Shoftim: No Goddesses Allowed

August 24, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment
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In beginning, elohim created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1)

elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods (plural); one of the names of the God of Israel. (Other common names include the tetragrammaton, El, El Elyon, and El Shaddai.)

How many gods does it take to create the universe? For most of ancient Canaan and Mesopotamia, in the beginning there were two: a father god and a mother goddess, who proceeded to beget additional gods. The universe was dualistic from the start.

But the book of Genesis clarifies that only one God created the universe, without any sexual partner.  God makes all the separations and distinctions, including gender, during the course of this creation. And unlike the gods of other peoples in the Ancient Near East, the God of the Torah demands exclusive loyalty. Anyone who worships God is forbidden to worship any additional gods or goddesses.

God first reveals this at Mount Sinai, with the commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an idol or any image of what is in the heavens above or what is in the earth below on what is in the water below the earth. You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them. Because I, God, your elohim, am a jealous eil. (Exodus/Shemot 20:4-5)

eil, El (אֵל) = a god; the father god of Canaanite religion; the God of Israel.

Matzeivah at Gezer

Worshiping an idol is equated in the Bible with worshiping the god that the idol represents. In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), Moses orders the Israelites:

You must not plant for yourself an asherah of any wood next to the altar of God, your elohim, that you shall make for yourself. And you must not erect for yourself a matzeivah which God, your elohim, hates. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:21-22)

asherah (אֲשֵׁרָה) = the mother goddess of Canaanite and Phoenician religions (called Ishtar in Akkadian and Inanna in Sumerian); a carved wooden post representing this goddess. (Plural: asherim, אֲשֵׁרִים.)

matzeivah (מַצֵבָה) = a standing stone used as a marker, or as an image representing a god. (Plural: matzeivot, מַצֵּבֺת.)

Clay figurines from Judah

Although very few wooden artifacts have survived the millennia in Israel, archaeologists have unearthed numerous small clay figurines in ancient Judah that may have been modeled after large wood asherim.1

All asherim are forbidden in the Bible, but not every matzeivah is. Standing stones that mark graves, boundaries, covenants, or great events are acceptable.2 So are the standing stones Jacob erects for God and anoints with oil.3 The matzeivot that God hates are the standing stones that people bowed to and anointed in order to worship a different god.

Asherim and matzeivot are mentioned together in eleven biblical passages.4 These wood and stone vertical idols were erected at the shrines of other gods—and even, at times, inside the temple of the God of Israel in Jerusalem.5 Thus when people came to a shrine or, during the reigns of more permissive kings, to a temple of God, they also acknowledged the divine power of the gods represented by the asherah and the matzeivah.

Who were the gods behind these two ubiquitous types of idols?

Asherah from Ugarit

The religion of Canaan (later known as Phoenicia) had a founding pair of gods who mated and produced 70 more gods. The father god was named El. In a long poem from Ugarit in northern Canaan6, El is associated with the bull, and holds court in a field at the source of two rivers. The mother goddess was named Asherah or Atirat, and was associated with the seashore, stars, fertility, and trees.

El and Asherah’s most important son was Baal, the weather god. In the Ugaritic poem, Baal asks Asherah to ask El for permission to build a palace on Mount Tzafon and hold court there. Both parents give permission, thus making Baal the ruler over all his sibling gods and goddesses. In other Canaanite stories, Asherah and her son Baal are a sexual pair.

Baal from Ugarit

An asherah represented the mother goddess Asherah. A matzeivah probably represented her son and lover Baal, since Canaanite rituals focused on the pairing of Asherah and Baal, not Asherah and El.7 Most biblical references to matzeivot do not specify the god; the only exceptions are Jacob’s matzeivot for God in the book of Genesis, and two matzeivot of Baal in the second book of Kings.8

The first time the Israelites are told to destroy asherim and matzeivot is in the book of Exodus:

For their altars you shall tear down and their matzeivot you shall shatter and their asherim you shall cut down (34:13); because you must not bow down to another eil, because God is jealous of “his” name; a jealous eil is “he”. (Exodus 34:14)

The Torah consistently uses masculine pronouns and conjugations to refer to its asexual God. Hebrew is a gendered language, in which even inanimate objects and abstract concepts are assigned genders, so the masculine gender is often arbitrary. But it may not be so arbitrary in the case of God.

In the Torah the head of a household is a man, who is entitled to complete obedience from his wife and adult children as well as his slaves. God is often described in the first five books of the Bible as a demanding father, and in the books of the Prophets as the husband of the Israelites, who collectively take the role of God’s unfaithful wife.

Canaanite and Mesopotamian religions had both priestesses and priests; the Israelites had only priests. In other Canaanite and Mesopotamian cultures, women could also own land, make contracts, and initiate divorce. The Israelites reserved these privileges for men.

Is the biblical condemnation of goddesses, including both Asherah and the later goddess Ashtoret, “Queen of the Heavens”9, a result of this discrimination against women?

Or is it merely part of the condemnation of all gods other than the one God, a condemnation that includes the worship of matzeivot as well as asherim?

Complete dedication to a single god does have an advantage. If you begin with two gods, male and female, you can certainly understand our universe of separations and distinctions. But it might be hard to grasp that everything is part of a whole.  Beginning with a single god who creates all the separations and distinctions makes it easier to transcend dualism and get an inkling of the underlying unity of everything.

For me, as for many human beings, it is hard to keep remembering that we are interconnected parts of the whole, and that the whole means more than the sum of its parts.  It is hard to keep returning to any sort of God-consciousness.

So I agree with the Torah portion Shoftim that we should not plant any goddess-posts or god-stones. What we need is a new pronoun and some new metaphors for God.

  1. See Aaron Greener’s essay What Are Clay Female Figurines Doing in Judah during the Biblical Period?, published on thetorah.com.
  2. Jacob marks Rachel’s grave (Genesis 35:20) and his boundary pact with Lavan (Genesis 31:45-52) with matzeivot. Moses erects twelve matzeivot for the twelve tribes around an altar for a ceremonial covenant between the Israelites and God (Exodus 24:4). Joshua erects twelve standing stones in a circle at Gilgal to commemorate the crossing of the Jordan River (Joshua 4:1-9, 4:19-24).
  3. Genesis 8:18, 28:22, 31:13, and 35:14.
  4. Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:13, and 16:21-22; 1 Kings 4:23; 2 Kings 17:10, 18:4, and 23:13-14; Micah 5:12; 2 Chronicles 14:2 and 31:1.
  5. King Hezekiah shatters matzeivot in the Jerusalem Temple in 2 Kings 18:4. King Menashe erects an asherah in the Temple in 2 Kings 21:7. King Josiah removes all the objects made for Asherah and Baal from the Temple and burns them in 2 Kings 23:4-6.
  6. Translated by H.L. Ginsberg in The Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, edited by James B. Pritchard, Princeton University Press, 1958.
  7. Similarly, in the annual fertility rituals of Mesopotamia to the east, a high priestess embodying Asherah (called Inana or Ishtar in that region) has sexual intercourse with the city’s king, who embodies Asherah’s son Baal (called Tammuz or Dumuzi there).
  8. 2 Kings 3:2 and 10:26-27.
  9. Ashtoret, originally one of the daughters of Asherah and El, replaced Asherah as the primary goddess in the region of Canaan during the 6th century B.C.E. The worship of Ashtoret is denounced in Judges 2:13 and 10:6, 1 Samuel 7:4 and 12:10, 1 Kings 11:5, and 2 Kings 23:13. Israelite women worship the “Queen of the Heavens”, one of the titles of Ashtoret, in Jeremiah 7:18 and 44:15-18.
  10. 1 Samuel 28:3-20.

 

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Yitro & Psalms 29, 82, & 97: Greater Than Other Gods

February 16, 2017 at 5:08 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Psalms/Tehilim, Yitro | 2 Comments
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Miriam's Song, 1909

Miriam’s Song, 1909

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

The Song of the Sea, in last week’s Torah portion, includes the verse:

           Who is like You among the eilim, Y-h-w-h?

                        Who is like You, glorious in holiness,

                        Awesome, praiseworthy, doing wonders! (Exodus 15:11)

Y-h-w-h (י־ה־ו־ה) = God’s personal four-letter name. (Many English translations substitute “LORD” for this name, even though it is spelled using letters from several forms of the Hebrew verb “to be” rather than from the Hebrew noun for “lord”.)1

eilim (אֵלִם) = plural of eil (אֵל) = a god. (In some Canaanite religions, Eil was the founding god of a pantheon.)

The Song of the Sea assumes that other gods exist, and rejoices that the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h, is so powerful. Since the Song of the Sea is one of the oldest poems in the Bible, dating to around 1100 B.C.E., one might dismiss its polytheism as an archaic remnant.  Yet this verse is included in the daily Jewish liturgy, morning and evening. When Jews sing “Mi chamokha” (“Who is like You?”) we do not always remember that we are comparing our God with other gods.

Yitro advises Moses in Figures de la Bible, 1728

Yitro advises Moses
in Figures de la Bible, 1728

Yitro and the First Commandment

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Midianite priest Yitro meets his son-in-law Moses near Mt. Sinai a few days after God and Moses have brought the Israelites out of Egypt.

And Yitro said: “Blessed be Y-h-w-h, Who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh…Now I know that Y-h-w-h is greater than all the elohim…” (Exodus/Shemot 18:11)

elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods, god, God. (Grammatically elohim is the plural of eloha, a rarely used word for a god. But the Bible uses the word elohim to refer to a single god as well as to multiple gods. Elohim refers occasionally to a foreign god2, and frequently to the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h.)

Does Yitro believe in the existence of multiple gods only because he is a Midianite? No; many passages in the Bible that were originally written before the destruction of the first temple in 587 B.C.E. share this belief. Even the first of the “Ten Commandments” in this week’s Torah portion does not require monotheism, but only a henotheistic religion in which Y-h-w-h is the best god and the only one the people are allowed to worship.

I am Y-h-w-h, your elohim, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of servitude. You shall have no other elohim over and above My presence. (Exodus/Shemot 20:2-3)

(For other translations, see my post Yitro: Not in My Face.)

Y-h-w-h does not say that there are no other gods, but only that the Israelites must not have them.

A number of psalms3 are similarly henotheistic, at least in the Hebrew. (Some translators strain to make them sound as monotheistic as later Biblical writings.) These psalms treat other gods as real, but emphasize that they are weak and worthless compared with Y-h-w-h, the God of Israel.  Here are three examples:

Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is probably the oldest of the henotheistic psalms. It opens:

           Grant to Y-h-w-h, children of eilim,

                        Grant to Y-h-w-h magnificence and might!

            Grant to Y-h-w-h the magnificence of Its name,

                      Bow down to Y-h-w-h of holy beauty!

           The voice of Y-h-w-h is over the waters;

                      The eil of magnificence is thundering.  (Psalm 29:1-3)

Baal preparing lightning, bronze

Baal preparing lightning, bronze

Canaanite poems describe the god Baal as the weather god who speaks in thunder and makes lightning and earthquakes. Psalm 29 goes on to describe the voice of Y-h-w-h as shattering cedars, making the mountains of Lebanon dance, kindling fire, shaking the wilderness, and startling does into giving birth—all images related to thunderstorms and earthquakes.

Then the psalm declares:

And in Its palace everyone says: Magnificent!

Y-h-w-h sat [enthroned] for the flood,

                        And Y-h-w-h sits [enthroned as] king forever.  (Exodus 29:10)

Similarly, in Canaanite literature the god Baal conquers the waters of chaos, builds a palace on a mountaintop, and becomes king over all the other gods except his father, Eil.

The purpose of Psalm 29 may have been to replace Baal-worship among the Israelites with the worship of Y-h-w-h, and to persuade them that all the other gods are less powerful than Y-h-w-h, the mere “children of eilim. These inferior gods acclaim and bow down to Y-h-w-h in Its palace.

Psalm 82

In Canaanite religious writings from Ugarit, the father god Eil periodically convenes an assembly of the gods, each of whom has its own sphere of power. With advice from the other gods, Eil makes the major decisions about the world.4

Psalm 82, however, takes the idea a divine assembly in a different direction.

The Council of Gods, sketch by Peter Paul Rubens

The Council of Gods, sketch by Peter Paul Rubens

Elohim takes a stand in the assembly of Eil,

           Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)

In the first line “Elohim” refers to Y-h-w-h; in the second line “elohim” refers to all the assembled gods.  “Eil” in the first line might be either Y-h-w-h or the Canaanite father god.

Y-h-w-h then accuses the other gods of unjust rulings that favor the wicked and fail to rescue the poor. But the other gods don’t get it.

            They neither know nor understand,

                      They walk around in darkness;

                      Causing all the foundations of the earth to totter.  (Psalm 82:5)

Without true justice, the whole human world is threatened. So Y-h-w-h gets rid of the ignorant lesser gods, commenting:

           I used to say to myself: You are elohim,

                      And children of the Most High, all of you.

           Nevertheless, you will die like humans,

                      And you will fall like one of the princes.  (Psalm 82:6-7)

Psalm 82 might be an explanation of why the wicked are not always punished: inferior gods have been acting as judges.

On the other hand, this psalm might be a story exhorting the Israelites to abandon other gods because they are wicked, stupid, and no longer immortal. Only Y-h-w-h is worth worshiping, because only Y-h-w-h administers true justice and lives forever.

Psalm 97

           The heavens told of [God’s] true justice;

                        All the peoples saw Its magnificence.

            Every worshiper of a carved idol is shamed,

                        Those who boast of the elilim.

Sumerian annunaki (gods from the sky)

Sumerian annunaki (gods from the sky)

             All elohim bowed down to It! (Psalm 97:6-7)

elilim (אֱלִילִים) = worthless gods, nonentities, not-gods, insignificant gods.

“The heavens” in verse 6 probably refers not to the inanimate sky, but to the gods (including stars) who dwell in the heavens. Since even the other gods bow down to Y-h-w-h and acknowledge Its justice, anyone silly enough to worship these insignificant gods should be ashamed.

*

According to the Bible, it took many centuries for the Israelites to stop worshiping the old gods. The people would declare their allegiance to Y-h-w-h, and then slide back into worshiping some other god, a god “everyone” knew was especially effective at inflicting or solving the problem they were dealing with at the moment.

Henotheism was a hard enough concept. Monotheism was truly radical. After second Isaiah started preaching true monotheism during the Babylonian exile, who knows how long it took before most Israelites believed there was only one god in the universe?

I suspect that psalms and hymns were the most effective way to change the people’s beliefs. The “Ten Commandments” are powerful, but not persuasive.  The Bible often shows Moses and other prophets and priests scolding the Israelites for straying after other gods, but the scoldings must have been ineffective, since the people kept on backsliding.

A message embedded in a psalm is different. Music kindles people’s emotions. When I read the words of a psalm or hymn silently, I often have theological objections. But when I sing at services, I am often carried away with the feeling of the song. And the underlying message of the song stays with me, in my heart or my gut.

My advice to religious seekers is to choose your religion carefully, so you do not get emotionally carried away in the wrong direction.  And my advice to religious leaders is to make sure the singing is good.

1  I usually translate the four-letter name as “God”, but in this post it is important to distinguish Y-h-w-h from elohim. I insert hyphens because according to Jewish tradition, God’s personal name must not be spelled correctly in writings that are neither biblical nor liturgical. For many Jews this applies even to spelling the name with Roman letters.

The Hebrew for “lord” or “master” is adon (אָדוֹן). When Jews read out loud in religious services, we often substitute adonai  (“my lords”) for the four-letter name of God.

2 The Bible uses “elohim” as a singular noun for the gods Baal, Baal-berit, Baal-zebub, Dagon, Kemosh, Milkom, and Nisrach; the goddesses Astarte and Ashtoret; and the golden calf.

3  Psalms 29, 82, 86, 89, 95, 96, 97, 135, and 136 all assume the existence of other gods.

4  A divine assembly also appears in the book of Job and in Psalms 82 and 89.

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