Hebrew Bible Goddesses and Modern Feminist Scholarship

Title: Hebrew Bible Goddesses and Modern Feminist Scholarship (in Religion Compass, June 2012)
Publisher: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Author: Dr. Peggy Day

This article provides a pithy overview of early biblical scholarship, the issues left over from Romanticism, and the beginnings of feminist critique and scholarship in the field of Near Eastern polytheism. Dr. Peggy Day untangles the intertwined problems that previous scholarship has left us: problems such as goddesses classified in accordance to their sexual activities (“fertility goddesses”), the mystical myth of ancient matriarchy, and the sacred prostitution fallacy in ancient Canaan.

Dr. Peggy L. Day earned her doctorate from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University in the mid-1980s. She has an erudite, crisp style that you don’t see often in scholastic writing. Her article opens by discussing the origin of feminist scholarship and its relationship with the ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Feminist critique of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament came of an earlier school of thought which emerged at the end of the 1800’s, beginning of the 1900’s. This school of thought, commonly called Myth and Ritual, found champions in notables such as Sir James G. Frazer (The Golden Bough) and the famous psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. The Romanticism movement heavily influenced this school of thought. The Myth and Ritual school posited that in the misty origins of humanity, all prehistoric people worshipped a mother goddess of fertility and that people used matrilineal family trees because women were expected to have several sexual partners.   Of this matter, Frazer says the system ‘‘prevails most extensively amongst the lowest savages.” To this, Dr. Day concludes that “Thus, in traditional male-stream scholarship, female prominence, both in the divine and the human spheres, was correlated with primitive humanity, closeness to nature, unbridled female promiscuity and corporeality. So-called sacred (or cultic) prostitution was understood to be a […] a relic of this rudimentary phase of human development.” (Italics are my own.)

Traditional scholars viewed this “ancient matriarchy” as a lower, uncivilized, barbaric time in the existence of humanity, but the emerging feminist scholars took a reactionary view which championed ancient matriarchy. Both sides looked at the same model itself and took polar positions―instead of questioning the model itself. It’s like having an argument about how red gelatin is better than green gelatin, when we should have been looking at the chocolate instead. Comparing opposite ends of a paradigm does not a paradigm-shift create, especially when the paradigm is founded on inaccuracies and assumptions.

The early scholars of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament assumed that “sacred prostitution” occurred within the time concurrent with the biblical authors, instead of understanding the biblical authors as projecting their own revisionist history onto the past. While these early traditional scholars decried the indecency of “sacred prostitution,” feminist scholars embraced it and other premises put forth by traditional scholarship as a reactionary point instead of considering the actual evidence. We are left with people even today who embrace these early reactionary feminist views instead of taking a modern feminist approach and questioning the entire paradigm. Those who embrace the early feminist views still accidentally peg the matter in a patriarchal paradigm and adopt discredited scholarship of an earlier era, scholarship discredited both by recent finds of the early twentieth century and by taking a broader approach which looks into evidence outside the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament itself. It is my opinion that some people may still accept these older theories because the theories’ age and prevalence makes them more well-known outside a college classroom, and because of the texts’ release into the public domain from copyright expiration.

Early scholars did a disservice by classifying the goddesses presented in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and ancient Near East by their sexual and reproductive roles. They assumed that the worship of these goddesses centered only on these themes and they described Israelite monotheistic religion as “ethically-based and decidedly antithetical to Canaanite religion, including the Canaanite worship of female deities and the degrading fertility rites that this worship was imagined to entail.” Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholars defended the concept laid out by the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: that the evil Canaanites were the foil to the righteous Israelites, giving the Canaanites visages as absurd as Snidely Whiplash. This context furthered the idea that the goddesses mentioned biblically were not indigenous to the Israelites even though they were, and that honoring these goddesses embodied immorality and foreign corruption. Early scholars envisioned biblical patriarchy as an improvement on the theoretical matriarchy, while emerging feminist held that living with nature in a matriarchal system, instead of conquering nature, had greater benefit. Whether the idea of living with nature is admirable or not misses the crux: the premise of prehistoric matriarchy is built on faulty scholarship. The feminist view didn’t question, critique, or take itself out of the original model but merely took the opposing view for the sake of opposition. Feminist scholarship of the early twentieth century took reactionary matters further and disavowed the entire Hebrew Bible/Old Testament because, since it was steeped in patriarchy.

Later, feminist scholars began to accept parts of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament which validated women’s experience and described the Hebrew god in terms of feminine roles like comparing the god to a woman giving birth. However, yet again, this perspective views biblical feminine divine, goddesses, or the Hebrew god him/herself still in the same paradigm as the original model, and it still includes overt and exclusive connections of a woman’s experience to that of her reproductive roles.

By the mid to late 1980’s feminist scholarship questioned the original paradigm itself, looking at how scholars had classified goddesses almost exclusively in terms of sexuality and reproduction. They began to use sources outside the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament―such as the magnificent cache of texts found at the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit, from 1200 BCE―and compare and see if the ancient cultures who revered these same goddesses had a similar views. What they found surprised them: that early scholars injected into translations sexual innuendo and reproductive functions while the actual ancient texts did not contain nearly that amount. Especially in the case of the goddess ‘Anatu, “previous scholarship, operating under preconceived notions that inexorably endowed goddesses with sexual functions, had wrongly read her alleged sexual activities into the texts by investing cryptic words, episodes and gaps in the texts with sexual meanings.” New scholarship understands Near Eastern goddesses as more than divine vaginas; indeed ancient Near Eastern goddess take on roles such as warrior, hunter, creator, dynastic guardian, and more: roles that exceeded the simple harmony-in-nature fertility-makers as scholars influenced by Myth and Ritual school had thought.

Dr. Day explores the Canaanite goddesses and the terminology used in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. She further explores how English-language translations employ biblical biases, old scholarship, and assumptions (such as the existence of sacred prostitution), pointing out that “traditional scholarship failed to problematize the plausibility of a practice centered on the pre- or extramarital sexual activity of women in societies that placed so crucial an emphasis on paternity and, consequently, on the obsessive control of women’s sexuality. In this regard, Canaanite societies were no less stringent than Israelite.” On this, I will disagree only mildly. In my research I, too, have discovered that indeed the Canaanites had moral and ethical customs that are incongruous with the concept of sacred prostitution, but I believe that the Canaanite woman, although not entirely liberated by our standards today, fared better than her later Israelite daughters and fared well overall in the ancient world.

The article presents the scant references of goddesses, namely Asherah, Astarte, and the enigmatic “Queen of Heaven” in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Deuteronomist authors pepper references to Asherah with the notion her worship leading to the downfall of the northern Israelite kingdom, and suggest that deposing her would bring Yahweh’s favor. A later problematic reference describes a feminine activity, possibly weaving, in association with Asherah, and it hints at Asherah-worship as a common element in popular religion. Maacah and Jezebel, both royal women, worshipped Asherah. This goddess has connections with royal succession and guardianship of a dynasty; the duties of the Judean queen mother may well have included devotion to Asherah. This far exceeds earlier scholarship which relegates Canaanite goddesses to only reproductive and fertility concerns.

The name Astarte, also called Ashtart or ‘Athtartu, finds  its way into the biblical text three times in the singular and many more times in the plural form. Biblical authors use her name in the singular form when they accuse Solomon of being led astray into her worship by his “foreign” wives. Other references connect Astarte to warfare, protection of the dead, and the city of Sidon. The references of Astarte’s name in the plural form may indicate many different manifestations of the goddess, many understandings of her, or her many roles. Alternatively, the plural may simply mean “goddesses” in a generic sense and could falsely indicate goddesses’ “foreign” roots.

Lastly, Dr. Day looks at the term “Queen of Heaven,” mentioned only twice in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The term may indicate either Asherah or Astarte, or even a third goddess altogether. In this passage, both men and women participate in religious activity. The narrative tells of people who claimed that by ignoring the Queen of Heaven, strife and hunger came to the land. This connects the Queen of Heaven to abundance, and consequently to fertility, but other associations go farther. Dr. Day posits that the people saw that the lapse led to the strengthening of the invading army and the weakening of their own people; and that this Queen of Heaven may ensure peace or strength in war―roles which exceed fertility.

In the eight pages of article and two pages of bibliography, this useful piece aids a beginning scholar in understanding the historiography and the cultural movements that permeate this field. I would have liked to have seen further examination of the extra-biblical texts and how these relate back to the topic at hand, but alas I am certain that would make more of a dissertation than an article. Modern scholarship of the ancient Near East has benefitted much in recent years from introspection and examination of the cultural and sociological movements that influence it. From Romanticism and the Myth and Ritual school, to early reactionary feminism, to a shedding of those models, we have learned much over the years about ourselves and this field. We can begin to understand the underlying assumptions upon which the modern scholarship of the ancient Near East has been built in the intervening years: assumptions of a matriarchy before we became “civilized” monotheists, assumptions of the existence of  “sacred prostitution,” and assumptions that Canaanite goddesses functioned only in regards to their sexual roles.

[With over thirteen years of experience, research, and leadership, Tess Dawson galvanizes the Near Eastern and Middle Eastern polytheist communities. Ms. Dawson shares news, interviews, and information about the Near Eastern historic-rooted religious communities, as well as her thoughts on honoring the deities and practicing Natib Qadish, a revived ancient Canaanite religion. Her books include Whisper of Stone: Natib Qadish, Modern Canaanite Religion (2009), Anointed: A Devotional Anthology for the Deities of the Near and Middle East (2010) and The Horned Altar: Rediscovering and Rekindling Canaanite Magic (2013).]

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