For many people in this evangelical culture, when outlandish claims are made about their faith, they either immediately deny them or shudder in quiet, theological unrest; yet for some, those claims are just license to laugh. And for this claim, I think we can all safely do the latter. Did God have a wife?
I stumbled across this topic while browsing an atheist forum a couple years ago. If you have not been on one before, you’re not missing anything. They are generally crowded with young to middle-aged men with vehement opinions–and truly few of these forums procure benign discussion. It is the same for social media sites, like good ol’ Facebook. My advice for you is to keep theological discussion where it is healthy: off the internet.
From one of the forums I visited, I recall some Christians talking about some popular opinions of scholars that travel through the web (similar to the resonance from the forged manuscript about Jesus’ wife), and one of the forum responded with alacrity: “Of course God had a wife. Her name was Asherah. And no, it was not Jewish mysticism; it was Judaism’s seed of polytheism, the sign of Abrahamic syncretism, the collapse of all credence that religions claim to have!” My exaggeration is slight, but I talk about something very critical here. The way we view Jewish theology has a direct impact on Christian theology, prophecy, Scripture, Jesus, and all else.
Let’s tackle the question using these three factors: the claim, issue, and difficulties.
The claim is jolting and clear: God had a wife, her name was Asherah (she was God’s consort), and Judaism (and Christianity) eventually evolved into Patriarchalism and monotheism; contemporary Christianity simply shed the wife theology as religion evolved. If God had a wife originally, in the allegedly purest form of this religion, then what we know of Christianity now is distorted, cleaned up to be a pretty lie.
The issue is that God’s alleged wife, Asherah, is not arbitrarily derived from Jewish mysticism. Asherah was an attested pagan goddess, the Ugaritic wife of El and mother of the gods. Seeing that Israelites had an unwise bent toward polytheism, having frequent affairs with idols, icons, gods, and sundry. Indeed, Asherah dwells in the Old Testament in many places, generally in contexts of Israel’s failure to be devout worshipers of Yahweh, mostly in the chronicles (histories) of that nation, like the books of Kings.
The difficulty is one of historical and literary interpretation. Interpreters cannot ensure that Asherah was rent from all Jewish theology and solely part of a Judeo-mystical movement. If there were vestiges of a pagan goddess in the Tanakh then it is likely its theology was in some way interacted with while transitioning to the New Testament. As we see well in the four gospels and the epistles, the Old Testament was embedded in the New Testament theology as the writers took pains to put the pieces of the messianic puzzle together.
A second difficulty resides in the interpretive ambiguity of “Asherah.” As Holladay points out in his Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, there is “much confusion in OT between 1 (‘the wife of El and mother of the gods’) and 2 (a ‘cultic post’). The appearances of Asherah in the Old Testament are delineated between a “thing” and a “person/god”; at times, the god and the post would be fused, where it was unsure which definition the text was referring to.
As a gentle reminder: Nothing in the Old Testament, regardless if it had a dangerous association with regional polytheism at that time, can be ignored or attenuated when reading the New Testament. The Bible wasn’t written in a vacuum or in discrete partition.
The assertion that God had a wife named Asherah and they were worshiped jointly by Israelites was raised in the 1960s by historian Raphael Patai. This tract of thought was taken two steps further by Francesca Stravrakopoulou who came to the conclusion that God had a wife. She referenced 8th century pithos inscriptions, found in the Sinai desert at Kuntillet Ajrud, that evidenced blessings to the Israelites’ God: “I bless you by Yahweh, our guardian, and by his Asherah.” The inscription is telling.
(For those curious, the “bless you” used on the inscription is the standard ascription of blessing used in the Old Testament, from the word brkt–which is the root and suffix attested in Pithos A.)
Let’s now look at what the Old Testament says about this god. (Remember the amalgamated nature of the word’s interpretation as we continue.)
Four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah were brought to Mt. Carmel to worship (1 Kings 18:19); these were those who sat at Jezebel’s table. Here, we see attestation of foreign worship of Asherah, the female goddess. The Israelites, too, joined in the idolatry: “They abandoned the house of the Lord… and served the Asherim [plural, Asherah] and the idols” (2 Chron. 24:18). The departure of Israelite worship of Yahweh alone is not singular in Scripture, but it is addressed.
Consider Deuteronomy 16:21, God’s injunction to not “set up any wooden Asherah pole beside the altar” built to Yahweh. Around this time the forbidding is quintessentially sin-caused, as we see in the entire narrative of Judges through its refrain: “The Israelites did evil in the sight of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs.
We can expand this collect to induct another foreign god into the assembly of Israelite idolatrous worship. Jeremiah descries an abomination among his people, whose “children gather wood, the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, that they may provoke [Yahweh] to anger” (7:18). (It is unsure whether the “queen of heaven” was related to the fertility goddess Asherah; regardless, we can surmise it was but another instance of foreign worship.) The Israelites followed the same path as did their progenitors in the book of Judges: they did evil in the sight of the Lord.
It is no mystery that the Israelites worshiped false gods; and it is a safe assumption to make that some did it in concert with Yahweh worship, as we saw in God’s mandate to remove Asherah/Asherim from beside the altar built to Yahweh. This is exactly the devotional falter of the Israelites of which the pithos at Kuntillet Ajrud bespoke: Yahweh’s reverence was attenuated by a second/third/tenth god’s worship.
But… is that not what we do?
We have idols that we worship in tandem with God: we have our social media–and all related activity that technology monopolizes over us; we have our platonic and intimate relationships; we have our financial desires, our unhealthy absorptions into ministry and groups, our gluttony and our myriad of private vices. We always have something that takes precedence over our life of devotion to God, whether hidden or broadcasted to the world.
So, can we confidently answer, based on the contemporary research and Old Testament attestations, that God had a wife? I think it’s safe to say no, he did not. This idea presents as much upset to our equanimous theology of God as did Karen King’s obsessional claim that Jesus had a wife–which was a laughable zilch.
But was Asherah or wooden manifestation of the fertility god worshiped alongside Yahweh? Probably. We serve a God who has not enthralled us to his will but has allowed us to make choices of our own. Ancient Israelites made mistakes, which were explicitly seen in the book of Judges–but so do we. Regardless, God graced them with his mercy, offered his Son for their sin, and today offers to write anyone’s name in his book of life when we choose to surrender that our glory for his.
“Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints! There is no want to those who fear him. The young lions lack and suffer hunger, but those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing” (Ps. 34:9-10).