Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Yahweh and the Queen of Heaven

Yahweh and the Queen of Heaven

Chapter 3 in Freeing the Feminine by Elspeth and Gordon Strachan,
Labarum Publications, Dunbar 1985, pp. 47-68.

Republished on our website with permission of the authors

Yahweh was the God of the ancient Hebrews - a Semitic tribe who first moved into Palestine around the beginning of the second millenium BC, but only settled there during the Early Iron Age (c 1200-900 BC). They settled in lands where the worship of the goddess and her baals or lords was a very ancient tradition, and the early centuries of their history are filled with the rivalry and conflicting claims of Yahweh and this Great Mother Goddess. As we have seen, the male sky gods were often too distant and uninterested in their people and the goddess therefore received the strongest devotion. Both supreme and lesser gods and goddesses, however, were prepared to play their part in the pantheon of deities and in the vegetation rites of the people. They acknowledged and depended upon each other’s existence, battled over ultimate authority and interchanged their roles. Yahweh, God of the Hebrews was an altogether different being.

He claimed to be the one and only true universal God, beside whom all other gods and goddesses were as mere pieces of wood and stone. His first commandment to the Hebrews was, ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Ex. 20:3). He would not allow any ‘graven image’ of himself, and he would not acknowledge the efficacy of any other deity. He transcended all sexual characteristics, although he was addressed in masculine terms.

Despite his transcendence over human categories, he did nevertheless compare himself with his creation, and he was intimately concerned with the daily lives of his people. He laid down detailed laws about their moral, political, economic, agricultural and religious behaviour. Although similar in many ways to the high sky gods and storm gods of surrounding tribes, the differences were telling. The prophets of Yahweh were bitterly opposed to the sexual prostitution of other nature religions, to their polytheism and to the human sacrifice which was still being practised while he was making himself known to his people. He was not a distant, otiose sky god. Although he ruled the heavens, his dwellings were graciously with his people on earth.

Yahweh tried to teach his people that there was only one God - transcendent, and all-embracing, who needed no consort, was not contained by his creation, and who was not dependent upon the fortunes of his people and their land. However, it took many long centuries and much agony for the Hebrews finally to comprehend the transcendent nature of their God, and to stop seeing him as a purely masculine tribal God who was only one among many.

Yahweh, as maker of heaven and earth, revealed himself to the Hebrews in a uniquely exclusive and detailed covenant. He promised great and beautiful things if the people kept his commandments:

If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. And your threshing shall last to the time of vintage, and the vintage shall last to the time for sowing; and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land securely. And I will give you peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will remove evil beasts from the land, and the sword shall not go through your land. (Lev. 26:3-6)

Whereas the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians - all neighbouring peoples - tried to control the fertility of the soil, the rains in their seasons, and the protection from wild beasts and natural disasters by means of the sacred marriage involving the human representatives of earth and sky; and whereas they tried to ensure political, economic and social stability through the incantation of ritual songs and stories, the Hebrews were promised all these things by their God if they only obeyed his commandments. If they did not obey, however, then they would have dreadful disasters showered upon them by a God who did not need to keep them prosperous to prove his existence:

But if you will not hearken to me, and will not do all these commandments . . . I will do this to you: I will appoint over you sudden terror, consumption, and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it . . . and I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like brass; and your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit. (Lev. 26:14-20)

Yahweh was ‘a jealous God’ who would not tolerate his people worshipping graven images or likenesses of other deities. He promised vengeance to the third and fourth generation for those who disobeyed him in this, making it quite clear what his people should do about the religions already established in the lands into which they came:

Observe what I command you this day . . . . Take heed of yourself, lest you make a convenant with the inhabitants of the land whither you go, lest it become a snare in the midst of you. You shall tear down their altars, and break their pillars, and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other God, for the Lord, whose name is jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a convenant with the inhabitants of the land . . . and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters play the harlot after their gods and make your sons play the harlot after their gods. (Ex. 34:11-16)

Despite the magnificent promises of Yahweh and the violence of his threats, the people of Israel continually abandoned him and worshipped other gods and goddesses, especially the Great Goddess Astarte-Ishtar. It was as if they could only conceive of their God as a purely masculine, male deity who therefore needed a female counterpart and escort. Or perhaps they worshipped other gods and goddesses as a sort of insurance policy in case Yahweh turned out not to be all-powerful after all! Although the Hebrew men had been warned not to marry any non-Hebrew women, many of them did. These women came from the lands of the goddess and were very reluctant to depart from their religion and worship Yahweh. As Yahweh predicted, they frequently led their husbands away from the pure worship of Yahweh and encouraged them to show devotion to the Great Goddess and her consorts. Even King Solomon himself, who should have been such an outstanding example to his people, was a lover of foreign women. He had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines - all foreign. We are told that these wives proved ultimately to be a snare:

For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.
(I Kgs. 11:4-5)

Solomon also put up shrines to these foreign gods and goddesses - 'And so he did for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods.’ Yahweh was very angry with Solomon, and promised to tear his kingdom from him except for one tribe which would be kept for the sake of David and Jerusalem. But long before Solomon’s time the children of Israel had been led astray by foreign religions. A large portion of the Old Testament is taken up with stories of the attempts of Yahweh and his prophets to rid the Hebrews of their idolatry and apostasy, their ‘unfaithfulness’ to him.

The leader Gideon was told by God to ‘pull down the altar of Baal which your father has and cut down the Asherah that is beside it’ (Judg. 6:25). The priest Samuel instructed the whole house of Israel that they must return to the Lord their God and ‘put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you’ (I Sam. 7:3). The dramatic contest between Elijah and the prophets and priestesses of Baal and Asherah was an attempt to prove once and for all the superiority of Yahweh. It was a sign of how strong was the opposition that the one God should have been set in contest with a mere baal. The expectation was that the silence from the baalim and the miracle of fire from Yahweh would finally convince the people that Yahweh was the one and only God. Yet despite Yahweh’s great triumph, his prophet Elijah fled in terror from the revenge of Queen Jezebel, herself staunch follower of Asherah. So greatly did he fear her wrath and power that when he escaped he pleaded with God to allow him to die. Jezebel had put to death so many of Yahweh’s prophets that Elijah thought he alone was left alive.

Despite the unending pleas, reprimands, contests an threats of Yahweh and his servants, the people of Israel refused to abandon their other gods and goddesses. In the end the warnings of disaster in the face of disobedience came true. The prophet Ahijah had warned Jeroboam, successor to Solomon that ‘the Lord with smite Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water, and root up Israel out of this good land which he gave to their fathers, and scatter them beyond the Euphrates because they have made their Asherim, provoking the Lord to anger’ (1 Kgs. 14:15). The Asherim were the sacred pillars or poles of the Mother Goddess, stylize representations of a sacred tree, and were often worshipped as the goddess. In 721 BC, because of their failure to keep God’s commandments, ten out of the twelve tribe of Israel were conquered by the Assyrians and exiles from the land which God had given them, never to be heard of again:

And this was so, because the people of Israel ha( sinned against the Lord their God . . . and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord alone drove out before the people of Israel . . . they se up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree. (2 Kgs. 17:7-10)

The dreadful fate of these ten tribes prompted King Josiah of the southern tribes of Judah - the remaining two - to instigate drastic reforms in his kingdom. Details of these reforms reveal just how deeply the goddess worship had encroached on the monotheism and morality of the Hebrew religion as originally laid down by Yahweh. Even the sacred temple itself had been defiled with statues of Baal and Asherah, idolatrous priests and male cult prostitutes:

And the King commanded Hilkiah, the high priest . . . to bring out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; . . . And he deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to burn incense in the high places . . . those also who burned incense to Baal, to the sun, and the moon, and the constellations and all the host of the heavens. And he broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes which were in the house of the Lord, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah. (2 Kgs. 23:4-7)

Despite all these efforts ‘the Lord did not turn from fierceness of his great wrath’, and the Queen of Heaven continued to attract the loving attentions of the hebrew people. The prophet Jeremiah came across signs that her religion was as strong as ever. He was dismayed to discover that in Jerusalem itself ‘the children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire and the women knead dough to make cakes for the Queen of Heaven’ (Jer. 7:18). Yahweh’s hurt, grief and anger became inconsolable. Even the beloved tribe of Judah would not stay faithful to him. He resolved that they too be exiled to teach them their lesson:

My grief is beyond healing,
my heart is sick within me . . .
O that my head were waters,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
that I might weep day and night ....

(Jer. 8 :18, 9:1)

In 586 BC the remaining two tribes of Judah were attacked by the foreign King Nebuhcadrezzar. Jerusalem was sacked, the temple burned and the people taken into captivity. In time they learned their lesson, and when eventually they returned from their exile in Babylon the goddess worship was dead. But she did not go without a struggle. A few people had escaped capture, and fled to Egypt where they continued baking bread for the Queen of Heaven, burning incense to her and pouring out libations in her honour. When challenged by the now aged Jeremiah they retorted that they were determined to go on worshipping her:

Then all the men who knew that their wives had offered incense to other gods, and all the women who stood by, a great assembly, all the people who dwelt in Pathros in the land of Egypt, answered Jeremiah: ‘As for the word which you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our princes in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for we had plenty of food and prospered and saw no evil. But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.’ And the women said, ‘When we burned incense to the queen of heaven and poured out libations to her, was it without our husbands’ approval that we made cakes for her bearing her image and poured out libations to her?’

Yahweh’s reply to this final act of defiance was to bring catastrophe to these Egyptian exiles, leaving only a few to return to Judah. Jeremiah told all the people, and especially the women, that they could go on performing their vows and worshipping Ishtar, but they and their men must face the consequences. God promised to break down what he had built, tear up what he had planted and bring evil upon all flesh. In the end only a remnant of the tribe of judah survived the exile and returned to the land which God had originally given them. They returned chastened, shaken and determined to keep the purity of their faith as yahweh had commanded it. Their worship of the goddess had led to catastrophe.


The battle between Yahweh and the Mother Goddess of the near east was one of the most bitter episodes in Jewish history. The Hebrews’ failure to obey the commands of their God led to a degrading exile, the overrunning of their land by foreigners and the burning of their precious temple. The prophets had waged a war against the goddess from the beginning, for they knew that their God would not tolerate her presence. It is significant that the religion of the Great Mother was a nature religion, and that in the bible we are told that it was the women who took the initiative in the practice. The connection between the goddess, nature religions and women is an important one, for all three have in varying degrees been ‘outlawed’ by the Jewish and later Christian traditions. As theologian Rosemary Ruether has observed:

This struggle between Yahwism and the religion of Canaan was one of the most important influences in shaping Old Testament religion. The Old Testament rejection of female symbols for God, and perhaps also of female religious leaders, probably had something to do with this struggle against Canaanite religion, with its powerful goddess figures and its female-dominated ceremonies of worship.(1)

The Hebrews had a strong and, as it emerged, wholly justified fear of the power of the goddess. Something of the importance of their battle with the goddess comes across in the differences between the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1-3. One appears to have been written before the exile when the goddess was at the height of her power; the other was completed afterwards when she no longer had any influence.

The earlier story of creation is the one contained in Genesis chapters 2-3. Scholars believe it was written around the first half of the tenth century BC. This story of the garden of Eden, with its magical tree of life, its speaking serpent and its wilful woman was undoubtedly made up from a number of different sources, according to many commentators who have observed its literary seams. The story of Eden and the fall has a great many levels of meaning, and considerable psychological and spiritual subtlety. It helps to explain some of the imponderables of human existence, such as the pain of childbirth, and the hardships of tilling the soil. However, there is one particularly interesting aspect to this tale which is highly relevant to our study of the goddess.

One of the most ancients, symbols of the Great Goddess in the near east, Crete, and the Aegean was the serpent. In Egypt the association was so close that the hieroglyph for ‘goddess’ was a cobra. At Knossos the Minoan Snake-Goddess had a shrine in which she was depicted with three snakes coiled round her, a fourth in her right hand, and two more round her waist and hips. This cult went back to the Early Minoan Period of around 2500 BC-long before the story of Eve. There is a statuette which dates back to 3000 BC which portrays the Snake-Goddess holding two snakes high in her hands. In Apuleuis’s tale Isis is described with ‘vipers rising from the left-hand and right-hand partings of her hair’. Ishtar was sometimes portrayed as covered with scales like a snake, or sitting on the throne of heaven, holding a staff round which were coiled two serpents.(2) As Georges Contenau tells us in Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria, ‘. . . Ishtar, as the goddess who makes the corn to grow has a serpent as her companion, to emphasise her character as an earth deity.(3)

The serpent was associated with immortality, magic, wisdom, prophecy and healing, as well as with evil and death. Its ability to shed its skin gave it this reputation for immortality and magic and the hallucinatory effect of its bite (if survived) may be the reason for its connection with wisdom and prophecy. Even in the story of the brazen serpent it was associated with healing. Its dwelling in the depths of the earth led to its association with fertility, chthonic powers and the underworld. The writers of the story of Eden would have been aware of these associations. As Samuel Hooke points out (in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible), ‘the Hebrew writers . . . did not invent a symbolism to express the various aspects of the divine activity, but took what lay ready to their hand, the material which they had inherited as part of their early cultural contacts, and transformed it into the vocabulary of the divine speech. (4) He goes on to say that, although aware of the positive symbolism of the serpent in other cultures, for the writer of the Eden story the knowledge it represented was evil because it was associated with natural wisdom and magic: ‘The serpent with his magic knowledge, his promises of life and fertility, was the fitting symbol of the guile which would lure men into the ways of death, away from the one truly good God, the only source of life and the only lawful object of knowledge.'(5) The goddess, with her serpent symbol was not a lawful object of knowledge and, as Hooke remarks, in the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace through the enticements of the serpent, we see the Hebrew writer ‘making skilful use of the old myths, the guile of the serpent, the gods’ jealousy of man, and representing the serpent as offering to man the enticing prospect of vital knowledge which was being withheld by Yahweh through jealousy.(6) As we have seen, Yahweh was indeed ‘a jealous God’ and could not accept any unfaithfulness from his people. The hypnotic charm of the ancient goddess worship was a serious threat to him.

The story of the garden of Eden told the people of Israel how the woman’s openness to the guile and seduction of the serpent brought God’s curse upon all humanity. Historically speaking, the Goddess Astarte-Ishtar, whose followers cried ‘Irnini hath not a rival. My lady hath no rival’, and who, like Yahweh, appeared to visit destruction and despair on those who disobeyed her, continued to find followers among the foreign women of Israel and they in turn persuaded their husbands to pay homage to her too. Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden because of their disobedience; Israel and Judah were expelled from the promised land because of their unfaithfulness. The similarity is remarkable, and not without significance.(7)

Of course this is not the only message of the second account of creation. It is undoubtedly not its main message, nor was it an obvious one, yet the parallels are there. Gerhard von Rad, commenting on the meaning of the name ‘Eve’ (hawwah) observes that this second naming after the name ‘woman’ is a recognisable ‘seam’ between two traditions. There is considerable speculation about the significance of this second name. Fascinatingly, von Rad says that ‘The Aramaic word hewya (serpent), has led to the supposition that at the basis of the narrative there is a very different older form, in which only three acting partners appear: God, man, and a (chthonian) serpent deity.(8) As he says, there is nothing palpable to justify such a theory and yet, as John Gibson of Edinburgh University points out, although the writers of the story were at pains to make it clear that the serpent was dust another of God’s creatures, nevertheless they used the name nachash to describe him, (9) the same word used to describe the great evil monster of the deep, Leviathan.

In some other parts of the bible Leviathan comes across as the powerful adversary of Yahweh. Yahweh proves his might by slaying Leviathan, just as Marduk slew Tiamat:

Yet God my King is from of old
working salvation in the midst of the earth.
Thou didst divide the sea by thy might;
Thou didst break the heads of the dragons on the waters.
Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan,
Thou didst give him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
(Ps. 74:12-14)

In the Ugaritic texts of ancient pre-Israelite Canaan, the God Baal also fights the dragon of the sea:

Have I not slain Sea, beloved of El?
Have I not annihilated River, the great God?
Have I not muzzled the Dragon, holding her in a muzzle?
I have slain the Crooked Serpent,
The Foul-fanged with seven heads.

As Gibson has pointed out, by using the word nachash to describe the serpent in Eden, the writers introduce the idea that there was a force of evil in the world which had resisted Yahweh from the beginning of time. It may well be that they saw this force of evil as the deeply threatening and all-powerful serpent-goddess whose worship was dominant in the near east, and whose seductive charms undid the Hebrews.

As we saw, by the time the Hebrews returned from exile, the goddess’s power among them had been eradicated. She no longer appears in the pages of the bible as a threat to the monotheism of Yahweh. This is reflected in the very different account of creation which was edited after the exile by the priests. In the story of creation in Genesis 1 there are no mythological monsters, no talking serpents, no trees of life and no disobedient women. Order has been established, rebellions have been quelled, and peace reigns. All traces of polytheistic thought have been rooted out and the account shows the mark of a theology which has been carefully considered, reformed and purified. It is generally recognised to be more scholarly, abstract, and theological than the folk-tale of Genesis 2-3.

There are many pointers to this reformed theological thinking: for instance, there is no hint of any battle between God and any other deity; there is no colourful and powerful adversary such as Leviathan the serpent; even the sun and moon are not named, but only referred to as the greater and lesser lights, (earlier they had been worshipped as independent deities, even in the temple of Jerusalem itself). By giving them no individual names, the priests emphasised that they had no existence independent of God. Similarly, despite the obvious parallels between the Babylonian story of Marduk conquering Tiamat, goddess of the primeval sea, and the God of Genesis keeping down the chaotic forces of the deep, the writers do not give the concept of chaos a separate identity. There seems to be little doubt that the Hebrew word for the deep, tehom is connected with the Babylonian Tiamat, but it has no separate existence in Genesis 1, whereas in other parts of the bible the floods are given a voice and an identity:

The floods have lifted up, O Lord,
The floods have lifted up their voice,
The floods lift up their roaring.
Mightier than the thunders of many waters,
Mightier than the waves of the sea
the Lord on high is mighty! (Ps. 93:3-4)


Although in many ways unique, the Hebrew religion clearly reflects its times. It is clear even in Genesis 1 that it was a patriarchal religion which, like the religions of surrounding countries, reflected the masculine drive for mastery. Marduk divided up the Primeval Ocean, Tiamat; Baal slew Sea, River, the dragon and the crooked serpent, and Yahweh was victorious over Leviathan and the mighty floods. Despite the many differences, the Babylonian, Canaanite and Hebrew stories do share the same imperative to create order out of chaos - an imperative which was evident in various parts of Mesopotamia. The overpowering surge of the floods of the ocean symbolised the overpowering threat of too much identification with and bondage to the natural world.

The religion of Israel taught that almighty Yahweh was the maker and controller of the seasons, that he alone had brought harmony out of confusion. The hostility to the nature religions of the goddess must have been so strong partly because they seemed to teach too little of humanity’s ability to moderate the instinctive forces of nature. The desire to control, master and penetrate the mysteries of nature and of our own nature has been a very important factor in human development. As psychologist Sukie Colegrave has pointed out, when this more masculine consciousness began to develop,

... it generated a revolution in humanity’s relationship to its environment without which individual becoming and Self-knowledge might have been impossible . . . The foundation of relative material security permitted the emergence of human cultures in a way hitherto prohibited by the incessant movement and unpredictable survival characteristic of the prepatriarchal epoch. Philosophy, art and science, together with all methods of developing and exploring our inner worlds, depend on a certain degree of independence from nature’s rule.(10)

Today, of course, we face the disastrous consequences of too much independence from nature, a growing ignorance of her ways, and the dominance of masculine values, but as Sukie Colegrave says, there was a time when such independence was vital.

In Genesis 1:28 we are told that God commanded the man and woman whom he had just made to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over every living thing. There are many today who find this command offensive, smacking of a patronising attitude of lordship, even violence towards nature. However, if we see this verse in the context of the whole bible, and particularly in the historical context in which it was written after the exile, we will see that such an accusation is unfounded.

The writers of Genesis 1 could not possibly have been advocating an exploitative treatment of the earth and its inhabitants. They had already learnt that such an attitude was unacceptable to God. God had given his people explicit laws concerning the correct treatment of both the land and the animals. The most important of these was the sabbath year - a year of rest for the land every seventh year to allow the soil to renew its fertility. This was a form of fallowing, an ancient method of soil conservation. Despite dire warnings of the consequences of failing to keep this law, the Hebrews did not observe it, just as they ignored God’s commandments regarding other things. It seems that they misused the land God had given them and in some parts of the bible we are told that the prime reason why the Hebrews were exiled was to allow the land to rest:

He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the Kingdom of Persia, to fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfil seventy years. (2 Chron. 36:20-21)

When the Jews returned from exile they did try to keep the sabbath year, although they were less successful in this than in ridding themselves of the goddess. It is most unlikely therefore, as we can see, that the priestly writers of Genesis 1 would deliberately represent God as commanding his people to trample on and exploit the land all over again. It is perhaps significant that in the book of Genesis, the command to have dominion over the earth actually leads into the story of the garden of Eden. In the garden the masculine drive to control nature was kept in check and the man and woman were as much part of nature as masters of it. They were at one with God’s other creatures and plants, they tended the soil creatively and brought about a harmonious balance between the human instinct to create and the natural order. The masculine drive for mastery does not necessarily lead to exploitation, manipulation and pollution. If there is a balance between respect for nature’s own wisdom and the intelligent controlling of her forces, then neither nature nor humanity will be the victim.

God was deeply connected with his creation: he revealed his pleasure through abundant harvests and his displeasure through droughts, pestilence and floods. He was intimately concerned with the careful management of his world. He taught his people that fertility came from good husbandry and care for nature’s needs, rather than from vegetation cults and promiscuous rites. The Hebrew religion was profoundly in touch with the rhythms and cycles of the times and seasons, but not in bondage to them.

Yahweh taught his people both to be a part of nature and to penetrate her mysteries. In this he combined both the masculine and feminine spirit and showed that he was God of nature and of all history.

The God of Israel was lord and creator of both heaven and earth. He was not a distant, uninvolved, otiose sky-father, he had something to say about every detail of the lives of his people. Nor was he so identified with and contained by his creation and its fertility that he could be compared to an earth-mother. Yahweh transcended both earth-mother and sky-father, he laid down the laws of the universe, including the fertility of the soil, and the revolution of the planets. Heaven was his throne and earth his footstool.

Yahweh was no mere Iron Age Marduk, a purely male tribal god fighting a hostile goddess, he combined both masculine and feminine qualities in his character, and transcended them in a way which was unique in Mesopotamia. As E O James has said,

. . . in Mesopotamia, the concept of deity was never conceived in terms of a single transcendental Being as the author and ground of all existence, devoid of anthropomorphic and sexual characteristics and dependence upon the rise and fall of the city or territory with which he was especially associated . . . this achievement among the Semites was reserved for the Hebrews."

At first Yahweh’s people could not grasp the greatness of his claims and saw him just as their god among many gods and goddesses. But in time something of his mysteriously transcendent nature did penetrate, as the creation story of Genesis 1 shows.

By using the name Elohim to describe God in the first account of creation, the priestly writers conveyed their understanding of God’s transcendence. Elohim - the ‘plural of majesty’ - was in common use in pre-Israelite Palestine and Babylonia. It described the head of the pantheon, whether god or goddess. Its feminine application is demonstrated in 1 Kings 11:5 where we are told that Solomon went after Ashtoreth, goddess (elohim) of the Sidonians. By using this name for God, the writers were not only acknowledging that in the beginning the name Yahweh was not known, but also making a clear statement about his supremacy over all deities, and over all categories of masculine and feminine. As Walther Eichrodt confirms, ‘By choosing this particular name, which as the epitome of all-embracing divine power excludes all other divinity, (the writer) was able to protect his cosmogony from any trace of polytheistic thought and at the same time describe the Creator God as the absolute Ruler and only Being whose will carries any weight. (12)

The ultimate expression of God’s transcendence over human categories as well as his identification with them comes in verses 26 and 27 of Genesis 1, where Elohim said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ The other religions of the ancient near east had created the gods and goddesses in their own image - in the image of man and woman. The priests of the Hebrew religion finally understood that the universal creator had made man and woman ‘after our likeness’ - that is in the image of God. This single statement perfectly expressed both God’s transcendence over and his total identification with his people. He could not be limited by the sexual differences he himself had created; he could not be depicted by any stone or wooden image; his image was in living man and woman. But it was in them equally. Both individually and together they were made in the image of the one true God.

The statement ‘male and female created he them’ not only shows God’s transcendence over sexual stereotypes, but also the human transcendence over stereotypes and the equality of woman and man in God’s sight. The contrast between the theology of Genesis 1 regarding the relationship between man and woman and the position presented in the story of Adam and Eve is very striking.

We shall see that it has been made much of over the years. The purified and scholarly minds of the priestly writers produced a statement in verse 27 of great beauty and simplicity; a statement so radical in the equality it granted to women that its meaning has been hotly contested for millennia. By saying ‘in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’, the writers made it clear that it was not only man who was in the image of God, nor had God created a hemaphrodite. he had created humankind as a man and a woman, male and female-each made in the image of God, and each capable of experiencing in him or herself something of both the masculine and feminine qualities of their maker. So Emil Brunner emphasised:

That is the immense double statement, of a lapidary simplicity, so simple indeed that we hardly realise that with it a vast world of myth and Gnostic speculation, of cynicism and asceticism, of the deification of sexuality and fear of sex completely disappears. (13)

In the countries of the ancient near east, the sacred marriage of sky-father and earth-mother, acted out by human representatives, was an expression of people’s awareness of the need for both masculine and feminine forces in the creation of life. It also expressed their desire to see the rain of heaven mingled with the fertile earth to produce rich harvests of food. The implicit and explicit androgyny of many of the great gods and goddesses was the inner expression of the same truth. However, as we have seen, the marriage was seldom one of equals and was often a violent and brutal affair. Either the male gods were butchering, raping and usurping the goddesses, or the goddesses were totally eclipsing their young male escorts, requiring their death each year as the seasons changed, and dominating the partnership. Many lesser deities were unequivocally male or female and their battles were tribal battles.

At first Yahweh, God of Israel, was very much part of these struggles between the different gods and goddesses, proving his authority and power against theirs. In the beginning his followers only saw him as their own god among others. His masculinity was emphasised to make his identity quite clear in the midst of the land of the goddess. However, after many battles, competitions, harsh words and dreadful catastrophes, something of the mysterious nature of the one true God, maker of heaven and earth was understood: Genesis 1 paid tribute to this.

It took a long time for the Hebrew people to grasp what their God was telling them-that he was even greater than the androgynous Great Mother, that he was both father and mother to his people, that they needed no cultic sacred marriage to express the opposites of life, that these were in each individual person who, made in the image of God, could know both feminine feelings and masculine power, in him or herself. As Brunner said, there has been ‘a vast amount of speculation over this mystery of life, not only in the near east, but all over the world. The search for the meaning of the opposites, and the drive to achieve their union, has concentrated the minds of some of the world’s wisest men and women since time began. It was considered to be a mystery of nature worth penetrating, for it seemed to express the very essence of creation and the creator, and transcended both matriarchal and patriarchal dogma.


1. Rosemary R. Ruether: Mary - The Feminine Face of the Church SCM Press Ltd., London, 1979, p 15.

2. For detailed descriptions of the snake-goddesses see Merlin Stone: The Paradise Papers, Virago, London, 1977, ch 10; S. Langdon: Tammuz and Ishtar, Clarendon Press, Oxford,1914, ch 3; Esther Harding: Woman's Mysteries, Rider and Co., London, 1971, pp 52-54.

3. Georges Contenau: Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria,

4. S. H. Hooke's commentary on Genesis inPeake's Commentary on the Bible, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., Edinburgh, 1962, p 179 para 145c.

5. Ibid. p 180para 147b.

6. Ibid.

7. See Merlin Stone,op. cit.ch 10 for a fascinating reassessment of the story of Adam and Eve.

8. Gerhard von Rad; Genesis,

London, 1956, p 93.

9. John C. L. Gibson: The Daily Study Bible: Genesis, The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1981, p 125.

10. Sukie Colegrave: Sacred Dance,Resurgence Magazine, May-June, 1981, No 86, p 17.

11. E. O. James: The Worship of the Sky God, The Athlone Press, London, 1963, p 30.

12. Walther Eichrodt: Theology of the Old Testament, volume one, Old Testament Library, SCM Press, London, 1960, p 186.

13. Emil Brunner: Man an Revolt,Lutterworth Press, London,1953, p 346.

Return to contents page

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.