Tuesday, March 29, 2011

They Didn't Read the Bible, Did They?

I don't know how many of you have read any of the recent news articles about Francesca Stavrakopoulou, who has claimed to have uncovered "new" evidence that the Bible has been heavily edited, and that originally, YHVH (Yahweh, Jehovah, generally considered the most intimate name for God) had a wife, Asherah.

She bases this on an inscription found on some pottery, and on other artifacts that apparently pair YHVH with Asherah. She also mentions that the Bible "admits" that Asherah was worshipped at the temple in Israel. We are also treated by Aaron Brody to the revelation that "The ancient Israelites were polytheists."

So this really shows how wrong the Bible was and disproves all of the Bible's statements that the Israelites only worshipped one God, huh?

Uh - no.

The Bible does not actually say that the Israelites only worshipped the One True God. The Bible says that they were supposed to, but it pretty clearly indicates that they tended to have a problem following the rules. That's why so many Old Testament passages refer to Israel as an adultress or a whore. It is completely consistent with the Bible to assume that a lot of Israelis may have syncretically "married" God to the pagan goddess Asherah.

As for the Biblical "admission" (I use scare quotes because the implication is that someone intended to cover this up but was not able to do so) that Asherah was worshipped in YHVH's temple? It's from 2 Kings 21:7:

[King Manasseh] took the carved Asherah pole he had made and put it in the temple, of which the LORD had said to David and to his son Solomon, “In this temple and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my Name forever.

Wow - the Bible endorses polytheism here, right?

Wrong. Read the preceding passages (2 Kings 21:1-6):

1 Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-five years. His mother’s name was Hephzibah. 2 He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, following the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites. 3 He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he also erected altars to Baal and made an Asherah pole, as Ahab king of Israel had done. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them. 4 He built altars in the temple of the LORD, of which the LORD had said, “In Jerusalem I will put my Name.” 5 In the two courts of the temple of the LORD, he built altars to all the starry hosts. 6 He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced divination, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the LORD, arousing his anger.

In other words, the presence of polytheism in Israel - even officially (humanly officially anyway) sanctioned polytheism, is firmly acknowledged in the Bible - even though it is condemned strongly.

Now you can argue over whether or not God is real and whether or not this condemnation of idolatry is really God's word or just the politico-theological writings of one of a number of factions (I believe in the former, by the way), but you really cannot argue that evidence of Israeli polytheism or of syncretic attempts to "Pantheonize" YHVH into one God out of many is in any way inconsistent with the Biblical account.

Even for a secularist, arguing that Asherah was "edited out" of the Old Testament is a little bit reaching - unless you have evidence that previous versions of the books of the Old Testament exist that mention Asherah or polytheism favorably, it would make far more sense to assume that the original Old Testament writings were by monotheists who were opposed to the polytheism around them. Saying that Asherah was "edited out" implies that the books comprising the Old Testament were originally written by people who were comfortable with polytheism. Even if you don't assume Biblical accuracy, it makes far more sense to assume that they were account written by polemical monotheists - Asherah-worshippers and polytheists were presented negatively from the outset, not "edited out."

The problem here is that too many people seem to think that somehow everyone mentioned in the Bible actually believed in the theology of the Bible. It is the same mindset that looks to the Bible to see passages describing wanton immorality and sin, and then determines that the Bible is an immoral book because everything it mentions it must condone, but in reverse - it assumes that whatever the Bible condemns, it denies the existence thereof.

In short, this story (not even a new one, the linked article itself mentions Raphael Patai coming up with this back in 1967) is a lot of noise with no real significance.

That is all.

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