Lauren McCormick, Class of 2006
Thesis Title: "Following Her Trail: Biblical Hints of the Israelite Goddess and Her Bearing on the Monotheistic Realization."
Advisors: Alberto R. Green
This year, I completed a thesis entitled “Following Her Trail: Biblical Hints of the Israelite Goddess, and Her Bearing on the Monotheistic Realization.” For this project, I tried to get at some essential points which underlie the monotheistic foundation that traditional Western religions rest on. I worked primarily with Jeremiah 7:16-20; 44:15-19, 25, Ezekiel 8, and Genesis 2:4-3:21, and tried to determine what this literature would have meant to its audience in the 7th-6thcenturies BCE.
Before post-exilic times, ancient polytheistic cults involving goddess-worship were commonly accounted for in the Old Testament, i.e. in ancient Israelite religion. I suggested that one ancient Ugaritic mother-goddess, namely Asherah, was particularly prevalent in Ancient Near Eastern religions. Given the strong archaeological and epigraphic evidence, I concurred with popular scholarly opinion that Asherah also had a strong presence in Israel’s history. However, I spent a large portion of my project building a case for, and arguing the unconventional viewpoint that Asherah was the goddess referred to in the book of Jeremiah as “the Queen of Heaven.”
A “Queen of Heaven” is an epithet and not a name, but there are other descriptions for this goddess and her cult given in Jeremiah 7:16-20; 44:15-19, and 25. I utilized those additional details to consider the likelihood of various Ancient Near Eastern goddesses as the Israelite Queen of Heaven. From there, I asked why the name of this goddess who once held such a status was not recorded along with the rest of the details about her in the Old Testament. This inevitably led me to larger contextual considerations, like who wrote and recorded this particular scripture, during which time period, and also what editorial processes it was subjected to. It may be a real possibility that Asherah-worship was used as a vehicle to accommodate Yahwism, which was relatively new in the Ancient Near East. Furthermore, it seems utterly unsurprising that goddess-worship permeates much of the Old Testament, and certainly the excerpts I examined, because it was a fundamental part of the polytheism from which Yahwistic monotheism emerged.
If Asherah-worship was as imperative as I suggested it was, I knew there would be many more references to it, and there certainly were. I argued the case that Asherah was also the “image of jealousy” in Ezekiel 8, and furthermore that some of her richest symbols (i.e. the tree of life, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the serpent) were at work in the Adam and Eve narrative in the book of Genesis. It was the proposal of my investigation that the exilic community's gradual acceptance of Yahweh as sole deity was facilitated by the use of the familiar feminine figure of Asherah. Monotheism was a very radical concept in the Ancient Near East, and it seems that in the hearts and minds of the ancient Israelites, not only did Yahweh have a goddess-consort, but Yahwism would have failed miserably without her. Yahweh as the only deity to ever have existed was a foreign concept in an Ancient Near Eastern religious context. Asherah seems to have been a principal part of pre-exilic official religion, such that to say that Yahweh had a consort would not be to start a new religion, quite oppositely it would be to return to the original one.