Wednesday, April 6, 2011

God and Asherah

"You might know him as Yahweh, Allah or God. But on this fact, Jews, Muslims and Christians, the people of the great Abrahamic religions, are agreed: There is only one of Him...He is a solitary figure, a single, universal creator, not one God among many ... or so we like to believe." - Dr. Francesca Stavrakopulou

Apparently this has been known to theologians and biblical historians for while now, but I was very interested by some new research presented by Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, of the Exeter department of Theology and Religion. The research states rather conclusively that early followers of the Abrahamic tradition, the predecessors of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian religions, and the people who wrote and lived most of the Old Testament, were not strictly monotheistic, but worshiped a male deity, Yahweh, as well as his female counterpart, Asherah. A careful reading shows that Asherah was worshipped along with Yahweh in the Temple of Jerusalem, which you might remember from Sunday School was built by King Solomon, son of King David (that guy who sling-shotted Goliath)

Asherah is mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament, either by name or as "The Queen of Heaven," however, in some English translations the name Asherah has been interpreted as "Sacred Tree" or else omitted altogether.

"They also set up for themselves high places, sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree." - 1 Kings 14:23, New International Version

But if you were raised Catholic like me, you would have read this one:

"For they also built them high places, and images, and groves, on every high hill, and under every green tree." 1 Kings 14:23, King James Bible

But it becomes clear that there arose a conflict between Asherah-worshipers and another sect.

"This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire." - Deuteronomy 7:5, New International Version

So why the selective translation? Selectively choosing what parts of the historical record become part of the Biblical Canon has been controversial probably since the Council of Nicea in 325 AD (that's when Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire). Along with the existence (as a deity, let's not get into actual existence) and theological role of Asherah, scholars have yet to throughly account for biblical texts such as the Apocrypha, the Gnostic gospels, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, as these seem to include contradictions to what are considered the central tenets of this modern religion.

Perhaps it is alarming to some people to think that their predecessors practiced religion differently, or comforting to believe that their modern belief in a male monotheistic deity is founded in a long unbroken tradition. From an anthropological perspective, we should consider this as further evidence of culture and identity as dynamic forces. Especially in these times when markers like religion can illicit strong reactions of hate and violence, we should remember that over time, belief systems prove to be very mutable and maybe someday those ideas which we hold most strongly will be effaced, mistranslated, and misrepresented yet be no less meaningful to our descendants.

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