Asherah’s Ashes

Academics are often poor communicators. The stunning irrelevance of most research should stand as a rather obvious clue to that. Of course, I’m old school in my approach to research. When afforded the opportunity to do so, I produced at least one scholarly article per year, and these were based on extensive research. One of the misconceptions about research is that it involves only that which supports your theory. My first article and first book, both on Asherah, demonstrated that rather clearly, I hope. A kind of scholarly orthodoxy had grown up around the goddess, originating largely in Frank Moore Cross’s work, but also in that of a few other scholars. Nobody challenged these results although they were clearly built on shaky ground. Before I finished my dissertation it had been decided that Yahweh was married to Asherah, and the two merrily danced together on a pathos graffito from Kuntillet Ajrud. After my work was published, I was surprised to see how completely it was ignored. I, like John Mellencamp, had challenged authority. And we know who always wins.

I recently read an article entitled “Iconism and Aniconism in the Period of the Monarchy: Was There an Image of the Deity in the Jerusalem Temple?” by Garth Gilmour, in a Routledge volume entitled Visualizing Jews Through the Ages. Gilmour uses a crudely incised sherd originally found in 1920 in Jerusalem, to build a turret on the house of cards of conjecture. The incised stick figures which, if you squint just right, may be a male and female, it is suggested, are none other than Yahweh and Asherah. Probably grooving together in the temple. Now don’t get me wrong—I’ve always found the idea of Yahweh having a consort conceptually satisfying. We know that other deities in the ancient world often paired off, and that Asherah was generally the main consort of the high god. The proof, however, was in the pithos. Seeing what you want to see is a constant danger to researchers. That’s why my bibliographies tended to be encyclopedic. Gilmour’s article does not mention any of my several works on Asherah, or even my articles on Baal. Apparently my work harshes the easy conclusions already drawn. Or is insignificant. Caution often is.

Consigned to while away my time in publishing, I’m aware that there’s far too much out there for anybody to be able to read it all. Indeed, when I have rare moments to engage in research during my busy, commuting lifestyle, I find myself increasing aware of obsolesce. New results are published before the proofs get to the author. Still, the number of books out there on Asherah are fairly small. Those supporting the unofficial scholarly consensus are many and top the rankings on Amazon. Nobody likes to be reminded that the dissenting view has logic firmly on its side. We see what we want to see. Research should, in the opinion of this disregarded scholar, involving searching again, even as its name implies. The foundations should be reexamined now and again to make sure the tower’s not about to topple. That’s old school. And old school is now, apparently, understood as merely old fashioned.

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Tepe Temple

When a colleague sent me an NPR story on Göbekli Tepe, I was thrown back into the conundrum far older than archaeology itself—how can a site be identified as religious? Most of us hardly realize that when we enter a church or cathedral that the overall plan is based on that of the earliest temples we know. Conventional wisdom associates temples first with the Sumerians, the harbingers of civilization itself. The basic premise was that a niche existed for a cult image (statue of a deity, generally) with an altar before it. Although the concept was widely disseminated, many reformed and rereformed Christian groups tried to distance themselves from it, calling altars “tables” and making them mobile. Probably the most successful are the Pentecostals; last time I attended a service the “sanctuary” felt like a warehouse. Actually, it was a warehouse. In general, however, there has been little need to reinvent the religious wheel, so the standard plan still often applies. Enter Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe is located in southeast Turkey, near what was actually Mesopotamia in ancient times. The hill-top site is a Neolithic structure, and that means it was built before agriculture became widespread, during our hunter-gatherer stage. It is the earliest known human religious structure. The article on NPR questions precisely this: is it religious? How do we identify structures in pre-writing cultures as religious? Some archaeologists are guilty of labeling any structure or artifact with no practical function as “religious,” but this is a little cynical. Part of the problem is that religion itself remains ill-defined, being a post-Christian category to describe behavior singled out for God’s benefit. As a child I wondered, if God exists how could anyone not devote all their time to God?—the very speculation that led to my profession. Ancient people, like all animals, felt the urge to eat, rest, seek shelter, reproduce—animal things. It was a full-time job. When agriculture simplified things a bit by giving some measure of control over food supply, other professions began to emerge. Priesthood, as a means of ensuring continuity among the entire system, was one of the coveted jobs. Göbekli Tepe predates the Sumerians by thousands of years. The large structure with reliefs carved into the rock seems temple-like to some, less so to others.

The NPR article points out, correctly, that the distinction between sacred and profane may be premature as applied to Göbekli Tepe. We can test the cases even today: certain human functions are considered profane, chief among them sexual acts. It is clear from the sexuality of ancient religious artifacts that the profanity of sex is not an ancient idea. Ritualized eating is very common and still takes place in highly stylized form among many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups. Work itself was considered to be a divine assignment in ancient times. Our ultimate bosses were the gods. Little room remained for “secular” pursuits. By compartmentalizing life into “religious” and “not religious” we have found a way to pursue our own selfish ends and still wind up in the pews on the weekend, congratulating ourselves for obeying the dictates of divine law. Where is true religion to be found here? Is it not more likely to reside among ancient people, like those of Göbekli Tepe who lived their entire lives in the service of the gods?

Ezekiel’s Equinox Paradox

Like the great celestial wheels of antique imagination, the seasons continue their wearisome roll across the earth. On a day long marked as a holiday among those more closely attuned to nature than most modern people in developed nations, we face the beginning of autumn. Change is in the air and already the gray skies that have predominated the eastern seaboard over weeks since Irene seem to have winter on their minds. Changes always call to mind how the human mind tends to divide what it sees into categories. The Bible is one place that this tendency is crucial. The whole scheme behind clean and unclean comes down to the need to make discrete that which nature shamelessly blends. When it comes to deity, the party line has always been (at least in the monotheistic religions) that God is like one of us. We can’t imagine human very well without gender, and so God becomes a guy. Notwithstanding protests to the contrary, early religions did take that distinction literally; divinity and masculinity were of a piece.

This fact makes it all the more intriguing when the Bible itself offers a few passages that call this orthodoxy into question. A few verses explore the trope of God as female, but they quickly back away and revert to the male God when taking on more literal terms. Hebraic culture was monistic, not dualistic. God as “spirit” was not really a possibility in the Hebrew Bible. God as a big man fits the picture better. One of the voices that claims dissent is that of Ezekiel. No surprise there—Ezekiel has been analyzed as everything from a dreamer to a dropper. Ezekiel’s understanding of God, however, is deeply imbued with temple imagery. Ezekiel was a priest without a sanctuary, and so his view of God suffered from temple vision. Nevertheless, the strange account of Ezekiel’s vision of Yahweh coming to Babylonia that opens his book demonstrates a startling lack of clarity when it comes to divine gender.

When two people meet, as psychologists have long noted, the first bit of information they attempt to discern is gender. Perhaps it’s the old fight or flight reflex from our reptilian brains, or maybe it is the opportunistic mating behavior that so obviously characterizes our species, but we are very uncomfortable when we can’t make a gender assignment. It is the whole premise behind Saturday Night Live‘s old sketch of “It’s Pat.” When Ezekiel first espies God he describes the deity in terms of glowing metal. But notice that he begins, “And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about” (1.27). Beginning at the loins the prophet looks the deity up and down and concludes God is like fire. This image does not long survive the vision, for Ezekiel quickly reverts to masculine imagery for God. Even in the face of evidence that God is not gendered, the faithful must make him so, for the age-old appurtenance of male superiority suffers immeasurably without the camaraderie of God.

Origins of Sacrifice

Podcast 22 is a discussion on possible origins of the practice of animal sacrifice.

Tackling the Tabernacle

Over the weekend a student question led me to think about the inconsistencies of ancient thoughts of holiness and how it fits into a naturalistic world. The question concerned the tabernacle as described in the Torah. The Levites were responsible for the grunt work of physically breaking down and carrying the holy furniture such as the menorah, table, incense altar, and ark of the covenant. One of the reasons for this was that the holiness on a sacred object clung to anything or anyone that touched it, causing a potentially catastrophic mix. At the same time, there were also prohibitions against touching the furniture or even seeing it. By the time the poles were inserted to avert the former danger, the latter prohibition would have already been violated. How did they do this?

Overall, the Israelites did not push ideas to logical extremes. In other words, the extension of holiness to other objects (and people), while it clearly happens, does not always follow a logical direction and culmination. If special ritual precautions were taken, the danger of approaching holy objects was removed or at least temporarily neutralized. Since there is not logical way out of this conundrum, the Bible itself simply doesn’t address the issue. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” also apparently applies to the holy. When describing set-up and take-down procedure for the tabernacle, the Bible simply ignores this puzzling issue.

Probably the most salient point of all concerning ancient texts is that concerning intent. If the Torah is describing literal, historical events then this is a scientific problem to be resolved. If, however, the tabernacle is a foreshadowing of the temple in the wilderness, a literary metaphor reflecting Israel’s history back into a non-historical setting, then the question becomes a literary one. No archaeological evidence exists for the exodus or wilderness wanderings of the Torah, causing many to suggest they were not so much historical events as they might have been theological explanations. They are “foundation stories” like those all nations have. These stories helped to explain why the monarchy failed to achieve perpetuity – the chosenness of the Israelites only lasted so long but not forever – according to those who are theologians.

I appreciated the question. It is only by thinking seriously about the implications of Bible stories that we are able to get a handle on what might have been originally in mind for those who gave us our religious heritage.

Gabriel L. Fink's tabernacle from WikiCommons