Review – Bible’s Buried Secrets – Did God have a wife?

This is the second in a BBC series by Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou on the Bible’s Buried Secrets looking at the Hebrew Bible and archaeology. You can see my review of last week’s episode Did King David’s Empire exist?

This week she turned her fire on the bible’s “cover-up” of the fact that ancient Isrealite religion was not monotheistic but polytheistic. In other words the ancient Israelites didn’t worship just one God but rather many gods.

She starts (and I must admit carries on the whole episode) in very tabloid style –

I’ll be looking at archaeology that shows ancestors of Judaism and Christianity believed in may gods and even that God had a wife. It’s a radical revision that rocks the foundation of monotheism to its core and challenges what the religious past means for faith today.

The problem with this programme is that it keeps setting up straw men to knock down. One very interesting slight of hand happens at the beginning when she focuses on the three main monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and then takes Islam out of her line of fire by saying that the Koran is “wholly separate from the Bible”. Interesting claim – was this to avoid too much kick-back?

She attacks the claim that the foundation of monotheism goes back to Abraham some 4,000 years ago. And she follows the story of the patriarchs and then she says:

I disagree…When the Bible is put under rigorous analysis you find a different story

She goes to the ancient non-Jewish city of Uggarit north of Israel where digs have given a clearer idea of Canaanite religion. She argues that Baal was the storm god and that there was a god that ruled over the council of the gods called El. El also had a wife – Asherah. She argues that El is also the early name of the Israelite God. El is used in the Hebrew text and in names – Bethel where Jacob meets God means House of El, the House of God. She points out that the name Israel includes el in it.

So she says that when she reads the bible closely (emphasis mine) that she sees something that others haven’t.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou, presents the BBC series the Bible's Buried Secrets

Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou

Now the problem with much of this is that she is saying nothing that is new or hasn’t been discussed loads. It has been debated for ages about the provenance of the bible and who says what when and where means that her close look at the bible is nothing that others haven’t said for years. So there has been a standard interpretation for decades that the Old Testament in particular was written by people with differing viewpoints. This is called textual criticism. People looking at words (like El) and deciding who wrote what when and where and for what reason.

The use of the word El can be used as the word Allah is used amongst Arabic speaking people to describe God. In fact there was the case recently where the Indonesian courts ruled against Muslims who wanted to ban Christian use of the Allah. The courts ruled that this was the traditional use of the word for God not only amongst Muslims. So too in Greek the word for God used was theos the greek word for a divinity or god.

It is also standard amongst scholars to say that the Exile to Babylon was the key point when the people of Israel had to work out why they had lost and gone into exile.

The thunder god of the caananites baal


But some of her views don’t really bear too much scrutiny. The biblical prophets time and again warn against selling out and following other gods. Its there from virtually the moment the bible starts. Certainly we see Rachel taking the household gods and hiding them from her father Laban in the book of Genesis. We see it in all the warnings going on. Its hardly like they didn’t realise that many people were following the other gods. The reason that there are so many warnings is that they realised that there was such a danger of joining in – and many did. You see often in the bible – its exactly why we look at Paul’s letters to see the reasons why he wrote what he did – he wrote in response to the issues in the churches. So too in the Old Testament. Materials were included that were relevant to the community of faith.

Then there is her over the top ending

Monotheism brought a terrible consequence …. Monotheism disempowered women.

The evidence that I have presented rocks the foundations of monotheism and for some that may have a severe impact but the loss of God’s wife had an even greater impact on history of loss and that’s the painful truth of this story

I am afraid that this is simply not true. Monotheism does not see God as male. Monotheism says that words cannot describe God – “I am that I am” and all that. Monotheism says that God is beyond our anthropomorphic view. It is also historical rubbish. Women were not valued and cherished in the pagan polytheistic societies.  Women in Ancient Greece and Rome or Babylon were not especially well treated – certainly the polytheistic view didn’t give them rights that Dr Stavrakopoulou thinks that the bible took away from them. In fact when you look at the ministry of Jesus you see a far higher regard for women than occurred in wider society and you see women becoming leaders in the early church (the falling away from that ideal is a sad reflection on humanity but not the intention of Jesus or the early church). Indeed in Luke’s Gospel he uses a literary device of alternating stories of men and women.

Further, her evidence does not undermine monotheism. What is really not clearly explained by her is why does monotheism come onto the scene. Why because of exile would a people come to the idea of one God? Other people don’t do this. The implication from Dr Stavrakopoulou is that this reaction to get rid of the other members of the “heavenly court” is a sexist response to the disaster. But other societies went into exile and didn’t become monotheistic – so why this one and then. Maybe the reality is that although there was synchretism there was also a strain of Judaism that looked back to the belief in just the one God. Maybe there was a strong strand of monotheism that went back very far in their history and eventually became the dominant force.

I’m afraid that I was rather disappointed in this weeks episode.

You can read my review of last week’s episode Did King David’s Empire Exist?

Review of final episode – The Real garden of Eden

Another review of the programme here:

Yet another review of the episode on Bible Films Blog


11 comments on “Review – Bible’s Buried Secrets – Did God have a wife?

  1. Janet
    March 23, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

    Dear Will – I am missing the BBC but enjoying your thoughtful analysis.

  2. Peter
    March 23, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    Great blog, Will. A cogent analysis IMHO.

    Dr Stavrakopoulou also seemed to present a faulty understanding of monotheism as if the exiles chose to put all their eggs in the Yahweh basket. Whereas monotheism is the conviction that there is only one god, so one choice (or none). Stories in the Bible in which Yahweh takes on other gods are not evidence for monotheism but for henotheism. The same can be said for the idea that the Israelites sought “to appease Yahweh by annihilating all the other deities.” The exilic shift to monotheism arose from the conclusion that Israel’s conquerors had been acting on behalf of Yahweh, not any other god.

  3. Chris
    March 23, 2011 at 8:18 pm #

    Here I am sitting on the train home, wondering if in all the analysis, claims, counter claims and continual theological study do we lose something of the essence of the God we follow.
    One of the stand out reports from the recent visit to Kenya was how these people could trust God, without recourse to in depth line by line word by word study. Of course I acknowledge that there are dangers in this approach such as radicalism and polarised views, but I still wonder have we lost something of the truth of God in trying to find the truth of God.

    Will keep up the blogging.

    Ps after last weeks programme I couldn’t be bothered to watch this one.

  4. Mike
    March 24, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    Hi Will

    Agnostic Mike here again. Good and thoughtful review of this weeks programme. I did enjoy the programme but some of the challenges you have raised to the presenter’s line of reasoning have made me reconsider sections, where originally I was in agreement with her.
    I think the modern church misses out by not giving women a greater role. I actually would prefer to live in a society lead by women, (this is a generalisation I know) as they are usually more nuturing, thoughtful and less aggresive. Many of our current problems are down (in my humble opinion) to men (especially those in powerful positions in the developed world).

    I look forward to your review of next week’s installment.

  5. Will Cookson
    March 24, 2011 at 1:00 pm #

    I think that there are two aspects. There is the area where we talk to God and with God. That is great, but there is also the time (including on this blog!) where we need to discuss what we mean and underlying issues.

    I agree with you about the undervaluing of women, especially in the past. And, of course, with 4 daughters I want them to be totally valued! In fact many of our staff at Springfield are women (and we are about to get a woman curate – a trainee vicar). I am sure that the CofE will have a few hiccups on the way but I am sure that we will soon have women bishops.

    The other side is that its easy then to say that everything in the past is wrong. I believe that men and women bring complimentary gifts that in partnership make something truly great. If we think not only in terms of nurturing, less aggressive etc and put that with risk taking and other “male” attributes (whilst recognising that these are gross generalisations) then you can end up with the best of all. Certainly at Springfield I very much want to encourage peoples gifts and talents and ensure that everyone is valued. Do we always succeed? No. Do I want to try harder when we fail? Yes.

    • Agnostic Mike
      March 25, 2011 at 10:41 am #

      Hi Will

      I do agree with a consolidation of the talents and gifts of both sexes to hopefully end up with the best for all, However, i wouldn’t use ‘risk taking’ as an example of a great ‘male attribute’…this was the downful of the middle and upper class bankers (in the main white and male) who speculated widely and caused the current problems – for which we are all going to suffer with loss of services and in specific cases people loosing their jobs in the public sector ( with all that entails for the economy and those in the lower half of the economic spectrum).

      On a happy note, hope you and the family have a great weekend!

      • Will Cookson
        March 25, 2011 at 11:17 am #

        Hi Mike,

        That, of course, is my point. When organisations don’t balance the attributes then that is precisely when they get into trouble. If there had been a greater variety of people on their boards and amongst their top management then there would be more of a balance and the risk takers would have had better boundaries around them. Indeed Stephen Green, the ex-chairman of HSBC has said:

        “Underlying all these events is a question about the culture and ethics of the industry. It is as if, too often, people had given up asking whether something was the right thing to do, and focused only whether it was legal and complied with the rules. The industry needs to recover a sense of what is right and suitable as a key impulse for doing business.”

        That is an implicit recognition that something is wrong at the heart of banking and needs to be put right. More balanced boards and management would be a great start.

        However, we do need risk-takers. We need people who will take a risk with a new product or new invention. If everyone was risk averse we might find fewer new inventions that help humanity. We need people to take a risk in inventing alternative energy sources to fossil fuels, setting up businesses etc etc.

        Have a great weekend too!

  6. mark
    March 25, 2011 at 7:38 pm #

    Interesting especially as I didn’t see it. Kenneth Kitchen in his book “on the reliability of the old testament” makes the point that God is known as El [Shaddai/Elyon] to the Patriarchs.

    I think in every ancient religion ie Sumerian, Egyptian there was the belief in a primordial God arising out of a primordial mound and differentiating into lots of manifestations/gods.

    Seems to me that in all the faiths there is a latent monotheism!

    • Will Cookson
      March 25, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

      Hi Mark,

      Good to see you found the blog.

      The use of El is certainly one that is very much used by the patriarchs. Stavrakopoulou uses it to say that they had no idea of monotheism. My argument is, I think, similar to yours that at some point someone sees things differently.

      I think that the “latent” monotheism has its roots further back than a response to exile.

  7. Kyle
    March 30, 2011 at 2:18 am #

    Frankly what monotheism does or doesn’t (or did and didn’t) do to the role women is minor compared to how it affects polities and what it offers polities — a mechanism to value on set of people over another especially at the time, ethnic groups

    Yes, the ancient Greeks were no less misogynist than the monotheists in Judaism a the time, but we know for a fact that the Greeks were generally tolerant of ethnicities. Records are replete with vibrant groups of Jews, Phoenicians, and many others in ancient and city states and the Greek Hellenistic city states using the polis model in in the Near East. Records are also replete with a) Jewish groups attacking elements in thier own community who dared assimilate or partial do so. It is also clear that the Greek tolerance and view of the temple precincts being open to all groups, essentially each with their niche (lit and fig) was a problem for monotheists.

    Stavrakopoulou in my view shied away from the central issue with the adoption of monotheism, that it a) provided individuals and cliques with power of interpreting and enforcing orthodoxies; and b) states and groups with a mechanism to vilify and disenfranchise the other.

  8. Will Cookson
    March 30, 2011 at 9:17 am #

    Thanks for the comment.

    It is an interesting point that you make about the societal side of things. I think that the evidence could be looked at in a number of ways.
    We know that Alexander the Great tried to create a uniform view of religion and that this did upset people. We also know that the Hellenistic view that held sway was not that of everyone and that as they took power at that time there was a move to enforce conformity in some ways. Because that is the other side of saying that “the temple precincts being open to all groups”. That, of course, is why we get the Maccabean revolt. They did not see the other gods as God.They didn’t believe the same things and the problem with this view is that it really isn’t tolerance; it used power to enforce “tolerance”. Tolerance for the greeks meant that everyone had to recognise the gods, you weren’t allowed not to.
    It is dangerous to interpret back modern ideas of tolerance onto the ancient world. The ancient world wasn’t particularly tolerant as we understand it.
    Remember too that the early Christians were executed precisely because they believed in monotheism – they were accused of atheism as they denied the existence of the the gods! Indeed it was the polytheists that used the courts to persecute them.
    They also early on located the focus of their faith not in a Temple but in Jesus – that meant, for instance, that Christians don’t try and claim the Temple Mount in Jerusalem!
    Power is a perennial problem and certainly not limited to monotheists. It equally applies to all human society. We always must be careful how we interpret and enforce orthodoxy and you are right to point that out. We need to ask questions of who has power and how it uses it.
    Of course, in the best of Christian thought this is fully recognised. Interestingly, the church I am minister of meets in a school – a shared place if ever there was one!!

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