Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (pdf)

This is a book about ordinary people in ancient Israel and their everyday religious lives, not about the extraordinary few who wrote and edited the Hebrew Bible. It is also a book for ordinary people today who know instinctively that "religion" is about experience, not about the doctrines of scholars, theologians, and clerics who study religion dispassionately and claim authority. My concern in this book is popular religion, or, better, "folk religion" in all its variety and vitality.

This is a book that, although it hopes to be true to the facts we know, does not attempt objectivity; for that is impossible and perhaps even undesirable. One can understand religion only from within, or at least from a sympathetic viewpoint. As an archaeologist, I shall try to describe the religions of ancient Israel — not theoretically, from the top down, as it were, but practically, "from the bottom up," from the evidence on the ground.

This is a book mostly about the practice of religion, not about belief, much less theology. It is concerned with what religion actually does, not with what religionists past or present think that it should do. Beliefs matter, for they are the wellspring of action; and theological formulations may be helpful or even necessary for some. But archaeologists are more at home with the things that past peoples made, used, and discarded or reused, and what these artifacts reveal about their behavior, than they are with speculations about what these people thought that they were doing. As Lewis Binford reminds us, "archaeologists are poorly equipped to be paleo-psychologists."

This is a book that attempts what is admittedly impossible, to draw a clear picture of a religious life that, as many have observed, is like a puzzle with many missing pieces. Even at best, it is not a "reconstruction," as though we could or should bring ancient religious beliefs and practices back to life. Like the peoples of ancient Israel themselves, the folk religions of ancient Israel are extinct. They have no practitioners today, however much Jews, Christians, and even secular humanists in the West may think that they are the heirs of the biblical traditions. I do not wish to replicate the religions of ancient Israel, even if that were possible. I hope only to offer a reasonable portrait, based largely on archaeological evidence, but incorporating information from the Hebrew Bible where I think it may be illuminating. A portrait may present a believable likeness; but it is not flesh and blood, it does not breathe. It will seem lifelike only to those who know the original and recognize it.

This is a book that does not presume to judge what was or should be regarded as religiously "normative." I can only try to describe what religious life was "really like" for most people in ancient Israel, in most places, most of the time. I do not know if this was "right" belief or practice (nor does anyone else, it seems). And I cannot prescribe any of these beliefs and practices for anyone else, since I can evaluate them only in light of my own rather parochial experience. The Hebrew Bible may indeed be revealing, but I shall not regard it here as Revelation.

From the experiences of many in ancient Israel — priests, prophets, kings, even scoundrels — we may distill some moral truths and lay down some ethical guidelines for a vastly different world. But each of us must decide for ourselves what the reported experiences of people in ancient Israel "mean," whether we learn of these experiences from stories preserved in the biblical texts or long-lost artifacts dug up from the soil of the Holy Land.

Finally, a word about my own biases (although they will be clear enough in time). I have been involved in religion one way or another throughout a long and adventuresome life. I was reared in a deeply religious family in small towns in the South and Midwest. My father was a fire-breathing fundamentalist preacher, sometime tent evangelist, for a while a missionary in Jamaica, from whom I inherited a lifelong love of the Bible. In time I went to a small, unaccredited church college in the hills of East Tennessee. Then it was on to a liberal Protestant seminary, where I did an M.A. thesis in the 1950s on the then-current "revival of biblical theology." Finally I went to Harvard to study Old Testament theology with the legendary George Ernest Wright, only to discover that while I had the necessary dogmatic temperament, I really had no talent for that discipline, and little patience. Indeed, theology by now seemed to me a dead end. What more could be learned from endless reinterpretation of the same texts? So I turned to the archaeology of the World of the Bible (as I thought of it then). Fortunately, Ernest Wright was not only a noted biblical scholar, but also a leading archaeologist. He became my mentor. Throughout my years in seminary and graduate school I had served as a parish minister, but in the mid-1960s I began a forty-year career in archaeological fieldwork in Israel and Jordan, in research and teaching and publication. The Hebrew Bible finally became real for me, indeed more "credible," because I dealt constantly with the tangible evidence. But the question remained: "What do these things mean?"

In late mid-life, after having lived in Israel for many years, dealing every day "hands-on" with the world of the Hebrew Bible and the remains of ancient Israel, I became a nominal Jew. Today I am somewhat active in the Reform community, but I am not observant, in fact not a theist. Like many Jews, I am essentially a secular humanist, but one who finds value in the Jewish tradition — especially Reform Judaism's emphasis on praxis, on a living community, rather than on systematic theology. I feel at home in this tradition, and it fits well with the interest in "folk religion" that prompted this work.

In the end, I have become more a student of religion than a practitioner — sometimes filled with nostalgia for what I suspect is "a biblical world that never was," but often a skeptic. I view the religions of ancient Israel as an ethnographer would — as cultural phenomena whose importance I try to appreciate, but finally as elements of a "lost world" in which I can participate only partially. If archaeology really is the "ethnology of the dead," what we need are what anthropologists call "informants," and we have none who are totally trustworthy. As I shall argue, the Hebrew Bible itself is not always reliable, because it is "revisionist history." And the archaeological artifacts, although not subject to editing in the same way as the texts, do not easily reveal their meaning. Nevertheless, I shall take a modest, optimistic, "functionalist" approach here, assuming that both texts and artifacts can be made to speak if we are persistent, if we are willing to try to "think and feel ourselves" empathetically into the past. Our knowledge of actual ancient religious beliefs and practices will still be in complete, but such an approach is better than theory alone (and certainly better than theology alone).

A word about the scope of our inquiry. Except for drawing on "Canaanite" traditions, it will be limited to the biblical "period of the Judges" (12th-10th cents. B.C.) and the Israelite monarchy (10th-early 6th cents. B.C.). That is because "Israel" as a distinctive people and soon-to-be nation appear in the full light of history only here, in the Iron Age of ancient Palestine (see Dever 2003 for a full discussion). And my major topic here is "Israelite" religion, neither its precursors in the Bronze Age, nor its transformation into Judaism in the Persian-Hellenistic or "Second Temple" period (something quite different and requiring a separate discussion).

Finally, some practical matters, such as defining terms. I shall use the general term "folk religion" throughout, as defined in Chapter I, but in a generic sense, aware that it embraces a wide variety of beliefs and practices. For that reason, the term "religions" often and deliberately appears in the plural. "Palestine" here has no reference to modern conflicts in the Middle East and denotes the ancient land of Canaan, later biblical Israel. Similarly, I use the conventional "B.C." rather than "B.C.E." (before the Common Era), but I attach to it neither religious nor political connotations (this is the way it is used, for instance, in the Israel Exploration Journal). I use "Hebrew Bible" throughout, in keeping with mainstream biblical scholarship, because I wish to view this literature on its own terms, not as the Christian "Old Testament" that it became long after the period I am surveying here. Needless to say, "Bible" here always means the Hebrew Bible.

In order to make this book more accessible to non-specialists I have eliminated the footnotes so beloved by scholars. In doing so, I make many statements that I cannot document, especially when summarizing an extensive and often controversial body of literature. Some of the basic literature will be found in the Bibliography for readers who wish to pursue certain topics further. The quotations I use in the text (for example, Jones 2000:13) can easily be found there under the various headings and authors' names. My rationale for the format here is that this is intended as a popular work. My scholarly colleagues can quarrel with me elsewhere for what they may see as oversimplifications. For more on individual sites, see further the encyclopedias listed under "Archaeological Sites," and also bibliographies in Nakhai 2001 and Zevit 2001. Translations of biblical texts follow the Revised Standard Version, except where noted.

I am indebted to too many people even to begin acknowledging them. To my parents, long gone, I am grateful for inculcating in me a deep respect for the Bible and an awareness of the awesome power of religion (even though they would be horrified to see how I have turned out). I have been fortunate in my teachers, and even more fortunate in my many graduate students over the years, who have been among my best teachers. I thank several colleagues who have made suggestions, though the final statement is my own.

I must mention several colleagues in particular who have made detailed and very helpful suggestions: Beth Nakhai, Susan Ackerman, Carol Meyers, James Sanders, and Ziony Zevit. I want to mention also several anonymous men and women friends who are not specialists but are sensitive readers. I own an incalculable debt to Susan and Carol, whose amazingly close reading of my manuscript revealed to me not only some egregious errors in biblical studies, but both conceptual and structural problems with some of my characterization of women's cults. I have followed their astute criticisms wherever possible, but I remained unpersuaded on a few methodological points. Let me clarify these at the outset.

Categorizing scholarly works by "schools" may be helpful or even necessary for purposes of comparison, but it can pose problems. This is especially so with "feminism," so let me define how I shall use the term. First, it may help to distinguish, as women colleagues often do, between (1) scholarly feminism, which is research and publication that focuses largely on particular women's issues, such as gender bias in scholarship; (2) and political feminism, which actively pursues an agenda that would give women full equality, access, and recognition in all areas of life. A woman might be committed to only one of these feminist movements, or to both; in what sense is she then a "feminist"? In theory at least, a man might also embrace one or both of these aspects of feminism. Thus I would insist that I am, politically speaking, a feminist. Nevertheless, I would not want to be described as either a "feminist" or a "masculinist" scholar, since both perspectives focus the inquiry too narrowly for me.

A second qualification has more to do with degree than kind: how far does one go in feminist enterprises? I distinguish here between (1) "mainstream" feminists — competent, honest scholars who happen to be women, and who focus on women's issues among other scholarly interests; and (2) "doctrinaire" feminists, whose extremist ideology trumps any scholarly credentials they might have, and who as a result become as chauvinist as the men whose agenda they reject.

Even the more sensible of the doctrinaire feminists are often characterized by what Susan Ackerman describes to me as "wishful thinking." They hope to reconstruct a past in which women's full equality (or even superiority) was actually realized, but which in their view has been obscured by male scholars. Thus they tend to ignore the realities of ancient patriarchal worldviews, such as the Bible's — hardly the way to combat patriarchy, it seems to me. Furthermore, positing such a "matriarchal Garden of Eden" is bad historical scholarship (more on this in Chapter IX).

Even alluding to possible differences in men's and women's approaches to the study of ancient Israelite religion raises another issue: Do such gender differences actually exist; and if so, do they shape the way the portrait of religion is drawn? To phrase the question more pointedly, who is better suited to write about women's religious beliefs and practices (that is, their experience of religion), as I am attempting here: a man or a woman?

In theory, I would like to say that it doesn't matter: good scholarship is simply good scholarship. In practice, however, women may be more likely to take up the topic, and they are probably also better suited to empathize personally with the plight of ancient Israelite women who have been so invisible in biblical scholarship until recently. That being said, my approach here may differ significantly from that of some women colleagues, but I undertake my own statement for what it is worth, and I alone must be held accountable. I encourage more women colleagues to do the same.

Whatever the results, I remain convinced that there are significant differences in men's and women's fundamental approach to religion and to the study of religion, men generally being perhaps more analytical (i.e., inclined to theology), and women by and large more attuned to the emotional aspects of religion (experiential). Neither approach is necessarily "better" than the other; but ironically here I side as a man more with the latter. I can only hope that I will not be thought presumptuous.

One other issue raised by reviewers should be addressed up front. That is the apparent contradiction between "folk" religion, with its veneration of Asherah (and perhaps other deities), and the fact that these elements of "pagan" religion found their way into the Temple in Jerusalem and thus became part of "official" or "state religion." There they were tolerated until the Deuteronomistic reforms (see below) in the late 7th century B.C., when "Book religion" began to prevail. But the apparent contradiction is easily resolved. Although originally part of the predominant folk religion in the countryside, always centered in the family, these "foreign" elements eventually penetrated into the urban cult in Jerusalem, where they finally came to be regarded as intrusive — if the biblical writers (the "Deuteronomists") are to be believed.

Some reviewers have suggested that my "Book religion" (following van der Toorn; below), which I have set up as a counterfoil to the more pervasive "folk religion," is late in the Monarchy, emerging only with the 7th-6th century B.C. Deuteronomistic reform movements. Thus they argue that for the earlier period in the Monarchy, not to mention the "Period of the Judges" (12th-11th cents, B.C.), I can reconstruct nothing but "folk religion." This overlooks, however, the consensus of mainstream biblical scholars that behind the admittedly late written tradition there is a long oral tradition. The major theological motifs of canonical Scripture, although I have downplayed their popular appeal, did not appear suddenly overnight. These themes (see Chapter VIII) had a long tradition among the literati who later wrote and edited the Hebrew Bible; so "Book religion" merely represents their final crystallization.

Finally, regarding the emergence of "Book religion," some reviewers have wondered whether I have made the dichotomy between that expression of belief and "folk religion" too strong. That would seem to depreciate biblical (i.e. canonical) religion, which after all was the only version that survived, and which for all its shortcomings eventually laid the major foundations for the Western cultural tradition. Now that that tradition is under sustained attack, both symbolically and physically, some may fear that my book will undermine the foundations. That is a concern of mine as well; but then all truly critical scholarship may appear subversive. I think that is a risk that we must take. I can only say that elsewhere I have mounted a sustained defense of the Western cultural tradition and its biblical roots (see, for example, Dever 2001).

Finally, what I know about "family," which shapes religion so fundamentally, I have learned in 50 eventful years with my own wives and children. Norma, a loyal companion in many years of exploration and travel, contributed much to life's long journey. Pamela, born a feminist and now a religious educator, has listened patiently to many trial formulations of ideas presented here and has sharpened my focus at many points. In particular, she has embodied many aspects of the Great Mother, to whom I hope I do justice here.

Bedford Hills, New York


  1. It appears the link is dead, is there any chance it might be rehosted?