Was God married? Was the Old Testament revised to hide evidence that God ruled alongside a heavenly queen?
These questions are in the news this week due to a flurry of stories about the alleged relationship between Yahweh and the Ancient Near Eastern fertility goddess Asherah. Drawing on ancient inscriptions that mention “Yahweh and his asherah,” some scholars (notably William Dever in Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel) have in recent years posited that the ancient Israelites worshipped Asherah and other deities alongside Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. Now others have taken this a step further and claimed that Yahweh’s supposed wife Asherah was later edited out of the Bible by scribes with a monotheistic agenda.
These theories sound a bit shocking at first read, and most of the articles reporting on them this week spin them as a damaging blow to the Christian understanding of God and the Bible. But on closer examination, these theories don’t seriously challenge what the Old Testament tells us about ancient Israelite religion.
That the ancient Israelites worshiped many different gods is not news to anyone who has read the Old Testament. Although God revealed himself to His people as the one and only true God (even singling out Asherah worship for condemnation), the Israelites, surrounded by other nations that worshiped many gods, constantly backslid into idolatry. This idolatry didn’t always take the form of an outright denial of God—rather than denying Yahweh, the Israelites would often start worshipping other deities (like Asherah) alongside Yahweh; or sometimes they would worship Yahweh in a way that he had expressly forbidden. Much of the Old Testament describes the forbidden worship of pagan gods like Asherah and the Baals and the failure of Israel’s leaders to outlaw such cults.
This was a recurring theme for the Biblical prophets. One of the most vivid passages in Jeremiah describes God’s amazement at Israel’s constant backsliding into idol worship, despite all that God had done for them:
This is what the LORD says:
“What fault did your ancestors find in me,
that they strayed so far from me?
They followed worthless idols
and became worthless themselves.
They did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD,
who brought us up out of Egypt
and led us through the barren wilderness,
through a land of deserts and ravines,
land of drought and utter darkness,
a land where no one travels and no one lives?’
I brought you into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
and made my inheritance detestable.
The priests did not ask,
‘Where is the LORD?’
Those who deal with the law did not know me;
the leaders rebelled against me.
The prophets prophesied by Baal,
following worthless idols.
So to the question “Did the ancient Israelites worship other gods, like Asherah, alongside Yahweh?” the answer is clear: they certainly did. But what is also clear is that the Bible repeatedly and unequivocally condemns this, describing these pagan gods as nothing more than lifeless idols.
To the more controversial question “Did God have a wife?” the answer is also clear: nowhere in the Bible is this even hinted at, and people who claim this was the case must posit a conspiracy theory in which huge chunks of the Bible were retroactively rewritten to falsify the record. There is no manuscript evidence suggesting an “earlier version” of Israelite history that endorsed polytheism. Scholars continue to debate the development of Israel’s understanding of God’s uniquely revealed monotheism, but the burden of proof lies on the critics to demonstrate that this is more plausible than simply accepting the Bible text we have as genuine.
But there is some nuance to this last question: the Bible clearly doesn’t teach that Yahweh had a wife, but did the ancient Israelites believe that He did? It’s not hard to imagine that some of them did. The Bible doesn’t sugarcoat the Israelites’ repeated embrace of idolatrous beliefs in contrast to the official doctrines they were taught; if the Israelites imagined Yahweh as a golden calf and set up Asherah poles in God’s temple during their flirtations with polytheism, it’s possible some of them cast Asherah as Yahweh’s divine consort as well. But whatever errant beliefs crept into Israelite folk religion, the clear and consistent teaching of the Bible is that God has neither divine rivals nor equals.