“Yahweh’s wife”: a different way of looking at it

Speaking of Catholica, there is an essay there currently by Dr Ian Elmer, lecturer in Biblical Studies at St Paul’s Theological College (ACU). He quite rightly points to the fact that there is abundant evidence that in early Canaanitic folk religion (as in all Ancient Near Eastern religions), the High God (El or Yahweh) had a consort. It is also true that as the religion of Israel developed toward exclusive monotheism, this consort was vehemently and decisively excluded from Jewish cult and theology.

As he interprets this, it is because:

The “Book religion” was monotheistic, elitist, priestly, literary and male. It conferred prestige and power upon those who served it, the priests and the patriarchy of the exilic community. This process became even more firmly entrenched with the Restoration and, as Dever asserts, the emerging Scriptures became the excusive preserve of a tiny, but increasingly powerful, Jerusalem-based, male literary and theological elite.

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. There is another way. He forgets to tell you that the main impulse for “killing off” El’s consort goddess came not from the priests in Jerusalem, but the prophetic movement, especially starting with Elijah, but continued with Isaiah and drastically rewritten by Hosea and others.

In particular, as the early chapters of Hosea show, by removing the goddess from the scene, a new theology was able to emerge which in fact reintroduced a consort for Yahweh: namely, Israel herself.

Consider this: if God has a divine wife, his love and attention is directed to her alone. God without a divine wife still seeks a bride, but now, not in the regions of heaven – where he alone is divine – but among human beings. And so Israel’s God enters into a divine marriage not with another “divine being”, but with his people. God’s love is directed to his human creatures, rather than bottled up and selfishly retained in heaven.

Of course, it is from this that the whole theology of Christ as bridegroom and the Church as Bride extends.

If, out of some misguided feministic concern, we try to restore the ancient pagan view of God and His Consort, we inadvertantly cut off ourselves from the love of God expressed in the Paschal Mystery (so often interpreted as a recreation story in line with Genesis 2:21-25) by which heaven is wedded to earth, and the Bride comes forth from the wounded side of Christ.

This is why Pope Benedict always reminds us of the necessity of interpreting the Scriptures within the faith of the Church. The high priests of “a tiny, but increasingly powerful, academe-based, male literary and theological elite”, such as “biblical scholars” like Dr Elmer, are not free to make up their own account.

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16 responses to ““Yahweh’s wife”: a different way of looking at it

  1. Peregrinus

    Well, it’s an interesting point, but it doesn’t entirely dispose of the issues raised. The prophetic movement may not have been priestly, but it was fairly elite, literary and male, was it not? So we can expand Dr Elmer’s account to embrace a struggle for dominance between rival male elites – the priests and the prophets or, if you like the Whigs and the Tories of their time. My limited knowledge of scriptural studies suggests that there is plenty of material to support such a conjecture. But we are still left with a narrative in which the demotic and the feminine are marginalised. Plenty of scope for a feminist reading there.

    There is, of course, an alternative, but still feminist, approach. If we embrace monotheism, and the understanding of (human) Israel and the bride of (divine) Yahweh, and if we exclude any notion of incarnation, then we can see humanity as ideally and essentially feminine, and those unfortunate specimens who are afflicted with a Y chromosome (such as yourself and myself, David) as falling short of God’s ideal for humanity.

    • The prophetic movement may not have been priestly, but it was fairly elite, literary and male, was it not?

      It was not.

      Amos said: “I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ (Amos 7:14-15)

      Elite? Literate? Mmmm.

      Or consider the following list of “prophetesses” in the Scriptures: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Anna. Okay, so it was predominately a male movement, but not exclusively.

      One should also be cautious reading a feminist agenda (Dan-Brown-like) into the practice of sacred sex in the Ancient World. The divinisation of the femine often led, not to a healthy appreciation of women (let alone marriage and family life), but to sexualisation, objectification, and prostitution of women.

      Because the standard way (as even Dan Brown realised) in which worshippers of the God and His Divine Consort took part in the life of the divine was temple prostitution. It really isn’t pretty.

      On another tack entirely, one ought to be careful of what “biblical scholarship” such as that suggested by Dr Elmer leads to. It directly questions the authenticity of the sacred texts themselves. That may be defended as an enlightened, liberated and grown up thing to do. On the other hand, it may simply be adolescent and selfish. I mean “selfish” in so far that it actually ignores the context of the community of faith in which the scriptures are read and heard. Ratzinger once wrote that:

      “the exegete must realise that he does not occupy a neutral position above or outside Church history and he must acknowledge that the faith is the hermeneutic, the locus of understanding, which does not dogmatically force itself upon the Bible, but is the only way of letting it be itself’.” (Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church).

      Think of this as a sort of “reader response theory” that takes seriously also the objectivity of the text read, and the communal context in which both reader and text exist.

      And finally, you do not need to exclude the incarnation in order to maintain that, in relation to God, humanity is essentially feminine. In fact, this is precisely the point of the incarnation and of the Church. Redeemed humanity relates to God as a bride to a bridegroom. It is the divine marriage re-written to include all creation. Like the Ancients, we also celebrate this marriage in our liturgy, except that (perhaps to the disappointment of some) ritual prostitution is replaced with a ritual sacrificial-nuptial meal: the anticipation of the wedding feast that knows no end.

      Of course, in this scheme, Mary holds special importance – precisely as a human being, not as a “goddess”.

      • Peregrinus

        Amos said: “I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ (Amos 7:14-15)

        Elite? Literate? Mmmm.

        Oh, he’s just being modest.

        Seriously, though, while not all of the prophets individually were literate (and therefore educated) many were. And the movement as a whole was certainly characterised by literacy. The prophetic books of the bible were written either by the prophets themselves or there close followers, and the prophets have given us a considerably larger proportion of scripture than the priests.

        Or consider the following list of “prophetesses” in the Scriptures: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Anna. Okay, so it was predominately a male movement, but not exclusively.

        The fewness of the women makes my point. And those you name are not generally ranked even among the minor prophets. Anna is an NT figure, from well after the period we are discussing. And, I confess, though I consider myself a moderately well-read person, until your post I do not recall ever hearing of Huldah.

        One should also be cautious reading a feminist agenda (Dan-Brown-like) into the practice of sacred sex in the Ancient World. The divinisation of the femine often led, not to a healthy appreciation of women (let alone marriage and family life), but to sexualisation, objectification, and prostitution of women. Although the participation of a few women is identifiable, the movements as a whole was characteristically male.

        Because the standard way (as even Dan Brown realised) in which worshippers of the God and His Divine Consort took part in the life of the divine was temple prostitution. It really isn’t pretty.

        Oh, look, I completely agree. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that Yahweh-plus-consort proto-Judaism would have treated women any better than Just-Yahweh Judaism. And I wasn’t putting my new feminist interpretation forward seriously. My point was just that almost any situation or state of affairs can be interpreted through a feminist lens – and the precisely opposite situation or state of affairs can be similarly interpreted. And, lest anybody think I’m making a point here about feminism, you can substitute almost any other ideology or critical framework there, and the statement will still be true.

        We can read a text, or interpret an event, through a feminist framework (or a democratic, or Christian, or post-modern, or Thomist, or sceptical, or any framework). This can be hugely enlightening, or hugely confusing, but in either case what we learn is not something objectively true about the text or the event. Rather, it tells us something about the relationship between the text/event and our own situation and circumstances, which may be important and relevant to us precisely because it addresses our situation and circumstances.

        On another tack entirely, one ought to be careful of what “biblical scholarship” such as that suggested by Dr Elmer leads to. It directly questions the authenticity of the sacred texts themselves. That may be defended as an enlightened, liberated and grown up thing to do. On the other hand, it may simply be adolescent and selfish. I mean “selfish” in so far that it actually ignores the context of the community of faith in which the scriptures are read and heard. Ratzinger once wrote that:

        “the exegete must realise that he does not occupy a neutral position above or outside Church history and he must acknowledge that the faith is the hermeneutic, the locus of understanding, which does not dogmatically force itself upon the Bible, but is the only way of letting it be itself’.” (Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church).

        Think of this as a sort of “reader response theory” that takes seriously also the objectivity of the text read, and the communal context in which both reader and text exist.

        Well, what do we mean by “the authenticity of the sacred texts”? What would make a sacred text “inauthentic”? Dr Elmer can speak for himself, but I think I’m sufficiently familiar with his thinking to say that he wouldn’t equate saying that that the texts were the product of a culture with a particular set of values and biases (it might be patriarchal, misogynistic or elitist) and saying that they are in any sense “inauthentic”. They are authentic products of the people and culture that wrote them. They are also authentic scripture, in the sense of having been consistently recognised and received by the people of God – the Jewish people, and later the Church – as divinely inspired. (In other words, they’re canonical.) So what kind of “inauthenticity” do you think he is suggesting?

        I don’t see bringing a feminist perspective to the task of reading scripture as something which means that you are reading it “outside the context of the community of faith in which the scriptures are read”. The community of faith, after all, includes women, and even (horror!) feminists. The reading which Dr Elmer offers here is just part of a much larger and longer discourse within the community of faith in which Christians read and reflect on scripture with a variety of perspectives, standpoints, assumptions, queries, etc, out of which discourse our shared reading as a church emerges, and is authentically proclaimed by the magisterium. If Dr Elmer were claiming a unique validity for this particular reading, or setting it up as something over and against, and apart from, the Church’s engagement with scripture, that would be a different matter. But I don’t think he is.

        And finally, you do not need to exclude the incarnation in order to maintain that, in relation to God, humanity is essentially feminine. In fact, this is precisely the point of the incarnation and of the Church. Redeemed humanity relates to God as a bride to a bridegroom. It is the divine marriage re-written to include all creation. Like the Ancients, we also celebrate this marriage in our liturgy, except that (perhaps to the disappointment of some) ritual prostitution is replaced with a ritual sacrificial-nuptial meal: the anticipation of the wedding feast that knows no end.

        The comment on the Incarnation It was an aside, and a not-very-well-reflected-on one. My point wasn’t to do with the maleness of the incarnate Christ; it was rather than, in the OT view, absent any notion of incarnation, there is a fundamental and unbridgeable otherness dividing God and creation. Thus the masculinity of Yahweh in the Yahweh:Israel marriage is not something which is shared by Israel. There’s a neat one-to-one correspondence between the divine:human divide and the masculine:feminine divide. Both of these categories are completely mutually exclusive. Once you acknowledge the Incarnation, that last statement is no longer true. The more I think about this point, the less I see in it, to be honest, so maybe the jury should just disregard these remarks.

        • Well, what do we mean by “the authenticity of the sacred texts”? What would make a sacred text “inauthentic”?

          My question of “authenticity” relates to the question: “Are they authentic as a revelatory ‘Word’ from God?”

          I believe that Dr Elmer’s paper seems to suggest that the sacred texts authenticity as “revelation” may be compromised by the “fact” that they are the product of a “Jerusalem-based, male literary and theological elite”.

          You, Perry, say that this is not the case, arguing that “that the texts were the product of a culture with a particular set of values and biases (it might be patriarchal, misogynistic or elitist)”

          In fact, I believe even this to be incorrect. The texts were not the “product of a culture”, but the product of a particular comunity of faith: first Israel, and then the Church. Both the prophetic movement and the apostolic Church were profoundly counter-cultural (and yes, I know all the Niebuhr stuff). The Scriptures were the product of a community rather than a culture.

          And therefore I (and many more august than I reaching all the way up to the highest teaching authority in the Church) maintain that the Scriptures cannot be rightly read unless they are read according to the Faith which produced them.

          Let me put it another way: We believe the Scriptures to be a product – not only of the “community of faith”, but also, and perhaps more profoundly, of the Holy Spirit. However else the feminists and Marxists and goodness-knows-whatists might chose to read the Sacred Texts, and critique them according to the culture bias’ of the particular cultures from which they came, Christians read the text as inspired by the Holy Spirit and seeking to hear the Spirit in the text.

          In fact, there is no contradiction between the first way I expressed this and the last. The Spirit dwells in the Community of the Church. To read the text according to the Spirit is to read the text according to the Faithof the Church. Only within this reading are the Scriptures read and received as “the Word of the Lord”.

          • Peregrinus

            P: Well, what do we mean by “the authenticity of the sacred texts”? What would make a sacred text “inauthentic”?

            D: My question of “authenticity” relates to the question: “Are they authentic as a revelatory ‘Word’ from God?”

            I believe that Dr Elmer’s paper seems to suggest that the sacred texts authenticity as “revelation” may be compromised by the “fact” that they are the product of a “Jerusalem-based, male literary and theological elite”.

            I don’t see that in Dr Elmer’s essay. You may be reading more into it than is there. Based on what I’ve read from Dr Elmer before, I think he would say that the guarantee of authenticity, in the sense that you explain, it not what we know, or can glean, about the authors and their attitudes (which in many cases, is very little, and somewhat speculative). It is the canonisation of the text by its reception by the church.

            D: You, Perry, say that this is not the case, arguing that “that the texts were the product of a culture with a particular set of values and biases (it might be patriarchal, misogynistic or elitist)”

            In fact, I believe even this to be incorrect. The texts were not the “product of a culture”, but the product of a particular comunity of faith: first Israel, and then the Church. Both the prophetic movement and the apostolic Church were profoundly counter-cultural (and yes, I know all the Niebuhr stuff). The Scriptures were the product of a community rather than a culture.

            Is there a false dichotomy here? I don’t think a community of faith is without culture. Even a counter-cultural community has a culture; “counter-cultural” means, I think, presenting a challenge to, or criticism of, the dominant culture, rather than being wholly free of any culture at all. To be “counter-cultural” is itself a cultural stance, surely?

            And therefore I (and many more august than I reaching all the way up to the highest teaching authority in the Church) maintain that the Scriptures cannot be rightly read unless they are read according to the Faith which produced them.

            I think Dr Elmer would strongly agree. I certainly would.

            D: Let me put it another way: We believe the Scriptures to be a product – not only of the “community of faith”, but also, and perhaps more profoundly, of the Holy Spirit. However else the feminists and Marxists and goodness-knows-whatists might chose to read the Sacred Texts, and critique them according to the culture bias’ of the particular cultures from which they came, Christians read the text as inspired by the Holy Spirit and seeking to hear the Spirit in the text.

            Of course. And we may say exactly the same about the culture, ideologies, assumptions, etc, which informed the writing of the texts. Remember, both the composition and the reception of the texts are inspired by the Spirit. I see no basis for sailing that culture is somehow excluded from influencing the production of the texts when it plainly isn’t excluded from their reception.

            D: In fact, there is no contradiction between the first way I expressed this and the last. The Spirit dwells in the Community of the Church. To read the text according to the Spirit is to read the text according to the Faithof the Church. Only within this reading are the Scriptures read and received as “the Word of the Lord”.

            Sure. I agree. But I think you opposing a case which Dr Elmer isn’t actually making. Merely to observe cultural factors are at work in the production of the text is not more a challenge to their authenticity than to note cultural factors at work in the way we approach the text.

            • Kyle

              ‘But I think you opposing a case which Dr Elmer isn’t actually making. Merely to observe cultural factors are at work in the production of the text is not more a challenge to their authenticity than to note cultural factors at work in the way we approach the text.’

              That is quite a spin. Dr. Elmer is doing a lot more than merely observing cultural factors at work in the production of a text. Words like ‘patriarchal’ and ‘elitist’ are pejorative. They normally are used to undermine someone’s credibility. It is far from an innocuous observation. While I am sympathetic and do think that Dr. Elmer is being accused of a claims he never made, his article is very far from a cool, distant social critique.
              intended. He portrays the development of the Hebrew Scriptures as a struggle for power and supremacy, rather than the inspiration of God.

              • Peregrinus

                . . . He portrays the development of the Hebrew Scriptures as a struggle for power and supremacy, rather than the inspiration of God.

                I think what I’m trying to say is, couldn’t it be both? To point that it is one is not to deny that it is the other.

                • Kyle

                  Well, yeah. As I said, I am prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. And, of course, as Catholics, we believe that God works through history. He writes straight with crooked lines and prunes the vineyard with imperfect tools. What I am saying is that the language Dr Elmer goes far beyond an observation of cultural factors that influenced the production of the Scriptures. It is pejorative and moralising.

  2. Spot on, David – thanks for this well researched post. I confess I’ve missed your regular posts during your brief hiatus this week.

  3. Kyle

    I do not think Dr Elmer is arguing for a restoration of the consort goddess nor questioning the authenticity of the Scriptures. Certainly, some with a radical feminist perspective might seek to attempt to do so. Granted too, there are some who dismiss the Scriptures as patriarchal and, therefore, not the revelation of God. What I think Dr Elmer is asking is, what difference does orthodoxy make? There are certainly many Christians who do not understand the doctrine of the Trinity. Many who profess belief in the Real Presence but actually hold more to transignification. Looking at ancient Israel, Dr. Elmer simply observes that there has always been a disparity between the ordinary people and the prophets, and similarly nowadays, between laypeople and clerics. As I see it, Dr Elmer’s answer to that question is to demote orthodoxy and in his words we are ‘too upset about orthodoxy’. I disagree. I think orthodoxy is very important.

    Firstly, as someone who really tries to pray each night, orthodoxy is essential to my spirituality. After months since I first started praying each night, I began to think ‘What the hell am I praying to? What am I doing?’ I began to doubt myself, ‘Can I say that? Is that the right thing to say about God?’ Before I prayed, I read an excerpt of Scripture and then would meditate on it for a while. One night I was pondering the infancy narrative and I thought ‘Jesus was born a man so that we could call God our brother and friend.’ But is that right? Because I wanted to have a real, living relationship with God, I couldn’t be satisfied with any glib thought that entered my head. I needed orthodoxy to come to the right understanding about Him. The Trinity and the Incarnation may seem unimportant doctrines, as Rahner seems to think, but to me, they are profoundly important when I am in prayer and want to make sure I am praying to God. Orthodoxy is crucial.

    Secondly, maybe some dogmas do not have any immediate value but they are still important. Recently I was discussing the sacrament of reconciliation with a priest. He was totally horrified when I told him that, in addition to valid orders, he needs faculties from the bishop to give a valid absolution. He thought it would only be illicit to absolve without faculties and accused me of heresy. Now if a Catholic never heard about faculties, would he be the worse off for it? Probably not. But it is important that people receive valid absolution. The need for faculties points also to the theological significance of the diocese. Thus, while people may have no knowledge of certain dogmas, like the need for faculties or also the need for leavened bread for the Eucharist, it is still important, since they still need these sacraments.

    Lastly, I think it is important to acknowledge that being Catholic is not a matter of ticking a checklist of creeds. It is not like a test, tick X boxes and you are Catholic. I too probably could not give an explicit assent to ‘all the beliefs formulated by the Church.’ I would be pleased if I got at least a fraction of the Denzinger-Schonmetzer. There is something problematic about Elmer and Brian’s view of orthodoxy. As Brian writes,

    ‘It cuts to the heart of the question I’m forever asking of “what, precisely, does anyone have to subscribe to in order to consider themselves a Christian, a Catholic, a follower of Jesus Christ?” I have long been of the belief that even some of those who would consider themselves the most orthodox and obedient to the magisterium would not have a clue about many of the things Catholicism teaches and represents.’

    The problem with both Brian and Elmer is that they see orthodoxy as just a list of propositions and formulas. So belonging to the orthodox group is simply about getting the right number of propositions correct and the final question is, for Brian at least, how little can I get away with and still call myself a Christian? This is not the view I take. What makes me orthodox is not that I can recite the catechism or answer a theology quiz, it is that I am willing to surrender my mind to the Church. To assent to everything She teaches, even if it strains my understanding. It means I want to participate in the sacramental life of the Church so that I can come closer and closer to God. I may not be able to explain the Trinity very well, but I am keen to learn so that I can enrich my prayer life.

  4. I do not think Dr Elmer is arguing for a restoration of the consort goddess nor questioning the authenticity of the Scriptures. …What I think Dr Elmer is asking is, what difference does orthodoxy make? …Looking at ancient Israel, Dr. Elmer simply observes that there has always been a disparity between the ordinary people and the prophets, and similarly nowadays, between laypeople and clerics. As I see it, Dr Elmer’s answer to that question is to demote orthodoxy and in his words we are ‘too upset about orthodoxy’. I disagree. I think orthodoxy is very important.

    You are certainly correct, Kyle. This is precisely what Dr Elmer was trying to say. By poking a finger at the “powerful, Jerusalem-based, male literary and theological elite” that produced the Scriptures, he intends us to understand that is real target is the “powerful, Rome-based, male literary and theological elite” of the Magisterium.

    His argument is: folk religion more authentic than literary religion, therefore folk Catholicism more authentic than Magisterial Catholicism. My point is that along the way, in order to make this argument, he effectively rejects not only the magisterial intepreters of Scripture in the Church today, but the Scriptures themselves as an authentic source of the Faith.

  5. Kyle

    ‘His argument is: folk religion more authentic than literary religion, therefore folk Catholicism more authentic than Magisterial Catholicism. My point is that along the way, in order to make this argument, he effectively rejects not only the magisterial intepreters of Scripture in the Church today, but the Scriptures themselves as an authentic source of the Faith.’

    David, I don’t think he goes quite so far. I think however that you are right to be critical. When a person describes something as ‘partriarchal’ and ‘elitist’, this is usually a criticism and in this context, a person would probably draw the conclusion that folk religion is more authentic than the literary religion — That literary religion has choked God’s revelation to promote its own ideological agenda. I am just pointing out the Dr Elmer never explicitly reaches that conclusion. Rahner is not denying the Trinity; he is just denying its importance since so many Catholics do not understand it yet are saved. That seems to be the point of Dr. Elmer’s article: whether the book religion is true is unimportant.

    • I am just pointing out the Dr Elmer never explicitly reaches that conclusion.

      You may be right, Kyle. But he is dangerously close to the line. I think he pushes the point further than Rahner did.

      • Kyle

        Sure. It’s like an episode of Law and Order. We know he was there; we know he had motive; we have the weapon. But the important question is, Is there reasonable doubt? Pere says that he thinks he familiar enough with Elmer’s writings to say that he is not questioning the authenticity of Scripture. However, if I were to say that the Scriptures were the product of a literary, elitist and mysoginist culture, I would very clearly spell out that I do not question their authenticity just to avoid confusion.

  6. Then, there is the Mormon take on all of this, in which OF COURSE Heavenly Father has a Divine Wife, Heavenly Mother, and all of this stuff about Ha Shem having a consort simply bolsters this. But is Mormonism non-patriarchal? Quite the contrary.