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.
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?”