Did God Have a Wife? - Book Review

Updated: May 19, 2020

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:

  1. The revelation of God to Abraham and his descendants

  2. The promise of the Land to the Patriarchs

  3. Liberation from Egyptian bondage as a sign of God's power

  4. The giving of the Torah at Sinai and the covenant

  5. The conquest of Canaan as fulfillment of God's promise

  6. Jerusalem (Zion) as the eternal abode of Yahweh

  7. 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.