Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Did God Have a Wife?

“Did God have a wife?” was the title of a programme on BBC2 yesterday. I didn't bother watching it, because that series isn't about presenting new evidence; it's about recycling old arguments that have been refuted but still hang around like a bad smell in the atheistic corners of the theology faculties of the world. And it depresses me to see the stupid things that people get paid to say on TV and other people accept is true.

Here's their basic argument:
YHWH is the Hebrew personal name for the God of the Old Testament. Someone found an inscription in the area of Israel from the Old Testament period saying “YHWH and his Asherah”. Asherah was a female goddess. Therefore, so the argument goes, the ancient Israelites said that God had a wife, called Asherah. And what you see described in the Old Testament are the attempts to stamp it out.

Here's some background you probably need in order to understand the situation: The main gods in the (“pagan”) Canaanite pantheon around 800BC were called El, Asherah and Ba'al. El and Asherah were married, Ba'al was their son. But Ba'al and Asherah were comparative newcomers – they don't appear on the scene much before 1500BC. So at the time the books of Kings are set, it's El, Asherah and Ba'al; at the time of Abraham, it's just El and some worship of the Sun and Moon.

Now, when Abraham was around, God revealed himself to him as “El”, or variants of “El” like “El Shaddai”, “El Elyon” and so on. I've written more about that here. The traditional argument is that “El” was how they remembered the true God, and Ba'al and Asherah were later additions. The Hebrew conception of El is similar to the Arabic Al, which was later picked up by Mohammed as Allah... It's also similar to the Latin “Deus” and the English “God”, which are used both as a title for the one God but also as labels for the many gods in a polytheistic pantheon.

But at the time of Moses, God revealed himself by the name YHWH as well as El – YHWH is used as a name that's associated with God's promises and with the fact that they come out of Egypt. Interestingly, God first uses the name when Moses basically asks him which God he is, because Moses grew up in polytheistic Egypt. When there is only really one God worshipped at the time of Abraham, God is fine going as just “God”, but when there are lots of gods around, he adds the name YHWH.

So by the time you get to the books of Kings, the followers of Moses' religion use El and YHWH for the same God. Elijah, who is one of the big figures in that religion in about 800BC even had a name that meant “El is YHWH”. The followers of Canaanite paganism had three main gods – El, Asherah and Ba'al. And so the question is whether the two religions were actually merged.

Right, so now to the argument.

The way that ancient history works is that there is often some kind of text that describes what happens. If you're lucky, it's from roughly the same time as the events it describes. If you're very lucky, there are two or more texts. And there may be some archaeology as well, which usually won't be enough to put a complete picture together. Ancient history tends to treat the text as basically reliable, unless there is some contradictory evidence from archaeology or unless the events described are impossible. We shouldn't discard the narrative account unless it clashes with archaeology – that's bad history.

That means that we need to think about what situation the Bible actually describes from about 900BC to 500BC. And what we see is that the people of Israel consistently sliding back into worshipping other gods, starting off with the gods of the Canaanites like Ba'al and Asherah under kings like Ahab and Ahaziah, and moving onto worshipping the gods of the nations around them like Chemosh and Molech. So according to the Old Testament, what you get is people trying to merge Judaism with Canaanite paganism. You get people building Asherah poles in the temple, for example. And the prophets (the ones the OT calls “true prophets” anyway) are consistently criticising them for doing so.

My point is this:
If the Old Testament account is right, then you'd expect that many of the Israelites were worshipping YWHW alongside Asherah and trying to merge Judaism with Canaanite paganism. So you'd expect them to be making statues saying things like YHWH and his Asherah. You'd also expect the OT prophets like Elijah to be condemning them for it.

Does it mean that God had a wife? No.

So what's new?

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