The discovery that the deities of ancient Palestine were female ought to be good news for all of humanity, not just women. Even the increasingly beleaguered monotheistic religions might find reason to be pleased, for it gives them opportunity to reinvent a deity that will represent the yin and the yang, the yoni as well as the lingam, the mother as well as the father, the wife as well as the husband.
In his book, Did God Have a Wife?, archaeologist William G Dever brings the record of matriarchy worship up to date. His findings will not be new to the world of scholarship, but they will be to the general public -- and their significance should reverb-erate in church councils and congregations for they thoroughly subvert conventional Christian and Judaic beliefs.
Dever finds that 90% of the people of ancient Palestine -- of the second millennium and the early centuries of the first millennium BCE -- lived in scattered and isolated rural communities, even after Jerusalem had emerged as the capital of a united monarchy. These communities practised a folk religion quite different from the monotheistic, patriarchal, literary and theo-retical religion we find in the Old Testament and the Hebrew scriptures. It was characterised by what people did, rather than what they thought; polytheistic, not bound by written rules and egalitarian. But, most importantly, it was matriarchal.
Their principal goddess was Asherah, consort of the most senior of the ancient deities of the area. Also in the pantheon of goddesses was Shapsh (Sun), Yarih (Moon), Astarte (androgynous) and Anat (warrior), some of whom were also sometimes identified with Asherah.
The cult of Asherah is confirmed by the archaeological record, which allows us to reinterpret previously incomprehensible passages in ancient texts. These include the Bible itself, which provides ample evidence of attempts to suppress information of the widespread worship of Asherah and other polytheistic practices.
She was a central deity to whom women and men both gave allegiance. Jewish Kabbalistic writings also confirm an early goddess called Shekinah, and testify to the holy act of sexual union between her and Yahweh, sometimes graphically described. Under the matriarchy, sex is not just holy, it is also very sexy; under the patriarchy it is regulated, controlled and, finally, under Paul, barely tolerated.
Of course, the existence of the matriarchy as predating patriarchal deities in many ancient civilisations is commonly accepted, and some argue for the one Great Mother as the original deity of all. But what is new and controversial is the discovery that the matriarchy was so firmly entrenched in the heartland of the world’s three great monotheistic religions.
Dever finds evidence of folk religion in cultic shrines all over Palestine, and of goddess worship in unmistakable terracotta figurines, in graphic art depicting stylised emblems of female worship and in the many disguised biblical references to Asherah.
The figurines invariably depict a nude female figure with large breasts and an often graphically displayed pubic triangle. The Bible refers to the shrines as “high places” characterised by Asherah -- typically translated as “groves” or wooden poles, but now believed to have been symbols of the goddess. Asherah was fully identified with trees -- the embodiment of wisdom in ancient Canaanite religion -- and many depictions show her growing from a tree trunk.
What will most challenge Christian and Judaic belief is Dever’s assertion that their holy scripts are the product of a tiny, but increasingly powerful, Jerusalem-based male literary and theological elite.
Monotheism was a late development, possibly as late as the Persian or Hellenistic periods, well after the Babylonian exile, and, therefore, a back-projection of the writers and redactors of the Bible.
This contradicts the conventional understanding of biblical texts as describing the universal story of the founding of mankind by a male god, Yahweh, of his exclusive guidance of a promised people to nationhood, and of the common destiny of the people who be came known as Israelites.
Post-modern critical theory has long taught us that texts are never quite what they seem to be. As a result of Dever’s work, we can now see more clearly that the religion of the Old Testament and the Hebrew scriptures is a humanly contrived narrative written to serve the interests of a particular group with a vested interest to propound and defend. That interest was monotheistic, elitist, priestly, literary and male. It conferred prestige and power upon those who served it.
Monotheistic, patriarchal narratives have largely enslaved the human consciousness for 3 000 years or more.
Dever’s work helps us understand that the Old Testament is one of these, and that it rightfully belongs in the mythical realm of the Gilgamesh epic and the Odyssey.