In God’s Name

If anyone ever bothers to go through my personal zibaldones (if the word’s unfamiliar, please use the search box for my post on it) they’ll find my personal shorthand. It’s not extensive since I’m a firm believer in explaining things and if I don’t write things out I often can’t decipher what I meant. One of the shorthand marks that I do use is the Greek letter theta. Those who know me will have no trouble guessing that it stands for “God.” Or more appropriately, “theos” the Greek word for God. This particular Indo-European lexeme has a venerable history and appears in such forms as deus, Zeus, and deity. Although in a case such as Zeus it can be used as a personal name, it is, in fact, a title. Somewhat like “president” used to be. And it can be used for any number of divinities.

In the Bible there exists a well-placed concern not to dis the Almighty. God—to use his title—had a temper and was known for not being afraid to show it. Among the Ten Commandments is one not to take God’s name in vain. Scholars argue over what exactly that means, but Judaism, on the ground, had to make decisions about it in a practical way. The best way to avoid divine wrath was never to say the divine name at all. God’s name isn’t “God.” That’s a universal word, applicable to any garden variety divinity. God’s personal name, we think, was Yahweh. To ensure the keeping of the commandment whenever this noun was encountered in the Good Book, the word “Lord” was used. That’s the convention behind Lord in small caps in some Bible translations. If you don’t say the name you can’t break the commandment.

In more recent days, in print culture, a further caution has been introduced. In academic writing it’s common to see “G-d.” I can guess the origins of this convention, but I have to admit that concern can lead to obfuscation. Nowhere does Scripture proclaim that you can’t use the title of the ineffable one. I can’t help but think this is following the conservative tendency to see the use of “God” in exasperation as swearing. The fact that another common swear abbreviates itself as “G. d.” might caution against using this particular combination in an effort to preserve the sanctity of the title. No one ever doubted that Baal was a god—but note the carefully lower case “g”—or for that matter, Mars or Zeus. Or, just to be safe, B-l, M-rs, and Z-s. May I suggest, based on personal experience, that theta might be used instead? But only if referring to the true G-d.

The Price of Worship

The wind resistance alone must drive the cost of gas up considerably. Of course, with Yahweh on your side you don’t need to worry about pocket change. We were driving through a sleepy town in the Poconos. A light rain was falling. We came upon a truck advocating not for the usual and expected Christ, but instead for Yahweh. Promising “dramatically affected” lives for those who do so, the implied message on this portable billboard is somewhat ominous. We are apparently being restrained by “non-mortal, non-native beings of ill-intent.” The grammar of the placard confuses things a bit since it seems to suggest that calling on Yahweh will “release restraints on” said non-mortals, and that’s hardly a good thing. I suppose they can’t reveal the nature of these entities without giving away spoilers for drawing the curious in.

This vague, supernatural world presided over by the personal name of the deity seems just a little out of place in Bible country. There’s a kind of literalism about Pennsylvania that I find strangely comforting. It is where and how I grew up. I never encountered God’s personal name—at least not with first-person familiarity—until I attended college. Even then we were encouraged to be careful with its use. The commandment about taking the divine name in vain is just a bit disconcertingly unspecific, considering that it isn’t spelled out in more detail. And who exactly are these beings of ill-intent? They’re all the more frightening for not being named. Demons, I must suppose, but I don’t recall the Good Book saying anything about their restraints being released. This is a new kind of apocalypse maybe.

The thing about the Bible is that it’s everybody’s book. Some modern translations use Yahweh rather freely, opting for the admission that translating it leads only to more questions and “Lord” is obfuscation. Still, it seems awfully familiar. The need to air one’s personal beliefs, in some quarters, is very intense. There’s a passion behind this proclamation that I can’t help but admire. People stop and stare. Some, like yours truly, will want photographs of your vehicle. I suppose that’s the point, nevertheless, not too many people like being stared at. Evangelical culture demands it, as I recall from my youth. Putting your personal beliefs out there comes with a price. Part of that may be reduced gas milage and, consequently, pocket change.

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.


God Spell

I had some good news from God recently, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be believed, anyway. It had been a trying week in some ways, and who wouldn’t welcome good news? Back when I was unemployed, I used to natter with the Witnesses when they came around. Like a stray that you feed one time, however, you’d better be expecting them back from time to time. I was reminded of a phone conversation I overheard (in New York City generally everything is overheard by at least someone) where a woman was saying, “I keep praying Jehovah will straighten her out.” I didn’t know who the “her” was, but I did wonder why the Witnesses keep using a name that we know is technically incorrect. “Jehovah” is actually what you get when you read the Masoretic device of using the vowels from “adonai” with the consonants for “Yahweh,” in a Germanic language. Since Jews don’t pronounce God’s name, they used this little symbol to remind the reader to use the sobriquet “lord” (adonai) instead. Some literalists lined the letters up and came up with a Teutonic-Hebraic name that was never historically used for God.


Well, the good news volume of the Watchtower addressed that. Sort of. Chapter 2, “Who is God?” notes “In English it [God’s name] is usually pronounced ‘Jehovah.’ But some people pronounce it ‘Yahweh.’” Historically and critically it is the other way around, but who’s counting? Orthodoxy doesn’t always make somebody a good person. In fact, most of the Witnesses I’ve met have treated me better than the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Religion often has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Since this was the good news, I decided to accentuate the positive. I turned to chapter 8 to learn “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Theodicy is probably the largest generator of atheism that monotheism faces.

“Evil began on earth when Satan told the first lie.” Although, I wonder how you define a lie? According to Genesis 3.17, the conclusion to God’s first word to Adam was, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The last part of the sentence, “surely die,” is an emphatic in Hebrew, the original language of Jehovah. But it doesn’t literally happen. Most literalists allow this infelicity to stand, or explain it away as a “spiritual death,” while the Hebrew is quite plain in its meaning. Thou shalt surely die is non-negotiable. Not exactly true, however. I’m no theologian. I’m just a reader attempting to make sense of the world I see around me. Good news is there certainly, every now and again. But that theodicy question trips me up every time. Until we can face the implications of not surely dying, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.

Presumption Be Thy Name

I once dashed an email off to a colleague in a hurry. The email concerned, in some way, the Judeo-Christian deity, known in the Hebrew Bible by the tetragrammaton YHWH. Quite unintentionally, my harried fingers tapped out YWHW—an honest, if impious, mistake. My colleague, who happens to be Jewish, immediately pointed out my unintentional blasphemy—one more casualty of the computer age. Naturally, I apologized and life went on. (I try not to spin out the larger implications.) The point is, based on the third (some would say “second”) commandment, Judaism has strongly preserved the taboo on using the divine name at all. God’s name is spelled without vowels to prevent anyone from trying to say it, and when written with the vowels of the word “lord” (adonai) gives us the false form Jehovah. Casual use of the divine name is considered offensive, and some would say it’s swearing.

HebraicRootsBibleWhile on the other day—it is the site to which I go for solace; so many books! So many books!—I came across the Hebraic Roots Bible. Subtitled “A Literal Translation,” it was clear that this was yet another well-intentioned, but ill-fated attempt to make the definitive English translation of the Hebrew Bible. True, literal translation is a chimera. Languages are thought-systems and can only be approximated in other languages. Those who wish to read the Bible literally must become proficient in Hebrew and Greek, with a smattering of Aramaic. In any case, none of that caught my attention. Without a hint of irony, the author of this book was listed as Yahweh. In case you’ve been wondering why some prayers are going unanswered, you may have your answer here—the Almighty has been busy writing a book!

My first reaction was a coy smile. That is kind of a cute selling point. But then I realized there was likely no humor to it. This was probably understood to be read literally: Yahweh wrote this book. I wonder who he got to write the Foreword. My error to my Jewish colleague was, literally, unintentional. This was literally scary. Who would be bold enough to claim that their own interpretation was the word of I Am himself? Why did he wait until 2012 to publish it? Blasphemy comes in a variety of forms. While still at Routledge, one of my Jewish authors insisted that I strike the blasphemy clause (standard for many publishing contracts) from his agreement. “Who can write anything that isn’t considered blasphemy by somebody?” he reasonably asked. The thought comes back to me, looking at the Hebraic Roots Bible. The author’s name, after all, didn’t even make it onto the cover of the book.

Divine Sex Change

One of the greatest problems in reconstructing ancient religions is the ambiguity of the evidence.  Most ancient artifacts are not labeled (they probably didn’t need to be for the original viewers) and few have textual materials explaining them.  This became clear to me when studying the famed inscription found at Kuntillet Ajrud in the mid-1970s.  The most (in)famous aspect of this artifact was that an inscription overlapped a doodle, and due to the urgent desire to interpret the inscription a particular way, the line drawing was supposed to be an illustration of the inscription.  The inscription is commonly translated as something along the lines of “I bless you by Yahweh of Teman and his asherah.”  Many scholars took asherah to mean Asherah, the goddess, despite no evidence for pronominal suffixes on personal names in classical Hebrew.  The doodle shows three figures, perhaps related, of which two were said to be Yahweh and Asherah.  Despite the very clear resemblance to the Egyptian dwarf-god Bes (Kuntillet Ajrud is between Israel and Egypt), it was argued that the figures in the “foreground” should be considered Yahweh and his main squeeze, Asherah.


The artistic analysis of these doodles has always been torturous. Tiny, perhaps insignificant, details were ascribed great importance—particularly those indicating the gender of the figures.  For the Yahweh-Asherah connection to work, one had to be male and the other female (with the male preferably in front).  The problem was that both figures seemed to have penises (in keeping with Bes’s typical representation).  In order to make it clear that the right-hand figure was female it was claimed that she was wearing a lion skin and the “penis” was literally a tail, the leopard’s tail, seen between “her” legs. The problem seemed to be a possible scrotum appeared to be present.  The left-hand figure, larger (therefore, in front) had a clear scrotum, and that sealed the case, in a manner of speaking.  Little chestal circles were said to be breasts on the right-hand figure, but male nipples on the left-hand figure were lacking.  Oh, and they were dancing, as shown by the woman playing the harp in the “background.”  Believe it or not, seriously scholarly debate raged over this—nothing short of the discovery of Yahweh’s wife seemed to be at stake!  A colleague recently emailed me to tell me the final report of the archaeologists concludes that the “scrotum” on the right-hand figure was a mere dust smudge and so, aha!, she is a female after all!

I argued years ago that this drawing was clearly a representation of Bes. The connection with the inscription is accidental (the jug on which the inscription occurs is full of doodles); if someone wanted to illustrate an inscription, they would not draw figures that actually obliterate part of the caption. Assumption is built on assumption here, however, making for a very shaky foundation indeed. Don’t get me wrong: I would like to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity. It is not good for the god to be alone. Still, it is going to take more than a divine sex-change operation to transform Bes into Asherah. If nothing else this divine gender-bender ought to serve as a cautionary tale for scholars, yet somehow I doubt that it will. We see what we want to see.

Mrs. Jesus

First we learned that Yahweh was married. Then we hear, “like father, like son.” A Galilean tempest in a Wonderland teapot. A papyrus fragment from centuries after the fact implies Jesus might have been married and the media smells blood. The scholars who translated the materials tried very hard to demonstrate that their efforts indicated nothing about the historical Jesus, but that doesn’t sell newspapers, magazines, and website hits. Jesus being married does. Spying an article about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently, I pondered why this might be. Why the great fuss over Jesus’ potential marriage? This is not an easy fabric to unweave. Americans have been routinely taught to idealize Jesus in order to underscore his divinity. A man without warts, no faults, perfect hygiene, completely symmetrical. His unwed nature is silent testimony to male superiority—when God chose to incarnate, he picked a masculine template. And for a man to need anything is a sign of weakness. If some Coptic Gnostic suggests that maybe Jesus had a weakness after all, well, that’s scandal enough to sell a million copies right there.

Theologians are quick to say that God is really beyond gender, but we sexual beings are so, well, focused on our biological packaging that we just can’t conceive a deity any other way. American culture thrives on the concept of a personal relationship with God. It is difficult to have a relationship without assessing the sexual roles. More than reproduction, our sexuality defines how we interact with others. By recasting Jesus as a married man, the whole dynamic is thrown off. Girls who are taught to uphold the virginal Jesus as an ideal man would now have to create room for the other woman. Boys would no longer have to consider the monastery. Overestimating the impact of marrying off Jesus in this country might well prove impossible.

The Chronicle takes a bemused look at the issue, as befits a disaffected, intellectual publication. For most Americans the relationship can never be so diffident. Scholars may find it funny, but we are vastly outnumbered. Like a divine paternity test, ink analysis of the papyrus fragment is out at the lab. If it’s just another forgery, life goes on much as before. The fact is, as has been stressed all along, all that can be potentially proven is that some people in the fourth century thought Jesus had a main squeeze. People have wondered that for centuries, with or without a papyrus to spark discussion. We are sexual beings, and like Xenophanes’s horses, our gods must look like us or become like the shadow over Innsmouth.

“And I think the couch should go over there!”