Thursday, 24 March 2011

'God's Wife' (BBC2 series 'Bible's Buried Secrets')

BBC2, Tuesdays 9:00pm)

What a strange programme this was! Francesca Stavrakopoulou 'exposed' how the Bible 'lies' to us about monotheism, yet the evidence she drew was from the Bible itself! Even more strangely, she implied that because the inhabitants of Israel before 600BC were polytheists rather than monotheists that somehow monotheism 'isn't true'. I'm fairly sure this was the result of poor editing by people who assumed that a programme about a subject they presumed to be fundamentally uninteresting and of no contemporary relevance would need to be made a bit more racy and provocative. Unfortunately (as I go on to argue) they missed the point, which was nothing to do with the trustworthiness of the Bible (whatever that means).

To those who keep half an eye on biblical studies there was nothing particularly new here. It's obvious that the Hebrew scriptures - or at least the so-called 'Deuteronomic History' books of the Bible - tell a story of a continual struggle against Canaanite religion. But as Stavrakopoulou pointed out (and as I 've been saying in sermons for years) that struggle took centuries to find success, only perhaps achieving it after the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BC.

I was amazed she didn't cite one of the key texts - Jeremiah 44 - where Jeremiah is attributing the destruction of the nation to its failure to observe a strict monotheism, while his opponents - refugees in Egypt - argue fiercely that the rot set in when a religious purge by monotheistic reformers (initiated by the king Josiah) suppressed all worship (by women, mainly) of the Queen of Heaven :

Jeremiah, what do we care if you speak in the LORD's name? We refuse to listen! We have promised to worship the goddess Astarte, the Queen of Heaven, [a] and that is exactly what we are going to do. We will burn incense and offer sacrifices of wine to her, just as we, our ancestors, our kings, and our leaders did when we lived in Jerusalem and the other towns of Judah. We had plenty of food back then. We were well off, and nothing bad ever happened to us. But since the time we stopped burning incense and offering wine sacrifices to her, we have been dying from war and hunger. Then the women said, "When we lived in Judah, we worshiped the Queen of Heaven and offered sacrifices of wine and special loaves of bread shaped like her. Our husbands knew what we were doing, and they approved of it."

Jeremiah 44 : 16 - 19

More radical is Margaret Barker's work on the worship and imagery in Solomon's Temple (c.1000 BC) and her suggestion that the early Christians - most notably the writer of Revelation - understood Jesus to be fulfilling in himself not only the role of High Priest and the symbols of the second Temple (recently completed by Herod), but that he and his mother were in some sense a restoration of the the first, Solomonic, temple with its holy artefacts : the ark, the snake, the tree, the cherubim, the image of the goddess Wisdom, the 'cakes' etc.

But underlying the presentation of the 'hidden story' of the Bible (with its insinuations of cover-ups and the Bible's untrustworthiness) Stavrakopoulou was actually presenting two genuine arguments of genuine contemporary relevance, which the editors either missed or sought to play down.

The first, which was given about one minute of the programme, is that monotheism is bad for women and that having a fertility goddess as a male god's consort is better for women. That is a question well worth asking, but none of the evidence necessary to tackle that question was found in the programme. There is plenty of evidence that objectifying women as procreators doesn't necessarily do them any favours. According to the monotheists' story as told in the Bible, they struggled against temple prostitution and child sacrifice, for instance.

The second argument was provocative enough never to be stated outright in the programme. The claim of the Jews to be a distinctive people, separated from all others by their monotheism, bequeathed a Promised Land almost from time immemorial by a 'jealous' God who opposes all polytheistic tendencies is vitally important as the guiding myth for Zionist Israel's policy of suppressing and driving out the present 'Canaanites', the Palestinians. Stavrakopoulou argued, effectively, "But you're all Canaanites! The myth of the exclusive inheritance of the Promised Land by monotheists comes not in Abraham's time but later than the 6th century BC exile in Babylon - 500 years after David and Solomon." Now this (in my mind) undoubtedly correct assertion is far more interesting than supposed cover-ups in the Bible. But I suspect it was too risky for the editors to spell out. I wonder why?