Did God Have A Wife?: Archaeology And Folk Religion In Ancient Israel Hardcover – Jun 3 2005
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In this book, Dever looks more specifically at the phenomenon of folk religion that existed in ancient Israel prior to and during the time of the Hebrew biblical times. In the first few chapters, Dever explores what is meant by the term 'folk religion' and how this fits with more modern ideas of religion and theology. Dever also looks at the issues of historical method and content - this includes an overall assessment of previous scholarship in the field. Dever also looks at the issue of sources - how is it that we know what we know (or what we think we know), and what are the limitations of using these sources? In particular, Dever concentrates on the sources of the Biblical text, the extra-biblical texts that have survived from the same period, and archaeology. Dever highlights the limitations of archaeological method, and decries any attempts at complete objectivity ('not since the death of 19th-century "positivism" have any respectable historians been naïve enough to think that they could be entirely objective'), and any attempts to foist 'objectivity' upon others.Read more ›
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These important "fightin' words" contribute to the growing body of ammunition for those Jewish and Christian feminist/goddess theologians arguing for the legitimacy of using FEMININE as well as masculine imagery and language in theological discourse (Muslim feminists might have a harder time, given the Qur'an's insistence that "God has no 'partner'"). Dever himself thinks of the book as a sort of "feminist manifesto by a man."
Dever has written NUMEROUS books and peer-reviewed journal articles AGAINST the anti-semitic "implications" in the archaeological work of others (such as the "Copenhagen School"), and he is well-known in the academy as an outspoken CRITIC of "postmodern" or "deconstructive" thought (he is sometimes unnecessarily and unfairly polemical, in my view), so the other reviewer's comments about Dever being a "postmodern anti-semite" are EXTREMELY bizarre and completely baffling!
In any event, Dever wrote this book for the interested layperson as well as for scholars, so ANYONE interested in ancient Jewish history and theology will find it fascinating reading, whether one accepts his argument or not. (I, for one, WAS convinced. And no, I am NOT a woman. At least I don't think so!)
This time around Dever writes about what he calls the folk religion of the people and other scholars call popular religion. Folk religion is not the religion of the priests and the prophets who left us their deliberate ideology (Dever's terms) in the Hebrew Scriptures. I hope readers will wade through the first two chapters of the book in which Dever surveys definitions and surveys schools of approach to the Bible. Quite often Dever's critique of his fellow scholars is that "the vast archaeological data and literature are largely invisible." It is in these sources that one finds folk religion.
Dever is a scholar who does find historical value in biblical texts. He is not a revisionist who believes that the Bible was authored in the Persian or Hellenistic Periods. But the biblical texts have limits. One is that the biblical texts, in their present form, were written no earlier than the 8th century and so are distanced by centuries from the events which they portend to portray. Who knows what sources the writers had? The Bible mentions the Book of Jasher and there could have been oral traditions that had been carried down for centuries. A second limitation of the biblical texts is that its writers had to be selective. In a society where literacy was far less common than in our own, writers wrote for the elite. A third limitation of the biblical writers is that they did not maintain any sort of objectivity not did they make any pretense at doing so. Dever calls this "propaganda." I agree with the term, but it is one that is loaded. Fourth, the portrayal of Israel is an idealistic one. Fifth, the matter of whether the narratives of the bible are history is subjugated to the need of the writers to how they function. This point of Dever's is much like his fourth; fact and fiction are blended for their effect on their audience. The crucial point in this matter is that Dever thinks the archaeological data are more encompassing than the data from the biblical texts; archaeology deals with a "tangible, real world."
This real world is the world of folk religion which is the religion of the hearth/home/women. Interestingly, though Dever appeals to feminine studies, he does so by asserting that "those men were in power." Men typically think in terms of political power whereas women typically think in terms of what is best for the family. At the beginning of chapter 4, Dever describes folk religion as difficult to systematize but having its locus in "any place deemed holy" such as shrines, high places, or local temples. For Dever the archaeological data of these show a basis for folk religion.
Since the 1920s excavations in Palestine have unearthed a number of images of Asherah. The biblical writers find ways to ignore or belittle them. Dever sees this as a deliberate suppression of any reference to Asherah. However Dever still finds some clues. In 2 Kings 18, King Hezekiah attempts a reform that removes the high places, cuts down the Asherah, etc. Yet Hezekiah's son, Manasseh sets up a graven image of Asherah in the Temple. (page 212) Now we are in a better position to understand Yahweh's admonition in Deut 16,21.22 not to set up an Asherah besides the altar of Yahweh.
Dever is highly persuasive in his portrayal of the pervasiveness of Asherah in ancient Israel's folks religion. The idea is not a new one. Dever gives praise to Raphael Patai's _The Hebrew Goddess_ published in 1967. At that time Patai's book was considered somewhat heretical. But I have to agree with Dever that with the archaeological data we now have, it makes a world of difference. It's hard to dispute such facts.
In this book, Dever looks more specifically at the phenomenon of folk religion that existed in ancient Israel prior to and during the time of the Hebrew biblical times. In the first few chapters, Dever explores what is meant by the term 'folk religion' and how this fits with more modern ideas of religion and theology. Dever also looks at the issues of historical method and content - this includes an overall assessment of previous scholarship in the field. Dever also looks at the issue of sources - how is it that we know what we know (or what we think we know), and what are the limitations of using these sources? In particular, Dever concentrates on the sources of the Biblical text, the extra-biblical texts that have survived from the same period, and archaeology. Dever highlights the limitations of archaeological method, and decries any attempts at complete objectivity ('not since the death of 19th-century "positivism" have any respectable historians been naïve enough to think that they could be entirely objective'), and any attempts to foist 'objectivity' upon others.
Dever delves into an area of keen interest for many scholars in looking in detail at the issues of early polytheism in Israelite culture (that there were issues can be highlighted in the first of the commandments, and that the major and minor powers surrounding and penetrating ancient Israel were polytheistic), and the early cults of the Asherah. The biblical text itself alludes to if not directly references many instances where the 'official' religion and political powers had to crack down on continuing folk influences in the land - with the advent of several new kings, the beginning of their reigns announced 'the cutting down of asherah poles' (which means, of course, that during other reigns or times, the asherah poles kept being rebuilt).
Dever explores the development of monotheism as an idea, and it is perhaps here that his work becomes the most controversial. Dever states that when he was a graduate student, most biblical scholarship taught that monotheism was an early dominant idea in Israelite religion, but that current scholarship sees monotheism as a later development; the idea that Israel had and was to have one god did not mean there were not others. 'Monotheism did not arise out of folk religion, out of common practice, but rather out of theological reflection after the fact. This reflection on experience, including disaster, is what informs the Hebrew Bible.'
Dever seems to invite controversy by making statements like, 'The Bible is thus "revisionist history", revised on the basis of the lessons that the authors presumed to have drawn from their own stormy history.' Perhaps there is a portion of this that begs the question - any history is necessarily selective, and any history can thus be counted as revisionist to some extent. However, Dever sees a theological purpose behind the writing and redaction of the biblical text, which makes the Bible for him an intentionally revisionist text, and Dever calls upon us to understand what that intention was to better understand what the text means, and the society and culture that produced it.
This is a book more for students or general audiences than for scholars. It is very spare with regard to footnotes/endnotes. It has a basic bibliography and basic indexes (author, subject, biblical citation/reference), but these not in great depth.
William Dever is professor emeritus of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He is the author of numerous books and articles on archaeology and biblical studies, and is a frequent contributor to magazines, newspapers, and television programmes on archaeological and historical topics. Apart from this volume, his major works include a four-volume analysis of excavation projects at Gezer in Israel, and major books entitled Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research and Recent Excavations in Israel. Recent book in addition to this one include 'What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel' and 'Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?'
Dever's latest book "Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel" is a disturbing and attention grabbing question for the general Judaic or Christian reader. Dever claims he is not extreme in dealing with the question of "house hold religion in Israel" and, as such, he is on constant guard to avoid what he considers an unfounded revisionist view of Israelite history: The Minimalist School (The scholarly claim that most all early Israelite history is "historized myth" created in the Exilic and Post Exilic periods). If one considers the many conservatives who will be reading this book, one can see where Dever himself will be view as a "minimalist" or a reviser of history. Never the less, he presents the archaeological facts and the reader must then adjust his or her faith based to this newest data.
I have always enjoyed personal testimonies by scholars who have made a move in their religious life and this Dever does in the "Introduction". I loved the casual and open dialogue he has with the reader when he states he went from the son of "...a fire-breathing fundamentalist preacher, sometimes tent evangelist..." (Page X) to his explanation of where he is today: "Like many Jews, I am essentially a secular humanist..." (Page XI).
I was very impressed with the discussion of Israel's general background which Dever sets in its ancient Near Eastern context and in dialogue with other scholars of the past and those currently working in the field today. If one chooses to skip the detailed archaeological information dealt within the book, the reader has that option. However, chapters 1 through 3 are a must read being filled with facts which exposes the reader to modern scholarship. The final three chapters lay out Dever's future state of Biblical studies if archaeology is to be taken seriously; particularly in light of the major roll of women in the ancient household religious cult and the restrictive place women have in most denominations today (Southern Baptist Convention).
Unlike most professors (who must write books based, not on the facts but rather on their sects religious doctrines) Dever (who is now retired) is free to deal objectively with the data and he is not afraid to step on toes. His thesis is that Israel's God, Yahweh, had a female consort (probably the Goddess Asherah) just like most all the neighboring national gods had female companions or as some would call it: wives.
As much as I enjoyed this book, it did have a few general drawbacks. Dever quotes many scholarly titles throughout the book and I personally would have loved to have seen more discussion in footnotes or endnotes, but I also understand the general reader (to which this book is addressed) would not be as interested. The book's final section "Some Basic Sources" has the bibliography grouped under related areas of interest, which makes finding more information on a title very cumbersome.
Secondly, while Dever admits his indebtedness throughout the book to Dutch scholar Karel van der Toorn for the term "Book Religion" (Official / State Religion) over against commoner's "Folk Religion, he fails to note van der Toorn's major work in the same area published in 1996: Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria and Israel: Continuity and Change in the Forms of Religious Life.
Also, I would have liked to see Dever's work in reference with Tilde Binger's revised dissertation about a wife for Yahweh: Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel and the Old Testament. However, Dever's strong objections to Minimalist scholarship has him reference this major study only once.
Dever's book is a "must read" and fresh breeze to a stale and stuffy room of ecclesiastical pseudo-scholarship where dogmas of creedal tradition dictates so-called objective facts of history.
The answer to Dever's excellent question is a resounding Yes! While the "Book religion" of the ancient Israelites was, and is, extremely masculine, what the great majority of the people actually believed and practiced was more balanced.
With only the written word to go by, it is easy to forget that Asherah, the consort of the supreme God El, eventually known as Yahweh, even existed. That she and other female deities were honored in the countryside and in the homes of ordinary people is now clearly evidenced by archaeological finds.
Modern Judaism did not spring solely from the minds of the small elite that wrote the early Biblical texts. Folk beliefs and practices continued, prompting the Prophets' constant condemnation.
Dever makes the excellent point that Israelite religion evolved naturally out of the Canaanite religion. It was the experience of the Babylonian captivity, wrenching it away from its folk roots, that transformed it. All the high places and sacred trees were left behind. With only the texts they were able to bring with them, the educated elite tried to hold on to their history and beliefs. When they were allowed to return to their homeland they produced the Bible. The foundation of three major modern religions, it is a remarkable accomplishment. Unfortunately, without the softening effect of the feminine, it has led to the widespread institutionalization of an unbalanced view.
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