Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Council of Gods, Part 3 - The Divine Couple

Worship of goddesses is not uncommon in religious history, especially in polytheistic religions where the presence of female deities seemed as natural as the presence of women here. Yahweh, however, has long been understood to be a very different kind of god, very different from humans. The twelfth century Jewish philosopher Maimonides said “God is not a body, nor can bodily attributes be ascribed to him” and then added further “He has no likeness at all.” [1] It must be noted however that Maimonides lived in the twelfth century after Christ and not the twelfth century before Christ. The people of Ancient Israel had a very different understanding of God. As noted in previous posts, ancient Israelite conceptions of the heavens involved a council of Gods. There is also evidence of a divine family of gods including the worship of a Hebrew goddess.

In 1929 a French excavation team working in Ras Shamra, Syria discovered some religious texts of the ancient Ugarit. The Ugaritic religious texts gave tremendous insight into the beliefs of Canaanites who neighbors of the Israelites. The chief God of the Canaanite pantheon was named El. The name “el” is also used in Hebrew. As examples are several theophoric names: Israel “he will prevail as God”; Michael “who is like God?”; Immanuel “God is with us”. The female consort of El was Athirat. El and Athirat had seventy sons. A great resource on the Ugaritic Council of Gods, Divine Family, and their connection to Ancient Israel is Mark Smith’s The Origins of Biblical Monotheism. The Ugaritic Council of Gods could be broken down into three tiers. At the highest tier sat El and possibly Athirat. The second tier included the seventy sons of El and Athirat (bn ‘ilm). The third tier included messengers and craftsman.

The Israelite Council of Gods could also be understood in a three-tier structure. At the first tier sits Yahweh-Elohim. In the second tier are the Sons of God (bene elohim). The bene elohim are sometimes called the Morning Stars (kokebe boqer). The third tier was made up of angels (mela’kim) which literally means messangers. Some archeologists believe that Yahweh gradually came to fill the role held by El. Others understand that they may have been separate deities. Margaret Barker believes that Yahweh was originally the son of El [2]. This idea is consistent with the drama found in Deuteronomy 32: 8-9 in which the nations were divided and Yahweh was given charge over Israel. Of course, Yahweh would have become foremost among the bene elohim to have rule over all nations (Psalms 82). But what of Athirat? Does she have a place in the Israelite family of gods. There is evidence that Athirat, known in Israel as Asherah, in fact had a huge role in the faith of the people of Ancient Israel.

We can sometimes know what ideas or beliefs were popular during a given time period by the abundance of surviving documents condemning them. Goddesses do appear in the Hebrew Bible but almost always in a negative light. What are condemned most fiercely are the explicit representations of the Goddess. However, some of the more subtle and symbolic references to her remain. Asherah herself is a Semitic mother goddess. There is also an object called an asherah (lower-case) also known as an asherah pole. The asherah pole was a sacred tree or pole that stood near religious sites to honor Asherah, the goddess herself. In the King James Bible the word asherah is translated grove or groves (asherim). The word appears 39 times in the Hebrew Bible. It appears that these trees were everywhere. In fact they were often found in the temple itself. What is difficult to know is whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. Of course, for an objective historian this just shows the different factions within Ancient Judaism. But for believers this could be an important point to consider. What we have of the Bible is widely understood to be a collection of various texts, edited and revised by Deuteronomist scribes. A Deuteronomist is one who adheres to strict monotheism, eliminates any reference to any god besides Yahweh. It could be thought of as the “Yahweh-alone” movement. Anyway, King Josiah is the hero of the Yahweh-alone movement. He purged the temple and removed all the asherahs (2 Kings 23). However, it is important to get the other side of the story and understand who Asherah really was and what she meant to the people.

There are two archeological inscriptions that connect Asherah to Yahweh and suggest that they were a divine couple or at least related and amicable. The first was found at Kuntillat ‘Arjud on an 8th century BCE ostracon which reads: “I have blessed you by YHVH of Samaria and His Asherah”. Another was found at Khirbet al-Qom which reads: “Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh and by his Asherah; from his enemies he saved him!” However, the most abundant archeological evidences for Asherah worship in Ancient Israel are the figurines, over eight-hundred found to date. It is thought that these figurines were teraphim, small talismans thought to bring fertility and aid in childbirth. These figurines have been found all over Israel as evidence that belief in Asherah was widespread.

More subtle references to the Hebrew Goddess remain intact in the Hebrew Bible. These references are often understood as simple personifications of attributes of deity. For example, God’s wisdom is often personified in feminine form. The fallacy of reification is the error of treating an abstraction as if it were the real thing. But this is open to interpretation. Two feminine manifestations of God are the Shekhina and Hokhma. Shekhina is a term used in the Talmud to denote the “visible and audible manifestation of God’s presence on earth.” In Midrash literature, “the Shekhina concept stood for an independent, feminine divine entity prompted by her compassionate nature to argue with God in defense of man.” [3] The word “shehkina” however does not occur in the Bible itself. There was a trend in the late Biblical period of theology to interpose “personified mediating entities between God and man”. It is perhaps from this that Shekhina developed. These entities may have been originally emanations of God’s attributes that developed into angel beings who acted under the instruction of God. The most common of these emanations was Hokhma or Wisdom (Sophia in Greek). [4]

The most important Biblical text regarding Hokhma is probably in Proverbs. Here Hokhma (Wisdom) is speaking in first person about her relationship with Yahweh:

“The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When [there were] no depths, I was brought forth; when [there were] no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I [was] there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: Then I was by him, [as] one brought up [with him]: and I was daily [his] delight, rejoicing always before him; Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights [were] with the sons of men.” (Proverbs 8:22-31)

What is notable here is the role of Hokhma with Yahweh in the Creation. Near the end of this passage she says “I was brought by him, [as] one brought up [with him]”. The Hebrew word for “brought up” used here is “amon” which means “trained as a craftsman”. Hokhma plays an active role in creating the earth, the mountains, hills, fields, seas, and the sons of men with whom were her delights. In another text it reads: “The LORD by wisdom [hokhma] hath founded the earth; by understanding hath he established the heavens.” (Proverbs 3:19). In the previous verse, Hokhma is related the Tree of Life itself. “She [is] a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy [is every one] that retaineth her.” (Proverbs 3:18). It has been noted here that the Hebrew word for happy, “ushar”, may have been a play on words for Asherah, the mother goddess and giver of life. Margaret Barker proposes that the menorah itself, which stood in the first Israelite temple, was a tree of life and a symbol of the Mother Goddess, in fact, an asherah. She suggests that this was the very asherah that Josiah had removed from the temple. [5] Mormon scholar Daniel Peterson, proposed that family of Lehi would have been very familiar with the relationship of the Tree of Life to the Mother of God. Margaret Barker believes that the First-Temple Judaism understood Yahweh to be the son of God (bene elohim) and that he also had a mother. Daniel Peterson suggests that Nephi would have understood the symbol of the Tree of Life as a symbol of the Mother of God. [6] When the angel asked Nephi what he desired he said that he desired to know the interpretation of the tree that his father, Lehi, had seen. Interestingly, the angel did not offer an interpretation. Rather he showed him Mary, the mother of Christ. Nephi saw her and then the child in her arms. Then the angel asked him if he understood the meaning of the tree and Nephi answered without hesitation: “Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men.” (1 Nephi 11:9-22).

My favorite concept of a Heavenly Mother is in the story of Creation. Granted you need to read between the lines a little, but it makes sense to me. First of all, Hokhma was understood to play a role in the Creation. Also, there is the issue of name of God, Elohim. In Mormonism there is an idea that there is no such thing as a single god, in fact all gods would be god pairs united to become one Elohim. The Doctrine and Covenants mentions a few ways people become gods. First, there is no deification without Christ: “They are they who received the testimony of Jesus... Wherefore, as it is written, they are gods... even the sons of God.” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:51-58). In another section deification comes by participation in celestial marriage: “If a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant... Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection... Then shall they be gods, because they have no end...” (Doctrine and Covenants 132: 19-20). In another section it is also said that that the highest order of the Celestial Kingdom is for only those who enter into the “new and everlasting covenant.” (Doctrine and Covenants 131:1-4). Mormon apostle Erastus Snow put the concept this way: “There never was a God, and there never will be in all eternities, except they are made of these two component parts; a man and a woman; the male and the female.” [7]

After Elohim had made the Earth, the light and darkness, heavens, seas, land, plants, and animals, they set about to create mankind, in Hebrew “adam”.

“And said, Elohim, Let us make adam in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.

“So created Elohim, adam in his image, in the image of Elohim he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1: 26-27, my translation)

This story brings up an interesting thought. Mankind, adam, was created in the image and likeness of Elohim, the gods. They were created male and female. It would seem here that Elohim has both a male and female image and likeness. This could mean that both male and female are compound in one being. That is one interpretation. However, I prefer the view that the Elohim are actually two beings, a father and mother. Man being created in the image and likeness of God the Father and woman in the image and likeness of God the Mother. There is a lot to consider here. Particularly important is the idea that these two divine beings live in such unity that they can be considered one God while still retaining their ontological distinctiveness. How could this serve as an example for earthly things? Can husbands and wives pattern their marriages after this kind of unity? Much can be gained from exploring these ideas.


[1] Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess. Wayne State University Press. 1990. p. 28.

[2] Barker, Margaret. Temple Theology: An Introduction. Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge. 2004. p. 7.

[3] Patai, p. 96.

[4] Patai, p. 97.

[5] Barker, p. 90

[6] Peterson, Daniel. Nephi and His Asherah. Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume - 9, Issue - 2, Pages: 16-25. Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2000
See an online version here:

[7] Journal of Discourse 19:270

Further Study

Ostler, Blake. Exploring Mormon Thought: Of God and Gods. Volume 3. Kofford Books. 2008. pgs. 41-121.

Smith, Mark. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background. Oxford. 2003.

Dever, William. Did God Have a Wife?: Archeology and Folk Religion of Ancient Israel. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2008.

1 comment:

  1. you said - "Some archeologists believe that Yahweh gradually came to fill the role held by El. Others understand that they may have been separate deities. Margaret Barker believes that Yahweh was originally the son of El [2]."
    i have a baptist friend who taught hebrew and greek at denver seminary, we were talking about translations and when moses was on the mount talking with the Lord moses asked - who should i tell them that sent me. and the lord said tell them i am what i am. my friend says a better translation would actually be 'i am what i have become'. i just find that pretty fascinating in light of what we believe regarding progression and some of the thoughts you listed above. cool blog. thanks