By Uri Gordon - AnarchyAlive.com
The ancient Hebrews never believed in one god. There is nothing controversial about this claim. From the biblical narrative itself we learn how, in both kingdoms of Israel and Judah, one ruler after another “did evil in the eyes of Yahweh” by worshiping other gods and encouraging their ongoing worship among the people. Only a handful of “good” kings were dedicated to Yahweh alone and suppressed other cults. It is thus evident that during the First Temple period (c.1000-586 BCE), the population which had allegedly taken up the monotheistic covenant at Mount Sinai was in fact polytheistic, worshiping the selfsame family of goddesses and gods prevalent among the Western Semitic peoples of the age. Yahweh was nothing but the local name for this pantheon’s sky/father god, also known as El, and inseparable from his female partner and equal, the earth/mother goddess Ashera. A simple calculation from the Book of Kings will reveal that the typical wooden pole dedicated to the mother goddess stood in Solomon’s Temple for a full two thirds of its existence. Archaeologists have dug up literally thousands of Ashera figurines in Palestine/Israel, as well as inscriptions carrying blessings “from Yahweh and his Ashera”. No less popular were their son and daughter – the rain god Hadad, often referred to as the Ba’al (meaning “lord”), and the goddess of love and war Ashtoret, identical to the Mesopotamian Ishtar.
How then did this pagan nature religion transform into abstract monotheism, the basis for Judaism, Christianity and Islam? The answer lies not in theology, but in politics. The change took place in two stages, the first of which came with the sweeping campaign of religious and political centralization enacted in Jerusalem by King Josiah in 621 BCE. The chief instigators were the high priest Hilkiah, the royal secretary Shaphan, and the prophetess Huldah, a prominent noblewoman. During renovations in the temple, they “discovered” a forgotten manuscript, the Book of the Covenant, later incorporated into the book of Deuteronomy. Its centerpiece was the Shema – the passage beginning “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh the One” (Deut. 6:4) – along with harsh prohibitions on idolatry and exogamy, a stress on one exclusive temple, and threats of total annihilation of the people if they worship other gods. Presented to the king, these writings formed the perfect pretext for a wholesale centralization of theocratic power in the hands of the House of David and the Jerusalem priestly caste. Josiah acted swiftly:
He went up to the temple of Yahweh with the men of Judah, the people of Jerusalem…He read in their hearing all the words of the Book…Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant. The king ordered…to remove from the temple of Yahweh all the articles made for Ba’al and Asherah and all the starry hosts…He took the Asherah pole from the temple of Yahweh to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem and burned it there. He ground it to powder and scattered the dust over the graves of the common people. He also tore down the quarters of the male shrine prosti¬tutes, which were in the temple of Yahweh and where women did weaving for Asherah…Josiah smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles and covered the sites with human bones…slaughtered all the priests of those high places on the altars and burned human bones on them.
(2 Kings 23)
Josiah’s coup created and enforced a patriarchal state religion, to whose intellectual elite modern scholarship attributes the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings – a retroactive historiography which would drastically reshape Judean identity and collective memory.
Yet the exclusive and centralized cult of Yahweh was still essentially a pagan affair – “monolatry” rather than monotheism. It was only following the destruction of Solomon’s Temple (586 BCE) and the forced migration to Babylon that the second stage took place. Over the next few generations, the elders of the exiled Judean community, having entirely internalized the Yahwist line, interpreted their traumatic uprooting as divine retribution for idolatry. This, along with the abrupt halt of sacrificial ritual, drove the Judeans towards an increasingly im¬material and ethical notion of the divine. Another likely influence was the encounter with the Zoroastrian religion of the Persians, who conquered Babylon and allowed the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (444 BC). Their emperor Cyrus no doubt appreciated the utility of a universal faith, now enshrined in texts and ad¬ministered by a literate elite, in maintaining social order and obedience to his Judean vassals – as would Alexander the Great just over a century later. Left largely autonomous in their internal affairs, the Jews would go on to produce volumes upon volumes of exegesis and jurisprudence, taking the expedient lies of men for the sacred word of God.
Yet the ancient religion is not entirely lost. Its echoes are to be found in the songs and rituals of Jewitches and Hebrew pagans, a small movement of creative deviants who dodge the false choice between a ridiculously unfathomable God and a life barren of spirit. An older, gentler faith still lies dormant beneath the concrete blocks and bloodied soil of this orphaned land, await¬ing perhaps the day when the children of Ashera lay down their swords forever and seek reconnection to their deepest roots.
M. Smith, The Early History of God (Eerdmans, 2002)
R. Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (Wayne State, 1990)
L. Grabbe, Good Kings and Bad Kings (Clark, 2005)