Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel By William G. Dever

The book ‘Did God Have a Wife?’ was written by Syro-Palestinian archaeologist William G. Dever and published in the year 2005.  This is a fascinating piece of scholarship that delves into the evolution of early religious ideas and practices in Ancient Israel.  Given the importance of Israel (and the greater Middle East) to the understanding of Judeo-Christian religious traditions, a foray into its primitive forms and foundations is of value.  The core theme of the book is to illustrate the common substrate upon which Judaism, Christianity and Islam later evolved, as well as exhibiting the polytheism of the ancient Israelite religion.  The God of this ancient Israelite religion, namely Yahweh, was said to have a consort by name Asherah.  The author also proves how she was an integral part of the Canaanite pantheon of Gods.  Hence, the intriguing and slightly provocative title of ‘Did God Have a Wife?’ chosen for the book.

The book assembles relevant evidence from biblical and non-biblical scriptures as well as from scientifically documented archaeological explorations. In fact, the third chapter of the book is dedicated to explicating the ‘Sources and Methods for the Study of Ancient Israel’s Religions’. Herein, Dever iterates the importance of archaeological information already accessible to researchers.  Taking a critical view of theologians who give more importance to the evidence of scriptures compared to the more tangible evidence pointed to by archaeological discoveries.  As the author notes, “I have suggested that the obliviousness of most biblical scholars to archaeological data is due to their being uninformed. Yet that is hardly an excuse for ‘scholars.’ Some archaeologists read in their field.” (Dever, 2005, p.78)  The author then goes on to present more supportive evidence for his arguments on folk religions in Israel in subsequent chapters.

The God’s wife referred to in the title is given comprehensive treatment in chapter six, where allusions to Asherah in the Bible and archaeological findings are described.  Despite the copiousness of evidence presented, there are minor inconsistencies to grapple with.  For example, the projection of Asherah as ‘Mother Goddess’ is slightly misleading, for it associates her with other distinct and remote deities in the form of Astarte and Anat. (Dever, 2005, p.183)  To the credit of the author, the female figurines excavated from Israel sites do conform to his thesis.

While Asherah is a central theme of the book, the development of monotheism in Israel is the book’s narrative synthesis.  By convincing the reader of the essentially polytheistic tendencies of primitive Israelites, the book suggests the artificiality of subsequent transformations of the related set of beliefs.  In other words, much of the content to be found in the Old Testament and the New Testament were suitably edited by elitist autocrats with unquestioned power over the masses.  As a result, the monotheistic doctrines of Judeo-Christian religions were an imposed understanding of God and His will, quite contrary to the available robust evidence.

Hence, overall, there are numerous merits attached to the theme, thesis and methods of analysis and persuasion employed by the author. Did God Have a Wife? scores high on quality of scholarship, factual accuracy and objective presentation.  It also throws valuable light on the common origins of some of the major religions of contemporary world, while equally effectively demystifying some of the misperceptions associated with them.

References:

William G. Dever, (2005) “Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel” Published by Eerdmans.

Albertz, Rainer, (2003). Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century B.C.E.. Society of Biblical Literature.

Judith M. Hadley, (2000) The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess, Cambridge University Press, pp. 122–136