Written by WILLIAM G. DEVER Reviewed By William D. Barker

In Did God Have a Wife? William Dever distinguishes between ‘book religion’ (i.e. ‘official’ orthodoxy) and ‘folk religion’ (i.e. ‘what people actually do’), arguing that ‘book religion’ seeks to suppress ‘folk religion’. Dever argues that the Hebrew Bible was a late development of ‘book religion’, whereas the cult of the goddess Asherah was an early, important, and widespread part of ‘folk religion’ in ancient Israel. Dever states that the chauvinistic authors of the biblical text ignored the feminine Asherah cult in order to eradicate the knowledge of her cult’s existence (184–85, 294–300). Consequently, Dever alleges that ‘all the biblical literature … constitutes what is essentially “propaganda” … the writers were “spin doctors”. Thus, the Bible is ancient “revisionist history” on a grand scale’ (71).

Dever understands the prophets as ‘urban elites’ who sought to suppress the ‘folk religion’ practised by the average commoner (282–89). Dever’s central thesis is that the creation of the Hebrew Bible and monotheism are the direct results of the theological crisis of the exile and the on-going chauvinist repression of the Asherah cult. Dever argues that the suppression of ‘folk religion’ by chauvinistic ‘book religion’ persists to the present day and that ‘only archaeology’ can redress the bias of the male-dominated authorship and subsequent study of the Hebrew Bible that has existed over the millennia (197). Dever notes that the ‘archaeological rediscovery of the long-lost Goddess’ can ‘give back to the women of ancient Israel their distinctive long-lost voice, allowing them to speak to us today of their religious lives’ (306–7). Dever also says that this view of the development of monotheism should help the West leave behind its cultural imperialism, which is the result of ‘the dominant influence of “dead, white, Europeanized males” ’ (311).

Dever’s book is well organized, and he does a good job of explaining technical jargon and archaeological data (18–29, 88–89, 220–21, 296) to the ‘general audience’ for whom the book is intended (ix, xii). Throughout the introduction Dever is refreshingly forthright about his biases and presuppositions. Dever’s passion for archaeology shines through on every page, and he correctly assesses that the field of biblical theology, to its own detriment, rarely considers archaeology (38, 61). Dever also helpfully points out some of the problems with postmodern approaches to the biblical text (82–83).

There are some flaws, however, with the work:

  1. Dever has created a false dichotomy between ‘folk religion’ and ‘book religion’. Dever argues that all cult-related archaeological data is evidence of normative ‘folk religion’ but all ancient texts are revisionist ‘book religion’ (282–89).This approach classifies the quality of archaeological and textual data only on the basis of its type, without analysing its reliability or its range of interpretive possibilities.This approach assumes that archaeological evidence, and its subsequent interpretation by archaeologists, is complete and unbiased, whereas textual evidence is revisionist propaganda (51, 71).Thus, Dever overly emphasizes the importance of archaeology, and degrades the importance of primary textual sources (74–76).
  2. Concerning Dever’s interpretation of the Asherah cult, some problems may be noted. First, Dever fails to appreciate the significance of women in the biblical text, relegating such prominent figures as the Matriarchs Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, Jezebel, and Esther to the status of the ‘disenfranchised and marginalized … the invisible’ (48, 61). He suggests throughout the book that the real contribution of women in ancient Israel was not in political leadership, but as domestic worshippers of the goddess Asherah. Second, Dever does not provide a convincing understanding of how the Israelite prophets could condemn the royalty and be advocates of social justice while also functioning as ‘book religion’ elites who suppressed the ‘folk religion’ of the commoners (70, 190, 282, 286, 288–89). Third, Dever claims that the biblical authors ignored the Asherah cult in order to suppress knowledge of its existence (72, 184–85), but he does not sufficiently explain why other cults, such as those of Ba’al and Chemosh, are condemned by name rather than similarly ignored. Finally, while Dever is right to document the existence of the Asherah cult, he exaggerates its importance.
  3. While archaeological data does testify that, at various points in its history, ancient Israel largely failed to be monolatrous or monotheistic, this is in accord with the biblical text.Thus, Israel did not have a polytheistic history in the sense that it embraced polytheism as one stage in its religious evolution. We should not confuse the history of Israel’s failures with the history of monotheism.
  4. There seems to be a lack of awareness about the recent scholarship concerning the interpretation of various ancient Near Eastern texts. For example, Dever advocates a ‘myth-and-ritual’ approach to the Ba’al-Mot Myth and erroneously compares the Babylonian Akitu Festival to Yom Kippur (267–69).
  5. Dever fails to explain adequately how monotheism could be the result of the combination of crisis management and chauvinistic repression (294–98).

William D. Barker

University of Cambridge

Cambridge, England, UK

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