Monday, 21 March 2011

Mrs. God

This weekend 'The Daily Mail' ran a story which was mined from a ‘Radio Times’ article promoting ‘The Bible’s Buried Secrets’, which is being aired on Tuesday nights on a primetime BBC2 slot.

The article warns us that there are a couple of controversial conclusions about to be broadcast. They include that Eve was not the first woman, and that the ancient Hebrew God had a wife.

“I spent several years specialising in the cultural and social contexts of the Bible and I discovered that Yahweh, the God we have come to know, had to see off a number of competitors to achieve his position as the one and only god of the ancient Israelites” writer/presenter Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou was quoted as saying.

For purposes of even-handedness and apoplexy, Anne Widdecombe was consulted for her comments. Clearly influenced by the "My dad's bigger than your dad" school of dialectic, she said:

"I would guess that most other theologians will demolish her theory in three seconds flat."

For a well-educated woman, she can be a terrible twerp. That is to say, someone ought to tell Miss Widdecombe not to hold her breath for more than three seconds, nor Dr Stavrakopoulou to get too excited about her Services-to-Originality. These ideas are quite old-hat and very well supported.

One of the keys to understanding historical Judaism is to remember that it -unlike its fellow middle-Eastern monotheistic monoliths, Christianity and Islam – was not created, condensed and made canon within a short period of time.

In their respective histories, Christianity and Islam have provided multiple instances of coercive consensus: think of the myriad movements where fellow believers have been outcast as apostates and heretics for espousing a fractionally factional view.

The creation of Judaism was more gradual, the steering of polytheistic peoples through revelation of many prophets who included Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Moses. As Raphael Patai wrote:

“In view of the general, human, psychologically determined predisposition to believe in and worship goddesses, it would be strange if the Hebrew-Jewish religion, which flourished for centuries in a region of intensive goddess cults, had remained immune to them”

(Incidentally, if you think blogging doesn’t cause suffering, just try to write ‘Patai’ without your spell-checker jumping in to change it to ‘Patio’. Three times.)

Eve first:
The text of Genesis 1:27 "male and female he created them", indicated to the early rabbis that both genders were created simultaneously. But since Eve was generated from Adam's rib later on (Genesis 2:22), it seemed that Adam must have had another wife before her. Some even identified her as the Mesopotamian-derived Lilith, who was probably an aspect of the goddess Innana.

This contradiction between paragraphs that rub shoulders with each other in the Old Testament is not unusual. Genesis shows clear signs of being assembled from two or three versions - some say more - to the point where respectable Biblical scholars have identified clear voices and given them names. ‘J’ is the ‘Yahwist’ voice (so called because it refers to God as ‘Yahweh’), concentrates on ancestral narratives and divine promise of land. ‘P’ is the ‘Priestly’ voice which stresses ritual and observance. ‘E’ is the ‘Elohist’ which refers to God as ‘Elohim’ and is concerned with dreams and prophecy.

There’s a good round up of the various theories in here. From what I can gather, there isn’t much debate about whether different people contributed to the books, but whether they were edited together in a ‘block’ or ‘interweaving’ fashion.

This ‘multiple and sometimes contradictory contributors’ factor is one of the most lucid illustrations of why the Bible should not be used as the precise technical manual that it clearly isn’t.

And God’s Wife?

Robert Graves touches lightly on the feminine inherent in the Biblical god here but if you’re really interested, you’re just going to have to spring for this.

Patai (not Patio) considers the Canaanite origins of the female in Hebrew mythology with Asherah and Anath, whom he considers to have influenced the development of the Hebrew ‘Shekhina’ – the palpable manifestation of God’s presence on earth. He then goes on to investigate the ‘Matronit’, a Kabbalistic entity.

These female numinous persons are not explicitly mentioned in the Pentateuch/Torah - the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). But that’s not too surprising as the documents, although derived from earlier works, were probably assembled into their modern format at the relatively late date of the end of the fifth century BCE. By this time, if there were any tweaks, they were done in a more Patriarchal environment.

For Patai, the female re-emerges in the Jewish mystical movements of The Kabbala in the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries (not the recent self-help movement which claims inspiration from it). It comes from the inherent grammar in the Torah (Hebrew words have a gender) and the presence of these themes in the ambient culture. It’s not the only time that an earlier theme is carried under the radar to re-surface later. As he writes:

“The best known, though not always readily acknowledged, example of this type of transformation is the re-emerence of the ancient Near Eastern mythological feature of divine triads … in the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity”

Despite the strong wording in the quote from earlier in this blogpost, it would probably be unfair to claim that Dr Stavrakopoulou thinks she’s the first on this territory. It would be a miracle if an academic of her stature wasn’t aware of all the work which has gone before. The DM article is from a Radio Times article, and bears a lot of ‘PR placement’ marks. If I wanted high viewing figures I’d have done exactly the same thing, and a press release is not as considered a document as an academic paper.

In other words, she’s probably more humble than the PR person at the BBC is on her behalf.

Besides which, it’s obvious that God must have a wife. Who else would wash his pants?

PS Just watched this on the BBC iPlayer. Excellent. Really looking forward to the others. Dr Stavrakopoulou does a great job of contextualising the Biblical myths in their historical reality.


  1. She's also called Sophia in some mystic and gnostic traditions (which is where Dan Brown got the idea from for his female lead in Da Vinci Code).

  2. Excellent post!

    I've been fascinated by the different voices and contradictions in the Bible for a while and I really enjoyed this post.

    It doesn't take much research or attention for these things to be blatantly obvious, which makes it all the more sad that the religious miss this (for whatever reason).

  3. Polytheism is apparently more sophisticated than monotheism. aWhich came first, monotheism or polytheism?

  4. Any discussion of religion's origins on anything other than an anthropoligical basis has my eyes glazing over. I've long suspected that the top brass in any religion can see the cracks in the binding of their holy books, and thus focus on the sensible to promote civilised living with a bit of awe thrown in to keep us hooked. Church leaders and staff must have their own highly personalised angles on divinity and if gender is an issue, by all means sex your god. Religion is a comfort for billions, and they should be comfortable with their beliefs.
    But why texts thousands of years old are always treated with such significance in terms of what we think and do now, I don't see. The ancient does seem to imbue beliefs with that extra credibility, but I've always thought it should be quite the opposite. Build on them, adapt to them where feasible, but don't be afraid to hold them up to the light of modern thinking. There'd be a lot less problems caused by religion if people did that.