God’s Better Half

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

Francesca Stavrakopoulou, a British biblical scholar, caused quite a stir some years back by suggesting in a BBC documentary that the Hebrew God Yahweh may once have had a wife who was subsequently edited out of the Old Testament. The alleged wife was a fertility goddess named Asherah, originally the consort of the Canaanite god El. Yahweh later appropriated El’s name as one of his own, so why not his wife as well? It was hardly news, at least among specialists in the field, that the ancient Hebrews had not always been strictly monotheistic. In the Old Testament itself, God is forever railing against his people for “whoring after other gods,” as the King James Bible so indelicately puts it. Even the estimable King Solomon, builder of the Hebrew temple in Jerusalem, was guilty of allowing his foreign-born wives to place idols of their gods there, including Asherah.

Asherah’s presence in the temple is one of the facts cited by Stavrakopoulou to buttress her claim that Yahweh had tied the knot. There are also some artifacts and inscriptions unearthed at various archeological sites referring to Yahweh and “his Asherah,” although this might be a reference to a shrine or to a cult object, rather than to the goddess herself. All in all, the evidence is far from conclusive. Yet it might be instructive to speculate on how things might have been different if Yahweh had stayed married, assuming that he ever was. Perhaps it might have taken some of the rough edges off a deity known for displays of unbridled testosterone. However, it must also be acknowledged that the Greek god Zeus was married, but his domestic situation did little to improve his behavior; in fact, he ate his first wife and cheated on his second. Still, you’d like to think a married Yahweh might have been a little more understanding in situations where husbands gave in to the importuning of their wives, as when Adam ate the forbidden fruit or when Solomon allowed idols in the temple.

Feminist theologians have long complained that women in general have gotten short shrift in the Bible. Imagine what must have been running through Sarah’s head when Abraham passed her off to the people of Gerar as his sister rather than his wife, thereby pimping her to the local monarch? We never hear her side of the story. And how did she feel when she learned that her husband had been prepared to make a burnt offering of their son Isaac because Abraham believed God had commanded him to do it? And what did Jesus‘ female followers think when they first reported that Jesus had risen from the dead, only to be dismissed by his male disciples? How would Christianity have been different if it had taken its marching orders from St. Peter, who was married, rather than from the celibate St. Paul, who only grudgingly conceded that it was “better to marry than to burn”?

According to the biblical creation story, human beings are created in God’s image, and ever since we have been trying to understand what God is like by doing a little reverse engineering. Inevitably, God winds up looking a lot like us -- or at least the part of us that wears pants rather than skirts. This gets to another common complaint by feminist theologians, that the God in whose image we are made seems to have mostly male attributes, even though the relevant passage in the Genesis creation story specifically mentions that both males and females are created in his image. The Roman Catholic Church has at least tacitly acknowledged this shortcoming by elevating the Virgin Mary to semi-divine status through their doctrine of the Assumption, which holds that Mary was bodily taken up into heaven without having to die first. Many Protestants denounced this proposition as goddess worship when it was formally promulgated as church dogma in 1950. However, the psychologist Carl Jung, himself a Protestant, greeted this event as the most significant spiritual development since the Reformation. On a purely mythological level, it represented the incorporation of the feminine into the previously masculine Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In practice, however, Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven never added up to the divine quaternity that Jung was looking for. And thus some might say an essential element remains absent from our understanding of God: his better half.

Judges 2:17
Genesis 20:1-7
Genesis 22:1-14
Luke 24:1-12
1 Corinthians 7:9

Home | Readings
© Copyright 2004-2011 by Eric Rennie
All Rights Reserved