit of understanding the Jewish practice of using portable prayer vessels called "mezuzah" which believers carry and hold in order to remember God's commands. As usual, I tried to read the passages surrounding the verse in order to gain an understanding of context. In so doing, I encountered this:
"When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you - land with large flourishing cities you did not build, house filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant - then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." Deuteronomy 6:10-12
What kind of morality is this? I expect this passage will be waved away - like the rest of the Old Testament - as irrelevant to Christ's new deal. But this passage tells us something of God (and Jesus') character - which is alleged to be unchanging and eternal. And what kind of character is this? What evil villain thinks this way? This is not about punishing the Canaanites for their sins, or fulfilling God's promise to Abraham. This is about reveling in the fruits of conquest, enjoying the profits of war and making your own of the goods of your neighbor. How's that tenth commandment go again??
"Thou shalt not covet" -God
It's mornings like this when I really start to think this Bible study is a genuine waste of time.
In chapter five of “Did God Have a Wife?” we see our first tangible connection between the Hebrew god Yahweh and the Canaanite mother goddess Asherah. The pictured inscription comes from an 8th-century B.C. Israelite tomb from Makkedah, which was one of the cities captured by Joshua. The tomb belongs to a man named Uriyahu and the inscription reads as followed:
Blessed is Uriyahu by Yahweh From his enemies he has been saved By his Asherah
Below the writing is a picture of Yahweh’s hand descending to intercede and protect Uriyahu. I’ve included a 3rd-century A.D. wall painting showing Moses and the hand of God for comparison, as this interceding hand of Yahweh was a very common motif at the time.
It’s helpful to remember at this point that the God Yahweh and the god El are one in the same, and that this god originated as the lead god of the Canaanite pantheon. The goddess Asherah is the consort of Yahweh/El, though their relationship is diminished and finally disregarded altogether during the 7th and 8th century B.C. Israelite push towards monotheism. Circumstantial evidence such as the mentioning of Asherah in connection with Yahweh will help to build the case that God did indeed have a wife.
I’m reading this morning - before the family wakes up - about discovered archaeological sites in Israel where ancient shrines to Yahweh/El are found with all their ritual paraphernalia intact. The imagery reminds me of the many long-abandoned and forgotten Japanese religious altars, shrines, temples, graves and holy sites like waterfalls and great trees which I discovered during a decade of exploring the deep wilderness of central Japan. Imagine that moment when the last believing supplicant walks away after offering their final prayer, to then leave a holy site utterly abandoned and forgotten. I can tell you from ample first-hand experience that there’s an emptiness to such places which belies the need of human presence and attention to bring our gods into existence - not the other way around.
Bam! Here’s the connection between Yahweh and the “Golden Calf” at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The one that made Moses so mad that he broke the Ten Commandments: Yahweh is “El” who is the head god of the Canaanite pantheon. The connection is clear in ancient Canaanite artifacts which identify Yahweh and El as one in the same. Over time, the Israelites sought to distance themselves from the Canaanite pagans through the concept of monotheism and the discouragement of anything connected with Canaanite worship. One such method was to drop the name El in favor of just Yahweh, which took several centuries to achieve. In the meantime El - and his likeness - kept popping up. An example of this is the Golden Calf. Archaeological excavations in Syria have uncovered evidence that the god El’s full honorific title was “Bull El” which explains the many bull and calf statues found at Canaanite sites of worship. Therefore, when the Israelites got tired of waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain, and they then worked together to erect the Golden Calf, they were actually making a proper Canaanite image of El, who is in fact Yahweh. The only problem is the bull is too closely connected to Canaanite paganism for comfort and must therefore be rejected. I can’t help now but to see the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments for what it really is, an effort of theological engineering designed to achieve the political and social ends of seventh and eighth century Hebrews who hoped to solidify their own Israelite identity, separate and independent of their Canaanite (Semitic) roots.
I think I let myself get ahead of the facts with yesterday's Bible study. I'd like to thank Travis MacMillan for calling me out and asking me to show my work which made me realize I had little real proof that the god Yahweh originated with the Canaanite pantheon. Though Yahweh was worshiped alongside El and the other Canaanite gods, Yahweh may have actually originated outside Canaan. My confusion likely stems from the conflation of El and Yahweh (giving rise to the idea that El simply means "lord") during the time when the Israelites transitioned from pantheism to monotheism and before Yahweh became their only god. However, I'm suspicious of this idea as well as I think I'm still making statements too soon and before I have all the facts. Anyway, I just wanted to try and set the record straight and thank Travis for checking my claims. I'll try to do a better job of holding off making statements until I'm really sure I can back them up.
I’m reading tonight about how the early Israelites took no chances in their worship, and buried statues of earlier Canaanite deities under the floors of their altars as votive offerings...just in case. The statues (I’ve included some examples below) were always placed in clay jars. Hundreds of these offerings have been uncovered, giving us a strong sense that not all Israelites regarded the old gods as false. Discoveries like this give credence to the proposition that Yahweh was appropriated by Israel via Canaan. This then begs the question...what was Yahweh like before he became the one true god? Who did he hang out with? And did he perhaps have a wife?
A thought on the "idolatry" of the ancient Israelites as they were making the transition from paganism to monotheism: This word "idolatry" is front-loaded with a bias and meaning which the ancient Israelites worshiping the Canaanite gods would not themselves have felt or recognized. They were simply hedging their bets, or perhaps only recognizing these old gods as part of a tradition taught to them by their ancestors. The "idolatry" perspective is our own. It's a judgement on our part about a time and a way of viewing the world which we do not share and which we think is wrong. I think it's important to get past this if we want to understand more accurately what was actually going on in Israel and Canaan during the late Bronze Age. I've witnessed and performed "idolatry" myself while living in Japan and I can attest that it is not simply the pagan worship our word "idolatry" suggests. Again, it's also about tradition, and family, and culture, and passing along a particular way of life and thinking between generations. In Japan our family "worshiped" the deities of two religions: Shinto and Buddhism. We worshiped them at home, at work, at shrines, at temples, along the side of the road, everywhere. This is something everyone in Japan does, while almost nobody in Japan actually believes these gods really exist. We're just carrying out Japanese tradition (some very ancient) which is as natural to the Japanese as setting up a Christmas tree in December or hiding Easter eggs in April is to us. We don't always think of the symbolism and meaning of these actions - to the consternation of more serious believers - and are simply going through the motions of what we have learned from watching those who went before us. I think it's important to keep this perspective in mind as we explore the practice of "idolatry" in ancient Israel, and I for one will try to put aside my bias of thinking of idolaters as mostly naked ignorant, savages fearfully chanting and grunting to stone idols before plunging a knife through the heart of a child - even if that's indeed what some of them really did. I'll leave you with a video of my own daughter Emily performing "idolatry" in Japan. If you subtract out the fact that she is "worshiping" strange gods here, the scene will seem quite adorable and cute, just as it does to every Japanese who grew up doing the same thing and to whom these gods are not at all strange. And keep in mind that we're not witnessing Emily taking seriously the gods of her ancestors but instead seeing her simply respecting the past traditions and ways of the people who - at that time - were her everything.
I read a long stretch this morning about archaeological sites across Israel from the 7th and 8th centuries BC which suggest two things: 1. the common people of Israel were very slow and resistant to giving up their household and community shrines and temples in favor of the main temple and practices at Jerusalem, and 2. these same people continued the open practice of divination and magic (example: using dice and goat knuckles to foretell the future and charms and amulets to carry good luck and ward away the evil eye) with a respectful nod to the old gods for a long time into the period of Deuteronomistic reforms. The authors of the Bible shared their concerns about these activities in passages such as Kings 12:26-31. Just what this means to the case for God having a wife isn't yet clear, though we'll read on tomorrow...
I’ve got the afternoon off today so I’m getting in some extra hours of Bible study. I wonder if I’ll get any credit for this in the final reckoning? Probably not... 😞 Anyway, remember all those 7th and 8th century BC Israelite shrines and alters I wrote about yesterday,? Well, it seems that a common feature of these installations was a small depository in the back which was used to receive worn out household relics and things like good luck charms which had outlived their use (it happens, apparently). The storage space held these items until a priest could perform a ritual disposal. This fact struck a memory with me, as I used to perform this same service for my customers around the world as part of my Japanese religious merchandise business. You see, people would buy all sorts of Shinto and Buddhist items from my on-line store, keep and use them for a year, and then have no good way to dispose of such sacred things (you can’t just throw them away...it simply isn’t done). Aware of this dilemma, I offered a free service whereby folks (anybody, they didn’t have to be my customers) could mail me their old prayer plaques and lucky charms (not magically delicious, BTW) and my daughter and I would take them to an appropriate shrine or temple near our home in Japan for sanctified ritual disposal by fire - a practice called “dendanyaki” in Japanese if memory serves me. I did this for years, and I knew just where to find the special boxes at the back of every religious site where I could “dump” the goods. So, imagine my surprise to learn that the early Israelites were doing the same thing. This fact suggests to me two things if the early Israelites were anything like the Japanese:
Lots of superstitious people
A thriving trade servicing the needs of these superstitious people
Maybe the early Israelites were different...but if they were even a little like the (secular!) contemporary Japanese then they were all over those lucky charms. Since the orthodoxy coming out of Jerusalem discouraged such practices, we can probably safely assume the Israelites were engaged in more of that pesky paganism, using the old gods and traditions of Canaan, Phoenicia and Philistine as fuel for the marketplace of goodies which they believed kept them blessed and safe from evil. But still...how does all this relate to god having a wife? I guess I’ve got to read on.
My study of the old gods of Canaan and the emergence of Israel from this tradition is causing me to read the Bible in a different light. For example, whenever I now see God referred to as “Most High” I think of the Hebrew word Elohim which is sometimes shortened to simply El. That El is also the name of the chief of the Canaanite gods seems more than coincidence, especially since I’ve learned that the Israelite transition from polytheism to monotheism was a long process, taking centuries, especially among the common folk and people in the countryside who were quite disconnected from the orthodoxy of Jerusalem. That contemporary believers attempt to cover-up this connection by defining El as meaning simply “Lord” seems nothing more than an effort to hide an apparent inconvenient truth.
While walking and reading just now during my morning break at work I’ve encountered my first direct archaeological pairing of the god Yahweh with his consort, the goddess Asherah. How exciting! No time for more details now, as I’ve gotta get back to work. More details later! This is fun! :-)
I promised earlier to share about the archaeological connection I read during my break this morning between the Hebrew God Yahweh and the Canaanite goddess Asherah.
Here goes: You may recall from my earlier posts this week that the ancient Israelites were very slow to transition from the polytheism of their Canaanite past to the monotheism we recognize today. This process took hundreds of years between roughly the 12th and 7th centuries BC. In that time - despite the orthodoxy of the temple at Jerusalem - the people were actively worshipping - passively or openly - the old gods as well as engaging in magic and divination. We know this because of the artifacts they left behind at home altars and community shrines, often intact, with the paraphernalia of worship still in place. Now let’s look at a case study of one such place. An 8th century Israelite fortress complex called Kuntillet Ajrud, located on the eastern Sinai between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Kuntillet Ajrud included a pair of gate shrines (circled in the attached image) on either side of the central fortress entrance. Believers probably worshipped at these shrines when setting out from and returning to the fortress, which was a common practice at the time. Many undisturbed artifacts were found inside the two shrines during excavation in 1975-6, including two large stone jars with painted scenes and inscriptions and large quantities of pottery. The shrines are also decorated with painted plaster with still more inscriptions and drawings. Both shrines also include a receptacle where worshippers could dispose of their old and used-up lucky charms. Of particular note is the emphasis at these shrines on the following four gods, which are mentioned in numerous Hebrew inscriptions on the walls and jars:
El (chief god)
Ba’al (storm god)
Yahweh (god of the sons of Jacob)
Asherah (mother goddess)
The focus of this post is on a few of the inscriptions noting a pairing and connection between the god Yahweh and the goddess Asherah. One such wall inscription reads:
“To Yahweh of Teiman (Yeman) and to his Asherah”
This writing is located just above a bench altar where offerings to Yahweh and “his Asherah” were placed. This simple blessing is repeated many times throughout both shrines. Another example, found on an inscription on a stone offering jar seems to be invoking the blessing of Yahweh and “his Asherah” onto the reader:
“I blessed you by Yahweh and his Asherah”
On another stone jar there reads:
“Yahweh of Teiman and his Asherah”
Along with the inscriptions are actual drawings of male and female deities wearing the clothing and crowns of gods and seated on the iconic “lion throne” which the ancients never used with humans and reserved only as the symbolism of deity. The evidence isn’t conclusive. Though it’s an interesting and compelling start in the case for god having a wide.
A side-effect of my study of Yahweh and his connection to the old gods of Canaan is that I'm beginning to see evidence of their influence and memory in the canonical Biblical texts. An interesting example is Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (below). These two verses would be easy to breeze through if we don't know anything about the old gods. However, if we remember that references to "Most High" are references to the Canaanite chief god El (’elyôn), then this changes things a lot. Here are the two verses together: When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel. For the Lord's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance. -NIV Knowing that "Most High" is El and not Yahweh describes a scene in which the chief god El is giving to Yahweh the gift of dominion over the people of Jacob. The distinction becomes even more clear if we look at a Jewish version of the Torah, where Most High is dropped in favor of naming El directly. When ‘Elyon gave each nation its heritage, when he divided the human race, he assigned the boundaries of peoples according to Isra’el’s population; but Adonai’s share was his own people, Ya‘akov his allotted heritage. -CJB And if we're skeptical there's more than one god involved here then we need look no further than the NRSV version of the Bible for clarity: When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the LORD's own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share. These two verses, coupled with some understanding of who the old gods were in relation to Yahweh, paint a very interesting picture of connection and interaction.
We usually imagine the God of the Hebrew Bible as looking a little like what we see on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (first image below). A better representation might be the 8th century BC drawing of Yahweh found on a jar at the Israelite fortress site of Kuntillet Ajrud. That’s Yahweh on the left In the second image below. The female god (note the breasts) next to him is the goddess Asherah. We know it’s them as they are named in the Hebrew writing above their heads. Don’t let the dangling things between their legs fool you, as those are not phalli but are instead the tails of the leopard skins each god is wearing (note the spots). It’s kinda unsettling to behold what Yahweh looked like in the minds of the ancients, and a bit more unsettling to realize he may have had a wife (note their intertwined arms).
My last student today was very nervous. Seventeen years old, soon to graduate from high school, and worried he wouldn’t get his license prior to leaving to start college in Utah. Sometimes, I find small-talk helps distract my students from excess worry over their driving. Surprisingly, many new drivers actually perform better while multitasking and keeping their minds busy between driving and talking. The trick worked; and my young teen was soon doing much better. In the process, he told me some interesting things... As a rule I never discuss politics or religion with coworkers or customers. However, the young man opened up to me about his concern going to college. It seems his entire, very large, family are Mormon (LDS). However, none of them believe in god much anymore. Some are agnostic, though most simply no longer believe. The family are open with one another, and he says they have interesting and lively discussions together about their disbelief, though they keep their doubts to themselves when interacting with other LDS. He told me their community of LDS is suspicious, and have begun distancing themselves from the family. This doesn’t bother him much as he’s got his family - a very close and loving bunch - and that’s all that really matters to him. However, he’s worried things’ll be different in Utah. Especially as he doesn’t want to go on a mission. He thinks it’ll be hard as he doesn’t believe in god anymore and won’t have his family to fall back on. He’s afraid of being found out in a place where being found out will have very real consequences. I told him that if worst comes to worst at least he can drive himself back to his loving and supportive family in California...he’s such a good driver! :-)
I was thinking last night about the face of God we've encountered on that ceramic jar uncovered in that 8th century BC Israelite fortress. It's an amazing image, drawn by someone much closer to Biblical times and in touch with then-contemporary impressions of who the God of the Torah really was. It's especially interesting to imagine that we're looking at a representation of the face of the deity who...
Walked with Adam in the Garden of Eden
Questioned Cain about his brother Abel
Counseled Noah on the building of the ark
Gave Abram a new name
Rescued Isaac from sacrifice
Wrestled with Jacob
Made a great man of Joseph
Helped Moses lead the people from Egypt
Gave Joshua victory over Canaan
And much more...including... Fathering Jesus. That's the thought I was stuck with last night. This image - crude as it may be - is a depiction of the father of Jesus Christ. And finally... I considered that this is the face of the god to whom over half the world currently swear their allegiance; hating and killing one another over such details as who the god's true prophet was, or if this god consists of one or three supernatural beings, or if his word should be read by priests only or shared with everyone, or if worship should be on a Saturday or a Sunday, etc., etc... What a mess...
I was a little disappointed in the several comparisons my friends here made to that Yahweh drawing of God looking so much like a cartoon cow. Disappointed, insofar as the comparison seemed disrespectful, and I didn’t want to offend my friends who actually believe. But then Fujiko Norris reminded us that people in the ancient Near East once worshipped a sacred bull. So I guess yeah, that bull-faced image of Yahweh kinda makes sense. check the two images below for comparison. But then this begs the question… Were we really made in His image?
This morning, I thought I’d share page from “Did God Have a Wife?” which describes and includes a drawing of the pairing of the names of the god Yahweh and the goddess Asherah. Furthermore, we learn how this pairing is a familiar characteristic of Hebrew syntax. The context for these archaeological finds is the 8th century BC Israelite fortress complex of Kuntillet Ajrud on the Sinai Peninsula, particularly the two shrines at the fortress gate.
The next site to look at in my Bible study is the 8th century BC Israelite temple at Arad. Pottery shards excavated at the site include Hebrew inscriptions which identify the building as a “temple to Yahweh.” This fact alone is controversial, as by this time there should be no other temples to Yahweh besides the one official temple at Jerusalem. This temple to Yahweh at Arad includes an inner and outer sanctum (see first image below). The outer sanctum is an altar for the placement of offerings and is located just inside and to the right of the temple’s main entrance. Beyond the main altar - and likely kept hidden by a curtain - was a small niche (H) which served as the holy of holies. It’s interesting to compare this floor-plan with that of the official Temple at Jerusalem (second image below) and note the similarities. I wonder what else we’ll find at this “temple to Yahweh” - especially if we consider that this temple shouldn’t even exist?
I've finally finished chapter five of "Did God Have a Wife?" which was a very long, involved and worthwhile study. Let's recap where we are at this point in the book. Chapter titles are my own in an effort to help me remember the topic under consideration: CHAPTER ONE: Ancient Israel's "Book" & "Folk" Religions In this chapter, we learned that there were two religious traditions observed in ancient Israel: namely, the "Book Religion" of the ruling elite and the "Folk Religion" of the common folk, especially people living in the countryside. The Book Religion is what we know best today due to the fact that this tradition was enforced through the authority of the state and recorded in the canon of the written and oral Torah, and later the Old Testament of the Christian tradition. However, the Folk Religion was the religion of the people, which evidence will show persisted for many centuries despite the best efforts of reformers promoting the state orthodoxy. CHAPTER TWO: Archaeology as a Tool of History In this chapter we explored how, until recently, the science of archaeology has largely been neglected as a tool to interpret and explain history. Archaeologists have been mostly content to collect and catalog items without weighing in on with their own professional opinions regarding the historical meaning or importance of the things they find. This paradigm is beginning to change, and what archaeologists have to say is shedding new light on what we think of the historical record. CHAPTER THREE: Interpreting Archaeological Data With this chapter we learned how artifacts can speak to us of their makers, as well as the circumstances of their utility, past use and method of preservation. Manufactured objects have a story to tell, and what they say may be brought to us more directly and without bias than written historical record. Though objects may be degraded by weathering and time, artifacts - especially those artifacts which have been undisturbed - may provide a more direct and primary source of original information than documents which may have suffered multiple translations and interpretations before reaching us. CHAPTER FOUR: Separating Fact From Theological Ideal In this chapter we learn how most of our ideas about Biblical times come from what we read in the Bible, which information was written by largely partisan authors and then further edited and refined by others who often - but not always - shared and perpetuated the original author’s point-of-view, and then finally studied by researchers who may have their own dog in the fight. Artifacts, on the other hand, offer us a chance to see through much of this bias and more directly into the world where the people who made the items actually lived. CHAPTER FIVE: Establishing an Archaeological Database This chapter introduces several archaeological sites in and around ancient Israel, where evidence can be found to demonstrate how the people of that time were worshiping, right up and through the period of reforms which attempted (and eventually succeeded) in establishing monotheism as the foundation of Jewish religious belief. We glimpse in this chapter the fact that this process took centuries to complete, and that the common people of Israel continued to worship in strange and unorthodox ways for a very long time. Now, I’m late for work!
“The Bible made me late again!” is something my family hears me say a lot these days...
I learned an interesting Hebrew word during my Bible study this morning... The word is “teraphim” which is a strictly plural term referring to a collection of deities. Apparently, there were teraphim everywhere in Israel from ancient times right up through the 7th and 6th centuries BC. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, a great value of well-conducted archaeology is the ability of this branch of science to provide us with the context within which discovered objects were used, which in turn provides important clues about the meaning of the objects to the people who possessed them. So just how did the people of ancient Israel use their various teraphim? In post-Solomonic Israel, teraphim were nearly always found in people's homes...and in lots of 'em! This is important...as it tells us that despite the best efforts of the Temple priests at Jerusalem to banish the old gods, the old gods held on strong for a very long time. Learning this made me remember Japan, which the Japanese affectionately call "The Land of the Gods." God statues are literally everywhere in Japan. No kidding...you can't walk down any street in the entire country without passing dozens of gods - seen and unseen - along every city block or country mile. And even though most Japanese are non-believers, "teraphim" in their country are critical to the identity of the Japanese people. I doubt there are any Japanese who could imagine Japan without it's thousands upon thousands upon tens of thousands of gods and goddesses. As a foreigner in Japan, I shared the love and sympathy of the Japanese for their many gods, and I though it might be fun at this juncture in my Bible study to make a brief catalog of the many gods I lived with on a daily basis during my years in ”The Land of the Gods.” Granted, these are just the gods I can remember... I'll begin with my wife's home and then move out from there... I'll identify the god's name in quotes if I can recall it... YUMIKO'S FAMILY HOUSEHOLD GODS -Kitchen god who lived above the stove -Living-room god #1 "Daikoku" above the family altar -Living-room god #2 "Ebisu" stood next to Daikoku -Workshop god living in my father-in-law's wood shop -Garden god "Jizo" living among the flowers GODS I MET EACH DAY ON THE WAY TO WORK -Roadside gods (6) of reincarnation "Roku-jizu" -Goddess of Mercy "Kannon" (like Mary) -God of scholars "Tenjin" -Immovable god of virtue "Fudo-Myo-o" -Messenger Fox God "Inari" -God of Happiness "Fukurokuju" -Bodhisattva of perseverance "Daruma" -Seven luck gods "Shichifukujin" -Water Imp "Kappa" (this one is dangerous) GODS AT WORK -Jesus Christ -Mary (revered like a goddess) So I guess I kinda know what it’s like to live among “teraphim” which have the effect of adding something sacred to even the most mundane activities such as cooking a meal and walking to work. These were - and are - comforting companions to everyone in the community, even if these same people have no idea about the origin or purpose of these many familiar gods. No wonder it took so long for Yahweh to banish his heavenly competition, who were the neighbors, friends and protectors of the Israelite people.
Though I certainly cannot read or speak Hebrew, it’s nevertheless interesting to learn the etymology of a few key Hebrew words used in the Torah as a help in my daily Bible study. Yesterday I discovered the word “teraphim” which is found fifteen times in the Bible in reference to Israelite community and household gods. For example, it was the stolen teraphim which Rachel sat upon to hide these items from her father while he ransacked Rachel’s tent - all the while Rachel claiming she could not stand because she was having her period. Likewise, David’s wife Michal placed teraphim under the sheets of David’s bed in an effort to conceal her husband’s escape from Saul. Today I learned the word “gillulim” which means “idol” and may specifically refer to the graven and carved images so often maligned in the Bible, including with the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” From my reading on this subject:
"The verbal root [of gillulim] means “to roll,” but the noun derived from it means “(ball of) dung” and is sometimes used that way. In the plural, however, the word comes to mean “idol,” but with the connotation that idols are as repugnant as excrement.” -William G. Dever
I doubt that the Israelite people who made, possessed and used such idols thought about them as being “repugnant as excrement.” And it’s interesting and telling that the authors and editors of the Bible may have sought to discourage and discredit the use of such idols by (understandably) selecting (or creating?) a word such as gillulim, front-loaded as it is with such disparaging meaning. This apparent fact speaks to a caution I suggested in yesterday’s Bible study, that reliance on the Bible as our primary - or only - source about the religious practices of ancient Israel, forces our sight through the lens of orthodoxy and in the direction of the agenda of those who were attempting to sweep away the old beliefs in favor of something new. Spotting the agenda in this way only heightens my curiosity about those other points of view. This understanding makes me want to learn more. I want to hear from the other sources and people of the time when the Bible was written. However, these other people - the common folk of ancient Israel - are largely mute, having left little written record of their thoughts and ways. An exception to this silence is the abundant evidence of the things they left behind...the objects we find in their homes, and in their places of work, and in their graves. What stories do these objects tell of what was really going on in Israel in the time of reformation and monarchy? I’m really starting to see the value of archaeology as a tool in our understanding of the past. And I can’t wait to learn more...
I need some help from my Hebrew-speaking friends. What does the word “mipleset” mean? This word only appears once in the Bible in I Kings 15:13 where the word is translated into English as a noun meaning “abominable image.” Is this correct? How would you interpret this word when reading the Torah?
During this morning's Bible study a question came to mind which I would like to ask here. But first, a story... While living in Japan, our family's weekend breakfasts were sometimes interrupted by a ring at the doorbell. My young daughter Emily would usually look up at me and exclaim "Papa, it's Jesus!" When I opened the door I never found Jesus standing there, but instead it was always a very kind and friendly old Jehovah's Witness woman handing out richly-illustrated flyers of The Watchtower. My family was always grateful to have me around when the doorbell rang, as my fumbling Japanese was a pretty effective way to dissuade our visitor and cause her to move on to the next house so we could get back to our pancakes. Nevertheless the woman always came. Not often. Just every two or three months. Visiting our entire neighborhood. I think everybody knew her, and most of the households around us probably wished they had a foreigner like me to answer the door so they could hide in the kitchen from "Jesus." That's my story. Now, here's my question: That one old woman was essentially the extent of our family (and our community's) direct opportunity to receive witness and hear the message of salvation on offer by Jesus. Between her periodic visits, everyone in our ancient little village of Yada simply lived their Japanese lives like Japanese have been doing since forever: raising families, going to work, visiting and praying at Shinto shrines throughout the year and going to Buddhist temples to remember their deceased ancestors. Jesus was - and is - to the Japanese nothing more than a strange character of fiction of another culture and hemisphere, just as the Indian elephant god Ganesh is to us here in America. Imagine an old Hindu woman coming to knock on your door on Saturday to ask if you know Vishnu? You'd probably ask the foreigner in the house to go answer the door, too. My question is this... How fair is it of the creator to give the residents in one culture (the US for example) such ample opportunity to know and accept Jesus and then offer only paltry opportunity (like that old woman's periodic visits) to humans living elsewhere? As an American, I was practically raised to walk into Christ's arms, with the strong backing and approval of my community and nation. In fact, it's a wonder I didn't. While in Japan, you'd really have to go out of your way to find Jesus, and if you did you can be sure that few would approve and you'd be pretty much alone in your faith and belief, with little to no encouragement or support. Imagine your own faith without your family and church sharing your belief and standing by your side when times are tough or you begin to doubt. Is that fair? Do the Japanese (and others like them) get some credit in the final reckoning to take into account the circumstance of their birth and upbringing? And likewise, do people who are raised within the bosom of Christendom get extra wrath if they nevertheless reject Jesus' offer of salvation? Gotta go... There's someone at the door.
This morning I learned about female figurines which are a common find in Israelite and Canaanite homes from antiquity right up through the 7th century BC. The statues are representative of female fertility, with engorged breasts held up in hands, seemingly on offer to many babies. The statues (2711 have been collected so far) can be traced back to Phoenician and Egyptian origins where the goddess is clearly identified as “Asherah.” These statues were worshiped in Israelite homes, probably by women, and must have been a real thorn in the side of Deuteronomic reformers who were trying to sweep away the old worship styles in favor of a single god. Could this be the “monster” or “abominable thing” referred to in I Kings 15:13 by the obscure Hebrew word “mipleset”? Is this what King Asa’s grandmother made for the explicit worship of Asherah, which the king did then destroy? Are we seeing in these statues the domestic face of God’s wife as she was recognized by Israelite women right up through the mid-5th century BC, to a time when Biblical authors were reduced to hurling epithets in association with her name? The tension is almost palpable.
A strong case is emerging for the important role women played in the worship of household gods in ancient Israel. Writing in the mid-5th century BC, the prophet Jeremiah inadvertently revealed the power women had when he chastised Israelites living in Egypt to give up their worship of idols or suffer the punishment of God. In an almost humorous anecdote related in Jeremiah 44:15-23, the women listening to Jeremiah's grave threats of destruction suddenly speak up and tell the prophet about their supplication to the Queen of Heaven (Asherah). The women relate how they have been making - for generations - burnt offerings, drink offerings and producing cakes with the image of the goddess impressed upon them. The women tell Jeremiah "did not our husbands know?" implying that these activities were performed with the consent of the men-folk. In fact, the men join in the berating of Jeremiah (which really makes him mad) telling the prophet that they have no intent to change their ways. Despite what we might think about the moral of this story in Jeremiah, there's no question we've also learned that the women of Iron Age Israel were not simply observing their men worship Yahweh at the temple and community shrines, but were actively engaged in their own worship at home of Asherah, the patron goddess of women and mothers, and possibly...God’s wife.
On Sunday, I posed a question to my Christian friends asking if it was fair that God makes His offer of salvation through Jesus more apparent to some people, while at the same time harder to see or altogether invisible to others? My example was folks living in the United States, where it’s a wonder if we don’t choose Jesus, compared to people in a place like India, where Jesus isn’t given a second thought, and finally the hidden tribes of the Amazon who’ve never even heard Christ’s name. I only got a few responses which actually addressed my question, with the best being the following, two-part answer: 1. God’s presence is evident to everyone, though this understanding of His existence is insufficient for salvation. 2. To be saved, one must first know and then accept Jesus Christ as savior. No exceptions. That’s pretty clear. And while thinking this answer over I formed the following mental picture, which I’d like to share and request response: Imagine a vast sea of deep, cold water... There are people everywhere in the water struggling to keep their heads above the surface, gasping for breath. Now picture a large boat floating amidst the people. The sides of the boat are too high to climb. There’s a man standing tall in the center of the boat - everyone can see him and everyone knows he is real. This man is God. Everyone knows He is there. And everyone knows He is real. After a while a second man appears on one side of the boat. Visible only to the people on that side of the boat. The second man on the boat is leaning over the edge of one side such that only the people nearby in the water can see him clearly. This second man is lowering a ladder into the water. After the ladder is lowered, the man then extends his hand, actively offering to lift into the boat anyone who wants to be rescued. He will save them from drowning. But only if the swimming people choose to come to him. This man is Jesus. He is the savior. Now, here’s where things get tricky. The people who happen to be near where Jesus lowered the ladder, and who can see him clearly, are the people of the Near East who first received Him when He came to earth. Many reject Jesus, thinking His offer isn’t true, though many accept and are saved. In any event, only the people on this side of the boat, the side where Jesus can be clearly seen and where He has placed the ladder, have the full and informed opportunity to choose. There are more people nearby, further off in the water, who see Jesus distinctly, yet from a distance. These people are the cultures commonly referred to as Christendom. These people are blessed with the very good fortune of having an opportunity to both consider and then either accept or reject Jesus’ offer. They are the blessed, who have the most ample opportunity to make the right choice by no more reason than Jesus simply chose to put down His ladder of salvation nearby. Finally, there’s everyone else in the water, including those who died before Jesus even lowered His ladder. Many - perhaps most - of these other people have no idea about the man with the ladder. These people are unfortunate in being located around the boat and out of sight of Jesus’ rescue attempt. They may overhear distant muttering of “savior” and the giving of thanks, and some brave individuals may even swim around the boat to share the good news and save a few that way who choose to swim back with them. Nevertheless, most on the far side will drown. They will die either without knowing of the man with the ladder of hearing only vague and indistinct rumors of His existence and promise. And this is through no fault of their own, as they are simply swimming on the wrong side of the boat. Is this a fair or just offer of salvation? Wouldn’t a truly wise and loving God place a ladder on every side of the boat? Wouldn’t such a God extend His hand equally to each and every one of us? Isn’t this exactly the kind of detail which might be overlooked if the whole thing is made up?
“The goddess Asherah was an acceptable and legitimate part of Yahweh’s cult in non-deuteronomistic circles. The association of the asherah (symbol of the goddess) and the cult of Yahweh suggests in turn that Asherah was the consort of Yahweh in circles both in the north and south”
-Prof. Saul M. Olyan. Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh. Brown University, 1988
So far in "Did God Have a Wife?" I've learned of the "Book" and "Folk" religions of ancient Israel and how evidence of these traditions are recorded in the canon of the Torah and via archaeological records, respectively. In chapter six (which I just now finished) the author puts some meat on the bones of the cult of Asherah through the catalog and examination of two sites in Israel where records of Asherah's connection to the god Yahweh are recorded in ancient Hebrew. We then dive deeper into the origins of the goddess, who got her start in Egypt, Phoenicia and Canaan and then discover how the goddess was transformed from a fully-nude, bouffant-sporting fertility deity into a more modest half-nude patron of Israelite women, whose statue has been found in thousands of Israelite homes right up and through the period of monarchy. After making the case that the cult of Asherah was indeed a thing in ancient Israel, the chapter then turns to the Bible to examine how Torah authors and reformers inadvertently support the case for Asherah in their attempts to discredit the goddess through disparaging descriptions of her practice of worship, especially the practice by women, revealing that Asherah was actively - and even passionately - supported by the womenfolk of Israel with tacit or full support from the men. Finally, the chapter concludes with a scholarly peer-review of what others in the field make of the same evidence both in support of and against the case that Asherah was indeed the wife of Yahweh. This study makes me wish I'd stayed in school longer so I could read this stuff (and the Bible!) full-time.
A question for my Jewish, Christian and Muslim friends: when did monotheism begin within your tradition? And how did the break from polytheism occur? I’m not taking about the story in the Torah, but instead the time when the people actually began to worship just one god; breaking up their idols and putting aside their pagan ways. When, in history, was this transition complete?
My interest in understanding the roots of Abrahamic monotheism has led me this morning to the hundreds of Canaanite mythological texts from Ugarit on the coast of Syria. More and more the shift from gods to god appears like a long off-ramp from a busy freeway onto a simple country road.
In their condemnation of the old gods the authors of the Bible inadvertently confirm that these gods were being worshiped in Israel right up through the period of the monarchy. An example is found in 1 Kings 16:32-33 where Ahab takes a wife and establishes a temple to the god Baal. He also makes an "Asherah pole" (note the upper-case "A") dedicated to the mother goddess. It's interesting to consider that this was happening during the reformation and in the northern kingdom's capital city of Samaria. The authors of Kings tell us these things in an effort to condemn the actions of Ahab, yet at the same time they paint a pretty clear picture that the worship of both Baal and Asherah was prevalent enough in the 9th century BC to catch the attention and patronage of the King.
My Bible has lots of interesting footnotes. During my study today I found clear notation to verses in the first Book of Kings (18:16-40) indicating that the Canaanite goddess Asherah was indeed viewed by some Israelites as the consort of Yahweh. It is worth noting that this association was transitional and secondary to her older connection to the god El and subsequent relationship with Baal. Taken in the context of history it appears Yahweh was simply Asherah’s second of three husbands - as heretical as that might sound. The photographed footnote is from page 603 of the New International Version (NIV) Bible published by Zondervan in 2016.
In 1 Kings 18:16-40 the prophet Elijah is made upset by king Ahab’s patronage of four-hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four-hundred prophets of Asherah. Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a test to determine which god - Yahweh or Baal - is stronger. Yahweh wins and Elijah executes the four-hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. But what about the four-hundred prophets of Asherah? Why were they spared both the contest and the death penalty? Could it be they were granted clemency due to the goddess’ special relationship with Yahweh? Were the authors of Kings measuring their words in proportion to the conventions of a time when Baal was an enemy yet Asherah was still Yahweh’s friend?
In the past, when I’ve asked believers about the utter destruction of tribes such as the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-16) I was told (repeatedly) that the every last man, woman and child (even the babies) of the Amalekites deserved to be wiped out utterly from the face of the earth due to their sinful ways. In God’s own words: Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua (Moses’ successor) hears it, because I will completely blot our the name of Amalek from under heaven.” So, that’s pretty clear. The Amalekites must die utterly and completely for their sins. But then during today’s Bible study I read this:
“Manasseh led them (the Israelites) astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the Lord has destroyed before the Israelites.” 2 Kings 21:9
Wait a minute... So the Amalekites deserve utter genocide for their sins, yet the Israelites sinned worse than the Amalekites under the leadership of Manasseh? Shouldn’t their punishment then be at least proportional to what the Amalekites received? Sure, God gets pretty mad and decides to destroy Jerusalem, which is a severe punishment, yet far short of the utter genocide God leveled on the Amalekites for their sins, which God states were less severe than the sins of Israel under Manasseh. What kind of perfect justice is this? And if the answer is that Israel was God’s chosen people then again, what kind of justice is this? What would any of us think of a parent who applied such a double-standard to the care and discipline of their children? And anyone who says God’s ways are mysterious is simply ducking the question by running fast into that dark hole I call The Home of Faith.
Today I read and studied 2 Kings 23 in pursuit of my understanding of the relationship between Yahweh and the numerous gods of Canaan. The number and type of gods described in this chapter is astounding, rivaling even the pantheon I knew so well in Japan. But what strikes me most isn’t the sheer number of gods the Israelites worshipped, but how late in the story of the emerging ancient nation these gods were still around. This fact makes me realize that despite the best attempts of temple orthodoxy, the people simply wouldn’t give up the old gods. So then this begs the question...how did Yahweh fit in with this pantheon? Was he an aloof outsider held up by the temple priests as the one true god of the nation, divorced from the others and separate from the traditions of the past? Or was Yahweh instead simply an elect deity picked from the common crowd of gods and goddesses to become the sole author and authority of the new nation and cultural identity the reformers so desperately sought to create? The latter answer seems more likely to me - with Yahweh as an elevated insider, tasked to rise above all other gods, above even His own wife, the mother of creation. Of course I can’t prove this is true. But my growing sense is this may have been the case.
Yesterday’s Bible study led me to Calvinism and I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this doctrine’s concepts of salvation (there are at least two: Reformed and Non-reformed). I’m going to try to summarize these two positions here in the hope of being corrected if I’m misunderstanding (thanks in advance). Salvation according to Calvinism is: REFORMED A gift from God to those He selects UNREFORMED A gift from God to those he deems worthy The difference between the first gift and the second is that with Reformed Calvinism man is viewed as “spiritually dead” and incapable of coming to God without God making the first move; while with Unreformed Calvinism we are born with enough spiritual juice (for lack of a better word) to make our own baby-steps during life in the direction of God, seeking Him out first without waiting for Him to come to us. In short, Unreformed Calvanists who make sufficient first effort may be saved, while Reformed Calvinists can make no first effort and must simply be selected by God to join His elect. In both views I sense an air of pre-destination which hints at the idea of no free will...but that might be a stretch. Have I summarized these two perspectives correctly?
My daughter asked this morning if she could use my Bible as a flower-press. It’s good to see she’s taken an interest in religion.
I learned this weekend that many Christians do not believe that accepting Jesus is enough to be saved. In fact, Reformed Calvinists believe that God decides who will join Him in heaven before any of us are born, and there’s nothing we can really do to be saved or suffer punishment. What do other Christians think? Do your decisions and actions in life play some part in your salvation or is there nothing you can do to sway God’s mind one way or the other?
So it seems there are three ways to be saved in the Christian tradition: you can work for it (works), you can ask for it (faith) or you can be selected for it (grace). Are all three methods equally effective? Why are there three ways? Are there more? And why don’t believers agree on which combination of these is the correct way to reach God? Shouldn’t this be crystal clear?
During today’s Bible study I learned of the connection between asherah poles, trees and groves mentioned in the Old Testament and the goddess Asherah. For a long time scholars were not sure if these tree symbols were really a representation of the goddess - that is, until an archaeologist at last put the pieces together via ancient art and inscriptions which directly associate the goddess with her tree. In one such image, we can see a tree growing from the goddesses’ pubic triangle (scientific term), while in a still older Egyptian image of this same goddess, she is depicted as an ACTUAL tree, with an arm offering her breast to a sucking child. Clearly, the asherah poles, trees and groves mentioned in the Bible would have made perfect sense to the ancients as being a direct symbol of the mother goddess herself. Evidence is truly mounting that the goddess Asherah was indeed a significant deity in Israel (and a thorn in the side of reformers) worshipped alongside, and perhaps as the very partner of, Yahweh.
During today’s Bible study I learned that believers should only ever recite the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9, Luke 11:2) when making supplication to God - the idea being that God already knows what we need. Why then, do I so often see believers on Facebook and elsewhere praying to God to grant them specific wishes?
Yesterday's post about prayer resulted in some very interesting discussion. I'd like to continue that thread today with something my friend Lance shared with me. In reading the following passage I have to wonder if God wants us to always pray in private? And what about group prayer?
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:5-6)
It's interesting to note that the verses above are immediately before the verses about only ever praying using the Lord's Prayer (Matt 6:9-13) which was the topic of yesterday's post. I think I'm getting a pretty clear picture that prayer should always be private, should never be shared with others and should always be performed using the same words which Jesus taught us.
This morning’s Bible study led me to Ezekiel 8:14 where we see women at the north gate of the temple of Jerusalem mourning the death of a god called Tammuz. Curious, I looked up this god’s history and discovered Tammuz is the Israelite name for the Sumerian god Dumuzi. My eyebrows lifted when I read that this god is a so-called “dying and rising” god which was apparently a popular motif in the ancient Near East. It turns out that the reason the women at the Jerusalem gate were weeping was because Tammuz had died again and they were performing ritual mourning. But don’t worry, Tammuz will rise again as he always does which in turn will give the woman cause to rejoice. Where I have seen this theme before??
I learned this morning that most “Old Testament” Biblical texts come from the 7th/6th century BC. I thought that was worth sticking a pin in.
I learned this morning that ancient Israel had professional female mourners (Jeremiah 9:17). It seems that though women were not allowed to speak in the Temple they were welcome to cry in the street.
I finally finished chapter seven of the book Did God Have a Wife? This chapter took an especially long time to complete as it was essentially a survey of the incidents of Israelite folk religion as they appear throughout the Bible and in the archaeological record, and in particular the religious practices of women as de facto masters of spiritual matters in the home and at community shrines. The chapter made a very good case that women’s interests were better represented and served through their local patron mother goddess, who could better relate to the women’s own concerns than the more distant and aloof God of the temple, who was attended by their menfolk (keeping in mind that women rarely attended formal religious service, were largely illiterate and forbidden to speak or teach on religion). What really struck me in this chapter was the evidence of widespread practice throughout Phoenicia, Canaan and Israel of female pilgrimage to the graves of pagan saints. Saint shines are numerous throughout the Levant in the same way the shrines of Catholic saints are everywhere in Christendom. A feature of many Canaanite saint shrines is their more removed and remote location from towns and villages. Attendance to such shrines are the responsibility of women, who to this day among Sephardic Jewish women in Israel, make a day of it by collecting their children along with baskets of food, drink and even musical instruments to go in a group with other womenfolk of the community (no men) to pray at the shrine, laugh and tell stories while watching their children play. Significant in these events are the payment of homage to the saint who watches over the women’s family and who attends to the particular spiritual needs of the womenfolk. That such activities are only sanctimoniously hinted at in the canonical biblical texts, yet are spoken of in volumes through archaeological evidence, should surprise no one given the Biblical authors’ clear agenda of promoting just one true - and very male - God, Yahweh. The bottom line of this chapter is the bold proposition that the mother goddess Asherah (whose statue has been found in more than two thousand ancient Israelite homes) was no sidelined holdover of Israel’s pagan roots, But was instead possibly a very important part of Israelite religious life, especially for women, who possibly viewed the goddess as the natural partner and consort of the god Yahweh who was formally worshiped at temple by their men.
With some effort I’m discovering Israel’s Canaanite roots beginning to show through within the Old Testament. An example is God’s Canaanite name “El” which I’m finding scattered here and there as a substitute for Yahweh’s proper name. An example is Genesis 17:1 when God appears to Abram to establish the covenant of circumcision. God immediately identifies himself to Abram as “El Shaddai” which means the god El of Shaddai (mountain). We know who this god is as El is the supreme leader of the Canaanite pantheon who lives on Mount Saphon. Could this be an example of the old Canaanite mythology bleeding through into a new version of the story captured in the Torah? Making things more suspicious is the fact that many Torah and Bible publishers choose to translate El Shaddai as “God Almighty” which seems a disingenuous stretch. You’ll need to search through many Bible versions before finding one like the Common English Bible that gives the original name God allegedly called Himself.
I learned today that the Biblical term “sleep with the fathers” is reference to an old Canaanite burial practice of keeping one’s ancestors’ bones in a box below a funeral table. The idea is that when the next member of the family died, the bones of the previously interred individual are swept into the box to make room for new body to be placed on the table. Over time, all the bones of the ancestors “sleep” together in death in a box within a crypt.
The Canaanite chief God "El" makes numerous cameo appearances throughout the Bible, especially in some of the oldest sections where the transition from worship of the pagan gods to Yahweh was not yet complete. Some of the epithets listed below are direct references to titles used by the Canaanites in describing their very important chief deity. An example is "El Olam" which translates as "El the Everlasting" and is a close match for El's Canaanite title "Father of Years." In looking over all of these examples I was struck by how similar they are to titles such as "Our Lady of Guadalupe" or "Our Lady of Fatima" in the Catholic tradition, which are all references to just one woman. The fact that the numerous Biblical references to El as the God of Abraham, Jacob, Isaac and Moses are growing evidence of just who God was before He had His name changed to Yahweh. The most interesting example of this phenomenon is with Exodus 6:3 where Yahweh explicitly changes His name from El to Lord and even more explicitly informs Moses that the word "El" does not mean "Lord."
"Then God spoke further to Moses and said to him, "I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by My Name, Lord I did not make myself known to them." (AMP)
Here's some examples of God as El in the Bible:
* El Shadday "El of the mountain" (Gen 17:1) * El Elyon "El Most High" (Gen 14:18-24) * El Olam "El the Everlasting" (Gen 21:33) * El Bethel "El of the temple at Bethel" (Gen 31:13) * El Elohay-Israel "El, deity of Jacob (aka Israel)" (Gen 33:20) * El Roi "El Who Sees" (Gen 16:13)
The typical objection to these observations is that "El" simply means "lord" which seems a convenient way to wave the problem away through the redefinition of a word. And though I suspect the Israelites may have indeed eventually come to view this word as meaning Lord, I doubt there was any ambiguity among the Canaanites regarding just who El really was. Heck, even God himself told us El doesn't mean Lord.
I was told yesterday that God is indeed omniscient and can know everything. However, He chooses to be surprised by the choices we make which is the reason He so often gets angry when we make bad choices. This was a new angle for me on the problem of why the God of the Bible is an angry and jealous God. The idea seems to hold water, though I can’t think of any verses in the Bible which tell us that God deliberately choses to not know what we are going to do. Are there others out there who believe the same? If so, then why? What parts of the Bible support this position of God’s self-induced amnesia?
As a rule I never discuss religion with my minor-aged driving school students (I save that for Facebook). However, I do often drive with many of my students to their churches as we seek to practice driving to places the family may frequently visit. During my second lesson today, as my student and I drove away from his family’s lovely church in San Clemente, he suddenly confided in me that he didn’t think he was Christian anymore... I bit my tongue and simply said “I understand...” and that “...the same thing happened to me when I was your age.” I left it at that. Though I was so tempted to give him a copy of my book...
While my second student today was on the edge of losing his faith in God, my third was in no such danger. When I asked her about her plans for college she told me she had requested God’s help finding a good school where she could study theology. She went on to add that her particular passion is studying the ongoing war between God and the Devil, and in particular the influence of demons on the lives of men and women. She seemed so at peace and with joy knowing everything was in God’s capable hands. I kept my mouth shut. And I didn’t offer her a copy of my book.
Evidence mounts of Yahweh’s connection to the Canaanite chief God El, who is the lord of waters, living in a tent at the foot of a mountain where the world’s bitter and sweet waters emerge. It would seem the authors of Psalm 29 had El in mind when they wrote the following words ascribed to King David:
“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders the Lord, upon many waters the Lord sits enthroned over the flood”
Not only is Yahweh explicitly identified as “El” throughout the Bible (yesterday’s post) but He is also ascribed this pagan deity’s attributes as shown above and elsewhere. As a result, I’m beginning to see important stories like Genesis 1 in a whole new light. And I’m starting to wonder...just which God was it who was...
“moving over the face of the deep”
"hovering over the face of the waters.”
I've got a friend here on Facebook who has been helping me with my daily Bible study. He's warned me several times about people who will claim to know God's truth but who really are some of the "false ones" prophesied in the Bible. How do I know my friend isn't a false one? What's the test? I asked him if he is a false one but he didn't answer. Is that the test?
In Canaanite mythology the god Ba’al is described as follows:
“Hearken, transcendent Ba’al, Give heed, O Rider of the Clouds.” (Source: Ugaritic text)
Where did I previously read about a god who rides on a cloud? Oh yeah, it was in Exodus where Yahweh led the Israelites from atop a pillar of cloud. Is this really mere coincidence or is it possible the writers of the Bible simply modeled their God after an earlier successful deity?
I learned a new word today “monolatry” which is the acknowledgment of other gods yet the worship of just one. The Biblical scholarship which I am reading indicates that monolatry was the condition of Israel at the time when the Old Testament was written. This is suggested as one of the reasons we find Hebrew words like “Elohim” (the gods) peppered throughout the Torah. To the people of ancient Israel the existence of many gods must have been a simple fact given their pagan Canaanite roots. This perspective would also explain the necessity of the First Commandment’s strange prohibition against the worship of other gods. For, what need would there be to warn away other gods unless you really thought they were real?
The God of the Bible never tells us His name is Yahweh until Moses asks in Exodus 3 - at which point God answers that He is...
“Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” (WEB Ex. 3:16)
God is explicit, and repeats this statement three separate times in very short order in Exodus 3:6,15 and 16. Now, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob their God was known as El, and Yahweh is telling us directly that He is that same God. This seems very clear: Yahweh is El. Note: The name “Yahweh” is apparently derived from verse 14 where God states His name is “I AM WHO I AM” and where the word Yahweh comes from the verb meaning “to be.”
When I was a believer and I studied the Bible it was like reading a story where I was convinced how the tale should end, and I made an effort to ensure everything concluded that way. Now, reading the Bible from the start, and without any strong certitude regarding truth, the story unfolds like a fantastic history; chock full of hints and glimpses of the past, along with a healthy dose of quite understandable human wishful thinking, leading to a comforting and reassuring end, without any real regard to whether any of it is really true.
I’m starting to see Yahweh’s original pagan name “El” appearing in unexpected places within the Bible: BethEL “House of El” IsraEL “Wrestles with El” Keeping my eyes open for more...
Is something “good” for its own sake or is it “good” because God says so? The implications of either option appear quite profound.
I'm finding further evidence of the God of the Bible emerging from the culture of Canaan. Compare the pagan Canaanite poem below with the nearly identical passage from the Book of Psalms:
CANAANITE POEM: Thou visitest the earth and waterest it, thoug greatly enrichst it; The river of God is full of water; thou providest their grain, for so thou hast prepared it. Thou waterest its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. Thou crownest the year with thy bounty; The tracks of thy chariot drip with fatness. The pastures of the wilderness drip, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain they should an sing together for joy.
PSALM 65:9-13 Thou visitest the earth, and waterest it: thou greatly enrichest it with the river of God, which is full of water: thou preparest them corn, when thou hast so provided for it. Thou waterest the ridges thereof abundantly: thou settlest the furrows thereof: thou makest it soft with showers: thou blessest the springing thereof. Thou crownest the year with thy goodness; and thy paths drop fatness. They drop upon the pastures of the wilderness: and the little hills rejoice on every side. The pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing.
That's the same poem. And the Canaanite version is older. Clearly, the authors of the Bible were using the pagan tradition as their model, but with just a single god.
I learned today that Sodom and Gomorrah (if real) had a population of less than three hundred, and likely less than one hundred each. I always imagined these “cities” as much larger.
I’m beginning to see the milieu from which Yahweh, the God of the Bible emerged. Before Him were two couples: Ba’al and Anat and an older pair El and Asherah. Ba’al and Anat were young, vital, feisty and quite lustful towards one another. El and Asherah, being older than Ba’al and Anat, were more sedate and mature, and far less lustful given that El was likely impotent and more prone to twiddle his thumbs at Asherah when she gazed at him with love in her eyes (I’m paraphrasing the literature). This was the context of the folk religion of early Israel, derived from Canaanite mythology (see the Ugaritic texts) and prevalent throughout the Bronze Age Levant. This was the context from which Yahweh emerged, as a God created not in just the image of man, but in the tradition of the pagan gods who came before. With every passing day I’m becoming more convinced that Yahweh is nothing more than a synergism of El, Ba’al and the others who were first.
If there is just one God then why does He need genitalia? Why is the God of the Bible a He?
In yesterday’s Bible study post I asked about the relationship between God and good. I was provided two answers: 1. God and good are the same thing. I’ll confess I don’t understand this proposition. What does it mean for God and good to be the same thing? I chose not to steal today (I had the opportunity). Was that God? How so? 2. I was also told that God and good are separate things. That’s amazing! Which then came first? And which is superior (if either)? I’m guessing that this option is indeed correct, and that the good came first and is indeed superior to God, given that when God saw His creation He then judged it as good (Gen 1:18,21,25). This implies that goodness is a superset of creation and a measure by which God Himself seeks to attain. Just what then is this “good” which is seemingly superior to God and to which God Himself must reckon His creation?
I’ve been told and reaffirmed that God and good are one in the same. And God tells us in Genesis that His creation is good. But then, how do we reconcile verses such as Isaiah 45:7 which indicate God is the source of evil:
“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” KJV
If God and good are one, and if God’s creation is good, then whence comes evil? Is evil somehow part of the good?
The premise of my book Going Alone is that we find ourselves alive in a universe without apparent meaning, and that instead of responding with despair, we should instead strive to define and pursue virtue as an end in itself. We should simply live a good life in the brief time we are here. The following verses from Ecclesiastes, shared with us by my friend Lance, appear to lend support to the idea that life is indeed without inherent meaning, that death is forever, and that we should indeed simply strive to live well.
Ecclesiastes 9 New International Version (NIV) A Common Destiny for All 9 So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. 2 All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. 3 This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. 4 Anyone who is among the living has hope —even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten. 6 Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.
7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
And if we still doubt that Yahweh and the Canaanite deities of the patriarchs are one in the same, then consider this Aramaic inscription found on a magic bowl used by sixth-century A.D. Jews to ward off the night demon Lilith, who was thought to enter homes to snatch away sleeping children:
“Hag and Snatcher, I adjure you by the Strong One of Abraham, by the Rock of Isaac, by the Shaddai of Jacob, by Yahweh...I adjure you to turn away from this Rashnoi, the daughter of Marath.” (Patai 1990:226)
It’s astounding that this late in the game, almost a thousand years after Babylonian exile and return, the Jewish people are still referring to their one God Yahweh with the identical “patriarchal” names of the ancestor gods from which Yahweh seemingly emerged.
I was told by a believer today that I must “study” rather than simply “read” the Bible. I wonder if I’ve studied enough when I interpret the Bible his way?
Without God, good is indeed relative, which is optimal, as good then becomes subject to reason rather than authoritative fiat, against which we have no good recourse. This is one of the reasons secular morality holds such promise for human improvement - because with secular morality we can argue our way to consensus rather than simply beheading the infidel.
If the authors of the Bible weren’t above borrowing the poetry of the pagans to use in their book, were they also perhaps willing to leverage old gods to populate their temple?
I've finally finished my reading the book "Did God Have a Wife?" And yes, it does seem the God of the Bible was indeed once married. Now, I can get back to work reading the Bible again each morning, though I'll likely never see God in the same way ever again. #FreewayBibleStudy
My name is Kurt Bell.
You can learn more about The Good Life in my book Going Alone.
Be safe... But not too safe.