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In the Wake of the Goddesses:
Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth

by Tikva Frymer-Kensky
Free Press, 292 pages, $24.95

It has been thousands of years since goddesses have been so much on people’s minds, at least in the West. What has brought them back with a vengeance (often literally so) is the feminist movement. “Earth-centered, immanent, and immediate, the Goddess of modern neopaganism serves as a refuge from, and counterbalance to, what many consider the remote and punitive god of Western religions,” Tikva Frymer-Kensky writes. Her capitalization of “Goddess” but not of “god” speaks volumes about the neopagan thealogy to which she alludes. 

Though she defines herself in part as “a late-twentieth-century postmodern American feminist Jew,” Professor Frymer-Kensky’s learned discussion of the goddesses of the ancient Near East will not please those whose interest in them is devotional. For one of the singular accomplishments of her research is to show just how distorted the image of the old pagans is in the minds of the new. “The stories about goddesses do not come from any separatist women’s cult,” she explains, “and are neither female fantasies nor women’s mythmaking.” Nor is “the existence and power of a goddess … [any] indication or guarantee of a high status for human women.” “In Assyria,” for example, “where Ishtar was so prominent, women were not.” Moreover, Israel cannot be blamed for the elimination of the goddess (or, for that matter, credited for it), a process begun long before that nation emerged. One of the fine ironies to which Frymer-Kensky draws attention is that so much avant-garde thinking builds upon “the benighted paganism of the Western imagination” (including biblical polemic), a caricature long abandoned by almost all specialists in the pagan cultures in question. Even more galling to feminist neopagans will be her convincing demonstration that “the ‘monotheism’ attacked as world-denying, body-deprecating, and woman-hating has little to do with monotheism as it first appeared in biblical Israel.”

The first third of Frymer-Kensky’s book is devoted to a discussion of goddesses in the ancient Near East, mostly classical Sumer, where they were particularly prominent. There the goddesses were thought to sponsor the cultural arts and the learned occupations and to serve as the principal keeners in public lamentations. In Sumerian myth, they also played an indispensable role in insuring the proper functioning of nature: “Male and Female appear as the interlocking pieces which combine to open the riches of the universe.”

The largest portion of this study deals with the crucial question of the effects of the elimination of the goddess in Israelite monotheism. One effect is the secularization of the arts and sciences, which, deprived of their patroness, are now “humanly conceived and humanly executed.” Another and better known effect is the concentration of both the male and the female powers in YHWH, the God of Israel, who is thus “revealed as the master of all the forces of nature.” This does not, however, make him androgynous, like the God of many religious liberals today. YHWH, Frymer-Kensky points out, “is a predominantly male god, referred to by the masculine pronoun (never by the feminine)” but “not sexually a male.” As she nicely puts it, “God is not imagined below the waist.”

A related effect of the monotheistic revolution is an equalizing of the male and the female natures. “In their strengths and weaknesses, in their goals and strategies, the women of the [Hebrew] Bible do not differ substantially from men,” and the Hebrew Bible does not justify the subordination of women to men “by reference to any putative deficiency or inferiority.” This stands in sharp distinction to the tendencies in ancient Greek thought to conceive of women as “wild and beastly, and need[ing] to be controlled and dominated by the civilized male.” Thus, “as the [Hebrew] Bible presents humanity, gender is a matter of biology and social roles, it is not a question of basic nature or identity.” The Hebrew Bible’s “homogenization of gender” means that “the differences between male and female are only a question of genitalia.” This is not to deny that ancient Israelite women were subordinate to men and, in many respects, institutionally disempowered. It means only that the “ideology [was] at variance with the social reality of people living in a world organized along gender lines.”

Another biblical transformation is the reconception of nature as dependent not upon the sexuality of the gods and goddesses but upon human conduct. Human beings replace the pantheon as “the fulcrum of action.” “Ultimately, the well-being of the earth and the people of Israel—or their destruction—is a result of human action,” and “God’s actions are predictable in fixed response to behavior.” This is what Frymer-Kensky means by “radical monotheism,” which she equates with “religious humanism.”

According to her, it was Hellenization that brought the radical monotheism of the Hebrew Bible to an end, as Jews gradually absorbed the misogyny and gender-segregation characteristic of Athenian society. Along with this went a shift from the Israelite concept of nature as determined by human beings to the Greek concept of nature “as an unruly female, the very antithesis of civilization.” In the Greco-Roman world, Jews (and later Christians as well) replaced the classical Hebraic notion of human action as mediating between God and nature with full-blown mediator figures, thus partially reverting to the pagan vision and severely diminishing the scope of human responsibility. It is these alleged consequences of Hellenization, continued in both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, that Tikva Frymer-Kensky wishes to see reversed. Her book is ultimately a call for a return to radical monotheism, which, she tells us, “has never been truly tried.” For first the ancient Israelite social structure and then Hellenization prevented the realization in history of its profoundly egalitarian and anthropocentric impulse.

This is an erudite and challenging book, rich in exegetical insights and only occasionally forced and tendentious in its interpretations. There is, to be sure, the rare feminist excess, such as the dubbing of the Sumerian goddess Inanna as the “cosmic cunt” (are we still expected to be shocked at obscenity?) and the neologistic reflexive pronoun “godself” (puzzling from an author who acknowledges the Israelite Deity’s grammatical masculinity). But this is also an eminently readable book, instructive to scholars yet accessible to the nonspecialist.

A more serious problem has to do with the alleged “homogenization of gender” in the Hebrew Bible. That women are not therein seen as morally and intellectually inferior to men is surely the case, but it is a far cry from this to the view that “the differences between male and female are only a question of genitalia.” The genitalia, after all, are part of God’s design (“Male and female He created them,” Gen. 1:27), and as Frymer-Kensky acknowledges, the Hebrew Bible strictly prohibits cross-dressing and homosexual behavior, the latter because, in her words, “it blurs the distinction between male and female, and this cannot be tolerated in the biblical system.” Quite so—and powerful evidence that, contra her view of the matter, the Hebrew Bible does not make a hard distinction between “biology and social roles” on the one hand, and the “basic nature or identity” of human beings on the other. Indeed, that men and women share a common human nature in no way implies the dispensability or arbitrariness of social roles assigned on the basis of gender. Consider this analogy: Israelites and Gentiles also share a common human nature in the Hebrew Bible (which does not speak of innate racial superiority or inferiority), and yet their duties, privileges, and destinies are not at all the same, and the distinction between the two groups is a matter of high import to most of the authors of the Hebrew Bible. It is not seen as an historical accident.

It must also be noted that Frymer-Kensky’s notion of a genderless ideology at variance with social reality is problematic from both theoretical and empirical vantage points. Given her tendency to interpret religion as a projection out of human society, indeed as a mystification of power arrangements, it is hard to know how her underlying theory could allow for such a variance. Moreover, biblical law often endows the disparity in roles that she sees as nothing more than social fact with the status of a sacred norm. Frymer-Kensky seems to assume that the theology of a genderless humanity (itself a chimera) trumps the non-egalitarian law of the Hebrew Bible. This kind of move is common among Christian biblical theologians, but highly unusual for a Jew and not easily absorbed by the rabbinic tradition. Similarly, her preference for the Bible over later tradition is likely to find more resonance among Protestants than among her fellow Jews or among Roman Catholics. I might add that there is much to be said for the proposition that the position of women actually improved in Late Antiquity (among both Jews and Christians) over against the social reality both reflected and mandated in the Hebrew Bible.

Frymer-Kensky’s portrait of the “radical monotheism” of the Hebrew Bible is also deeply flawed. That “the action of Israel determines God’s actions in the world” is hardly “the classic Israelite view of human action and divine reactivity.” It is at best an unacceptably simplistic statement of the theology of certain pieces of biblical literature, usually Deuteronomic. But even in Deuteronomy, Israel’s incomparable status is owing to God’s prior and inexplicable election of them and to his gracious pledge to keep faith with his people even when they stray from his commandments. Other currents in the Hebrew Bible are even more resistant to the mechanistic model of deity that Frymer-Kensky mistakes for “the classic Israelite view” of the matter and—oddly, especially after the Holocaust—wishes to revive today. One thinks, for example, of the unyielding theocentrism of the poetic speeches of God in the Book of Job, with their eagerness, by no means uncommon in the Hebrew Bible, to uphold the majesty, sovereignty, and ultimate incomprehensibility of God. This kind of monotheism is so radical that it cannot be equated to any humanism, religious or other.

Frymer-Kensky’s concluding shift from historical description and textual analysis (where she usually excels) to a brief advocacy of her version of radical monotheism is jarring. For the projectionist view of religion to which she generally seems to subscribe actually undercuts all normative discussion (and thus finally refutes itself). If the gods are simply human arrangements “projected onto the divine sphere” (as she describes the connection of male dominance with the recession of the goddesses), then why exempt the God of radical monotheism from the same judgment? If, as she claims, feminism has given us a vision of “a far less gender-ordered universe,” then does not the projectionist theory account for the appearance today of precisely the theology that she now espouses?

The Hebrew Bible also has some interesting things to say about people who persist in worshipping what they themselves have created.

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School and the author of Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible and Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (HarperSanFrancisco).

Photo by Color Crescent on Unsplash. Image cropped.