God’s Wife

Is this a shrine to God’s Wife?

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William Dever, in this article in Biblical Archaeology Review, contends that it is.

You are looking at a small house shrine (naos) that (unfortunately) resides in the possession of a private collector. It is probably from biblical Moab (Jordan) and represents a popular form of worship, so-called “folk religion.”

Note the temple-like facade and double throne. Who sat there?

Nearly all such naoi appear, according to Dever, to be “connected with well-known female deities, particularly Canaanite/Israelite Asherah and Phoenician Tanit (Asherah’s later reflex in the wider Mediterranean world).” The tree motif visible on the columns is “probably deeply rooted in the old Canaanite identification of Asherah as a tree-goddess.” Dever believes that the double-throne was for Asherah and her consort deity, Yahweh (Jehovah).

The Bible rails against Asherah-worship and local shrines such as these:

The fact that the Bible condemns the cult of Asherah (and other “pagan” deities) demonstrates that such cults existed and were perceived as a threat to Israelite monotheism. Based on the Biblical texts alone, we can conclude that many ancient Israelites, perhaps even the majority, worshiped Asherah, Astarte, the “Queen of Heaven” and perhaps other female deities. Their sanctuaries (bamôt, or “high places”), we are told, were “on every hill and under every green tree.”

Asherah was, of course, finally driven underground by the reformist parties that edited the Hebrew Bible. In its final form she is written out of the text. Hence, she disappeared and all her cult imagery with her when Jewish monotheism at last triumphed in the period after the Israelites returned from the Babylonian exile.

Whether this shrine really is a shrine to Asherah and Yahweh is another question — one worries about the possibility of forgery, and Dever’s theory is not universally accepted. Mormon scholars have sometimes expressed interest in Asherah (in a Book of Mormon rather than Heavenly Mother context); what implications you draw from this ancient example of a remote folk religion I leave up to you. The safest thing to say is that in religion there is often a divide between what the people believe, and what the religious authority wants them to believe.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    My forthcoming article on MiH similarly travels down this road.

  2. MikeInWeHo says:

    Love your posts, Ronan. I always learn something interesting.

  3. In Dever’s defense, there is additional evidence for the existence of Asherah and her relationship with YHWH, aside from this shrine (which I had never previously heard of) and the Biblical text. The most significant of these, up until now, has been the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscription of “Yahweh and his A/asherah.” Its all laid out in his book, Did God Have a Wife?

  4. I like it! In the dynamic days of the early church, if Joseph Smith read your blog post, he’d embrace your suggestion, begin teaching that Heavenly Mother’s name is Asherah and he would correct the appropriate sections of the Old Testament accordingly.

  5. Ronan, I so appreciate these types of posts. It makes my mind feel alive and stimulated and helps me contemplate things beyond the Play-Doh and graham crackers that make up my everyday world. Thank you.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    I’m just glad her name wasn’t Brenda or Sally or something.

  7. Interesting, Ronan. Thanks.

  8. Kevin,

    Where is your article going to appear? Care to share any details?

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Jacob, it will be in Dialogue within the year. Since it is going to be a print publication, I don’t want to comment on it publicly until it appears. But thanks for asking!

  10. Kevin, will your article discuss any other faiths in the United States, which taught of a “mother in heaven” at the time of Joseph Smith?

  11. Hey Steve, what’s wrong with Sally?!

  12. JA Benson says:

    How about this idea. The Kabbalah, which was practiced by the Sephardic Jews, believe in this Tree of Life called the Ten Sefirot. This tree has ten powers/knowledge of the world and the human soul.

    The Sefirot has a right (masculine)side called Abba and a left (feminine) side called Ema. Binah/Leah, another one of the left feminine powers, is also known as the divine womb. Chochmah/Elohim, on the right side is Benah’s partner. These two are beloved friends and work together.
    Sounds like Mother and Father in Heaven to me.

    Anyway most of this stuff is way over my head, but my point is Sephardic Jews were in America and many of them lived in upstate New York. It is my belief that the Mother God doctrine is from the Sephardic Jews.

    BTW I think that shrine is darling.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Nick, no. Basically it will be an attempt to distill information about her from the scriptures and then to leverage that information into some actual worship practices (nothing too radical, though). It is a little exercise in religion-making.

  14. Nothing wrong with it, Sal, but it’s not much of a match when your name is Elohim or Jehovah. Think of the party invitations — odd. Now, if your husband’s name is Adam….

  15. So, my son’s name is Asher, is there any relationship to the name Asherah?

  16. jessawhy, the wikipedia seems to think so.

  17. Janet Martin Dobler says:

    If God at all the two seater would be for Himself and His son- Jesus Christ.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    jessawhy, I cover this in my article. In my view the answer to your question is “yes.” Asher is the masculine form (without the feminine –ah ending) of the name Asherah. I actually suggest that a small way to honor our MiH would be to name a son Asher, so you’ve already done that!

  19. JA, your argument is unlikely. if you want the divine dyad, you can get it much more proximately from the Shakers or Jacob Bohme’s divine Virgin. Catherine Albanese made this general argument a couple decades ago (and basically reaffirmed it in her survey of american metaphysical religion), but it never held water, and though there are some intriguing connections between Kabbalah and early Mormonism (though Lance Owens overstated the case), there’s nothing to support your dyadic interpretation in earliest Mormonism.

  20. JA Benson says:

    SamMB I am unclear if you believe that my argument is unlikely because you don’t believe that Sephardic Jews were in upstate New York or my interpretation of the Kabbalah’s Binah and Elohim?

    I am not familiar with Albanese’s work.

    I have read Lance Owen’s piece in Dialogue magazine I think that he was on to something.

  21. RonanJH, thanks so much for posting this! Bill Dever is one of my all-time favorite professors because of this lecture he gave in one of my undergrad classes at the University of Arizona. I remember seeing this throne in the slideshow and thinking, “I could name a daughter, Asherah. Or, would it be cooler to name a son, Asher? No one would ever know it was in honor of MiH.”

    Today, I have a 3 year old son, Asher.

    Dr. Dever also said something that I now say in all my undergrad classes, “If studying the Bible academically and critically makes you loose your faith, well, then, your faith wasn’t that strong to begin with.”

  22. Smith didn’t teach the dyad, contra Kabbalah.
    All the attempts to make Smith’s teachings hermetic are stuck at the level of parallelomania. Smith did know about Shakers, though. We have good evidence of this, so he had easy access to the dyad, but then he never bites.
    You should read Albanese. She’s the preeminent historian of American metaphysical traditions. She just happens to have misappropriated the dyad in her interpretation of Smith. Smith’s MiH is pretty clearly a part of his familialization of God.

  23. Patrick says:

    Sam MB, if Albanese’s argument has “never held water,” why would you recommend reading her?

  24. JA Benson says:

    SamMB #22

    According to Rabbi Kurzweil, Binah is the divine womb. “Some Kabbalists go so far as to say that Binah gives birth to all the Sefirot.” The Sefirot/Tree of Life resembles a human person. The Sefirot is considered the blueprint of the world and is the blueprint of the human soul.

    #23 Patrick I agree

  25. Albanese is a wonderful historian. She just happens to have misread this one piece of early Mormonism by pushing too hard for the dyad. Her 2007 volume from Yale is excellent religious history. if you want to understand the religious milieu of early Mormonism, her book is easily as crucial as Hatch or Butler, and though she leans on him some, her treatment of the period involved is clearly superior to Brooke.

    there are complex generative interactions in kabbalah (which is quite vast and internally inconsistent). As banal as it sounds, the good evidence is that Smith’s queen of heaven was a humanized mother and wife rather than the type of essential feminine force you describe in 24 or the more typical characterization of the dyadic components. Now the Toscanos have pushed for a new Mormon theology based in the dyad (and have reasonable precedent in some late 19th-century female writings), so that’s a way to connect it back if you’d like. I personally have opted not to be a generative theologian but to merely describe as accurately as i can the idea-world of earliest Mormonism, which is why I reject the dyadic notion. i’m not saying it’s bad theology, I’m just saying it’s not the theology of earliest Mormonism.

    When Smith was directly confronted with the dyad, through intermittent Shaker convert Leman Copley and other sources, he rather strenuously rejected the dyad. The funkier versions of this union, like Jemimah Wilkinson (who is also closer to Smith than Kabbalah) he also rejected out of hand.

  26. this is the book. well worth the $ and time.
    http://books.google.com/books?id=WirfED_-YnUC

  27. Great Post Ronan. It is interesting to see how the zeitgeiest is changing. There is so much still to be done in this area of archaeology and anthropology. Thanks mate.

  28. JA Benson says:

    SMB What are your sources for when Smith was confronted by Copley and others and Wilkinson and rejected the Kabbalah’s Ema and Abba?

    I know that Sephardic Jews were in upstate New York in the time of Joseph Smith. I believe that Masons based their ceremonies on the Kabbalah.

    We are in agreement that the Kabbalah is complex. Students of the Kabbalah are usually over age forty as maturity is a key ingredient in understanding the compexity of it’s truths.

    in 1250 it was written by Abraham bar Hiyya and others that Sefirah Binah (Ema) is the “mother of the world.”

    I find the ideas in the Kabbalah to be beautiful. It assures me that the Temple ceremony ( in probably different styles and varying shades of purity) that we know has existed with man from the time of Adam and Eve until now. It strengthens my testimony that Joseph Smith did not make it all up. He really did “restore” the Gospel.