The Banishment Of Yahweh's Lover 

Here is an excerpt from the PBS docudrama, Empires: Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites, with quotes from several biblical scholars. For more about the Hebrew Goddess (Asherah/Astarte) read: Official Religion and Popular Religion in Pre-Exilic Ancient Israel, by Jacques Berlinerblau; The Hebrew Goddess, by Raphael Patai; and my own commentary on the Song of Songs.

" 720 BC the Assyrians conquered the northern 10 tribes of the Israelites and deported them to the far flung regions of their empire. 

Soon after, the Assyrians began to threaten the last tribe of the Israelites: Judah. The account of what happened is one of the most important in the bible, for hidden within it is the surprising story of how monotheism actually took root in Judah. 

In 640 BC, the land of Judah was ruled by king Josiah. Josiah was desperately afraid that his people were unprepared to face the threat---not just from Assyria---but from Egypt and Babylon. Most Judaeans were still rural people, who cared nothing about Jerusalem and its king. They also knew little about Israel's covenant with the One God. In fact, many Judaeans appear to have worshipped a goddess named Asherah, who they believed was the god of Israel's wife.

From a superficial reading of the bible, you would suppose that all of the Israelites were monotheists. Most archaelogists and most biblical scholars now believe however that monotheism was a very late development, and perhaps did not emerge full blown until after the fall of Jerusalem in the early 6th century. So, most of the early Israelites were polytheist. They worshipped a new god... Yahweh perhaps... but alongside them they worshipped Baal, the old male deity of the Canaanite pantheon. And above all they worshipped Asherah, the mother goddess. We now know that. This is very disturbing to many people. But God had a ladyfriend. 

But king Josiah and his allies among the temple priests in Jerusalem decided to rally the nation around the belief in one all-powerful God. And so, in 622 BC, they claimed that deep within the temple they had found an unknown book written by Moses, called Deuteronomy. 

While they were cleaning out the temple, suddenly someone comes running up to the high priest, "Look! We found a book in the temple!" Now, from the language in which this book is quoted we know that we are dealing with the book of Deuteronomy. Contemporary scholars believe that the book of Deuteronomy was actually written around that time, and placed in the temple to be discovered in order to motivate the reform.

The book of Deuteronomy banned the worship of Asherah, and other pagan gods. Even more important it said that Yaweh himself could only be worshipped at the temple in Jersusalem. And so, according to the bible, Josiah sent his troops to the mountaintops, where Israelites had been making sacrifices for centuries. 

Josiah destroyed all the shrines on the high places which the kings of Israel had built, to provoke Yahweh's anger. All the priests of the high places who were there, he slaughtered by the alters, and on those alters burned the human bones.

The Archaeological record, and the biblical record itself, attest to the fact that monotheism didn't catch on overnight. And people didn't just run out and say, "Oh, I see, there's only one God. Well I'll just get rid of all these statues I have in the house that belonged to my great grandfather and everyone before him. And I'll stop worshipping all these gods I've always worshipped. It was an extraordinary new thought for people. 

It was one of the major religious revolutions of Ancient Israel because now you couldn't just go anyplace you wanted to sacrifice the animal. You could only do it at one place. This was the beginning of monotheism in Israel. 

With the nation now governed by the laws of Deuteronomy, king Josia believed he would have God on his side, in his battle to save Judah. He decided to launch a surprise attack on the Egyptian / Assyrian alliance that he judged to be the greatest danger to his people. In 609 BC, Josia and his men ambushed an Egyptian army. But in the battle that followed, the Judaeans were routed and king Josia was killed. After Josiah's death, the kings that followed him re-established the worship of Asherah, and all of the other gods."

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