Does God have a wife?

In traditional Christian belief, God is referred to as “He” or “Father,” which creates the impression that God is male. While most Christian theologians would argue that God transcends human gender and is not limited by our categories of male and female, we still address our prayers to “God the Father in heaven.” How much clearer could it be?

Contrary to all laws of nature, a male being is thus understood as a sole creator. This goes so far as to suggest that he created Adam and Eve from mud (or, in the second creation story of the bible, even Eve from Adam) without any involvement of a woman.

While the idea of creation without a female is peculiar, it reflects the patriarchal societies in which Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim religions developed. In Christian theology, God is understood as a Trinity consisting of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is no female presence within this concept. All three persons are considered distinct yet united in one divine being, and the language used to describe them employs clearly masculine terms.

It was not until much later that elements of central European traditions resurfaced within Catholicism, with the placement of the Virgin Mary at the center of the faith. Nevertheless, the idea of a woman creating alone is as bizarre as that of a man doing so.

While the concept of a female goddess beside the male one(s) has existed in numerous cultures throughout history, it appears that this is not the case in the three most widespread religions today.

Or so we think…

The origin of our (male) concept of god

What we now refer to as ‘God’ is originally Yahweh, the God of Israel, who is regarded as the central figure in the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The name Yahweh (sometimes wrongly spelled Jehovah or, more correctly, YHWH) is the personal name of God in the Hebrew Bible. The origins of his worship, however, are complex and have been the subject of much scholarly debate.

While some still believe that the Israelites worshipped Yahweh from the outset, the majority of scholars now contend that the Israelites initially believed in many gods, including or even excluding Yahweh at first. Only over time, the Yahweh belief gradually evolved into monotheism.

The ‘why’ is subject to many theories. It might be speculated that the exposure to Egyptian religion may have influenced this development.

The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, also known as Amenhotep IV, attempted to introduce a monotheistic religion centered around the worship of the god Aten during his reign in the 14th century BCE. This was a significant departure from the traditional Egyptian polytheistic religion that had been in place for millenia.

It is possible that the Hebrews or some Egyptians that joined them were exposed to these ideas and were influenced by them. This may have contributed to the development of monotheistic beliefs among the Hebrews and the eventual emergence of Yahweh as the central deity in their religion.

The earliest mention of ‘Yahweh’ is then to be found in the book of Exodus, chapter 3, when God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush:

“Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.  And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3:3, ESV)

This encounter marks the beginning of Moses’ mission to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt towards the Promised Land. While most scientists today agree, that the exodus of the Israelites never happened and Egyptian sources do not confirm any of it, some traces of a true story may potentially be found in it. Many scholars believe that the worship of Yahweh as the sole God of the Israelites may have developed during the time of Moses, who is traditionally believed to have lived in the mid-2nd millennium BCE. Possibly the Israelites may thus in that moment have taken over beliefs from Egypt or from the close-by Midianites. Others believe, that Yahweh was a warrior god from the southern region associated with Seir, Edom, Paran and Teman.

The female god?

Prior to the above described period, however, it is believed that the Israelites may have practiced polytheism akin to their Canaanite neighbors.

So, where is the female presence when Yahweh appears to Moses?

A potential answer might astonish: It is in the bush.

Did it ever occur to you to ask, “Why on earth would God choose to reveal himself to Moses in a burning bush?”

It may be, he did so because it was his Ashera.

An Asherah (singular) or Asherim (plural) is a term used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to a type of sacred tree or pole that was associated with the worship of a goddess named Asherah (sometimes assimilated with Astarte).

The extent of her worship and her relationship with Yahweh are still matters of scholarly debate.

In ancient Near Eastern cultures, trees and poles were used as symbols of divine power or fertility, and Asherah is believed to have been seen as a goddess of fertility and the earth.

Ancient texts suggest that Asherah was worshiped alongside Yahweh, and archaeologists have found evidence of Asherah worship in ancient Israel. To date, in addition to about 1000 female clay figures, inscriptions have been found in tombs and private houses dating from between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, in which Asherah is worshipped alongside Yahweh.

In some texts and archaeological findings, Asherah is depicted as the wife of the god El, father of Yahweh, or Baal, and in some instances, as a consort of Yahweh himself.

In the Hebrew Bible Asherah is mentioned many times in the context of denouncing her worship as a form of idolatry.

For instance, in Deuteronomy 12:3-4, the Israelites are commanded to destroy the idols and Asherah poles of the Canaanites when they enter the Promised Land: “You shall tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and burn their Asherim with fire, and you shall cut down the engraved images of their gods and obliterate their name from that place.”

In the Books of Kings, Solomon builds his temple to many deities, even if Josiah later cuts down the statues of Asherah in it (2 Kings 23:14). This indicates that the famous temple of Salomon did originally contain Ashera poles or trees and thus also a female god.

Further evidence for Asherah-worship includes 8. century BC iconography and inscriptions discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud in the northern Sinai desert on a storage jar. It shows three anthropomorphic figures and inscriptions that refer not only to Yahweh but also to ʾEl and Baʿal, and include the phrases “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah” and “Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah”.

The “asherah” is most likely a pole, bush or tree and apparently goes always with the god.

Equally a potsherd inscription of blessings from “Yahweh and his Asherah” uses the connecting phrase ‘His’, as if Yahweh would always be presented with the tree or pole.

Asherah poles, which were sacred trees or poles, are mentioned many times in the Hebrew Bible. They were prohibited by the Deuteronomic Code that commanded “You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord your God”. The prohibition is, however, a testament to the practice of putting up Asherah poles or trees beside Yahweh’s altars (cf. 2 Kings 21:7).

The name Asherah appears 40 times in the Hebrew Bible, even if it is much reduced in its translations. It is however interesting to see, which term was chosen to translate it:

  • The word ʾăšērâ is translated in Greek as: ἄλσος (grove; plural: ἄλση) in every instance apart from Isaiah 17:8; 27:9 and 2 Chronicles 15:16; 24:18, with Greek: δένδρα (trees) being used for the former, and, peculiarly, Ἀστάρτη (Astarte) for the latter.
  • The Vulgate in Latin provides lucus or nemus, a grove or a wood.
  • From the Vulgate, the King James translation of the Bible uses grove or groves instead of Asherah’s name. Non-scholarly English language readers of the Bible would not have read her name for more than 400 years afterward.

The association of Asherah with trees in the Hebrew Bible is strong. For example, she is found under trees (1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 17:10) and is made of wood by human beings (1 Kings 14:15, 2 Kings 16:3–4). Trees described as being an asherah or part of an asherah include grapevines, pomegranates, walnuts, myrtles, and willows.

Ugaritic amulets show a miniature “tree of life” growing out of Asherah’s belly. Another significant biblical reference occurs in the legend of Deborah, who is a female ruler of Israel who held court under a sacred tree (Book of Judges 4:5), which was preserved for many generations.

There might even be an early link between Asherah and Eve, given the coincidence of their common title as “the mother of all living” in the Book of Genesis 3:20, as well as the reference to the tree of Life or the tree of wisdom.

A feminine aspect of Yahweh, called Shekhinah and often used today in Hebrew tradition, may be a cultural memory of Asherah.

Shekhinah, also spelled Shechinah (Hebrew: שְׁכִינָה Šəḵīnā, Tiberian: Šăḵīnā) is the English transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning “dwelling” or “settling” and denotes the presence of God, as it were in a place. The Hebrew Bible mentions several instances where the presence of God was felt and experienced as a Shekhinah, including the burning bush. Also, the tradition of the shekhinah as the Shabbat Bride, the Shabbat Kallah, continues to this day and a place is made for her at the table.

Kabbalah associates the shekhinah with the female. And it seems, the female was dearly missed… According to Gershom Scholem, “The introduction of this idea was one of the most important and lasting innovations of Kabbalism. …no other element of Kabbalism won such a degree of popular approval.”

One can thus deduce, that not only God had once a female consort, but that he was present in her, as a sort of “consort-child”. The male god was sitting in the female tree. This explains also the confusion that sometimes Ashera is Yahweh’s mother (and wife of his father El) and sometimes his wife.

From there, the idea of Jesus as God being incarnated in a woman, while also being his own father, is only a step away.

A well hidden form of Ashera remains present until today in the wishing trees popular in the whole of Asia-Minor.

Wishing tree in Cappadoccia, Turkey.

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