Tim Bulkeley responds to Francesca Stavrakopoulou on Asherah, God’s Wife

Tim Bulkeley (5-Minute Bible) has been responding, in a series of podcasts, to an article written by Francesca Stavrakopoulou way back in March 2011. The article in question was published in the Daily Mail, and is entitled, “Why the BBC’s new face of religion believes God had a WIFE”. In it, Stavrakopoulou introduces the ancient Israelite belief in many gods (polytheism) and their belief that Yahweh had a divine consort, the goddess Asherah – subjects that she looks at in more detail in the BBC series, Bible’s Buried Secrets, in particular in episode 2.

Tim’s second podcast takes issue especially with Stavrakopoulou’s musing, at the conclusion of her Daily Mail article, “I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like had the goddess remained”.

Tim attempts to answer this question by pointing out some of the sometimes violent actions of goddesses in the ancient Near East, on the assumption that the literary remains of such cultures can be compared with what we have in the Bible. Now there is some degree of justification for such a comparison: just because a divine being is conceived as a female does not mean that she should be stereotyped as “motherly” or “loving” etc, just as a male divinity should not be stereotyped as “warlike” or “vengeful”. With a goddess such as Anat, the reverse can certainly be the case.

But Tim’s answer misses the mark somewhat. From the content of Stavrakopoulou’s article and episode 2, it is clear that the purpose of her question is to ask whether later Judaism and Christianity would have been quite so patriarchical and androcentric if the monotheistic God had instead been a divine couple. It is certainly a highly hypothetical question, but you can hardly answer it by adducing evidence of the actions of goddesses in Ugaritic legends written almost a millennium before the Bible was written!

Or, if you do make these older legends your comparison, you might want to take notice of similar unethical and violent actions earlier attributed to Yahweh, such as his ordering of Israelites to sacrifice firstborn children to him (on which, see Francesca Stavrakopoulou, King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice: Biblical Distortions of Historical Realities, BZAW 338 [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004]).

Rather, the point of Stavrakopoulou’s question concerns how monotheism was received in later Judaism and Christianity, how the monotheistic God became identified with the male half of what was earlier a divine couple. To make her question more concrete, we might begin with Paul of Tarsus’s interpretation of “the image of God” of Genesis 1, in which he applies the divine image primarily to males. Females only have an indirect image of God, in reflecting males, and this distinction serves to justify Paul’s gender hierarchies. Now, there are plenty of recent apologetic attempts to explain away Paul’s patriarchical beliefs. But I can’t help but wonder what Paul would be like had the goddess remained.

See:
Tim Bulkeley, “Was God married? Part two: the death of the goddess
Tim Bulkeley, “Why do you read? Or: Was God married?

Update: Tim replies with some comments on episode 2 of Bible’s Buried Secrets, “Did God Have a Wife?”

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3 Comments

Filed under Ancient Jewish texts, Media, Television

3 responses to “Tim Bulkeley responds to Francesca Stavrakopoulou on Asherah, God’s Wife

  1. “So, this is a “secret” when that suits her rhetorical needs “to undermine monotheism” but is clearly acknowledged in Scripture when admitting that suits her needs. This sort of fudging the evidence is not worthy of a scholar of her standing, though it does make “good television”.”

    … I find these comments from Tim astonishing and quite bizarre and

    “I do not believe that the Bible presents Yahweh as a male god” … unbelievable but it represents some strong faith and wishful 21st century cool egalitarian guy thinking.

    • Deane

      There is a train of thought throughout Christian tradition that those who deny the dogmas and doctrines of Christian faith are not acting from good faith, but are either disingenuous, deceitful, or demon-possessed. It is still prevalent in much biblical scholarship, reflecting the interests of most of its practitioners. And so the assumption generates the conclusion. This makes it very difficult to truly engage with contrary opinions. Rousseau found it difficult, too, muttering under his breath, “Il est impossible de vivre en paix avec des gens qu’on croit damnés”.

      • Yes, the non churched have ‘agendas’ and ‘rhetorical needs’ … Yes, the impression is “still prevalent in much biblical scholarship” – naw, it dominates biblical scholarship, and it is impossible to engage with in critical useful discussion. I just didn’t want to say so out loud…!

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