Canaanite Reconstructionism

Apparently there are Canaanite Reconstructionists! Yes, among the small number of neopagans in Israel, there are some Israelis who are trying to ‘revive’ Ugaritic and Canaanite religion. They honour or worship Asherah, Anat, or Ba’al – goddesses and gods worshiped by ancient Hebrews.

I recently discovered this in a chapter from a 2017 book by Shai Feraro, “Canaanite Reconstructionism Among Contemporary Israeli Pagans” (in Kathryn Rountree, ed., Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Modern Paganism, Palgrave Macmillan).

The chapter mentions Emily, a former Orthodox Jew, but now a devotee of the goddess Asherah. Emily points out that Asherah is a native deity of the land of Israel, unlike Yahweh, who is just a foreign invader:

She [Emily] quoted a verse from Deuteronomy (33:2) which states that: “Jehovah came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them,” in order to suggest that he was a Midianite deity that “immigrated” into the land of Canaan. She said: “He is not mine, he is not for me, he ruined my … his people destroyed my Goddess.”

She’s most likely right about Yahweh originally being foreign to the Hebrews. Most recently the Midianite origins of Yahweh have been defended in Thomas Römer’s book, The Invention of God (Harvard University Press, 2015).

There are still only a small number of Israeli neopagans who currently incorporate Canaanite religion into their practices. But Shai Feraro notes that Canaanite Reconstructionism has begun to grow in just the last 6 or 7 years. “As the local Israeli [neopagan] community matures and gains confidence, it seems that the tendency to focus on ‘home-grown’ local deities is growing.”

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?”

Obama’s Opening Speech in Israel Sounds Strangely Familiar – Oh yes, remember Bibi Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in the US?

Obama at Ben Gurion Airport

No sooner had US President Barack Obama touched the ground at Ben Gurion Airport, than he commenced this speech:

Shalom.

President Peres, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and most of all, to the people of Israel, thank you for this incredibly warm welcome. This is my third visit to Israel so let me just say tov lihiyot shuv ba’aretz.

I’m so honored to be here as you prepare to celebrate the 65th anniversary of a free and independent State of Israel. Yet I know that in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people.

More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.

Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages — to be “masters of their own fate” in “their own sovereign state.” And just as we have for these past 65 years, the United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend.

– Barack Obama, in “Full text of Obama’s speech on arrival in Israel”, The Times of Israel, 20 March 2013

Now, there is much in here that a critical biblical scholar might take issue with.

Have “the Jewish people” really lived in the region for “more than 3,000 years”? No. A people known as Judeans did live in the land from perhaps the early part of the first millennium BC to the early Common Era. And they did so alongside many other peoples, many of whom have come and gone, including the Philistines (or residents of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath), the Edomites/Idumaeans, Romans, and Arabs (including Nabataeans). Moreover, the Judeans never occupied all the region now occupied by the modern state of Israel, including Tel Aviv, where Obama delivered his speech.

Did “the Jewish people” pray to God there for more than 3000 years? No. Not if you mean by God, with a capital letter, or the monotheistic concept of later Jews. In the early period of Judean settlement of the southern hill country and northern Negev, the inscriptions from various sites and the Elephantine correspondence (around 400 BC), written before much of the Bible was written, show that Judeans worshipped a number of gods and goddesses. Before this, even Yahweh (later identified as the monotheistic “God”) was worshipped alongside his divine consort or wife, named Asherah.

Are “the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah” fulfilling the dream of the ages — to be ‘masters of their own fate’ in ‘their own sovereign state'”. No. Almost everything is wrong with this. First, no Abraham or Sarah ever existed, except in legendary tales. Second, if you’ve read the Bible, you might note that “the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah” comprises a much more inclusive group than the Jews of the “Jewish State of Israel”. The sons of Abraham and daughters of Sarah include, for example, Ishmael (Abraham’s first son), the alleged ancestor of all Arabs. Given that the Bible makes Ishmael older than Judah (the eponymous ancestor of the Jews), why haven’t their “dreams of the ages” to have “their own sovereign state” been fulfilled? Third, the “dream” of a sovereign Jewish state is not “the dream of the ages”. It was only a dream of some Jews in the nineteenth century onwards, under the influence of European concepts of national sovereignty and Christian concepts of divine election and manifest destiny. And many Jews today still oppose the idea of a sovereign state in Palestine.

But this propaganda sounds all very familiar. Oh yes – remember the speech by Bibi Netanyahu to Congress in the US in 2011?

We’re not the British in India. We’re not the Belgians in the Congo. This is the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one god, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw his vision of eternal peace.
– Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, in Jonathan Lis, “The facts and fictions of Netanyahu’s address to Congress”Ha’aretz, 26 May 2011

I guess when you’re planning a war against Iran “to preserve our freedom” (as Obama alludes to the Bush Doctrine in his speech) the facts will only get in the way of shoring up political alliances.

Episode 2 of The Bible’s Buried Secrets – BBC2 – Francesca Stavrakopoulou

Asherah: Mrs Yahweh
Asherah: Mrs Yahweh

For those of you in the UK, here’s Episode 2 of BBC2′s The Bible’s Buried Secrets, hosted by University of Exeter’s Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou.

The episode takes a look at Asherah, the wife of Yahweh in pre-monotheistic “Israelite” religion, that is, Yahweh’s divine consort in ancient “Israel” at least up until the mid-first millennium BC. One of the ways we know about her existence, apart from the traces that remain in the Bible, is from the small figurines of their goddess, dozens of which have been excavated from the seventh century BC. As the Bible relates, Mrs Yahweh was worshipped in the Jerusalem temple of Yahweh, alongside Yahweh himself, as a part of official state religion, at least until the seventh century BC. When later Judean monotheism invented a single god, they chose the male god of the divine pair. As Stavrakopoulou also rightly argues, as a result of this gendered hierarchy of being, women were adversely affected throughout areas which adopted the monotheistic innovation for some 2000 years.

I’m looking forward to the DVDs, which have very kindly been sent my way.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou – God’s Wife?

Francesca Stavrakopoulou - God's Wife?
Francesca Stavrakopoulou - God's Wife?

In the current BBC series, The Bible’s Buried Secrets, Francesca Stavrakopoulou has managed to do what others, such as William Dever (Did God Have a Wife?), have failed to do: make the general public aware that ancient ‘Israelites’ or Judeans once thought that Yahweh was married to a Mrs. Yahweh. That is, polytheism, the worship of many gods, was not a corruption of some earlier Israelite monotheism; rather, monotheism grew out of an earlier Israelite polytheism.

The media is abuzz with reports about God’s wife. My favourite headline is this one from the Discovery Channel:

Discovery News ... wonders if God was a bachelor.

Asherah’s connection to Yahweh, according to Stavrakopoulou, is spelled out in both the Bible and an 8th century B.C. inscription on pottery found in the Sinai desert at a site called Kuntillet Ajrud.

“The inscription is a petition for a blessing,” she shares. “Crucially, the inscription asks for a blessing from ‘Yahweh and his Asherah.’ Here was evidence that presented Yahweh and Asherah as a divine pair. And now a handful of similar inscriptions have since been found, all of which help to strengthen the case that the God of the Bible once had a wife.”

Also significant, Stavrakopoulou believes, “is the Bible’s admission that the goddess Asherah was worshiped in Yahweh’s Temple in Jerusalem. In the Book of Kings, we’re told that a statue of Asherah was housed in the temple and that female temple personnel wove ritual textiles for her.”

– Jennifer Viegas, ‘God’s Wife Edited Out of the Bible – Almost’, Discovery News, 18 March 2011

See all three episodes of The Bible’s Buried Secrets here.

The BBC’s The Bible’s Buried Secrets with Francesca Stavrakopoulou: Will she find remnants of Goliath?

Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou is snapped while casually reading BHS during a walk in the park
Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou is snapped while casually reading BHS during a walk in the park

An exciting three-part BBC Two series, The Bible’s Buried Secrets will have its first airing at 9:00-10:00pm, on Tuesday 15 March.

The show clearly aims to disseminate recent findings about the Bible and religion in ancient Judea, most of which will be well-established and well-known to scholars in the field of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. It is to be presented by senior lecturer at the University of Exeter, Francesca Stavrakopoulou. Her excellent work on cultic child sacrifice to Yahweh, and more generally on the diversity of religious practices in ancient Judea, appears to inform much of the content of the television series. Episode one includes a look at the legendary kingdom of David and the legendary Giant, Goliath:

In episode one, Dr Stavrakopoulou goes on the trail of the Biblical King David and his fabled empire. A national hero and icon for the Jewish people, and a divine king for Christians, David is best known as the boy warrior who defeated the Philistine giant Goliath. As King he united the tribes of Israel. But did he really rule over a vast Israelite kingdom? Dr Stavrakopoulou visits key archaeological excavations where ground-breaking finds are being unearthed, and examines evidence for and against the Biblical account of King David. She explores the former land of the Philistines, home of the legendary giant Goliath, and ruins in the north of Israel and in old Jerusalem, itself purporting to be remains of David’s empire.

(Unreality TV)

Although critical scholars have long accepted the doubtful historicity of all or much of the ‘kingdom of David’ mentioned in 2 Samuel, and acknowledged the gradual development of “monotheism” in the Persian Period, these aspects are inevitably bound to astound and shock some viewers – especially if some of the early reactions to the show’s publicity are anything to go by. The Mail sensationalized the fact that Yahweh had a divine consort or “wife”, in an article whose tone bordered on the snide. Yet the fact that Yahweh once shared a bed with Mrs Yahweh (“Asherah”) is widely accepted by mainstream scholars as a part of “orthodox” religious belief and temple worship in places like Judea, in the centuries before the development of the Hebrew Bible in its current form. 

The fact that Stavrakopoulou does not believe in the existence of the ancient Semitic deity she studies (she is an atheist) was also a cause for sensationalism and consternation. The Mail further reports the response of former English MP, Ann Widdecombe, who spluttered: “I would guess that most other theologians will demolish her theory in three seconds flat.” However, what should be noted is that Widdecombe is no expert in biblical studies and she offers no reason for rejecting Stavrakopoulou’s claims, but in classic knee-jerk fashion imagines that some expert, somewhere, must be able to provide a counter-argument that will allow Widdecombe to rest easy in her Roman Catholic faith. Now that’s just appalling journalism. It is true that some of the more dogmatic theologians posing as biblical scholars today would give about 3 second worth of consideration to the type of Old Testament scholarship that Stavrakopoulou practices on a day-by-day basis… and then dismiss it out of hand. But the BBC has made precisely the right move in picking a genuine biblical studies scholar, rather than one of the host of  theological apologists whose natural response is to avoid rather than engage with these facts, speciously side-stepping the issues involved.

It’s also very good to see a shift away from the usual “middle-aged, bearded men”  usually consulted as biblical scholars, and even better to see somebody of Stavrakopoulou’s academic credentials rather than the faithful propagandists frequently wheeled out for comment. And, lastly, hopefully this series will reach the Antipodes some time soon…

Update: See all three episodes of The Bible’s Buried Secrets here.