Probing the Shape of Syncretism Known to Jeremiah

This chapter appears in Decades of Feminist Writing, DYN self-published, 2020

With this biblical study of prophet Jeremiah’s content from Hebrew Scripture, I hope that readers discover something of the religious experience of the people with whom he engaged. Questions emerge: Why did Jeremiah need to present a message of renewal? Was his call for loyalty to Yahweh in worship addressed only to a select few? Why might women more likely have found meaning within Canaanite expressions of honor to a Deity? What impact might syncretism have had on ancient Israel and do we today negate or avoid honest appraisal of ancient Israel’s worship practice? Might today’s male concept of Yahweh God among many Christians need to be countered in order to radically turn to the One “I AM”?

Perhaps today’s evidence is too scanty or lacks “proper” documentation. Is the risk great that we might lose genuine respect for or faith in the heritage that we claim? To what extent do we, when infiltrated with a male-God concept or male representative priesthood, fail to value religions that honor women divine figures? Might we better comprehend what female goddess worship offered the worshipper, if simultaneously we probed the impact of devotion toward a masculine god? How better might we discover the depth and breadth of Divinity? Diverse steps can involve pain, like the pain of isolation known to Jeremiah. First, however, we ponder a few quotes.

Mesopotamia’s gods were natural powers . . . human concerns with gods sprang largely from the desire to live in harmony with nature.1

The defining characteristic of ancient Hebrew religion was the worship of Yahweh, but not worship of Yahweh alone.2

How does one explain the extraordinary hold Asherah exercised over some people of Israel? Might she have answered the psychological need for a mother goddess as keenly felt by people and leaders.3

Not until a complete break with the Palestinian environment and cultic traditions was post-exilic Judaism purged of its Canaanite and Mesopotamian accretions in which mother goddess and her fertility symbolism constituted such a conspicuous feature.4

Israel is significant in human history not because of her pagan beginnings, but through her attaining knowledge of a God who is righteousness and truth.5

To learn about cultic function enables understanding of Jeremiah’s prophetic message. Material written about the cult of ancient Israel varies. At least 104 verses of his prophetic book reflect on worship patterns; how can we help but identify this theme as one of his major ones? Of that total, the greatest frequency appears in chapter 44 with thirteen. Chapters 2 and 3 contain nine verses each on the subject. Thirty out of the 52 chapters of the book contain material related to idol worship in some form. Twenty-one out of the first 25 chapters include such material. Over-all historical perspective adds to this background.

Thorkild Jacobsen identifies three major phases of ancient Mesopotamian religion, grouped by millennia. The fourth millennium BCE (Before Common Era) centered on worship of forces in nature. Powers central to economic survival then developed. Jacobsen discusses the typical figure—the son—dominant and dying, who struggles for fertility and plenty. The concept of a great ruler god of the Nippur assembly, based on the need for security against enemies, emerges during the third millennium. For such temporary occasions a military protector symbol is named. Into the second millennium then comes increasing importance of individual fortunes. Communal economy and security get lessened or replaced by the typical figure of the personal god. Within close, personal relationship, divine help is expected. Both divine anger or punishment for sin and compassion, forgiveness, and love in response to the individual’s repentance follow. The individual matters to God; God cares deeply for the individual. Jacobsen observes that only Israel extended this attitude of personal religion to include the nation.6

A sense of balance comes with reading this material alongside J. J. Backofen’s Myth, Religion and Mother Right. While one writer values claiming a male god as typical, another thinks that a goddess rightfully illustrates the theme, notably in the fourth millennium. Or while one seeks to commend the communal as a preferable ideology, another supports the single ruler patterns as near-inevitable. Unmentioned in the noting of Israel’s claim for a personal, national God is the subtle, but significant shift that evolved in the significance of “naming,” who “by nature” was designated as inferior. Precisely such “overlooking” in the recording of history affects our pattern of thinking about details such as goddess worship in Jeremiah’s time.

Another approach to history leads to identifying the kind of kings who evolved in the Near East. Frankfort7 distinguishes them. While in Egypt the Pharoah was known as god incarnate, in Mesopotamia the ruler was the chosen servant of the gods. The Hebrew hereditary leader proved to be quite different from either of those. Kinship became the focus of kingship, addressing how ties of loyalty were bound through blood. Not descended from heaven, kingship based its authority in descent. In theory the Hebrew king functioned not primarily in the sacred sphere, but for leadership in justice within the nation and for war beyond it. Among leaders, priests served for tasks of sacrifice and interpreting the Divine will until prophets more dramatically took over the latter role. Obedience to the Creator’s will enabled salvation while for other peoples the goal of peace with nature satisfied.8

Looking more directly at the concept of royalty, Merlin Stone suggests that in very earliest times goodness likely originated in the person of the highest, most sacred attendant of the female deity. This woman herself may have been regarded as the queen or tribal ruler, having gained her position through the custom of matrilineal descent. She as high priestess of the goddess came to endow the king with divine right. That fact led to a potential king’s playing the role of son/lover to the high priestess as a step toward gaining access to the throne.9 Long after male deities assimilated into the older worship of the goddess and human male kings were enthroned, a pattern of the female endowing the king persisted. Further information about the queen mother will follow.

In discussing primitive democracy, Jacobsen notes the Old Babylonian assembly of gods in which Ishtar’s word was highly esteemed. Her “weight”—in terms of intelligence, profundity, knowledge—was considered as seriously as Anum the king’s. With the “world of the gods projected to be similar to that of human beings,” the political organization of prehistoric Mesopotamia catered toward the democratic. Goddesses and gods actively deliberated in the assembly. Functions of the divine assembly included: being a court of law, granting and withdrawing kingship, and meeting emergency needs.

Jacobsen contends that historic Mesopotamia then became organized along autocratic lines. Seven powerful gods came to have “the final say.” Enil assumed the “executive duties” of carrying into effect the decisions of the assembly.10 This scheme indicates the probable truth that a people’s concept of the Divine emerges influenced by how they as people function or perceive themselves. When those making decisions about economics, agriculture, and local organization were women, in the epoch preceding patriarchy, prime deities were acknowledged as goddesses. As men began to settle, began to assume some family obligations and community control, they expected a male god to be in control of the gods and goddesses.

Of interest is how the ancient Israelite concept of Yahweh developed. No doubt the period of the patriarchs and Moses’ focus on Yahweh equated with god El. But a basic difference stemmed from the fact that Israel was a semi-nomadic, desert people. As the early Hebrews settled in Palestine, shifts followed. Rain proved to be essential for a group to maintain itself, animals, and vegetation. The power of fertility became pronounced in the struggle to survive. As Canaanites resolved such needs through belief in powers in Baal, Anat, and other deities, so with Israel. But in her case, all would be met in one deity alone. The “Rider of the Cloud” designation for rain potential transferred from Baal to Yahweh. That shift proved easier to fulfill than some aspects related to fertility. For “ . . . the indigenous vegetation myth and ritual was too firmly rooted to be eradicated by an alien intrusion from the desert.”11

While assimilation took place, the covenant tradition also spawned deep roots. Because of Sinai’s link with the Commandments and traditions established during the Exodus and wilderness experience, Yahweh and Baal ideologies came into violent opposition. There too pain emerged. While I believe in the reality, presence, and active influence of the Yahweh-alone faithful, I wish to understand more clearly the syncretism encountered and absorbed.

Prominent in ancient efforts to achieve or ensure divine presence were drama, images, poetry, and building temples. Jacobsen12 identifies the three most important cult dramas: 1) the sacred marriage (in which powers of fertility linked with the divine representative), 2) yearly lamentations for death and the disappearance of the power of fertility, and 3) battle dramas (contests between forces of order and chaos). Equally influential in fostering divine presence were images of the god-goddess made by devotees and word pictures meant to activate or direct the powers lost or present. “Temples represented the form of power filling them or were perceived as the place where the owner could be found.”

Notable among Israel’s temples was the one in Jerusalem built by Solomon. But not until the third temple, built late in the fifth century, was it regarded as Yahweh’s residence. Before that, Yahweh descended on occasion from the divine dwelling of a true sun god—the heavens. Among the symbols within the temple remained an altar fire symbolic of the immortal, eternal god; curtains that opened only at dawn before the coming of the “Radiance of Yahweh,” at the New Year’s celebration; the recurring motif of cherubim (also associated with the palm tree) over the ark and elsewhere; and an empty throne, likely of gold.13

Likely a replica of the temple of Melcarth at Tyre, the building conveyed to the worshipper associations with goddess and solar worship. Herbert Gordon May contends that the two pillars before the temple as well as the very orientation of the building showed solar cult influence, reflecting Yahweh as sun god.14 Facing directly east, the temple facilitated the two equinoctial days’ celebration. In the early morning of the eighth day of the autumnal equinox, New Year’s Day, the sun’s first rays passed over the top of the Mount of Olives and entered the temple, depicting the coming of Yahweh into the sanctuary. The national religion of desert origin was transformed. “As the Radiance shone into the now visible room, it must have seemed to those who beheld the awesome sight that Yahweh had ascended the throne and taken the place thereon of the king.”15 After giving instructions to the people, Yahweh would return to the heavens.

Three Psalms likely heard with this procession for enthroning Yahweh as king: 1) Ps. 48:12 ff. – for the sacred march around the city; 2) Ps. 24 – a chant sung antiphonally as the ark entered the east gate; 3) Ps. 118 – further liturgy for the equinox festival.16 Three other scriptures describe Yahweh enthroned: 1) Ezek. 1:26-28; 2) Dan. 7:9, and 3) Isa. 6. In addition, Morgenstern finds the solar concept procedure in Ps. 82:1, Zech. 3:1-7, and Job 1:6 ff, 2:1ff.17

In a short article, G. W. Ahlstrom conjectures about a deity figure found below the floor of a shrine at Hazor as being perhaps a figure of Yahweh or Yahweh-El. Perhaps that figure could be explained that, as the Israelites settled in Canaan and assimilated themselves to the culture, they thought of Yahweh as head of the divine assembly along with the indigenous El. That could explain the absence of polemic against El in Old Testament material compared to that against Baal. A second possibility suggests that the enthroned figure represents Baal.18

A follow-up to the enthroning of Yahweh, or the god in surrounding cults, was enthronement of the human king as an embodiment of the Divine. He became truly the king-god. Morgenstern believes that Solomon and two kings who followed him were so considered. References to this effect for King Uzziah appear in II K 15:3-5; 16:10-16; 11 Chron. 26:16-21. Understandably, Israelite priests resented this infringement on their duties. For as the king, claimed as the nations’ “supreme ecclesiastic functionary,” kindled the sacred fire at the altar, he replaced them.19

Regarding routine functionaries in the cult, Jeremiah explicitly rejects the sacrificial system, particularly in 7:21-24. Although some sacrifices were offered during the wilderness experience, Yahweh never instituted that Canaanite system. Sacrifice became a form of worship to maintain, for personal advantage, the rhythm of nature. That form reflects the Canaanite understanding of the relationship between god and nature. But Jeremiah “assures” the people that no amount of ritual could avert the doom that was already coming (14:12). The process itself had to be denounced.20

In addition to those who offered sacrifice, Mesopotamian temple “staff” included a hierarchy of priests and priestesses such as:21

entu – virgin high priestess of high rank who presided in the god’s special chamber and functioned as the god’s wife in the celebration of divine marriage;
zinnisti zikri – temple eunuch-priestess dedicated to the worship of Ishtar-Tammuz;
naditu – large class of women dedicated to a specific god; not residents of a temple house
qadistu – temple prostitutes especially connected with the Ishtar cult;
Numerous Old Testament temple functionaries avoided the undesirable association given to Babylonian sacred prostitutes.
nethinim – temple slaves under the Levites devoted to the temple;
qedesh and qedeshoth – men and women devoted to gods as sacred prostitutes; involved with sacrifice and shrine equipment—in high places, pillars, Asherah;
zonah – mentioned more frequently in Hebrew Scripture than any other class of sacred women; “traffic” with those devoted to foreign gods meant that Israelite men so involved countered Israel’s tradition of “having no other gods”; usually located by the wayside, on every high hill and under every green tree, or at the threshing floor; offspring did not inherit like other sons
almah – important virgins, somewhat like Babylonian entu; dancers in vineyards on the Day of Atonement.

Central to understanding the fertility cult’s attraction is the basic belief that gods control human life. Also, greater productivity in fields and flocks meant greater prosperity. To cure sterility in these three areas, lay people went to sanctuaries to have intercourse with those officially dedicated to the gods, particularly at times of festivals. Recall that only men were required to attend major feasts. Further, personal union with the god’s representative enabled the god’s role with human prosperity.

With the Old Testament focus on woman’s primary value being for birthing and mothering, women felt driven to do all in their ‘power’ to achieve ‘their purpose.’ If marriage failed to produce children, a woman could either go to lie with a male prostitute or be dedicated to the god and therefore be available for men to come to her. Children of the cult became known as children of the god.22 Psalm 68:5 identifies Yahweh as “father to the fatherless.” What might today’s children be told about the biblical Samuel’s being dedicated to the temple? An article that relates aspects of nature religions having been meshed into Hebrew thought and practice asks about cultural background against which the ‘higher’ religion of the Old Testament reacts.23 Might self-righteous judgment toward ancient Israel be lessened today if idol worship granted toward being male could be owned? That women lived within the temple complex during biblical times appears true. As community men went to those centers to honor the goddess, perception of women as sacred, as “the undefiled,” could increase. Yet, repeatedly biblical and church history writers have demeaned them as mere prostitutes. Old Testament practice came to designate all women as unclean during twelve days of every month, unclean for twice as long having birthed a girl. Such judgment continues when opposing women as pastors, those with tasks at a holy altar.

Who then were goddesses in biblical material? The Great Mother has been variously named. From Greece come accounts of the worship of nature goddesses Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena; from Sumer and Babylonia come Inanna and Ishtar. The three in Syria and Palestine, with much in common yet with distinct personalities, were named Asherah, Astarte, and Anat. Principally agricultural deities, they reflect key aspects of womanhood: wife and mother, lover and mistress, chaste and beautiful virgin.24 Ishtar’s aspects or development most nearly appear in the Palestinian trio. Ishtar—source of regenerative power, wife of Anu, and frequently referred to as Queen of Heaven—is known also as the dominant partner of Tammuz. He, the ever-subordinate son or lover, annually dies (as seasons rotate) to then be rescued from the underworld by Ishtar.

El, known as “father of the great gods,” corresponds for the Israelites with Yahweh or El Elyon—maker of heaven and earth. He reigns supreme until Baal supersedes him. Asherah the wife of El bore Baal, Anat, Mot and a total of seventy deities. Obvious Goddess of fertility, she was worshipped particularly in Tyre and Sidon. Baal became the fixed designation for the deity Haded/Had/Hadd, the storm god and leading god of the Canaanite pantheon. Meaning simply “lord,” Baal in the plural sometimes signifies in biblical material the gods as a whole. Anat, known as wife and sister of Baal, could be called his chief lieutenant. When Mot, god of death, destroys Baal, Anat goes searching for both of them—Baal to mourn and bury, Mot to “winnow, scorch, grind, scatter, give to the birds.”25 The last action shows Mot being treated like the grain of harvest. The season of sterility and drought continues until Baal overcomes death and is released.

With the basic struggle in nature here, between growth and aridity, neither is ultimately destroyed. Each continues to recur, to be in conflict with the other. In his return to life Baal represents the urge to growth that comes with rains (“Rider of the Cloud”—so essential with an agriculture subsistence). El forces Mot to surrender to Baal, to acknowledge Baal as king. Drought ends and fertility gets re-established. Anat, formerly sister, becomes wife of Baal, her efforts in behalf of all thoroughly recognized.26

This then tells the basic story, variations of which appear. Our purpose remains to examine in more detail the goddesses involved and to attempt to understand why they uniquely met needs for Israelites, particularly women who worshipped them.

As early as middle second millennium BCE, the three—Asherah, Astarte, and Anat—were being worshipped. From her formative period through the Old Testament, the religion and “strange gods” of Israel’s near neighbors proved to be constant temptation. Commonalities appear in Ugaritic texts as do attributes among the three. They could be worshipped separately or together. Together the sisters formed a trinity, yet each retained a distinct identity. Names, functions, and consorts overlap in different accounts. Perhaps originally representing the same divinity, Anat and Asherah are often combined in tasks of fertility and war. R. A. Oden categorizes the three as follows: Anat – goddess of war; Ashtart (Astarte) – goddess of sexual love; Asherah – goddess of fecundity, fruitfulness.27

We look at them individually, beginning with Asherah (asherim, plural), the daughter but known more prominently as consort of El. Mother of 70 children, she and Anat served as wet nurses. Asherah likely held the mother goddess position. References appear more often for her in Hebrew Scripture than any other goddess. At times references designate the specific goddess, at other times her cultic symbol the tree or post. More precisely the symbol reflected the stump of a tree with branches “lopped off,” therefore more of a pole shape. Asherim frequently stood under living trees, designated “under every green tree, on every high hill.” William Holladay examines the sixteen times that this phrase or a variant appears in the Old Testament.28 Almost every sanctuary appeared to have included one of these fertility cult objects.

Worship of the Mother Goddess through much of the ancient Middle East included significance given to motifs of “tree of life,” “water of life,” and “sacred pillar.” Sacred associations stemmed from the vitality or power, growth and fruitfulness, in trees. They also presumed to have sacred qualities linked with magic plants and immortality. Palm trees, in their capacity to survive with so little moisture, were thought to be nourished by the goddess. In fact, all sacred objects and asherim were regarded as “impregnated with divine life or as the abode of the indwelling deity.”29

Jeremiah stood as one of the pre-exile opponents of disloyalty to Yahweh alone. Lev. 26:1 made clear the prohibitions: You shall make for yourself no idols, erect no graven image or pillar, not set up a figured stone in your land. “Yet there are a few indications, like at Mizpeh, that temples for worshipping Yahweh and Asherah were sometimes set up side by side.” Certain scholars believe that Asherah was worshipped as the paredros or mother of Yahweh.30

Support for Israelite approval of Asherah worship may appear in the fact that Baal was denounced so much more. He must have been declared a definite competitor for Yahweh-loyalty. For a period of time Asherah was considered a legitimate, even necessary, aspect of Yahweh worship. When king Ahab built a temple in Samaria, making an Asherah for it proved to be “expected.” Or again, noting II Kings 13:6, the Asherah “perhaps not considered un-Israelite” remained in Samaria.

Another intriguing incident relates to Elijah (I Kings 18:19). With 400 prophets of Asherah’s and 450 of Baal’s eating at Jezebel’s table (Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal of Sidon), the contest arose for determining who knew the true God. Apparently only Baal’s prophets were slaughtered as a result; 400 others continued to serve their goddess.31

In spite of Jeremiah’s perhaps single, stifled voice, writer Patai concludes that “only in the eyes of the post-exilic historian, looking back at the period of the divided monarchy from the vantage point of advanced Yahwist monotheism, does Asherah worship appear as sin.” How then is her hold on the people of Israel to be explained? Perhaps, in addition to the psychological needs therein achieved and the “complementary” role that she offered alongside Yahweh, the cult was simply too entrenched for active Yahwists to take action against it.32 Patai notes Old Testament data or evidence of the presence of Asherah worship—verbs and a time schedule of her “ins and outs.”

made – I Kings 16:33, II Kings 17:26, 21:3, II Chronicles 33:3
set up – Isa. 27:9; II K. 17:10; II Chr. 33:19
build – I K. 14:23
planted – Dt. 16:21 (implanted)
cutting down – Jer. 6:25, 26, 28, 30; II K. 18:14; 23:14; Ex. 34:13
hewing them down – II Chr. 14:2; 31:1; Dt. 7:5
breaking into pieces – II Chr. 34:4, 7
burning – II K. 23:15; Dt. 12:3
exterminating – II Chr. 19:3
removing – II Chr. 17:6
uprooting – Micah 5:13
introduced by Rehoboam into Jerusalem Temple – 928 BCE
removed by Asa – 893 (35 years)
restored by Joash – 825
removed by Hezekiah – 725 (100 years)
restored by Manassah – 698
removed by Josiah – 620 (78 years) a seemingly thorough attempt as illustrated by:

Restored after Josiah’s death – 609
All destroyed – 586 (23 years)

According to this calculation, of the 370 years of the Solomon temple being located in Jerusalem, 236 years included the statue of Asherah being there.33

Ashtart (plural Astarte) or the Ashtoreth (plural Ashtaroth) is another goddess toward which Old Testament Israelites were drawn. On occasion the LXX translation confused distinctions between Asherah and Ashtoreth. Changes evolved and characters developed as myths emerged, causing this confusion. Ashtart represents the great female principal responsible for fertility and reproduction. Symbolized by the lily and serpent, she finds expression in the erotic aspects of sexual desire and love. She also displays more ferocious qualities. Behind her, Aphrodite (Greek) and Ishtar (Mesopotamia) lies the archetypal figure of Inanna-Ishtar as the Mother Goddess.34

References to Ashtart appear in Dt. 1:4, Josh. 13:31; 9:10; 12:4; 13:12, I Chr. 5:56. Others that connect her with Baal include Jud. 2:13; 10:6; I Sam. 7:4; 12:10. Her principal concern centered in guaranteeing fertility of plants, animals, and humanity plus defeating impotence, barrenness, and aridity. E. O. James contends that “nowhere in the Ancient Near East were goddesses of fertility, either as virginal or progenitresses of life, more dominant and persistent than among Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Hebrews.”35

Ashtart’s religion had existed and flourished in the Near and Middle East for thousands of years before Abraham the patriarch became the first “prophet of the male deity Yahweh.” King Solomon (960-922 BCE) worshipped Ashtarte, known as the Great Goddess or the Near East Queen of Heaven, and other local deities. His political “habit” of collecting foreign princesses for his harem of 700 brought him the right to rule others. Simultaneously, the loss of his kingdom was threatened for forsaking Yahweh and revering the Queen of Heaven, the Ashtoreth of the Sidonians. For worshipping her, Queen Maacah was dethroned (I K 15:13).36

Plurals of Ashtart’s name link at times as nouns with the meaning of “young” or “breeding stock” (in the sense of sheep); this feature connects the fertility concept. The “patron of fertility” function was taken over by Anath, the most active deity in the pantheon of Ras Shamra. In Egypt “Antit” (Anat) was also known as Queen of Heaven or Mistress of the Gods. But for Palestine, Ashtoreth remains the designation. All may have been linked originally to Inanna-Ishtar, spouse of An—god of heaven.

When Jeremiah and the Judean remnant in Egypt, likely 585 BCE, acknowledged the calamity that they had experienced (chapter 44), they both saw it as punishment for sin, but meted by different deities. Morton Smith translates chapter 44 material as follows:

All the men who knew their wives had offered incense to other gods, and all the women who stood by, a great assembly, all the people who dwelt in Pathros in the land of Egypt, answer him, “As for the word which you have spoken unto us in the name of Yahweh, we will not listen to you. But we will . . . burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and pour out libations to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food and prospered and saw no evil. But since we left off burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out libations to her we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.”37

From this chapter 44 conversation and its reference to worship of the Queen of Heaven in 7:17-18, a description of the ritual performed to her can be observed

Jeremiah attempts to blame the series of events that they have experienced precisely to such apostasy from Yahweh. But for neglecting the worship of the Queen of Heaven, particularly since Josiah suppressed the cult, they had known these misfortunes: Jehoahaz deported to Egypt; Jehoaichin and “top” people sent to Mesopotamia as captives; Jerusalem captured and destroyed; Zedekiah’s eyes removed; they now had fled to Egypt.

Their justification seems pretty clear: when the kings, princes, and people honored the Queen of Heaven, prosperity had been theirs!39 The Queen of Heaven’s cult secured welfare; a return to Yahweh had not brought welfare. (To what extent or depth of return remains unknown.) Further questions arise: Why had the reform not been adequate? What “essential element” proved to be missing in Israel’s worship of Yahweh which had been gratified through long experience with the Queen of Heaven?

Not mentioned by name in biblical materials is Anat. But in the Ugarit myth she poses as the most important female figure. Ariella Deem indicates varied meanings for her name: “providence,” “symbol,” “to sing.”40 Symbol of female beauty, she is also a violent goddess with a fierce martial nature. That quality and her aspect of lamentation and mourning appear prominent in the Baal-Mot epic already described. Not flinching, she knew her own powers in relation to forces of life and death. Uninhibited by Mot’s dominion over Sheol (Hab. 2:5), his capacity to cut off and destroy life (from whom Baal had secured protection (Jer. 9:21), Anat is acclaimed for mercilessly “finishing him off.” In the process she makes possible the restoration of Baal’s life force. Anat, the goddess spouse, endures the struggle and thereby the king in human experience and the god among deities becomes victorious over the foe.41 Even the mighty El, in recognizing her strength and courage, yields to her wish to have Baal raised to chief among gods. Being irresistible, who can stand against the goddess?42 Yet she remains ever-overshadowed by Baal, the king of Gods in the Canaanite pantheon, by the “virile giver of life”—to human beings, flocks, and the land.

After the second millennium BCE, evidence for Anat diminishes. Only Asherah and Ashtart appear in the Hebrew Scripture. Yet, place names and proper names reflect past connection with her: Anathoth for example, partly due to its being Jeremiah’s home town. That fact may have made him uniquely conscious of the impact of goddess worship on Israelite people, on those whom he wanted so much to know Yahweh, to be persistent Yahwists. Anathoth, about three to four miles from Jerusalem, was likely not named after any particular Anath. It indicates the generalization of a concept, recalling Anaths in general known in many places. Beth-Anath and Beth-Anoth name other towns, connecting Bethel with Anath. A notable cult center in Hasmonean times was named Ashteroth-Karmaim. Probably through association rather than coincidence, Ashtaroth, Ashtartu was one of Israel’s Levite “cities of refuge.” (I Chr. 6:71; Josh. 21:27). Similarly, the house sacred to Ashtoreth noted the location for placing armor following success in war.

Many personal names included the word Baal: Eshball, Meribaal, Bealiah. Obvious is Anat in Anathoth, a chief of the people (Neh. 10:20) and son of Benjamin (I Chr. 7:8).43 P. C. Craigie suggests evidence for concluding that “with the title or epithet bn.nt, he would have been associated with the warrior goddess Anat.” He draws on Ras Shamra, Egyptian, and Mari materials, all of which speak to Anat’s function as warrior goddess.44

Before commenting more generally on the impact of syncretism on Israel, examining the idea of sacred marriage in the Ancient Near East might be useful. To what extent did the Hebrew prophetic concept that compares the Yahweh-Israel relationship to marriage or husband-wife stem from sacred marriage ritual ideology? One of the most significant rites of New Year Festivals in Sumer was the hieros gamos, the holy marriage between king who represented the god Dammuz/Tammuz and one of the cult priestesses, representing the goddess Inanna.

Though accounts vary, by the end of the third millennium the sacred marriage motif began with the high priestess, as incarnation of the goddess, initiating sexual union with a lover (often implied as a younger son). After this union—called hieros gamos—the man assumed the role of consort to the priestess, was known as “king” until later ritually sacrificed. Whoever the king was, he had to become the husband of the life-giving goddess.45

As the king annually died, depicted in the rotation of seasons, he had to be rescued by the goddess from the netherworld, death’s abode. Shifting from the high priestess, the queen began to impersonate her role. “Her sorrow was turned to joy as, through the sacred marriage, recreative potency was bestowed, the king resurrected and restored to the throne.”46 H. G. May notes that since the ritual of marriage of the god-goddess, king-queen, was completed at the spring equinox, “it is easy to understand that exactly nine months later, at the winter solstice, the birth of the god (Immanuel—god with us) occurred.”47 This event leads, on the Hebrew scene, to the queen mother, the office of gebirah. The office being more than physical mother of the king, she could not be dismissed. Her honorary position at court remained being in charge of the harem. I K. 2:13; 19; and Jer. 13:18 imply that the queen mother proved to be near-equal to the king.

With her linked to the cultus, patterns among surrounding peoples show details. Among the Hittites, the queen mother remained appointed for life, to be succeeded at her death by the king’s wife. Although active politically, her primary duties centered in the cult. “In the sacral-royal world she occupied the same position as the Mother of the gods in the world of the gods.” This significance continued. The goddess, being recognized or valued, had importance when human women held worth. In both Assyria and Sidon the queen mother assumed cultic functions, in the latter as priestess of Astarte, consort of the sky-god El. Ugarit’s queen, being involved in the hieros gamos ceremony, “gave birth to” the king and on seeing him enthroned became the queen mother, the paredros of the king.

The development of the office of gebirah in Israel perhaps seemed not too different. She might have had some function in wedding rituals (Song of Solomon 3:11). Her position, at least in idea, replicated that of the mother of gods in the assembly of gods. Placed on the throne at the right hand of the king (I K 2:19), she might have at one time played the consort of the king in the hieros gamos ritual, becoming the queen mother. Ahlstrom concludes that the “sitz im leben” of the Song of Songs is the hieros gamos ritual of the Jerusalem cult.48

Beatrice Brooks notes little surprise that biblical writers frequently expressed the relationship of Israel to Yahweh or of the Church to Christ in terms of the marriage bond. If we asked Why or Where did the idea of bonding begin, the response may return to a foundational creation intent for union and unity, for difference coming together, for communion. Such care seems basic to the goddess and matriarchal world view. Such may have formed the root of a patriarchal epoch.49 Questions emerge: Do human beings genuinely want to attain bond without bondage? Can we discover meaningful ties which avoid exclusion?

Discussion of Syncretism seems appropriate. A people intent to discover who the Divine is and who they are assimilates meaningful existence prior to a call to become something new. Writers suggest that following the exile, true Yahwism emerged as central for the people of Israel. Others claim that the syncretistic cult lived on or developed further. Reforms prior to Jeremiah had failed. The Mount Carmel incident, while favorable for Yahweh, did not remove vegetation and goddess cult aspects. Hosea’s attempt to interpret the Israel-Yahweh relationship as marriage continued to incorporate symbolism of the vegetation ritual in its definition of covenant when it excluded the foreign while claiming Yahweh alone. But after Josiah’s reform, fathers, women, and children actively worshipped the Queen of Heaven.

Morton Smith persistently portrays Israel’s on-going syncretism. Worship of other gods continued into the time of late additions to Zechariah (10:2; 13:2). Syncretistic seals with Yahwist names and human being remains under doorsills (presumably from foundation sacrifices) continued until the end of the fourth century. From papyri of the same time, Yahweh’s name appears compounded with pagan deities like Qos, Sahar, Kemosh, Baal, and Nabu. Recognized at Jewish colonies of Elephantine (Egypt), the syncretistic cult of Yahweh carried on beyond Palestine, into Damascus and possibly northern Syria.

As Smith states:

The Judeans who were expelled from Rome in 139 BC for corrupting Roman mores with the cult of Zeus Sabazius (presumably an interpretatio graca of Yahweh) had probably erected altars for his cult. Not only was Yahweh often associated with Dionysus-Sabazius, but he was also worshiped as “Hypsistos,” that is, “the highest,” the title of a Syrian god often identifies with Zeus. This deity was worshiped especially at Palmyra as the unnamed God, whose name is blessed, who hears our prayer—attributes also prominent in the Jewish cult of Yahweh, and possibly derived by both cults from a common source.

This fact does not deny that the Yahweh-alone cult was spreading; it only reminds us of the surrounding environment permeated with syncretism.50

The goddess cult was too deeply entrenched in Palestine to eradicate it by negation or law. E. O. James urges caution concerning later redactors who glossed over the situation by representing the ritual cultic serving zonah as common harlots.51 At the same time he credits post-exilic Judah with movement toward realized covenant, toward experiencing Yahweh as the only God. Under the heading “idolatry,” the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible leads a reader to believe that following the exile only the poor tended to resort to alien practices and rites. “But for the Jewish communities in Mesopotamia, the real representatives of the traditions of the race, the imposing cults of Babylon were regarded with supreme contempt, and local idolatry was reduced to absurdity.”52 That statement can be read with suspicion.

For Jeremiah prior to 587, conflict with the gods remains a persistent theme. One of his strongest discussions of it appears in chapter 10. The contrast presented of the worthless and ineffective idols or cultic practices compared to the living Yahweh’s effective actions is clear.53 Yet, to so condemn the asherim, “pillars,” holy hills proved difficult for the people to comprehend. They had become part of the needed Canaanite milieu; it became part of their tradition from desert days onward. Fertility rites, poles, combined worship of Yahweh and Asherah came to be regarded by some Israelite worshippers as honest expression of recognizing the Divine.54

Donald Gowan compares aspects of the cult disapproved by prophets and the Deuteronomistic writers and regards their similarity. He divides practices into three categories: 1) worship of idols, of the host of heaven of other gods; 2) worship by means of altars, pillars, asherim, child sacrifice, prostitution, burning incense, planting of special gardens; 3) worship at high places and under trees. A count of the occurrence of these elements in the writing prophets reveals these numbers: Amos (4), Hosea (21), Micah (3), Isaiah (11), Zephaniah (4), Habakkuk (1), Jeremiah (45).55 High incidence in Jeremiah prodded this study. Multiple dimensions of Jeremiah’s message can be scrutinized. Not to be overlooked is treatment of and exposure to idolatry and goddess worship. Jeremiah’s message being so attentive to idolatry obligates a person to grapple with goddess worship, to discover its “staying power,” to probe what result or experience Yahwism may have lacked.

Writing in The Hebrew Goddess, Patai forthrightly states: “The biblical God-concept reflects the strictly patriarchal concept of the society producing it.” Its religion centered around a single universal deity whose will is embodied in law, whose form was abstract and devoid of physical attributes yet pronouncedly male.56 The linguistic factor attributed bodily qualities to God. Excessive use of the pronouns he, him, and his and designating masculine gender for nouns like Yahweh and Elohim, “every Hebrew-speaking individual, from early childhood, was imbued with the idea that Yahweh God is a masculine deity.”57 That influence persists, I contend. Compelled to respond “NO” to maleness for Yahweh God, maleness in relation to God limits Divine breadth of being; it damages the wholeness that the Source deserves.

During Hebrew monarchy, the worship of Canaanite goddesses held a more important role than that of gods, Patai believes. However, Christians have been misled to believe that the attraction to Baalism, the competing male god, maintained focus. Why might goddess worship have been so desirable? Because Yahweh already corresponded to male gods like Baal? Because worship of Yahweh merged into, complemented, replaced other male gods? “Yahwism lacked the female aspect of Canaanite religious life. Nothing it offered replaced the Canaanite goddess.” For those accustomed to, familiar with worship that honored both woman and man, a male god alone proved inadequate, with essential aspects missing. Asherah-Astart-Anat completed necessary aspects. Patai concludes: “Comparative religion teaches that in man is an equally great, possibly greater, need for another symbol: that of the divine woman.”58

My intent does not wish to return to goddess worship, nor to commend female worship more than male. Even so, male worship alone offends me. It credits the human male in unworthy ways while diminishing the human female unfairly. Humanity, born in goodness, has both divine and human qualities with the capacity to either enrich or diminish those qualities. Development of will or moral choice determines what results. Except for very few physical distinctives, female and male emerge with similar qualities and capabilities; other features develop out of culture. Not inherently created to exclude or include, divine humanity came into being to reflect or image the Divine Source. Without carelessly reading contemporary life into the ancient past, that women or men craved worship of a female deity does not surprise.

Female and male priests served with high respect at temples and during great religious festivals. Over fifty years ago, a couple named Vaerting said:

The sex of the deity was determined by the sex of those in power. The ruling sex, having the power to diffuse its own outlook, tends to generalize its specific ideology. Should the trends of the subordinate sex run counter, they are likely to be suppressed all the more forcibly in proportion as the dominant sex is more overwhelming.59

Stone goes on to present an intriguing cause for denouncing goddess worship. While not the primary motivation for a prophet like Jeremiah, the impact seems believable.

For thousands of years people accepted the sacred sexual customs associated with the fertility cult. It fostered female kinship or bonding. Enhanced matrilineal descent patterns followed, the father of a child not often identifiable. But for a patriarchal system to emerge, knowledge of paternity mattered. Stone maintains that for this purpose the Levite priests devised concepts of sexual “morality” for women—to be known as the private property of a man. Total control came through insisting on premarital virginity and marital fidelity for women. This feature directly countered “wicked/depraved” attitudes toward sexuality that help or encourage the religion of the goddess. A “moral” stance provided men with power—over women and all things inferior, including land and property.60

Jeremiah knew Yahweh as a Being of Redemptive Action who required faithful obedience and just interrelationships within a community of followers. That fact remained fundamental. Jesus came saying and proving in human form much the same. Justice and loyalty have remained central to Yahwism and Christianity. To diminish the one affects the other. Before the fall of Jerusalem, the Israelites fell. To split their loyalties could not be tolerated long-term. In the process, they overlooked doing justly within community.

What differs regarding our injustice to humanity today? Does it not set up gods in place of Yahweh God? Might that condition not be as depraved as the cultic dimensions of goddess worship? I would not say that women as a group most need justice as a “category.” But the misconceptions about creation that have fostered superior/inferior, super/sub, exclusion/inclusion patterns have been willfully perpetuated. Sanctioning these discrepancies of value between men and women is the root cause for our similarly dividing any categories of society, dividing and denigrating them. For example, rich/poor, light/dark skinned, free agent/prisoner, parent/child, educated/illiterate, youth with vigor/age with dependency, power/powerless, self-sufficient/handicapped, men/women.

All items noted in the first of the two pairs can be or suggest the gods, the idols that detract from worship of Yahweh alone. So, yes, goddess worship could degenerate if it kept devotees from total attention to the One Source. Likewise, much of what has developed has flaws. Whereas women knew greater autonomy within religion of the goddess, men have justified unbalanced power and control through religion that favors a male god. Neither experience or stance proves satisfactory; both can be ungodly. We might wish to talk with Jeremiah about this issue.

Feminist Carol Christ believes that the tradition of androcentrism accepts subordination and a subordinate status of woman as “a given,” but notes that women are once again claiming personal forms of spirituality denied them for centuries. She notes three biases or views of canonical tradition:

  1. ethical/religious superiority of monotheism to polytheism;
  2. inferiority of religious traditions in which sexuality and fertility are central concerns and the equation of female symbolism with sexuality and fertility;
  3. importance of maintaining order—challenges to the authority then considered “bad.”61

An interesting “test case” in relation to these is the finding, in major excavations in Palestine in later periods, of many female figurines, some dating as far back as 7000 BCE. What enters into the assumptions and conclusions about their function? Will negative or positive judgments about women result from explanations of them? While James states that these are Astarte figurines, Stone calls the statues “silent testimony to the most ancient worship of the Queen of Heaven.” Ahlstrom quotes G. E. Wright about the frequency with which these images or figurines representing the mother goddess are found in homes: “indisputable evidence of widespread syncretism, verging on polytheism, among the common people.” So, they were not confined exclusively to the cult or sanctuary.

Both Pritchard and Gray (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible) doubt that the nude female figurines on the plaques functioned as proper objects of worship or of any prominent goddess. Assuming that the figures were understood by those making and using them, writers thought it not necessary to refer to them. Pritchard goes on to suggest: the figurines, noted for nudity and feminine reproductive features, “are symbols of womankind in general.” At one point, Gray suggests that the clay models are “of concubines to be placed with the defunct in a tomb.” At another, he says that they may simply “have served as amulets to prompt on the principle of imitative magic and fertility in communities where progeny was almost an obsession.”62

Therefore, writers continue to counter each other, make guesses, and disagree. Their views of goddess worship remain inherent and at stake. Whether anything good can be said of it is bypassed by some, is often ignored, and on occasion examined with fairness. The polemic against fertility elements in worship continued and intensified:

The civilizations that worshipped the goddess, which had flourished for thousands of years, bringing with them in earliest times inventions in methods of agriculture, ceramics, textiles, medicine, architecture, metallurgy, wheeled vehicles, and written language gradually were stamped out.63

Could that fact have been both unfortunate and essential?

To what extent was one end-result of Yahweh-alone worship a refusal to value at all the heritage of goddess worship? Why has worship of female deities been so absent from current study of ancient Israel? Do we just prefer the one for what it negates in the other? I doubt that to be the total case. But is a patriarchal society like ours “naturally” going to choose rather to focus the study of religion on periods of history when male deities were prominent? And if so, is that because such is simply more easily comprehended because closer to our own experience? What will assist us in admitting the gods current in our present worship of Yahweh God? Who are the prophets among us? Can we admit the corresponding value that has “come” to males because of defining God in male terms? If so, then I think that we just might be able to see more clearly why women may have had particular difficulty “giving up” their religion and worship. It affected who they were as people. And in ways we probably have not yet dreamed of, our experience as women and men will find a newness when we denounce our idols, our distractions from comprehending and totally yielding to the I AM of all time.

G. von Rad has said: “. . . it has always been the women who have shown an inclination for obscure astrological cults.” And from W. F. Albright: “Female religion is orgiastic nature worship, sensuous nudity and gross mythology . . . . It was replaced by Israel with its pastoral simplicity and purity of life, lofty monotheism, and its severe code of ethics.”64 To me, these statements do not satisfy. Judgments seem extreme on both sides. Yet, either this reflects or has affected the general mentality, both either to our detriment as well as good.

My intent is not to glorify the nature and patterns of goddess worship nor to deny the need for vital understandings of covenant with Yahweh God; I desire not to revel in the syncretistic cult of the Hebrew Scripture nor to act as if that period in her history never existed. I value essential, fertile study as it enables us to comprehend Jeremiah’s anguished message. He did not deny the reality of goddess worship; dare we when we attempt to “hear” him?

[Millard C. Lind, the seminary professor with whom I chose to take multiple courses, returned nine pages of hand-written notes in response to this paper. As he complemented me for “astonishing energy that I put into this class,” I value his sincere engagement with my content, most of which appears here.]


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