Shoftim: No Goddesses Allowed

August 24, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment
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In beginning, elohim created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1)

elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods (plural); one of the names of the God of Israel. (Other common names include the tetragrammaton, El, El Elyon, and El Shaddai.)

How many gods does it take to create the universe? For most of ancient Canaan and Mesopotamia, in the beginning there were two: a father god and a mother goddess, who proceeded to beget additional gods. The universe was dualistic from the start.

But the book of Genesis clarifies that only one God created the universe, without any sexual partner.  God makes all the separations and distinctions, including gender, during the course of this creation. And unlike the gods of other peoples in the Ancient Near East, the God of the Torah demands exclusive loyalty. Anyone who worships God is forbidden to worship any additional gods or goddesses.

God first reveals this at Mount Sinai, with the commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an idol or any image of what is in the heavens above or what is in the earth below on what is in the water below the earth. You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them. Because I, God, your elohim, am a jealous eil. (Exodus/Shemot 20:4-5)

eil, El (אֵל) = a god; the father god of Canaanite religion; the God of Israel.

Matzeivah at Gezer

Worshiping an idol is equated in the Bible with worshiping the god that the idol represents. In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), Moses orders the Israelites:

You must not plant for yourself an asherah of any wood next to the altar of God, your elohim, that you shall make for yourself. And you must not erect for yourself a matzeivah which God, your elohim, hates. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:21-22)

asherah (אֲשֵׁרָה) = the mother goddess of Canaanite and Phoenician religions (called Ishtar in Akkadian and Inanna in Sumerian); a carved wooden post representing this goddess. (Plural: asherim, אֲשֵׁרִים.)

matzeivah (מַצֵבָה) = a standing stone used as a marker, or as an image representing a god. (Plural: matzeivot, מַצֵּבֺת.)

Clay figurines from Judah

Although very few wooden artifacts have survived the millennia in Israel, archaeologists have unearthed numerous small clay figurines in ancient Judah that may have been modeled after large wood asherim.1

All asherim are forbidden in the Bible, but not every matzeivah is. Standing stones that mark graves, boundaries, covenants, or great events are acceptable.2 So are the standing stones Jacob erects for God and anoints with oil.3 The matzeivot that God hates are the standing stones that people bowed to and anointed in order to worship a different god.

Asherim and matzeivot are mentioned together in eleven biblical passages.4 These wood and stone vertical idols were erected at the shrines of other gods—and even, at times, inside the temple of the God of Israel in Jerusalem.5 Thus when people came to a shrine or, during the reigns of more permissive kings, to a temple of God, they also acknowledged the divine power of the gods represented by the asherah and the matzeivah.

Who were the gods behind these two ubiquitous types of idols?

Asherah from Ugarit

The religion of Canaan (later known as Phoenicia) had a founding pair of gods who mated and produced 70 more gods. The father god was named El. In a long poem from Ugarit in northern Canaan6, El is associated with the bull, and holds court in a field at the source of two rivers. The mother goddess was named Asherah or Atirat, and was associated with the seashore, stars, fertility, and trees.

El and Asherah’s most important son was Baal, the weather god. In the Ugaritic poem, Baal asks Asherah to ask El for permission to build a palace on Mount Tzafon and hold court there. Both parents give permission, thus making Baal the ruler over all his sibling gods and goddesses. In other Canaanite stories, Asherah and her son Baal are a sexual pair.

Baal from Ugarit

An asherah represented the mother goddess Asherah. A matzeivah probably represented her son and lover Baal, since Canaanite rituals focused on the pairing of Asherah and Baal, not Asherah and El.7 Most biblical references to matzeivot do not specify the god; the only exceptions are Jacob’s matzeivot for God in the book of Genesis, and two matzeivot of Baal in the second book of Kings.8

The first time the Israelites are told to destroy asherim and matzeivot is in the book of Exodus:

For their altars you shall tear down and their matzeivot you shall shatter and their asherim you shall cut down (34:13); because you must not bow down to another eil, because God is jealous of “his” name; a jealous eil is “he”. (Exodus 34:14)

The Torah consistently uses masculine pronouns and conjugations to refer to its asexual God. Hebrew is a gendered language, in which even inanimate objects and abstract concepts are assigned genders, so the masculine gender is often arbitrary. But it may not be so arbitrary in the case of God.

In the Torah the head of a household is a man, who is entitled to complete obedience from his wife and adult children as well as his slaves. God is often described in the first five books of the Bible as a demanding father, and in the books of the Prophets as the husband of the Israelites, who collectively take the role of God’s unfaithful wife.

Canaanite and Mesopotamian religions had both priestesses and priests; the Israelites had only priests. In other Canaanite and Mesopotamian cultures, women could also own land, make contracts, and initiate divorce. The Israelites reserved these privileges for men.

Is the biblical condemnation of goddesses, including both Asherah and the later goddess Ashtoret, “Queen of the Heavens”9, a result of this discrimination against women?

Or is it merely part of the condemnation of all gods other than the one God, a condemnation that includes the worship of matzeivot as well as asherim?

Complete dedication to a single god does have an advantage. If you begin with two gods, male and female, you can certainly understand our universe of separations and distinctions. But it might be hard to grasp that everything is part of a whole.  Beginning with a single god who creates all the separations and distinctions makes it easier to transcend dualism and get an inkling of the underlying unity of everything.

For me, as for many human beings, it is hard to keep remembering that we are interconnected parts of the whole, and that the whole means more than the sum of its parts.  It is hard to keep returning to any sort of God-consciousness.

So I agree with the Torah portion Shoftim that we should not plant any goddess-posts or god-stones. What we need is a new pronoun and some new metaphors for God.

  1. See Aaron Greener’s essay What Are Clay Female Figurines Doing in Judah during the Biblical Period?, published on thetorah.com.
  2. Jacob marks Rachel’s grave (Genesis 35:20) and his boundary pact with Lavan (Genesis 31:45-52) with matzeivot. Moses erects twelve matzeivot for the twelve tribes around an altar for a ceremonial covenant between the Israelites and God (Exodus 24:4). Joshua erects twelve standing stones in a circle at Gilgal to commemorate the crossing of the Jordan River (Joshua 4:1-9, 4:19-24).
  3. Genesis 8:18, 28:22, 31:13, and 35:14.
  4. Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:13, and 16:21-22; 1 Kings 4:23; 2 Kings 17:10, 18:4, and 23:13-14; Micah 5:12; 2 Chronicles 14:2 and 31:1.
  5. King Hezekiah shatters matzeivot in the Jerusalem Temple in 2 Kings 18:4. King Menashe erects an asherah in the Temple in 2 Kings 21:7. King Josiah removes all the objects made for Asherah and Baal from the Temple and burns them in 2 Kings 23:4-6.
  6. Translated by H.L. Ginsberg in The Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, edited by James B. Pritchard, Princeton University Press, 1958.
  7. Similarly, in the annual fertility rituals of Mesopotamia to the east, a high priestess embodying Asherah (called Inana or Ishtar in that region) has sexual intercourse with the city’s king, who embodies Asherah’s son Baal (called Tammuz or Dumuzi there).
  8. 2 Kings 3:2 and 10:26-27.
  9. Ashtoret, originally one of the daughters of Asherah and El, replaced Asherah as the primary goddess in the region of Canaan during the 6th century B.C.E. The worship of Ashtoret is denounced in Judges 2:13 and 10:6, 1 Samuel 7:4 and 12:10, 1 Kings 11:5, and 2 Kings 23:13. Israelite women worship the “Queen of the Heavens”, one of the titles of Ashtoret, in Jeremiah 7:18 and 44:15-18.
  10. 1 Samuel 28:3-20.

 

Ki Tissa: Heard But Not Seen

March 2, 2015 at 6:01 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 4 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah  (first posted 2015, revised 2020)

For 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses listens to God’s instructions on making a sanctuary and preparing priests for the new religion.  The last details are given in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”).  Then we learn that the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai have given up and believe Moses is never coming back.

And the people saw that Moses took too long to come down from the mountain, and the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up!  Make for us elohim that will go in front of us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him!”  (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = gods (the plural of eloha, אֱלוֹהַּ.); a god; God.

Moses is gone, and God’s pillar of cloud and fire, which led them from Egypt to Mount Sinai, has disappeared.  Who or what can lead them through the wilderness now?  When the Israelites ask Aaron to make them elohim, they are asking for an idol, an image of a god that carries some divine power or magic.

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

Gold calf from Temple of Baalat, Byblos

Aaron said to them: “Pull off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people pulled off the gold rings in their ears, and they brought them to Aaron.  He took [the gold] from their hand, and he shaped it in the mold, and he made it a calf of cast metal …  (Exodus 32:2-4)

Maybe Aaron forgot that in the Ten Commandments God had ordered: “You shall not make yourself a sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth.  You shall not bow down to them nor serve them …  (Exodus 20:4-5)

The people at the foot of Mount Sinai immediately identify the gold calf Aaron makes with the god who made miracles in Egypt and led them out of slavery with a pillar of cloud and fire.

… and they said: “This is your elohim, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”  And Aaron saw, and he built an altar in front of it; and Aaron called out, and said: “A festival for God tomorrow!”  (Exodus 32:4-5)

Aaron uses God’s four-letter proper name, so at least he is not encouraging the people to worship any other god.  But he continues to behave as if God does not mind being worshiped through an idol.  The next day people bring offerings to burn in front of the golden calf and eat the remainder of the meat in a celebratory feast—the standard way to serve a god at that time.

By the end of this week’s Torah portion, the golden calf has been destroyed and its worshipers killed (though Aaron is excused).  But later in the Bible, King Jereboam calls for two gold calves.

The united kingdom of David and Solomon falls apart in the first book of Kings/Melachim when Solomon’s son Reheboam overworks and overtaxes the people.  Jereboam leads the revolt and secession of the north, and becomes the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel.  Jerusalem remains the capital of the southern part of the land, the kingdom of Judah.

King Jereboam consolidates his reign by means of two golden calves.

And the king took counsel and he made two gold calves, and he said to them: “Going up to Jerusalem is too much for you.  Here are your gods, Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.”  And he placed one in Beit El and the other he gave to Dan.  (1 Kings 12:28-29)

The temples at Beit El (a central location) and Dan (far to the north) become the new centers of worship for the northern kingdom.  Although the ten northern tribes worship the God of Israel, the Bible denounces King Jereboam’s action.

And this thing was wrong.  But the people went into the presence of even the one in Dan.  (1 Kings 12:30)

Moses and Joshua Bowing before the Ark, by James Tissot, c. 1900

Yet this does not mean all sculptures are bad.  The temple in Jerusalem has its own sculpted images: the two gold-plated keruvim, hybrid winged creatures erected on either side of the ark by King Solomon, in imitation of the two keruvim that God tells Moses to hammer out of the gold lid of the ark in Exodus 25:18-20.1

Why would God find the keruvim acceptable, but not the golden calves?

 

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Baal Hadad on bull throne, stele from Arslan Tash

Location, not throne

Modern commentator Robert Alter wrote that the Golden Calf was not intended to be inhabited by a deity, but rather to serve as the throne for a god—just  as Canaanite deities were often shown sitting or standing on a bull or calf.2

The ark with its keruvim is not a throne.  Later in the Bible, God acquires the title “Who Sits Above the Keruvim”.3  But the book of Exodus makes it clear that God manifests as a voice coming from the empty space between the keruvim.When God is enthroned above keruvim in the book of Ezekiel, the glory of God is hovering above the four-faced creatures next to the wheels with eyes in the prophet’s vision—quite different from the two keruvim framing the lid of the ark.

Imaginary, not actual

A sculpture of a calf falls into the category of “a sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below” which God forbids in the Ten Commandments.  But the keruvim do not represent any known animal on earth. Are they acceptable because they are mythical?  Or did the people in the Ancient Near East consider this hybrid guardian figures representations of angels in the heavens?

Commanded, not volunteered

In his book Kuzari, 12th-century commentator Judah Halevi argued that images were psychologically necessary for people in that era.  Until they reached Mount Sinai, the Israelites followed a visible pillar of cloud and fire.  After the pillar disappeared, they waited for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai with some other visible item.  Only after they concluded Moses would never return did they make an unauthorized image.5

The difference between the keruvim and the Golden Calf, according to Halevi and subsequent commentary by Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel, is that God ordered the keruvim.  God does not want people to use any items for worship that God has not authorized.

Heard, not seen

I think the underlying reason why golden calves are idols but keruvim are acceptable is while a number of people hear God’s voice in the Torah, nobody sees God’s form.  God’s glory (kavod, כָּבוֹד) appears as cloud or fire, not a physical creature.6  Even the pillar of cloud and fire that leads the people through the wilderness is called God’s messenger.  In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, God tells Moses:

You will not be able to see My face, because humankind may not see Me and live. (Exodus 33:20)

Only God’s creations can be seen, not God.  But God’s voice is heard by all the people in the revelation at Mount Sinai.  And throughout the Bible, God speaks to individual human beings.

The people in the Torah portion Ki Tissa err in expecting God to manifest as a visible shape, sitting astride the golden calf or standing on its back.  They want the reassurance of something they can see.  But God only manifests as a voice; God wants people to listen for divine direction.

In the Torah, God does not manifest on the solid and visible Golden Calf; God speaks from an invisible empty space between and above the keruvim.

Maybe God still speaks to us from out of nowhere—if we make empty spaces in our lives, and listen.

  1. See my post Terumah:  Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.
  2. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. W. Norton & Company, 2008, p. 494.
  3. Isaiah 37:16.
  4. Exodus 25:22.
  5. Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Shemos, Mesorah Publications Ltd., 1994, p. 443-444.
  6. The only exception is when 74 selected people see God’s “feet” on a sapphire pavement after they have hiked halfway up Mount Sinai.  (Exodus 24:9-11)

Behar: Choosing a God

May 4, 2014 at 11:37 am | Posted in Behar | Leave a comment
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Feeling a sense of the numinous or the divine, from time to time, is human nature. So is the impulse to acknowledge and reach out to the ineffable. For thousands of years, many human beings have channeled this impulse into worship of one or more gods.

The Hebrew Bible does not have a separate word corresponding to the English word “worship”. But it does have words for prayer (tefillah), bowing down or prostrating oneself (hishtachavot), service (avodah—often meaning the tasks of priests), and bringing offerings to a god (hakriv korban). Prayer and prostration usually happen on the impulse of the moment in the Torah.  Priestly service and bringing offerings, on the other hand, are rituals for which the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed rules.

But the most important thing is which god one is addressing. The Torah repeatedly warms its readers to restrict themselves to only one god out of the many available in the ancient Middle East. This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“on the mountain”) ends with these instructions:

You must not make for yourselves eliylim, or a pesel; and a matzeivah you must not erect for yourselves; and a maskit stone you must not place in your land for prostrations upon it; because I, God, am your elohim. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:1)

eliylim (אֱלִילִם) = pseudo-gods (often used to refer to gods in other religions)

pesel (פֶּסֶל) = carved image; idol of cut stone or wood (from the verb pasal = carve)

matzeivah (מַצֵּבָה) = standing-stone

maskit (מַשׂכּית) = paving-stone with a design on it, set into the floor of a shrine

elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = gods (plural of eloha = god); God

What strikes me about this warning is that after the general reference to pseudo-gods, we get three examples of idols associated with stone. In contrast, the God of the four-letter name (approximated in English by Y-H-V-H) is associated with a day of rest and a holy place in the next verse:

Shabbetotai you must guard, and mikdashi you must hold in awe; I am God. (Leviticus 26:2)

shabbetotai (שַׁבְּתֹתַי) = my sabbaths

mikdashi (מִקְדָּשִׁי) = my holy place

Shabbat, the sabbath, is a holy time: one day a week when the people must refrain from labor and honor God. A mikdash is a holy place. A shrine with a pesel, matzeivah, or maskit stone might be a mikdash for another god. But this week’s Torah portion quotes the god of Israel as saying mikdashi, MY mikdash. Throughout the book of Leviticus, God’s mikdash is the portable sanctuary Moses assembles in the book of Exodus; God becomes present above the ark in the sanctuary’s innermost chamber. Later in the Bible, the holy place where God becomes present is the temple in Jerusalem. Since the fall of the second temple, some Jews have viewed Jerusalem as God’s holy place, while others have said holy place is any spot where God becomes present to a human being—as long as it is the correct god.

Both the pseudo-gods and the God of Israel require human actions before they can be worshipped. Humans carve the pseudo-gods out of stones. Humans set aside times and places as holy to the God of the four-letter name.

Like many religious seekers today, I like the more abstract idea of how to approach God. Thinking about time and space dazzles me; looking at a stone sculpture only stimulates my aesthetic sense. But in Biblical times, the sanctuary or the temple was full of tangible objects and decorations made of metals, wood, and thread. Gold flashed, rich colors glowed. And the second temple was built of stone.

A visit to the temple meant not only a feast for the eyes, but an overwhelming experience for the other senses. The Levites chanted psalms and played musical instruments. Priests burned aromatic incense. When you brought any animal offering, you laid your hands on the beast’s hairy head. When you brought a wholeness-offering, a priest burned selected portions into smoke for God, and ate his own portion, but the donor and his guests ate the rest of the meat and bread.

When we make God too abstract, we approach the divine with only one part of ourselves, the rational function of our minds. But our minds are much bigger than that. Reading a prayer silently makes me think about the meaning of words; singing a prayer lifts my spirit. Thinking about time and space dazzles my intellect; looking at a blossoming tree or a smiling face moves my heart with a feeling of the divine.

So I have to reinterpret the phrase:  I, God (the four-letter Y-H-V-H name), am your elohim. Most translations use “the LORD”, a variation of “Y-H-V-H”, or Hashem (“the Name”) for the first god-word, and “God” (always capitalized) for elohim. Yet elohim is a plural, and the Torah occasionally uses the word to refer to multiple gods worshipped by other peoples.

When I come to that phrase, in prayers or in this passage from the portion Behar, I think: I, God, am all gods to you.

In other words, do not get stranded in abstract theories, however dazzling to the intellect. And do not get stuck at the level of a stone carving. Let the stone, or the singing of psalms, or the taste of bread move your heart. Use your head to recognize that the divine is also more than an exalted feeling. And then acknowledge that these things are all part of the holy One.

 

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