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Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel Paperback – 21 Jan 2008

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Product details

  • Paperback: 348 pages
  • Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (21 Jan. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802863949
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802863942
  • Product Dimensions: 22.6 x 15 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 388,158 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Jeremy Bevan TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 29 May 2011
Format: Paperback
In this scholarly but accessible book, William Dever explores what archaeological finds in the Middle East can tell us about the nature of `everyday' religion in ancient Israel and Judah. And he paints a fascinating picture. As the title suggests, the material evidence tells a story somewhat at odds with the biblical picture. Far from being monotheistic from the outset, Israelite religion appears to have played host to a range of deities, including Asherah, the female counterpart (or consort) to El, and later Yahweh. (There's a fierce debate among scholars as to whether references in the Bible and from archaeological sites, notably at Kuntillet Ajrud, refer to Asherah as a personal deity, or to `the asherah' as a fertility symbol wielded by Yahweh. Dever comes down firmly in favour of the former). We should dispense, too, with the idea of Israelite worship as aniconic (that is, making no use of images of God) and centred on Jerusalem: the archaeological evidence suggests worship persisting at a number of `temple' sites - to say nothing of its apparently widespread practice at local shrines and in household worship - well into the latter history of Judah under the Deuteronomistic reform movement. What's more, such worship seems to have relied significantly on images and depictions of the divine.

Engaging and clearly written though it is, Dever's book is not without its faults. In his proper concern to redress the balance between biblical `book' religion (which he characterises, probably not entirely unfairly, as that of an elite) and folk religion, the author is a remorseless critic of competing scholarly positions (and even some that are broadly in line with his own), which he seeks to demolish at undue length.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By M M MacNair on 1 Nov. 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Excellent book - starts with an over-long and rumbustious taking-to-task of virtually everyone else who has written on this topic. Followed by very solid and sensible take on Israelite folk-religion as juxtaposed with the religion of the Temple elite, reinstating Asherah as the female component of the Old Testament Godhead.

One primary qualm is that Professor Devers does not address the theological work of Margaret Barker, and therefore his closing session on Temple theology is lightweight: if Josiah found a statue of Asherah, etc, in the Temple then the faith of the kings and priests was probably pretty closely aligned to that of the villagers and the Deuteronomists were a distinct and third point of view at odds with both - which is what they said they were.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By D. LIGHTBODY on 7 Sept. 2010
Format: Paperback
This book summarises the archaeological evidence attesting to the existence of a goddess Asherah who was worshipped alongside god/yaweh in ancient Israel and Judah. The information also draws heavily on the bible and biblical scholarship and looks at the ramifications of the archaeological evidence on faith and belief related to the bible. The conclusions could be seen by some traditionalists as quite radical, but the evidence supports them.

The book reads well and is not overly academic, but it does tend to get a little bogged down in overly-detailed criticism of the wider scholarship on this subject, but this is useful for those wishing to study the subject in some more depth. More maps, site plans and photos etc would have been good as well.

Dever is well experienced in the field, and his views should certainly be given the weight they deserve.

Worth buying.

Dave Lightbody
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Exellent read and interesting subject. I had to read it and review it for my course, it was well balanced considering the authors background. Credit was given where credit was due to those of opposing opinions.
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Amazon.com: 11 reviews
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
A Brilliant Corrective 23 Oct. 2009
By Hrafnkell Haraldsson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I will preface my review by admitting that I love William G. Dever. He doesn't kid around but approaches the question with tenacity. He relentlessly exposes the absurd positions of both extremes (generally the Biblical minimalists and the "believers") and does not let either ideology or religion get in the way of his search for the truth. He comes across as a gruff, irascible sort who has no patience for fools, and his approach is refreshing. He is unafraid to point to his own pioneering work on the subject and why not? He has earned it.

in "Did God Have a Wife?" Dever examines what he calls "folk religion" in ancient Israel. This is to be differentiated from "book religion" - the official position of the Bible, which is that of a literate and patriarchal elite. What Dever is looking for here is the religion of the hearth and home, the religion of women, but also men, of the simple piety of the common folk who made up over 90% of the population of ancient Israel. It is not, as he says at the outset (p. IX) in his Introduction, "about the extraordinary few who wrote and edited the Hebrew Bible." An appeal to the book itself will clarify matters here:

Some reviewers have suggested that my "Book religion" (following van der Toorn; below), which I have set up as a counterfoil to the more pervasive "folk religion," is late in the Monarchy, emerging only with the 7th-6th century B.. Deuteronomistic reform movements. Thus they argue that for the earlier period in the Monarchy, not to mention the "Period of the Judges" (12th-11th cents. B.C.), I can reconstruct nothing but "folk religion." This overlooks, however, he consensus of mainstream biblical scholars that behind the admittedly late written tradition there is a long oral tradition. The major theological motifs of canonical Scripture, although I have downplayed their popular appeal, did not appear suddenly overnight. These themes (see Chapter VII) had a long tradition among the literati who later wrote and edited the Hebrew Bible; so "Book religion" merely represents their final crystallization (p. xv).

This single paragraph is a good example of Dever's writing style and his approach to the problem. He uses very clear and concise language to get his point across. He very frequently points to other parts of the book (below, Chapter VII, etc) so that you know where a particular point will be picked up and continued. This eliminates for the reader the otherwise inevitable unspoken "Yeah, but..." He frequently cites the work of other scholars and his areas of agreement and disagreement with their assertions and in fact, much of the book is a discussion about the views of various schools of thought on any particular point. He offers a fairly thorough review of previous scholarship, which is welcome, but without the use of footnotes. I love footnotes, but I cannot deny that Dever does an excellent job of working without them (and a section at the end of the book called "Basic Sources" fills some 15 pages with a carefully assembled list of the works Dever examines in the text, all divided by topic: "Folk Religion," "Asherah as Goddess," "Archaeological Handbooks," etc).

I'll offer the Table of Contents as part of my review because it is one of the things I look at immediately when pulling a book like this off the shelf:

I. Defining and Contextualizing Religion
II. The History of the History: In Search of Ancient Israel's Religions
III. Sources and Methods for the Study of Ancient Israel's Religions
IV. The Hebrew Bible: Religious Reality or Theological Ideal?
V. Archaeological Evidence for Folk Religions in Ancient Israel
VI. The Goddess Asherah and Her Cult
VII. Asherah, Women's Cults, and "Official Yahwism"
VIII. From Polytheism to Monotheism
IX. What Does the Goddess Do to Help?

There is also, at the end, an index of Scriptural references.

On the whole, Dever's writing style is engaging and easy to follow. Some nonfiction, particularly stuff written by experts in their fields,suffers from unreadability. We have all seen quoted passages in languages we can't hope to translate ourselves and with no translation offered. You won't find that here. But Dever accomplishes this without "dumbing down" his writing. This is a book that is accessible and it is a pleasure to read. I brought it with me everyday to read in the car while waiting for my son to get out of kindergarten classes.

If I have any complaint at all about the book it is with how the illustrations are presented. I would have liked them to be labeled (figure 1, figure 2, etc) and referenced in the text. I like to flip from the discussion to the image without searching for an illustration of the object being discussed. But this is a minor complaint and really did not lessen my enjoyment of the book.

I titled my review "A Brilliant Corrective" and I mean a corrective to extreme points of view on both sides, the minimalists and the "believers," the one group basically erasing even the possibility of knowledge of the past, and the other limiting it to the viewpoint of the few who wrote the Hebrew Bible. I think Dever has done his job well. Those at both extremes will likely be displeased but then nothing but complete surrender to their point of view will ever please them and Dever is not the man to deny the facts to make anybody happy, and this is what I admire about him the most. Even if you end up disagreeing with him, he pulls no punches. History is not always the way we would like it to be, but it does us no good to live in denial of the facts on (or in) the ground. I'll take the facts, warts and all, over pious history "as it should have been" rather than was.

Highly recommended, as are all Dever's books.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Good Theory, but Not Presented Well 13 April 2009
By Scandalous Sanity - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
William Dever tackle the provocative subject of populist religion in Biblical Israel. His thesis is that the religion portrayed in the Bible was an elitist religion practiced by only a small minority of priests and wealthy merchants, while the majority of the Hebrew nation worshipped a plurality of gods, chiefly Yahweh and his consort Asherah.

A large portion of this book is spent with Dever prattling on and on about how great his method of writing is, and why everyone else's is flawed. But in between all that is some really great information. The first few chapters are a chore to get through, and this is where Dever does most of his ranting against the "sub-par" research. Boring though they are, it is almost a necessity: the first few chapters define and contextualize religion, then go through sources and methods of studying history and archaeology. The rest of the book delivers the main point, comparing archaeological findings with the reality presented in the Bible, and comparing where the two agree and disagree. The last chapter gives an interesting opinion on the Jewish journey from polytheism to monotheism. There are also some excellent illustrations of important findings.

The book reads like a textbook, so anyone looking for a casual read should stay away. This is very academic writing that takes some time to wade through. But it is good for information on life in ancient Israel, if you can get past the writer's arrogant tone.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Yahweh in his ancient Near Eastern Context 7 Aug. 2013
By Harry McCall - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
With this publication, America's leading archaeologist of Israelite history, Bill Dever continues his provocative series of archaeological books geared for the lay reader which creates a firm basis for the "syncretistic" background of the peoples of Ancient Israel first known as the Hebrews. Although Dever's earlier publications, dealing with the technical data of archaeology were scattered in professional journals and Festschrifts, he began writing for the general reader in 1989 with the publication of "Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research" This book showed that Pre-Monarchial Israel's claims for much of its history (such as the Exodus from Egypt) had no archaeological foundations and most other Patriarchal claims, recorded in the Old Testament were, anachronistic.

Dever's latest book "Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel" is a disturbing and attention grabbing question for the general Judaic or Christian reader. Dever claims he is not extreme in dealing with the question of "house hold religion in Israel" and, as such, he is on constant guard to avoid what he considers an unfounded revisionist view of Israelite history: The Minimalist School (The scholarly claim that most all early Israelite history is "historized myth" created in the Exilic and Post Exilic periods). If one considers the many conservatives who will be reading this book, one can see where Dever himself will be view as a "minimalist" or a reviser of history. Never the less, he presents the archaeological facts and the reader must then adjust his or her faith based to this newest data.

I have always enjoyed personal testimonies by scholars who have made a move in their religious life and this Dever does in the "Introduction". I loved the casual and open dialogue he has with the reader when he states he went from the son of "...a fire-breathing fundamentalist preacher, sometimes tent evangelist..." (Page X) to his explanation of where he is today: "Like many Jews, I am essentially a secular humanist..." (Page XI).

I was very impressed with the discussion of Israel's general background which Dever sets in its ancient Near Eastern context and in dialogue with other scholars of the past and those currently working in the field today. If one chooses to skip the detailed archaeological information dealt within the book, the reader has that option. However, chapters 1 through 3 are a must read being filled with facts which exposes the reader to modern scholarship. The final three chapters lay out Dever's future state of Biblical studies if archaeology is to be taken seriously; particularly in light of the major roll of women in the ancient household religious cult and the restrictive place women have in most denominations today (Southern Baptist Convention).

Unlike most professors (who must write books based, not on the facts but rather on their sects religious doctrines) Dever (who is now retired) is free to deal objectively with the data and he is not afraid to step on toes. His thesis is that Israel's God, Yahweh, had a female consort (probably the Goddess Asherah) just like most all the neighboring national gods had female companions or as some would call it: wives.

As much as I enjoyed this book, it did have a few general drawbacks. Dever quotes many scholarly titles throughout the book and I personally would have loved to have seen more discussion in footnotes or endnotes, but I also understand the general reader (to which this book is addressed) would not be as interested. The book's final section "Some Basic Sources" has the bibliography grouped under related areas of interest, which makes finding more information on a title very cumbersome.

Secondly, while Dever admits his indebtedness throughout the book to Dutch scholar Karel van der Toorn for the term "Book Religion" (Official / State Religion) over against commoner's "Folk Religion, he fails to note van der Toorn's major work in the same area published in 1996: Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria and Israel: Continuity and Change in the Forms of Religious Life.

Also, I would have liked to see Dever's work in reference with Tilde Binger's revised dissertation about a wife for Yahweh: Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel and the Old Testament. However, Dever's strong objections to Minimalist scholarship has him reference this major study only once.

Dever's book is a "must read" and fresh breeze to a stale and stuffy room of ecclesiastical pseudo-scholarship where dogmas of creedal tradition dictates so-called objective facts of history.
12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Another so-so book by Dever 22 Dec. 2009
By E. L. Bess - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Dever is again writing for ordinary folk, suitable to his topic of folk religion/s in ancient Israel. He lays out a brief autobiography (ingratiating himself with the masses) and his definitions and methodology. As is characteristic of Dever he summarizes and critiques foregoing scholarship on the topic with emphasis on the importance of archaeology. What we have here essentially is an attempt to memorialize the religious life of the unsung Israelite equivalent of a hillbilly vis-a-vis the 'book religion' entempled in the Hebrew bible. The forgotten place of women for Dever is very important for this, and he is not remiss to expatiate on women's cult, official and popular, especially as this relates to the Canaanite goddess Asherah. Disappointingly there is no rigorous defense of any true conception of Asherah as Yahweh's wife. The most he does to actually substantiate this is to invoke the well-known 'Ajrud and el-Qom inscriptions, but there are much better interpretations of these. When he gives his reasons for rejecting the conflicting interpretations of other scholars, these are weak. But as he shows convincingly there was some sort of Asherah cult in Israelite religion alongside Yahweh's, although the most one could say is that she appealed, qua fertility goddess, to everyday folk whose routine concern was their sheer livelihood as a mostly rural population. There is no real evidence that she was seen as Yahweh's consort; not anymore than Mary in Catholicism or 'Lady Wisdom' in later Judaism with whom Asherah is compared.

A lot of the archaeology here is discussed in Dever's previous two books (high places, temples, etc.), but there are new data presented, and much of the emphasis is shifted to the circa 3000 female figurines [147] recovered by excavations and dating from the monarchical period. I'm not persuaded by his argument that their apparent lack of mention by the biblical writers is due to their existence purposefully being suppressed. [184-5] We can't expect the biblical writers to mention everything, and secondly I don't see anything wrong with identifying the figurines with some type of teraphim. What Dever suggests is an obstacle to this interpretation (1Sm xix.13-16) is really no obstacle at all.

Dever is very informative, knowledgeable, and insightful, but his emotions also bleed through some of his arguments. I would prefer more rigid, dispassionate argumentation.
Very scholarly. 3 Feb. 2015
By Kindle Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
But written in an engaging style. William G. Denver conveys the story of ancient Israeli religion in a engaging and thoughtful manner. He presents the material without being dogmatic about it. I recommend this book to anyone interested in early religion.
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