Raphael Patai on Monotheism, Asherah, and More

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Raphael Patai’s book The Hebrew Goddess. I really enjoyed it and learned alot from his expertise and clear writing style. The introduction of the book and the first chapter concerning Asherah are what most interested me, plus a few snippets from other chapters. Below I have quoted some of the most interesting comments that he made in his book.

The Biblical History Was Edited

“The primary literary sources pertaining to the period are contained in the Biblical canon. While undoubtedly based on ancient and oral tradition, some of it reaching back into the Mosaic period, or even as far as the patriarchal age, the Biblical accounts are preserved in relatively late reworkings and are therefore not contemporary, in a strict sense of the word, with the events they describe. Editorial revisions were especially thorough when the subject matter pertained to the non-monotheistic phases of early Hebrew religion. References felt to be offensive were toned down or abridged, and we have, of course, no way of knowing how many were excised altogether. In the narratives which deal with the subsequent period of the Hebrew monarchy, the monotheistic point of view is even more stringent, so that all references to non-monotheistic forms of popular worship are not only consistently derisive and unrelentingly condemnatory but are kept purposely in vague and general terms.” (pg. 35)

Limitations of Archaeology

“The archaeological data, while obviously suffering neither from subsequent modification nor from contemporary tendentious representation, are disappointing because of their paucity or lack of clarity. The temples, sanctuaries, high places, altars and other religious structures which were unearthed from the early Hebrew period, contain, as a rule, no clear-cut evidence as to the identity of the deity to whom they are dedicated.” (pg. 35)

Hebrew Worship of Canaanite Gods

“In a more general sense, too, there can be no doubt that down to the very end of the Hebrew monarchy the worship of old Canaanite gods was an integral part of the religion of the Hebrews.” (pg. 31)

“The Goddess Asherah was worshipped in Israel from the days of the first settlement in Canaan, the Hebrews having taken over the cult of this great mother goddess from the Canaanites. For public worship, the goddess was represented by carved wooden images, implanted into the ground, usually next to an altar dedicated to the god Baal, and located under hilltops, under leafy trees. For private worship, innumerable small clay figurines of Asherah were in circulation, showing the goddess in the nude, with the characteristic gesture of holding her own breasts in emphasis of her fertility aspect.” (pg. 45)

Elijah’s Tolerance of Asherah

“The cult of Asherah escaped the popular anti-Baal and pro-Yahweh uprising which, led by the prophet Elijah, took place under Ahab.” (pg. 45)

[Speaking of the history of Asherah in the Northern Kingdom] “It would appear then that only the Baal was considered by Elijah (and the strictest Yahwists in general) as a dangerous rival of Yahweh, while the Goddess Asherah was regarded as his inevitable, necessary, or at any rate tolerable, female counterpart.” (pg. 43)

Asherah in the Jerusalem Temple

“Thus is appears that, of the 370 years during which the Solomonic Temple stood in Jerusalem, for no less than 236 years (or almost two-thirds of the time) the statue of Asherah was present in the Temple, and her worship was a part of the legitimate religion approved and led by the king, the court, and the priesthood and opposed by only a few prophetic voices crying out against it at relatively long intervals.” (pg. 50)

Prophetic Voices Against Asherah

“In the eyes of the Yahwists, to whom belonged a few of the kings and all of the prophets, the worship of Asherah was an abomination. It had to be, because it was a cult accepted by the Hebrews from the Canaanite neighbors, and any and all manifestations of Canaanite religion were for them anathema.” (pg. 52)

Male/Female Cherubim in the Jerusalem Temple

“The Cherubim were, by any criteria, “graven images,” and yet they continued to figure prominently in the Temple ritual down to the very end of the Second Jewish Commonwealth (70 C.E.). Moreover, in their last version the Cherubim depicted a man and a woman in sexual embrace-an erotic representation which was considered obscene by the pagans when they at last had a chance to glimpse it. And nevertheless, the entire contemporary and subsequent Hebrew-Jewish literature contains not a word that could in the remotest be construed as a condemnation of the Cherubim. On the contrary, their presence in the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary of the Temple, and the ritual significance attributed to them, are invariably referred to as a most sacred mystery. Only the Hellenistic Jewish authors, such as the philosopher Philo of Alexandria and the ex-priest Josephus Flavius, speak about the Cherubim with an embarrassment obviously created by the apprehension lest the pagan Greek readers for whom they wrote consider the Cherubim as but the Jewish equivalent of the statues of their own gods and goddesses and thus find a basis to refute and reject the claim that the Jews worshiped only the one invisible God.” (pg. 67-68)

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3 comments on “Raphael Patai on Monotheism, Asherah, and More

  1. BHodges says:

    I like the quick summary of points. Well done.

  2. Hot site man, keep it up

  3. James says:

    Thanks for the encouragement.

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