Debunking the Goddess Myth

The "golden age" of female divinities was a bad time for women

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Once upon a time there was a Great Mother Goddess who was worshipped all over the world. Under Her benevolent care, humans lived in peace with each other and in harmony with nature. Women were honored as Her earthly representatives and served as Her priestesses, enacting Her sacred sexual rites in groves and temples as seasonal festivals. One day a band of male warriors with a violent male god invaded this utopia, destroying the Goddess and installing their god as the "one and only" deity. From that day forward, women were subjugated, nature was exploited, militarism was glorified, and sexual repression became the law. This new order is described in the Hebrew Bible.

The feminist spirituality movement was born two decades ago when women who had rejected the sexist teachings of their traditional religious upbringings discovered they needed some form of spirituality to nourish their souls. A kind, nurturing mother Goddess seemed to fill the void.

Searching for female images of the Divine, they inevitably turned to ancient pagan goddesses such as Isis of Egypt and Ishtar of Babylonia, and, in the process, adopted the romantic notion that the societies that worshipped them held women, sexuality, and nature in high regard. Thus the feminist fairy tale above came into being. Twenty years later, now widely accepted as historical fact, the tale continues to fuel the imaginations of thousands of women looking for an alternative to male-dominated religion.

There's just one problem: The fairy tale isn't accurate. It whitewashes the male supremacy and militarism of ancient paganism, falsely attributing the origin of these phenomena to "the Hebrews." In the new goddess myth, Egypt and Babylonia are portrayed as benevolent, peaceful, and matriarchal societies, despite the fact that sexual abuse and exploitation, ritual castration, phallus worship, and even human sacrifice were all integral aspects of their religious traditions. Do women who are enchanted by Isis, for instance, know that worship of her involved the annual drowning of a young virgin girl in the Nile to assure a plentiful harvest? Do devotees of Ishtar realize that many of her priestesses were simply temple slaves who were branded with a star (Ishtar's symbol) just like the animals that were dedicated to her?

In her book The Battered Woman, domestic abuse counselor Lenore Walker claims that "prior to the creation of the Bible, women . . . were worshipped as the Goddesses of Life" and, even though she never uses the word Jew, implies that the Hebrews invented wife beating. Would she really have us believe that in the older Egyptian and Babylonian societies, men never beat their wives? Ironically, we must turn to a male author, Pierre Montet, and his book Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt, to learn that, in fact, an Egyptian husband had the right to beat his wife, and a brother to beat his sister.

Versions of the feminist fairy tale can be found in magazine articles, best-selling books, and television documentaries on the history of Western religion—a piece of revisionist history that's now believed simply because it's been so often repeated.

The Hebrew Bible tells a different story; but before you can get to it, you've got to forget everything that Christianity has taught you. When Christianity appropriated the Hebrew scriptures as its Old Testament, it ignored centuries of rabbinic commentaries that, in Judaism, are considered essential to understanding any biblical verse. It wasn't Jewish tradition that used the story of Adam and Eve to rationalize the subordination of women, or that equated the forbidden fruit with sexuality (and made the woman a temptress). Nor did the earliest Jews claim that Adam and Eve, by eating the forbidden fruit, stained all of humanity with original sin. These and other concepts now viewed as hostile to women—and often traced to ancient Hebrew thought—actually arose from later readings. Unfortunately, these Christian interpretations now predominate in Western civilization (even in the minds of many Jews).

As for the ancient rabbinic teachings, while many are certainly sexist, many others—some might say most—actually protect the interests of women. The first human was created as a hermaphrodite, for instance, a male and female joined at the back. The "creation of woman" was, more accurately, the separation of the female from the male by cutting them apart at the "side" (tzela, a Hebrew word that often gets translated as "rib").

The term ezer knegdo, usually translated as "helpmate," has been interpreted to mean that women are to be obedient wives. In actuality, the term means "a help against him": Worthy husbands are to be helped while the unworthy are opposed, thus validating a woman's ability to judge a man accurately and treat him accordingly. As for why the serpent spoke to Eve alone, Adam was "asleep" (a metaphor, perhaps, for male consciousness).

A passage from Genesis 3:16 calls for a different reading as well: "For your husband you will long, and he will rule you" suggests that (most) women will sexually desire men in spite of the results—acknowledging, perhaps, the discomfort of pregnancy, the pain of childbirth, and the fact that men can be real jerks. (The Hebrew word translated here as "rule," mashal, does not mean to rule by domination, but to rule as the sun rules the day and the moon rules the night. From this we can deduce that it refers to a kind of affinity between man and woman.)

While sexism in the Jewish community has kept these interpretations from greatly influencing Jewish education, they do exist in the tradition.

The God of the Hebrew Bible is meant to be a incorporeal (and therefore genderless) Being. Hebrew is a gendered language, however, and the masculine gender, which is the root form, is used in most cases to describe God. There are exceptions: For instance, Moses addresses God as feminine in Numbers 11:15. Also, many Hebrew words can be either masculine or feminine; it is how they are vocalized that determines their gender—and vocalization was determined by men. The "linguistic maleness" of God is exaggerated by translation into nongendered languages such as English. It has been solidified into a physical image of maleness by Christian theology, which has God "impregnating" a woman and "fathering" a son.

In biblical times, the new notion that God was beyond gender had to be radical and potentially very liberating, given the harsh realities of the older Canaanite, Egyptian, and Babylonian religions.

The Canaanite pantheon, for instance, was a product of incest. According to Canaanite epic poetry from the 14th-century B.C.E., the goddess Asherah had 70 children by her brother, the god El—including a son, Baal, and a daughter, Anat. El also impregnated Baal's daughter. Baal castrated El and then took his mother Asherah sexually. To complete the incestuous circle of this divine dysfunctional family, Baal then had sex with Anat. A symbolic reenactment of the incest between Baal and Asherah formed an essential part of Canaanite fertility rites. The Hebrew Bible found this tradition repugnant and commanded Jews to turn away from such gods and goddesses—a fact that many feminists, rather than applauding, have criticized as patriarchal.

In Egyptian mythology, the universe was created through an act of masturbation by the sun god Atum. When Isis' brother (and husband) Osiris was killed and dismembered, she recovered all his body parts except his penis; the artificial one she proceeded to make for him became a focus of Egyptian worship. At Osiris's bull festival, women carried a genitally explicit replica of him, operated by pulling strings.

In Babylonian mythology, creation is described as a product of the murder of the goddess Tiamat by the god Marduk, who crushed her skull and "split her like a shellfish." He turned half of her body into the sky and the other half into the zenith.

In spite of linguistic maleness, the God of the Hebrew Bible does not commit rape and incest, or create the universe through masturbation or the murder and mutilation of a female. As the first Hebrews, Abraham and Sarah's radical vision of one genderless God must have been a welcome relief from these pagan gods made in the image of abusive men.

The service of these gods was also primarily sexual, largely exploitative, and sometimes mutilating. The pagan temple was, in effect, the original brothel. The priestess of a goddess lived in the temple and was required to have ritual sex with any man willing to pay the fee. Similarly, the priest of a goddess was a transvestite eunuch who had ritual sex with men. Castration was the means by which these men were "dedicated" to the goddess The priest of a god was in charge of feeding the god with daily sacrifices and libations and honoring him with song, music, and incense. His was the only type of service that had no sexual component. The priestess of a god, in contrast, was required to have ritual sex at harvest festivals with kings, pharaohs, and emperors.

This, then, is the historical context of the Hebrew Bible. Its laws concerning marriage, divorce, adultery, rape, inheritance, slavery, and conduct in warfare reflect an already existing social reality. There's a difference between what the Bible actually says and what men and women say it says. What appears to be sexism in the Bible is nothing more than a reflection of the sexism that dominated Babylonian, Egyptian, and Canaanite societies in—Isis forgive us—the age of the Great Mother Goddess.

Judith S. Antonelli is a feminist and a religiously observant Jew who lives in Boston. Her book In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah (Jason Aronson, 1995) was recently released in paperback. Excerpted from On the Issues (Summer 1997).