The Goddess Matriarchy

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published April 07, 2006, issue of April 07, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Barry Dancis writes:

“I recently began reading the book ‘When God Was a Women’ by Merlin Stone, written some 30 years ago. In it she points out that Near Eastern societies from 9000 BCE or thereabouts to 2500 BCE or somewhat later revered a supreme female deity or goddess (Astarte, Isis, etc.), and that the last of the goddess temples were only eliminated in about 500 C.E. by the Romans. The destruction of the ‘high places’ described in the Bible in the Book of Kings, she continues, records the elimination of goddess worship, which began with the entry into the area of groups of Indo-Europeans with a patriarchal religion headed by a male deity. Finally, she says: ‘The Old Testament does not even have a word for “goddess.” In the Bible, the supreme Goddess is referred to as elohim, in the masculine gender…. Do Merlin Stone’s ideas still hold up? Is elohim the patriarchal replacement for the matriarchal Goddess? Do the stories in Kings describe the conversion of the Hebrews from Goddess matriarchy to God patriarchy?”

Never having read Ms. Stone’s book, I have to rely on Mr. Dancis’s description of it — which is that, it would seem, of a radical feminist historical tract with little relationship to the archaeological and literary facts. Although there were certainly major goddesses in all ancient Near Eastern religions, both before 2500 BCE and after, there were major gods, too, and generally speaking, these gods and goddesses were depicted as mates in, or offspring of, divine marriages in which each played his or her respective masculine and feminine role; “goddess religions” that had no equally important male gods never existed in the Near East — or, for that matter, anywhere else that I know of. And conversely, major goddesses existed in all Indo-European forms of paganism, too, and there isn’t the slightest evidence that ancient Hebrew monotheism’s highly patriarchal conception of God had anything to do with a massive population movement of Indo-Europeans into Semitic lands, or (although some Indo-European peoples such as the Hittites did live as ethnic minorities in these lands) that such a movement ever took place in biblical times at all.

As for the language of the Bible, here, too, Ms. Stone’s thesis, to go by Barry Dancis’s account of it, is badly skewed. While the biblical word for God, elohim — which is the plural of eloha, “god” (a Semitic cognate of the Arabic “Allah”) — was most likely formed by a process in which the different deities of the polytheistic pantheon were gradually identified with a single, monotheistically conceived divinity, these deities, as we have said, were far from exclusively female, and elohim, which is indeed grammatically masculine in Hebrew, could not possibly have been a euphemism or substitute for “goddess” at any point in the development of the Hebrew language.

Moreover, it is simply wrong to say that biblical Hebrew has no word for “goddess.” In fact, it has two frequently used ones — asherah and ashtoret, negative references to which are scattered throughout the Bible, as in verses such as Judges 3:7: “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord… serving the Baals and the Asherot [plural of asherah],” or (I Samuel, 7:3) “… put away the foreign gods [elohei nekhar] and the Ashtarot [plural of ashtoret] from among you.”

True, it can be argued that both Asherah and Ashtoret are Hebrew forms of the name of the Semitic goddess Astarte mentioned by Mr. Dancis, and that neither is an abstract word for the concept of “goddess” itself. But this is not an argument that holds much water. The dividing line between the proper names of main gods and the generic word for “God” is blurred in many ancient religious traditions (think of the tetragrammaton YaHWeH in Hebrew, or of the Greek Zeus, which often means “God” in ancient Greek and is linguistically related to Latin deus and to the “theo-” of English “theology”); indeed, in such biblical phrases as Samuel’s “the foreign gods and the ashtarot,” in which there is a clear parallelism between the two terms, ashtarot could just as well be translated as “goddesses.”

The one thing Ms. Stone is right about is that much of the Bible, and the Book of Kings in particular, does tell the story of the conflict between Hebrew monotheism, in which God was represented by His worshippers as strictly masculine, and the pagan religions of ancient Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, which were based on such male and female consorts as Baal and Astarte with a divine son like Tammuz or Adonis often serving as the third member of a trinity. Archaeological finds in northeastern Sinai and southern Palestine have even demonstrated that there were “high places” in which YaHWeH himself was sacrificed to on altars together with an Astarte-like mate, which helps explain why pure monotheists like the Hebrew prophets felt so threatened by goddess worship. But the Astarte of ancient Near East religions always had a husband. A Near East tradition of exclusive goddess worship, supposedly indicative of a deposed and vanished (and, it must be added, purely imaginary) “Goddess matriarchy,” exists only in radical feminist myth.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.