The Many Gods of Israel

  • By David Levin
  • Posted 05.05.11
  • NOVA

Bill Dever has investigated the archeology of the ancient Near East for more than three decades. He says that in addition to the Hebrew god Yahweh, ancient Israelites may have also worshipped Canaanite gods and goddesses.


Archeologist Bill Dever says that polytheism may have been the norm in ancient Israel.


The Many Gods of Israel

Posted: May 5, 2011

DAVID LEVIN: You're listening to a NOVA podcast. I'm David Levin.

BILL DEVER: The Bible is not history, it is his story. That is, God's story, told by those who thought they understood it and understood what it meant.

DAVID LEVIN: Bill Dever is an archeologist and expert on the ancient Near East. For more than 35 years, he's conducted research that's shed new light on the ancient Israelites and how they worshipped their god, who they called Yahweh.

BILL DEVER: What archaeology does to supplement the biblical story is to deal with everyday life of the masses. The ordinary people who have no voice in the Bible and are forgotten. There's a wonderful phrase in Daniel Chapter 12: "for all those who sleep in the dust." The ordinary, forgotten folk of ancient Israel. Archaeology brings them to light and allows them to speak for themselves, and most of them were not orthodox believers.

DAVID LEVIN: Dever says there's strong evidence that monotheism, the belief in a single god, took a long time to be fully accepted by many ancient Israelites.

BILL DEVER: We should have guessed already that polytheism was the norm and not monotheism from the biblical denunciations of it, which means it was real and a threat as far as those who wrote the Bible were concerned. So according to them, everyone from Moses' time on was or should have been a monotheist. There was only one god in ancient Israel. But in fact there were many gods and goddesses as far as most people were concerned. So, today, archaeology has illuminated what we could call popular religion or folk religion in an astonishing manner.

DAVID LEVIN: One of the most astonishing things that Dever has discovered is that at least some Israelites, in addition to worshipping their god Yahweh, also worshiped a Canaanite female goddess called Asherah. Dever first found evidence of this in 1968, while excavating gravesites in the hills of modern-day Israel.

BILL DEVER: I discovered a Hebrew inscription of the eighth century BCE. And it gives the name of the deceased, and says, "blessed may X be by Yahweh," that's good biblical Hebrew. But it says, "by Yahweh and his Asherah." And Asherah is the name of the old Canaanite mother goddess, the consort of the El, the principal deity of the Canaanite pantheon.

DAVID LEVIN: So why would a Hebrew inscription mention Yahweh with another diety?

BILL DEVER: Well, in popular religion, they were a pair. I think Asherah was widely venerated in ancient Israel. If you look at Second Kings 23, which describes the reforms of King Josiah in the late seventh century, he talks about purging the temple of all the cult paraphernalia of Asherah. So the popular cult so-called folk religion even penetrated the temple in Jerusalem. This is the extent to which the old Canaanite cults prevailed despite the ideal in the Hebrew Bible of monotheism. That's the ideal. The reality was very different.

DAVID LEVIN: Dever says that within the last hundred years, archeologists have uncovered thousands of small clay figurines from sites all over Israel. He thinks they're connected to Asherah.

BILL DEVER: They show a nude female, the sexual organs are not represented but the breasts are. They date all the way from the tenth century to the early sixth century. They are found in the tombs, they are found in household context, they're found in dumps, they're found everywhere. So what are they? They've long been connected with one goddess or another, but many scholars still are hesitant to come to a conclusion. I don't think they're idols, as such, but I do think they're representations, symbols of the great goddess Asherah.

DAVID LEVIN: According to Dever, the Asherah figurines may have been popular because of their use in fertility rites.

BILL DEVER: They were no doubt used by both men and women to pray for for conceiving a child and bearing the child safely and nursing it. But what's interesting to me is the Israelite and Judean ones are rather more modest than the Canaanite ones, which are right in your face. There is no doubt about the blatant sexuality of the of the nude female in the Canaanite figurines. But the Israelite and Judean ones mostly show a nursing female, a nursing mother. Patroness of mothers, I think.

DAVID LEVIN: Despite the widespread use of these female Asherah figurines, Dever says there's no evidence of a male counterpart. He thinks that might point to a growing acceptance of values taught in the Hebrew bible.

BILL DEVER: Now why is it that you could model the female deity, but not the male deity? Well, I think the first and second commandments by now were taken pretty seriously by some people, you just don't portray Yahweh, the male deity. But the mother goddess is ok, his consort, probably a lesser deity. This is awkward for some people, the notion that Israelite religion was not exclusively monotheistic. But we know now that it wasn't.



Produced by
David Levin
Original interview by
Gary Glassman


(Asherah figurine)
© WGBH Educational Foundation

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