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The Jews and the Origins of  Patriarchy.

(This article, written around 1987, originated as a response to an article in Ancient Ways, an Irish pagan magazine, which traced the rise of patriarchy to the Jews, citing the Bible as its main reference.)

Those pagans and feminists who regard the Bible as a historical record of the origin of the Jews are behaving in a way remarkably similar to the behaviour of fundamentalist Christians. They do not pay any account to the fact that its documents were collected at many times and for many purposes. Among those purposes was the attempt to claim that the cult of “Jahweh only”, which ultimately became dominant, was the only true religion of the Jews. But at least these propagandists did not claim that no other beliefs were held. That claim belongs to the Christians, and is believed by many people as a result of what they have been told in religious education, together with a few scraps of misinformation gathered from various other sources.

In fact, for most of the time the religion of the Hebrew people, and of the kings from Solomon on, was polytheistic with a special devotion to the goddess Asherah, and with sexual rites as part of their religion. The archaeological and other scholarly evidence for this is abundant, but there is no need to look in scholarly texts [added 2005 — William Dever’s book Did God Have a Wife (Eerdmans 2005) is a popular account by a leading biblical archaeologist of the evidence]. If one is to regard the Bible as in any way historical, this description of the predominant Hebrew religion is given in the books of Kings (true, it is described there as “backsliding” or “wickedness”, but it is also made clear that it was much more common than the “righteousness” of devotion to Jahweh alone).

We also have to be quite careful about the prejudices and errors added by the translators. This problem is made worse by the in­fluence that the Authorised Version has had on English language and thought. Translations of the Bible differ so much that I now make it a point not to regard a quotation as a correct interpretation of the original unless I have checked it in several different versions (for instance, the Authorised, Revised, New English, and Jerusalem trans­lations).

As one example, look at the many references to the Hebrews consorting with, and even choosing to be, harlots and sodomites. This refers to women and men whose sexuality was in the service of their gods. That was such an accustomed practice among the Hebrews (as well as other nations) that those who wrote down the Bible, despite their disapproval of such customs, felt compelled to use the traditional name of such people; the Hebrew word is qedeshim, whose literal meaning is ‘holy ones’.

The scriptures of the Jews were never intended to become holy books for large parts of the world, and the Jews are not to blame for this happening. It occurred when those texts were hi‑jacked by the Christians, and it was they, not the Jews, who persuaded millions of people that the great creative force of the universe was solely male. And it is the Christians who pretended that their culture was JudaeoChristian. At one and the same time they proclaimed that the history of one small nation was of major importance in the development of their culture (a culture that pagans and many feminists reject) and that those people were ignorant and evil. It is part of the dubious legacy of Christianity that many writers trace the origins of our cul­ture (and especially of those elements in it which they dislike) solely to the Hebrews. They ignore the Greeks and Romans, although our culture is in truth HellenoRomanoJudaeoChristian, with other elements being as important as the Judaic.

Certainly some ancient civilisations honoured the interplay of male and female energies. Certainly the Hebrews were patriarchal and warlike. But so were many other nations of which we are told less. The Sumerians were as patriarchal as the Hebrews, as were the Babylonians. The Romans were more patriarchal (no Jewish man ever had the power that a Roman paterfamilias had over his household). The Hebrew destruction of foreign cities is no worse than what the Greeks did to Troy (and to each other, at later dates). No city and people were destroyed by the Hebrews as thoroughly as the Romans destroyed Carthage, where they ploughed salt into the ground to make sure that the land would never support a city again. Indeed, such action (which is paralleled by some of the American actions in Vietnam) is condemned in the Bible in terms far stronger than the condemnation of homosexuality quoted so often by bigots.

Another problem is that we tend to think that, because Jews and Christians have holy books in common, their interpretations of their shared books are the same. This is not so. The doctrine of ori­ginal sin comes from Saint Augustine, and there is no such concept in Judaism, although both religions (and also Islam) have the story of the Garden of Eden. Thus, one writer says that “Your monotheist is consciously or unconsciously obsessed with the sinfulness of sex… To the monotheist, the material world (even if he does not consciously regard it as evil) is a mere temporary stopping‑place on the way to a wholly material heaven.” I cannot speak for Islam, but these views are simply not part of Judaism. There is a Hassidic story (which most Jews would not know, but whose viewpoint they would not find surprising) which at one point refers to some Jews who had suffered so much on earth that even heaven in its usual form was not enough compensation for their suffering — the reward they were given was to be able to celebrate the Sabbath on earth. The ruinous dualism in our culture that contrasts matter and spirit to the detriment of the former comes from Greek philosophy, not Jewish religion. 

Hebraic/Judaic peoples share in the blame for a patriarchal so­ciety. But they share it with other groups who are at least as respon­sible. When they alone are blamed, it is part of the antisemitism that has been an essential part of Christianity, and which has rubbed off on many who do not consider themselves Christian. Too many people remain unaware of the way Christianity has taught them to heap blame on the Jews. After many centuries, the Christians (at least the Catholics) have admitted that it is false to say that “The Jews killed Christ.” But a new form of the lie has sprung up among some pagans and feminists. Is the cry “The Jews killed the Goddess” going to be the way in which the old persecutions are continued?

(Most of what I know about these matters I have learned from conversations with Asphodel Long, and from following up sources to which she has introduced me. Those who would like to know more can look at Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess, and also at Asphodel’s own book, In a Chariot Drawn by Lions (for information about obtaining Asphodel’s book see her web site or the site of the US distributor, Luna Press). See also an article by Annette Daum, “Blaming Jews for the Death of the Goddess” in Lilith 7 (1980), an American Jewish femin­ist magazine, and Carol Christ’s article “On Not Blaming Jews for the Death of the Goddess’ in her superb book of feminist thealogy The Laughter of Aphrodite).

© Daniel Cohen

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