Did Yahweh have a wife?
Excerpt from Chapter 5: Polytheism: The Religion of Ancient Israel
One oft-claimed difference [between the pagan gods and Yahweh] is that whereas the pagan gods had sex lives, Yahweh didn’t. “Israel’s God,” as Kaufmann put it, “has no sexual qualities or desires.” It’s true that there’s no biblical ode to Yahweh that compares with the Ugaritic boast that Baal copulated with a heifer “77 times,” even “88 times,” or that El’s penis “extends like the sea.” And it seems puzzling: If Yahweh eventually merged with [the Canaanite god] El, and El had a sex life, why didn’t the postmerger Yahweh have one? Why, more specifically, didn’t Yahweh inherit El’s consort, the goddess Athirat?
Maybe he did. There are references in the Bible to a goddess named Asherah, and scholars have long believed that Asherah is just the Hebrew version of Athirat. Of course, the biblical writers don’t depict Asherah as God’s wife—this isn’t the sort of theological theme they generally championed—but rather heap disdain on her, and on the Israelites who worshipped her. However, in the late twentieth century, archaeologists discovered intriguing inscriptions, dating to around 800 BCE, at two different Middle Eastern sites. The inscriptions were blessings in the name not just of Yahweh but of “his Asherah.” The word “his” puts an intriguing spin on a passage in 2 Kings reporting that, near the end of the seventh century, Asherah was spending time in Yahweh’s temple. A priest who didn’t favor polytheism “brought out the image of Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people.” In the next chapter we’ll see what a crucial moment in the evolution of monotheism this was.
The question of Yahweh’s sex life is part of a larger question that has high stakes: How mythological was Yahweh? Not “mythological” in the sense of not being true, but rather in the sense that Greek gods were mythological: Were there stories about Yahweh’s dramatic dealings with other extraordinary beings? Did he fight some gods or demigods and pal around with others? Was he part of a supernatural soap opera?
Many scholars have said no. Indeed, in Kaufmann’s view, the “non-mythological” nature of Yahweh “is the essence of Israelite religion” and sets Israelite religion “apart from all forms of paganism,” certainly including native Canaanite religion.
There is doubly bad news for those who, like Kaufmann, would hail Yahweh as a clean break from pagan myth. First, there are signs that the break wasn’t so clean—that, like so much else in the history of religion, it was more evolutionary than revolutionary. Second, when you try to trace this evolution, you see that Yahweh’s family tree may contain something even more scandalous than an early fusion with the Canaanite deity El. It may be that Yahweh, even while inheriting El’s genes, somehow acquired genes from the most reviled of all Canaanite deities: Baal.…