Did God have a wife, and if so where’d she go?

June 23, 2017

Dear Cecil:

I saw a British documentary that stated that God — the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim God, that is — used to have a female companion, but then male dominance made it impossible to imagine such a powerful female being, and goddesses were no longer worshipped. Did this really happen?

Cecil replies:

Before the Israelite god Yahweh really made it big, a bevy of other deities shared the stage with him, among them a fertility goddess named Asherah. So says theologian Francesca Stavrakopoulou, host of the 2011 BBC series you evidently saw, called Bible's Buried Secrets. And that much is largely accepted by historians. Nor is Stavrakopoulou alone in claiming that Yahweh (in some form) and Asherah were at one point an item, worshipped side by side, though this is a matter of more contention. But I don’t see where she suggests that the goddess’s disappearance was the result of a male-centric power play, or some resulting failure of imagination — as far as we can know, Asherah may have been just another victim of the messy shift to monotheism.

It’s not hard to dream up more sinister theories, of course. As discussed here in a 2008 column, for more than 150 years scholars have periodically floated the idea that Western societies were, in millennia past, largely matriarchal, peacefully worshipping a nurturing Mother Goddess, until a warlike patriarchy took over and set up male gods in her place. But the bulk of the archaeological evidence called on to support this notion — female statuettes from prehistoric Europe, 9,000-year-old burial sites in Turkey, etc. — is open to other interpretations, to put it mildly. Goddess-worship by Wiccans and other present-day pagans is probably best understood as reflecting a modern spiritual longing, rather than as some super-ancient tradition brought back to life.

But whether or not anyone ever really worshipped a dominant Goddess in the prehistoric past, there’s no doubt that high-powered goddesses were found in pantheons all over the ancient Near East and Europe. In the Canaanite religions of the eastern Mediterranean, the god El, a major precursor to Yahweh, and his wife Asherah presided over a whole squad of lesser gods, male and female, with the goddesses Anat and Astarte high up among these. Polytheistic deities can seem like supernatural versions of humans — embodying various elemental concepts and forces, sure, but still feuding and fighting and mating with each other like earthly families. How do we get from there to a single God, working in basically mysterious ways?

Well, academics tell us, in systems where you’ve got a hierarchy of gods, with one or two dominant and the others variously subordinated (henotheism, you’ll see this setup called), sometimes the dominant god will gradually come to assume the roles of all the mid-level gods below, leaving behind only the bottom-tier deities to function as the top god’s servants. And that’s what happened with the Canaanites, says (e.g.) biblical historian K.L. Noll: Yahweh became the one God; the other divine beings remaining in the Old Testament are portrayed as his messengers — i.e., angels. So yes, the goddesses got written out of the story, but most of the other male gods did too. If female divinity really was singled out for expungement, it’d be tough to prove it.

And in fact, the Christian God that eventually emerged from all this was seen as having transcended any corporeal attributes, the male-female divide included. As theology professor Andrew Walker told the BBC: “Out of the Holy Trinity, the three Gods in one, only one is male. . . . Jesus Christ, because he was born a man.” Under a strictly orthodox reading, Walker says, God the father has no actual procreative role, and thus no gender; he’s called the father because that’s what Jesus calls him. So why, then, is he a he? Here the hand of male dominance may be easier to infer: in a male-centered society, of course God was going to get a male pronoun. As liberal theologians have worked over the years to establish the use of more inclusive language, traditionalists have battled back. Hell, traditional grammarians are still hanging onto the idea that he works just fine as a gender-neutral generic pronoun; what do you expect conservative clergy to say?

It’s not like the feminine divine got stamped out of Christianity altogether, though: witness the Virgin Mary. She's crucially not God, or a god, of course, but she’s held to have been conceived free from sin and taken up into heaven, and in much of the Christian world she’s the addressee of prayer. Just this past January a Catholic group, the International Marian Association, petitioned the Pope to acknowledge Mary as the “co-redemptrix” of humanity, together with (though, the blasphemy-averse Marians stress, not equal to) Jesus. This pitch has never quite flown with Church higher-ups, but for centuries it’s remained in the debate. With the ascent of monotheism, we might say, God may have lost a wife, but hey — he gained a mother.

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