And the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2)

Part 2 (see my introduction to this discussion in Part 1)

As I mentioned in Part 1, the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible’s description of Israelite religion as focused on the worship of Yahweh alone to the exclusion of all other deities shows this literature to derive from a period significantly later than the monarchy when polytheism was the norm. The biblical narrative projects monotheism (the worship of Yahweh alone) and aniconism (a form of worship without cult icons or symbols of deities) into the distant past of Israel’s history (in fact, all the way to Adam!), and depicts the worship of Asherah as a foreign import into the Israelite cult (an abomination that a few ‘righteous’ kings tried in vain to eradicate). As both of these claims are contradicted by the archaeological evidence discussed above, we can only assume that the biblical authors were not interested in portraying Israelite religion as it actually had been but in constructing a past that conformed to and legitimated the beliefs and practices that had come to be culturally accepted in the world in which they lived (ie. the Persian and Hellenistic periods). They wrote as if their minority religious perspective, which had only recently developed, had always been the standard orthodoxy.

Still, even though a late, Yahweh-alone, anti-polytheistic perspective dominates the central narratives of the OT/HB, the canonical biblical text is a far more valuable source for understanding ancient Israelite goddess worship than it first appears. For not only do the biblical authors provide many clues about the worship of Asherah or the Queen of Heaven (probably just another way of referring to Asherah) from their polemics against her (Jer. 7:18; 44:17-25), but the OT/HB is a rich anthology of literature with traditions of diverse origin, some of which seem to stem from an earlier time when the mythological reality of an Israelite goddess was broadly accepted and others that represent a continuation of goddess belief from the monarchic period into the post-monarchic period.

To understand this, it is important to recognize that while monotheistic-like belief in Yahweh alone eventually became accepted by a large subset of Jewish culture during the late Second Temple period (500 BCE-70 CE), belief in Asherah was not something that died overnight. After the Babylonian destruction of the Judahite kingdom and exile of its leading members, the people who stayed in Judah continued to hold to traditional beliefs and practices, which included a polytheistic theology that conceptualized the divine world as a family of male and female deities (father, mother, son etc). This state of affairs can be assumed to have persisted well after the reestablishment of a Jewish polity under Persian rule (led by Jewish Babylonian returnees), as there was little reason for anyone to abandon their ancestral religion. The continuing vitality and even appeal of this traditional Israelite polytheism is reflected in the trenchant and often violent polemics of the Deuteronomistic authors against it (Deuteronomistic is a name used by scholars to describe the authors of the books Deuteronomy-Kings). In Deuteronomy they portray Moses as enjoining the people just prior to entering the land to go and destroy all the sanctuaries and cult symbols of the indigenous nations (Deut 7:1-5; 12:2-4), and to stone anyone who tries to convince others to worship the gods of the land (Deut 13:6-11), rhetoric which most likely reflects sectarian conflict between different Israelite communities during the post-exilic period.

Remarkably, a few traditions were incorporated into the OT/HB that hearken back to the earlier polytheistic theology of monarchic Israel and show that some within the community of post-exilic Judah continued to recognize a female deity at the same time that others were becoming adherents of a rigorous monotheizing Yahweh-alone cult. In none of these textual traditions is the name of the female deity explicit (which partly explains how they were included in the collection of texts that came to be the canonical OT/HB; their ambiguity of description allowed them to be treated symbolically by later readers), but close analysis of the Hebrew text suggests that they were originally intended to be understood as instantiations of Israelite Asherah.

The most easily recognizable female divinity found in the Hebrew Scriptures is that of Lady Wisdom. Lady Wisdom is a striking female figure that appears prominently in the first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs, where she is portrayed as a teacher of humankind and revealer of heavenly knowledge (1:20-33; 8:1-11), the intimate partner of God and co-creator of the earth (8:22-36). Because of the symbolic nature of her name, some scholars have interpreted her as a personification of the quality of wisdom, suggesting that she is more a product of literary artifice than Israelite mythology. However, it is increasingly recognized that the literary motifs and characteristics associated with her do not comport well with the notion of creative literary personification and that her strong mythological persona likely stems from an indigenous Israelite goddess tradition.

For clarifying the identity of this goddess, Proverbs 3:13-18 provides an important clue. This passage begins and ends with a term cognate (related by language) to the name Asherah (ashre, traditionally translated as “blessed”) and compares Lady Wisdom to the tree of life. An important symbol of Asherah in earlier monarchic times was the fruit bearing tree.

Another biblical tradition that reflects belief in a female divinity is found in Gen. 1:2. In this passage (which derives from the Priestly source), a ruach elohim (traditionally translated “the Spirit of God”) is said to hover over the waters at the beginning of the creation. Significantly, the ruach is described as an active and independent divine entity since it is modified by the feminine participle merahephet (“hovering”).

There has been much discussion among scholars about how to translate the phrase ruach elohim. Because a common meaning of ruach is “wind”, and because this understanding of the term would seem to be reflected in Gen 8:1 (a Priestly passage closely parallel to Gen 1:2), some scholars have argued that the text refers to a wind sent from God (against tehom, “the deep”) as a preliminary step in the creation. But this translation fails to account for various syntactical elements of the Hebrew, including the fact that ruach is found in a construct relationship to elohim (“spirit of God”; the construct relationship is often indicated in English by the word “of”), suggesting that it is understood to be a specific and definite ruach (“the spirit”) and not some indeterminate “wind” that God caused to sweep over the waters. Furthermore, the use of the active feminine participle merahephet mentioned above suggests that it is the ruach itself that is engaged in the activity of “hovering”, not a tool used by God.

A more likely interpretation is that the ruach elohim is a subtle allusion to a traditional Israelite belief that a female divinity had participated in the creation process. Various factors support this conclusion. First, the Hebrew term ruach had multiple nuances in the religious world of the biblical writers, one of which was to function as an epithet or title of the female partner of God (see below). Second, the feminine ending on merahephet shows that ruach was understood to be a feminine entity. Third, the word merahephet stems from a Semitic root that seems to have been typically used to describe the hovering and low-flying activity of birds (cf. Deut 32:11). Bird imagery was frequently employed in ancient Near Eastern myth to symbolize goddesses, most often goddesses with protective and motherly characters. Fourth, understanding ruach as a female deity who participated in the creation fits the broader literary context. In Gen. 1:26 elohim says, “Let us make ‘adam (humankind) in our own image, according to our likeness…“ and then elohim creates ha’adam (humankind) in the image of elohim, male and female (v. 27). The implication of this language is that the term elohim (plural in form) refers to a male and female dyad, who together constitute the pattern for human sex differentiation. In this context elohim is implied to be a male and female pair, just as ‘adam is male and female. Finally, the belief that a female deity had collaborated with God in the creation of the earth is reflected in Proverbs, where Lady Wisdom is portrayed as a divine architect who partnered with Yahweh in establishing a habitable space for people to dwell in (Proverbs 8:27-31).

A much less well known goddess tradition is found in the sections of Isaiah known as Second and Third Isaiah (these names stem from scholarly belief that they were written later than the first part of Isaiah). Here a female deity is referred to several times as Yahweh’s ruach (“spirit/breath”) or the ruach Yahweh, similar to the title ruach elohim found in Gen 1:2. These include Isaiah 48:16; 57:16; 63:8-14.

Isaiah 48:16 literally reads, “And now, the Lord Yahweh has sent me and his ruach.” This passage has puzzled biblical commentators, because grammatically it does not make sense to understand the ruach as something sent by Yahweh (the verb “sent” already has an attached object suffix). Some scholars recognize that the ruach seems to be associated with Yahweh in the sending of the speaker, but this interpretation is rejected on account of the implication that the ruach is an independent divine entity. As a result, scholars disagree about how to translate the line and some have even suggested that ruach here is a scribal addition or mistake. However, the syntax (grammatical arrangement) of the construction Yahweh and “his spirit” is closely parallel to the inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom, where Yahweh is paired with a female partner designated “his asherah”. This suggests that Yahweh and “his ruach” are treated as a compound entity (broken up for stylistic and poetic reasons) who together send the speaking voice. The Hebrew should therefore be translated: “And now, the Lord Yahweh and his Spirit have sent me.”

Isaiah 57:16 is another passage that is generally garbled in English translations (probably because biblical scribes at some point edited and partially rewrote the line to try to make sense of it or to remove parts they found objectionable), but that most likely refers to the same ruach goddess. God promises his people that he will not accuse and be angry at them forever, for otherwise the ruach (“spirit”) who is with him would faint in anguish. The divine nature of the ruach is indicated by the preposition millphanay, which requires that she be located immediately next to God in heaven, and the identification of her in the parallel line as neshamot. Neshamot is probably a plural of majesty (the singular is neshamah, “breath”, a term almost synonymous to ruach). Some scholars have interpreted neshamot as human souls because of the following relative clause (“that I have made”), but this understanding of the verse presents problems. Ruach is singular in the first line, suggesting that the parallel neshamot refers to a singular entity. In addition, mortals do not dwell directly in God’s presence in heaven, which is what the preposition millphanay suggests about the ruach. (From various indicators, I think it likely that the verb “I have made” at the end of the verse is an interpretive addition that replaced something else, perhaps a verb describing Yahweh’s close relationship to the ruach). In this verse the goddess’s intercessory role and compassionate character are highlighted.

Perhaps the most significant passage is Isaiah 63:8-14. This text cannot be discussed in detail here, but again the ruach is described as the female companion of Yahweh. The people are said to have rebelled and grieved the ruach of Yahweh’s holiness (perhaps alluding to significant changes in the Judahite cult), which caused him to become their enemy and to fight against them (v. 10). Later in v. 14 the ruach of Yahweh is said to have been the one who gave Israel “rest,” a term that points to her central place in the traditional Israelite cult (cf. Ex. 33:14). The independent divinity of the ruach is implied by 1) her unique identification (“Spirit of his Holiness”), which distinguishes her from Yahweh; 2) the fact that she is portrayed as something separate from Yahweh: an offense against the ruach leads Yahweh to take up arms against his own people; and 3) the feminine singular conjugation of the verb nwh, “to give rest,” in v. 14, which suggests that the ruach is female.

One final question that remains to be explored is why the goddess in the above passages is referred to as ruach (“spirit/breath”). This designation may seem like a strange way to speak about a female deity, since not only does it clearly function as something other than a proper name (it is technically an epithet/title), but there is nothing obvious about the word’s basic lexical meanings that would justify using it as a title of a major Israelite goddess. Most often in the Bible ruach appears in literary contexts that suggest it should be translated as “wind”, “breath”, or “spirit.”

In order to understand how a term with this semantic range could come to be used as a divine title, several pieces of evidence provide important clues. The first is that goddesses elsewhere in the Syro-Palestinian/Canaanite world were often given epithets or titles based on words that describe aspects of a deity’s nature. For example, Phoenician Astarte is called the Name of Baal and Punic Tinnit is called the Face of Baal. These epithets seem to have been intended to symbolize the close relationship that existed between a goddess and her male partner (the female deity is so closely identified with the male that she is attributed an aspect of his nature). The second is that ruach was a basic element of ancient Near Eastern divinity. All deities were seen as fundamentally spiritual beings that could be coaxed to inhabit material icons in temples if the correct rituals were performed. Calling an Israelite goddess the ruach of Elohim/Yahweh was therefore conceptually not that different from calling Tinnit the Face of Baal. Third, Hebrew ruach was a polyvalent term that could be used symbolically to allude to the life-giving qualities of a person. For example, Lamentations 4:20 refers to the king as “the breath [ruach] of our nostrils” when describing his vital role in ensuring the prosperity of the kingdom.

Taken together, all this evidence suggests that the title ruach Elohim/Yahweh is a symbolic name that underscores the goddess’ indissoluble relationship to the Israelite chief male deity and her life-giving qualities. She is, as it were, God’s breath, something he could not live without.

For more information on how the Israelite belief in Asherah as the Holy Spirit developed down to New Testament times, see the piece that I wrote for Exponent II called, “My Search for the Divine Feminine,” 25-28.

I'm from Hurricane, Utah, where I currently live with my wife Brenda and two boys. I studied the Bible and ancient Near East at Harvard Divinity School and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. One of my favorite things to do is hike with my family in beautiful southern Utah!

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