Where did the goddesses come from, and what happened to them?

  • The earliest Jews were Canaanites, and we know something about Canaanite religion from the discovery of a whole bunch of writings at Ugarit. We know that the word “El” or God in the bible was the proper name of their sky God, someone a bit like Zeus. We know they had a whole pantheon of gods, and we know that El had a wife named Asherah who was worshipped as late as the Babylonian exile. We also know that Jews in communities outside Jerusalem continued to worship a version of Asherah as late as 300 BCE, perhaps later. (Other female goddesses like Anath–an Artemis figure–and Astarte were also popular).
  • But there was a  strong reform movement in bible that began with the discovery / creation and dissemination of Deuteronomic ideas. The Deuteronomists believed all the troubles they were having with foreign nations were because of polytheism, so they worked hard to get rid of everyone but the main god, whom they called Yahweh or El pretty much interchangeably. So there was a strong effort to get rid of goddess worship.
  • However, goddess worship was important to many Judahites, especially women. When Jeremiah orders the women of Judah to stop making cakes for the queen of heaven, who went by Innana/ Ishtar/ Ashtoreth and eventually Aphrodite, they refuse, saying that she was a better provider than Yahweh: “We used to have plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no misfortune. But from the time we stopped making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have perished by the sword and by famine.” (Jeremiah 44.17-18). Ezekiel, too, complains the the women of Judah are “weeping for Tammuz,” Ishtar’s consort and another fertility god.
  • Therefore, some people think the goddess was repurposed in works like Proverbs, where “Wisdom” is personified as a goddess who helped God create the world. In the New Testament, the female “wisdom” (Chokmah) is translated as the masculine “Logos” in the gospel of John. Most translations we have use “The Word” for “Logos,” as a way of linking Jesus to the “word” that God spoke during the creation.
  • Another theory is that some traits of Asherah were “reassigned” to Yahweh starting with Deuteronomy: “Language that speaks of God as mother, for example (as in Deut 32:18Num 11:12–13; Isa 45:9–10, 49:15; 66:13), probably represents the assimilation of Asherah’s maternal characteristics to YHWH” (Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, Asherah entry).
  • Some of the goddess features might have been naturalized into stories. For example, while the “name” Adam simply means, “the man” and is associated with clay,  Eve’s name is associated with “hebel” or breath, which is a divine function, and she is connected with serpents, which had cultic meaning. Asherah was also frequently represented with serpents: “Ugaritic and other Canaanite materials further associate Asherah with lions (indicating power), serpents (representing immortality or healing), and sacred trees (signifying fertility). Thus Asherah’s children at Ugarit can be called her “pride of lions”; the goddess is called “lady of the serpent” in second-millennium B.C.E. inscriptions from the Sinai” (Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, Asherah entry).
  • Just as formidable are the dark female figures and ruthless queens of the bible, like the “foreign woman” of Proverbs, Lilith, Jezebel, Delilah, Potiphar’s wife, and the mythic sea-beast Rahab, who owe a lot to Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of watery chaos.
  • The goddess also persists in rabbinic traditions, maybe to appease people who were strongly attached to goddess worship. She may also have found her way into myths about the demonic Lilith, the sabbath (“Shabbat”) bride, the indwellingness of God or “Shekinah,” even the Torah herself–all these were later personified as female figures.
  • Moreover, the bible is full of stories of militant women who use their sexuality to help their people. Some of these are fictional, like Deborah, Ruth and Naomi (who may take on Asherah’s maternal “wet-nurse” function), and Esther, while others like Miriam and Jael come from ancient legend. Samuel is populated with “wise women” and witches. Esther’s name may link her to Ishtar, an important Sumerian goddess of love. While these women aren’t the sort of “women of valor” mentioned in Proverbs and Ruth, they are larger than life warrior females, stronger, more beautiful, and more fertile than ordinary women.

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