Where are women in the Bible?

Asherah. This goddess mentioned forty times in the Old Testament shows that the Lord was not a celibate god from the beginning. Miniature polychrome almost entirely preserved. Judea; Iron Age IIBC, approx. 750-620 BC. Height 15.5 cm. (© Fondation BIBLE + ORIENT, Fribourg Switzerland. Private Collection, Switzerland).

Asherah. This goddess mentioned forty times in the Old Testament shows that the Lord was not a celibate god from the beginning. Miniature polychrome almost entirely preserved. Judea; Iron Age IIBC, approx. 750-620 BC. Height 15.5 cm. (© Fondation BIBLE + ORIENT, Fribourg Switzerland. Private Collection, Switzerland).

Thomas RömerThomas Römer is Professor at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies and at the College de France. Thomas Römer seeks to identify social, political or cultural circumstances that are part of religious thought by combining historical criticism, literary and philological analysis of Old Testament texts, sometimes supported by archaeology.
Jocelyn Rochat / Allez Savoir
When one reads the Bible attentively, it becomes apparent that the god Yahweh has not always been alone in the heavens. He sometimes has ministers, armies, and even a wife, as explained by Professor Thomas Römer, who has gone back to the origins of the God of the Bible only to discover a goddess.

Is Our Father really single? Today, the answer seems obvious. The god of the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims must be the same one, up there in the heavens, since he is the origin of monotheism. And yet, there are various clues which show that Yahweh had a less solitary youth than imagined, even if those writing the Bible did everything to minimise the importance of the goddesses who were important in his life. Like the wife who was venerated at his side for several centuries.

A goddess called Asherah

That is, at least, the story that many religious historians and archaeologists are now telling. “For me, there is no doubt that Yahweh was not a celibate god originally,” explains Thomas Römer. The University of Lausanne (UNIL) and Collège de France professor underlines that the goddess Asherah played an important enough role in the Jerusalem area to be mentioned 40 times in the Old Testament.

Of course, most biblical texts are extremely virulent when they allude to Asherah. But these writings demonstrate that “this cult played an important role in the region, at least until the end of the VIIth century,” believes Thomas Römer. And a number of archaeological digs allow us to understand the remarks of those who wrote Deuteronomy: this goddess probably was the consort of Yahweh before he became the only God!

Gods do not govern on their own

Archaeological excavations carried out from 1975-76 at Kuntillet Ajrud in the Sinai desert led to the discovery of the remains of a caravansary, which can be dated back to the VIIIth century BC. Amongst the inscriptions found at this site, there were a number of blessings in the names of “Yahweh and his Asherah”. Yahweh himself is portrayed both as “Yahweh of Samaria” and “Yahweh of Teman” (a region situated outside Judean territory). If Yahweh had “his” Asherah, it means that just like other divinities in that era, he was in a couple. “In the religious organisational chart of the Ancient Orient, the gods never govern alone: they are part of a couple, and sometimes part of a triad,” explains Thomas Römer. There is no reason to think that the god of Israel would be any different. All of which is confirmed by an Assyrian inscription dating from 722 BC,
in which King Sargon boasted that he had deported the people of Israel and “the gods in which they believed”.

When Yahweh replaced El

Forgotten in the XXIst century, Asherah was a celebrity in the Ancient Near East. “You have to go to Mesopotamia to find the first acknowledgement of this cult, made at the time of the Hammurabi, in the XVIIIth century BC,” says Thomas Römer. Soon, this divinity can be found scattered all over the place, but especially in Ugarit in what is now Syria. In the cycle of the god Baal, she is a great goddess, wife of the god El, and the mother of his 70 children.” A local legend portrays an heir to the throne called Keret or Kirta as “he who will drink Asherah’s milk”, “which suggests that the goddess was associated with fertility,” adds the professor.

The goddess Asherah was still worshipped in the Jerusalem area, where she was also considered as the companion of the god El, who gave his name to the people of Isra-El. He is the one who is presented in Genesis as the creator of the heavens and earth, before Yahweh came on the scene and replaced El in the temple of Jerusalem.

During his research into the origins of the God of the Bible, Professor Römer has shown how Yahweh − this divinity from afar − gradually grew in importance in the region. He even, if one is to believe the graffiti at Kuntillet Ajrud, “recuperated” El’s wife after taking the first god’s place in Jerusalem. A celestial vaudeville which “is not at all unlikely,” confirms Thomas Römer. That is what happens in the Bible, when a king mounts a putsch, like the story of Absalom. The new chief takes over and allocates King David’s concubines to himself, to show who is in charge.”

The Bible criticises Asherah

Archaeological remains are not alone in testifying to the importance of the cult of Asherah. There are many examples of this in the Bible, particularly when the writers of the Books of Kings criticise the “bad kings” who supported this divinity. We learn for example that, in the Kingdom of Judah, King Asa (around 910-869 BC) “had Maacah his grandmother removed from the office of queen mother, as she had made a repulsive image (editor’s note – a statute) for Asherah. Asa also cut down her repulsive image and burned it in the Wadi Kidron” (1 Kings 15:13).

A few years later, King Ahab erects a statue of Asherah, probably in the Temple of Samaria (which was then the capital city of the kingdom). This statue was still in its place under King Jehoahaz (around 814 -798), according to the author of 2 Kings 13:6. As for King Manasseh ruling in the Kingdom of Judah (around 687-642), he is criticised for replacing the statue of Asherah that his predecessor, Hezekiah is said to have destroyed (2 Kings 21:7). All these controversial episodes convinced Thomas Römer that the goddess “had probably been associated with Yahweh in the Temple of Jerusalem where a statue was placed, perhaps next to his even”.

Where is the goddess?

If there was a “Mrs God” before Yahweh became the only God, archaeologists should logically have found traces of this goddess. But it was a sensitive subject, as any proof of the union between Yahweh and his Asherah was heavily disputed. As happened with the inscribed jars, found at Kuntillet Ajrud. Because this pottery does not just evoke “Yahweh and his Asherah”, but is richly illustrated too.

On the jar, two cows can be seen, a seated lady musician and two humanoid figures, one with a phallus and the other with breasts. There are a lot of animal drawings on the other side of the jar, particularly lions, which are often associated with Asherah, around a stylised tree.

The remains excited intense debate. Was the goddess depicted on this jar? If she was, which one was she? One of the cows? The lady musician or the humanoid figure with breasts? Or the stylised tree?

 Transpositions of graffiti done on a pitcher found at Kuntillet Ajrud (Sinai). The phallus on the figure on the right (N), equipped with breasts, he was wanted by the ancient sculptor or is it a wear scratch? In this case, it could be a representation of Asherah alongside Yahweh, especially as the lion represented on the same object is often associated with it. (© left picture: from "Dieux, deesses et figures divines", by Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger, Paris: Editions Cerf. © right picture from: "L’invention de Dieu" by Thomas Romer, Paris: Seuil.

Transpositions of graffiti done on a pitcher found at Kuntillet Ajrud (Sinai).
Was the phallus on the figure with breasts on the right (N) engraved on purpose by the ancient sculptor, or is it a wear scratch? In this case, it could be a representation of Asherah alongside Yahweh, especially as the lion represented on the same object is often associated with it. (© left picture: from “Dieux, déesses et figures divines”, by Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger, Paris: Editions Cerf; © right picture: from “L’invention de Dieu” by Thomas Römer, Paris: Seuil.

As it was impossible to arrive at any definite conclusion, archaeologists looked for other remains that were more easily identifiable. And they focused their attention on the pillar figurines. These ceramics, thirty-odd centimetres high, are made in an almost industrial style. They represent the top half of a naked woman with large breasts. The bottom part of the body is not moulded in any way, giving way to a pole, a pillar or a tree-trunk which serves as the base of the figurine.

Wooden statues

“Hundreds of statues like this were found in most of the Judean towns which were important between the VIIIth and the VIIth century BC. They were discovered in private homes and in tombs,” explains Thomas Römer. But once you leave Judean territory, they are far less common. Therefore, they must have played an important role in the religious practices of the people of Israel of that time”.

Is it Asherah? “It is an interesting contender, in any event,” replies the UNIL professor, “even if it all remains rather speculative, as no inscription has been found to allow these figurines to be identified with any certainty.” Nevertheless, the pillar which supports the statuette evokes Asherah, whose name was often translated as “sacred pole” in certain Bible translations. And the links between Asherah and wood are manifold. Apart from the stylised tree found on the jar on which the graffiti can be found, there are several texts from the Old Testament which report that “good” kings have “burned” “impious” icons of the goddess, which brings wooden statues to mind.

Thomas Römer himself imagines that the goddess was represented in at least two ways. In the form of an undressed woman, or symbolised by a sacred pole or tree, and sometimes a combination of both, as on the pillar figurines.

What about the Queen of Heaven?

Problem: neither the jar with graffiti nor the pillar figurines provide definitive proof of the union between Yahweh and his Asherah. But these uncertainties are not enough to discourage the experts who are persuaded that the God of the Bible had a companion in the beginning. If it isn’t Asherah, it’s the Queen of Heaven who was associated with the cult of Yahweh, she who is mentioned in particular in Chapter 44 of the Book of Jeremiah.

“This goddess was very popular, especially with women who made cakes and wove clothes for her, because she was probably depicted naked. It is known, because cake moulds portraying unclothed women have been found,” explains Thomas Römer.

Religious historians have obviously remarked troubling similarities between the cult of the Queen of Heaven and the veneration of Asherah. In both cases, these goddesses have been associated with Yahweh. And in both cases, these cults were mostly practised by women, and they were forbidden cults at the same time. “In this respect too, it is rather speculative but it is possible to imagine that the Queen of Heaven is the name used for Asherah,” speculates Thomas Römer.

With an Asherah at his side, and perhaps a Queen of Heaven, there we have it: our “only God”, actually accompanied in the heavens where we imagined him to be the most lonely. Wrongly, because the Ancients saw things very differently. “If we delve into the Bible with a historian’s eye, we discover that Yahweh has not always been alone, continues Thomas Römer. “Psalm 82, for example, tells that ‘God stands in the divine assembly’. Insofar as the psalms were prayers recited as part of the official cult, this allusion to an assembly of gods illustrates that a heaven inhabited by numerous divinities was not at all shocking…”.

The modern idea of monotheism

Moreover, Yahweh did not just have one wife at his side. “At the time, believers did not imagine an empty heaven. This god was practically surrounded, as still shown in the Prologue of the Book of Job, where Yahweh presides over a sort of meeting with ministers before the arrival of Satan, who isn’t the adversary in this constellation but instead plays the role of God’s secret agent, in charge of travelling the Earth to report what he has seen”.

The Ancients “saw their god as a kind of sovereign of the heavens. In the Old Testament, Yahweh resembles a king with his court, his general, the Angel Michel, and his soldiers, as he is depicted in more details in the New Testament, in the Apocalypse of John with the heavenly army which will fight that of the devil.”

The modern idea of monotheism did not therefore suddenly appear in the Bible. It was imposed gradually, after several reforms which were not accepted by the populations for some time. “When the Ancients speak of the only God, they have quite a different conception from our idea of monotheism, which implies that there is one god alone, and which was developed primarily by the Enlightenment in the XVIIIth century. The authors of Deuteronomy in no way deny the existence of other gods; they do not try to demonstrate that there aren’t any. They believe that if Yahweh chose Israel to be his people, then they must not run around after the other gods of neighbouring countries. What the law demands in Deuteronomy is to worship one single divinity, Yahweh, in one single place, Jerusalem”.

“Furthermore, the Bible does not speak of the ‘only’ God, it talks about ‘God 1’,” specifies Thomas Römer. In order to understand what is being said, it is necessary to explain that at the time, the two neighbouring kingdoms of Judea (in the South) and Israel (in the North) worshipped the same god, but not in the same way. Inscriptions have been found, some written in honour of “Yahweh of Samaria” and others thanking “Yahweh of Teman”. So, when the authors of Deuteronomy write that there is “1” Yahweh, they mean that the only, the true Yahweh is that of Jerusalem. And that all the other Yahwehs, of Samaria, of Teman, of Dan, of Bethel, etc. are declared unlawful”.

Not content with excluding the other Yahwehs, King Josiah (living between 640 and 609 BC) and his public servants who concocted this religious reform also decided to prohibit the worship of Asherah. The authors of the second book of Kings tell in detail how King Josiah “brought out the Aserah image from the temple of Yahweh outside of Jerusalem to the Wadi of the Kidron and burnt it there; then he pulverised it to dust and threw its dust upon the tombs of the children of the people. (2 Kings 23:6).

Excluded women

Of course, this prohibition on the worship of the goddess was not adhered to from one day to the next. And the Bible bears witness to there being some resistance. But in the end, this more radical vision of monotheism was finally imposed, and the polytheist origins of Yahweh were forgotten. As was Asherah, who was chased from the temple.

Seen from a XXIst century perspective, this eviction of the goddess in fact gives the impression that the decision-makers of the time of King Josiah forbade the religion that was practised by women to impose their creed. “There is clearly an assumption of power by the male clergy,” confirms Thomas Römer. And this religious reform had important and long-lasting consequences: if there is so little room for women in the three main monotheistic religions even today, it’s because the goddess was discarded at a certain moment.”

Chased out of the temple in the VIIth century BC, this companion of Yahweh’s nevertheless managed an unexpected return to grace thanks to Mary, mother of Baby Jesus. “That’s right,” smiles Thomas Römer. In the Middle Ages, Mary was called the Queen of Heaven. It is amusing to see that a name that was used in the Bible for a pagan goddess reappeared a thousand years later. It is rather like the resurgence of the repressed instinct. Joking aside, this return of a feminine element in the religions is very interesting. Because in popular piety, the Catholics’ Mary strongly resembles a goddess. People pray to her, she performs miracles, she aids fertility, she is very independent… In contrast, the female legacy is still a problem for Protestantism. To the extent that there are now theologists who are suggesting that Mary should be rediscovered, to attenuate the chauvinist aspects of Christianity. Attempts have been made to eliminate female influence from religion, but it keeps coming back.”

Learn more (in French)

  • La Bible, quelles histoires! Un livre d’entretiens avec Thomas Römer. Editions Bayard-Labor et Fides (2014)
  • L’invention de Dieu. Thomas Römer. Editions du Seuil (2014)
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