Monday, September 22, 2014

REVIEW: The Mythology of Eden

The Mythology of Eden by Arthur George and Elena George, Hamilton Books 2014, trade paperback, 458 pages. Also available as an e-book.

What a fascinating book! Though it starts with and returns to an analysis of the second creation story in Genesis, The Mythology of Eden is about far more than that particular myth. It includes material on the backgrounds of the likely authors of the two Genesis creation stories and two other likely authors of the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, the history of the Ancient Near East (ANE) before and during biblical times as well as information that has been gathered in recent years from archeology and anthropology. And yes, there is material on the role of polytheism, including Goddess worship, especially of Asherah and Astarte. 

The book places the development of religion, religious beliefs, and practices in the context of the sociopolitical development of the ANE, including Egypt, Canaan, Palestine, and other cultures, and gives a clear history of Judah, whose religion centered around Yahweh, and the Israelites, whose religion was more eclectic and, according to the Georges and others, polytheistic. The authors also see the Israelites and the Canaanites as geographically and culturally identical.

Often books with two authors specify which chapters or ideas belong to which author, or have an introduction or preface by the individual authors. But since this book does not, I conclude that all the chapters were written collaboratively and the authors agree on all ideas. Therefore, I will refer to the authorship in this book as “the Georges” or “the authors.”

The Preface states that with this book, the authors are attempting to look at the Eden story “using an interdisciplinary approach that synthesizes the work of specialists in various fields…” and explains the material “in a readable way that is accessible to any educated reader.” The Introduction explains various approaches to myths, including psychology, functionalism, the “ritual school,” etiology, and structuralism, and goes on to explain the approach that the authors take.

The first chapter explains what is known about the authorship of the Hebrew Scriptures and describes the biblical authors now known as J (which stands for Yahwist —the initial letter in the Hebrew word for the God’s name can be transliterated as either J or Y as in Jahweh or Yahweh—or other variations), “P” (stand for priestly ) “E” (Elohist), “D” (Deuteronomist), and another group known as “R” (redactors). The authors attribute the first Genesis  creation story to P and the second Genesis creation story (Eden) to J. They state that the Eden story by J was written before P’s creation story (which startled me, but as they go on to explain the history, makes sense). The Georges describe the differences in the styles and approaches—and even supposed facts in the stories—0f these biblical authors, all of whom they assume to be men.

The second chapter explains “How the World of Palestine Led to Eden.” The authors note that archeological finds have changed the way biblical scholars understand the histories of Judah and Israel. Using the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, they give as an example, the biblical story that immediately prefaces the giving of the 10 Commandments to Moses in Exodus. The Georges say that “Yahweh’s first and paramount commandment to Moses and the Hebrews is to occupy Canaan and destroy the Canaanites and their religion.” This commandment, however, needs to be understood in light of what the Georges understand to be historical fact: that “the Exodus story does not hold up under the evidence” because, in spite of the Egyptians being “meticulous record keepers…there is no evidence of any group of Hebrews having been present in Egypt, leaving Egypt, or of anyone named Moses having existed.” Further, the authors say that archeologists have been unable to find any evidence of a “significant group” of people encamping on what is supposed to be the Exodus route. The authors then conclude, “And if there was no Exodus, then there was no one to undertake the Conquest of Canaan.” They then offer evidence that the group called the Israelites (another name for “Hebrews”) were the same as the Canaanites, and go on to conclude that “the real history is the reverse of the Bible’s account: The Israelites were the result rather than the cause of the collapse of the Canaanite city-states.” Then how did this story get into the Bible? The Georges believe it was the work of the J, a Yahwist and Judean, whose aim it was to discredit Canaan and its religion, just as J did in the Eden story with symbols that enable a similar discrediting.

The Georges go on to give additional information about both the Canaanites/Israelites and the Judeans, including differences in their religions. They find evidence that the kings of Judah, David and Solomon were historical persons, that David founded the royal line, and that Solomon’s religious practices included Goddess worship, mostly through his wives. However, they don’t find evidence for large empires for either David or Solomon.

The authors discuss use of the Hebrew word “elohim,” in the Bible  (there are no capital letters in Hebrew, but the English transliterations sometimes put them in). The –im ending is masculine plural in Hebrew, yet in the Bible, it is usually translated to be the singular “God.” The Georges explanation, in their discussion in chapter 1 of the differences between J and P, is:“P uses Elohim (a generic term for the male deity, like 'God' in English). Elohim is grammatically plural, but it can be either singular or plural depending on the context, and translators into English chose accordingly.” The word “elohim” has been a topic for discussion among spiritual feminists for some time, and many may feel the Georges’ explanation does not go far enough. For example, does the use of the plural indicate that the biblical authors who used this term intended the plural, and therefore were indicating polytheism? To take it a step further, some Goddess feminists, (see, for example, last paragraph of this page ) have observed that the first half of the word, “elo,” could be seen as derivative of the feminine noun eloah (-ah is a Hebrew feminine noun ending, the plural feminine noun ending is–ot) and therefore, at the very least “elohim” should be translated gods and goddesses or deities, and at the most, may have originally been a combination form in which the ending was changed from the feminine plural, -ot, to -im. A similar issue occurs with the biblical term “asherim,” which appears to be applied in the Bible to trees and poles which, as the Georges point out, we now know represented or were understood to be the same as the Goddess Asherah (for this latter point, see Ruth Hestrin,"The Lachish Ewer and the Asherah," Israel Exploration Journal, 37, 1987; also included in William Dever, Did God Have a Wife? Eerdmans 2005.) Although the Georges don’t discuss this, I will because I feel it is relevant to their other points: the name of the Goddess ends in the Hebrew feminine suffix –ah; therefore, its plural should grammatically be asherot (with a capital A, if you like). Why did the biblical writers, or redactors, or translators end it with a masculine ending? Were they trying to disguise the Goddess? Or (less likely) does it represent a change in the Hebrew language—that is, at one time, were –im endings put on all nouns whether masculine or feminine? The fact that –im endings were put on feminine nouns, both of which represent deity(ies) is, at the very least, suspicious.

In Chapter 3, the authors delve further into the polytheism of the ANE, including the Goddesses Asherah and Astarte. They describe the difference between monotheistic and polytheistic world views and cosmologies, how archeology, art history, and mythology have helped scholars understand the development of the veneration of the “Great Mother Goddess” between  40,000 and 10,000 BCE. They discuss the status of women in Goddess cultures as “carriers of the power of life…deemed to have mana; men had nothing comparable to offer.” In view of this, I am mystified by their statement as part of this discussion that “Some commentators have gone further to posit an original matriarchy in a dominating political and overall social sense, but there is little evidence to support this.” YES, there is little evidence to support that the “matriarchy” was dominating—that is, that it was a reversal of patriarchy (or that patriarchy was a reversal of earlier female domination). The possibility of people drawing this conclusion is one reason that many Goddess feminists prefer the terms “matrist” or “matrifocal” to “matriarchy.” But NO to the contention that there is little evidence to support the reality of Goddess-venerating cultures that included the sociopolitical features of egalitarianism and peace. The Georges use as their reference for their apparent claim to the contrary, Cynthia Eller’s book, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, which has been refuted by Goddess scholars, including Max Dashu, Joan Marler, and Starhawk. The Georges' additional source for this claim is source an essay by Joan Westerholz in the book, Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and Evidence, edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris. Why they ignored the work of Marija Gimbutas (whom they source elsewhere), and Riane Eisler, for starters, is beyond me. Continuing with our look at this chapter, the authors discuss the addition of the son-god, and factors that led to what they term “The Downfall of the Goddess,” in the ANE. These, they write, included: society as a whole being overtaken by patriarchy, that “the mentality of humans was undergoing an important evolutionary change into a higher level of consciousness,” and the rise in power of sky-gods, including new creation myths. The authors go on to discuss specifically the rise of Yahweh, Baal, El, and other gods, and, in much detail, “The Hebrew Goddess,” Asherah and other related Goddesses.

 Later chapters look into the creation stories in more detail, sacred trees, Adam, Eve (including as Goddess), “The Serpent Whose Power Yahweh Usurped,” and the relevance of the book’s findings to people today.

The book has about 23 pages of black and white drawings and photographs (these pages are unnumbered, between numbered pages 124 and 125) that include images of tree goddesses emerging from waters; a number of different portrayals of Asherah; the Egyptian “Winchester plaque,” separately identifying Anat, Astarte, and "Qudshu" (thought to also be Asherah); the Lachish ewer, which identifies the Tree as Goddess by the Hebrew word “Elat” above it; a Lachish goblet with a pubic triangle representing Asherah; a number of other trees as Goddesses and tree Goddesses; portrayals of Gods, including Yahweh with serpent legs; Goddesses with serpents; Mesopotamian and Sumerian cylinder seals with deities, serpents, and trees—and more.

 The back matter of the book, comprising more than 100 pages, includes as separate sections: Abbreviations Used in Citations, Notes, Cited Works and Bibliography, General Index, Index of Authors, Index of Biblical Citations, Index of Citations to Apocrypha and Qumran Material, Index of Classical Sources.

Despite my criticism of some specifics, I consider The Mythology of Eden to be overall a very valuable book and expect it to be especially useful to people researching or teaching the Bible, the history of the Ancient Near East, Goddess history, and to the intellectually curious and many others.

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At Tuesday, September 23, 2014 11:31:00 PM, Blogger Arthur George said...

Thanks, Judith, for taking the time to review our book. We are gratified that you found it to be a valuable and fascinating book that you recommend, and that you had only some minor questions about it. You are correct that the book represents the joint views of Elena and myself, working together as male and female, husband and wife, both of us scholars of mythology including of the Goddess. This kind of joint effort, we believe, gave us a unique, rounded, and balanced perspective on the feminine/Goddess issues, some of which you discussed in the review. Our comments below also reflect our joint views. Since they are too long to put into a single comment, we comment on non-Hebrew language points here and on the linguistic points in a separate comment immediately below.

We would like to clarify a few points where the review wonders why we did not address a few items, and where the review thinks we are making claims that we actually did not make in the book.

First, paragraph 3 of the review states that we see “the Israelites and Canaanites as geographically and culturally identical.” This is not what we say. While we do explain that the archeological evidence shows that “Israel” and the “Israelites” evolved within Canaan mainly from a native Canaanite population, Chapter 2 is devoted to explaining how the Israelites emerged as a people distinct from the surrounding Canaanite peoples and in their own distinct geography, what is now the West Bank of the Jordan, and spreading from there.

Second, paragraph 6 of the review asks how the Exodus-through-Conquest narrative got into the Bible, and says that we “believe it was the work of J.” We never say this in the book, and it is not what we or Bible scholars believe. Material from the other 3 main sources (E, P, and D) written after J was also included in such narrative, and throughout the book we refer to passages from this narrative written by such other authors and attribute such passages to them as P, E, and D. The question why this entire multi-author, edited narrative was included in the final Bible is a question that can only be addressed at a redactional (editorial) level, and those editorial events occurred largely during and after the exile (as we describe in Chapter 1).

Third, in paragraph 9, the review comments on one sentence from Chapter 3, namely, “Some commentators have gone further to posit an original historical matriarchy in a dominating political and overall social sense, but there is little evidence to support this.” The review then agrees with our point that there is little evidence that a “dominating” “matriarchy” existed in a political-social sense that is the reverse of patriarchy. As can be seen from the above sentence, actually that is as far as we go, and we agree with your review on that point. But we never make the claim to which the review objects, i.e., that there is little evidence that Goddess-venerating cultures were egalitarian or peaceful. To the contrary, on pages 49-50 of the book we stress the many important ways in which women in such cultures were more prominent than men, and on page 55 we mention war as featuring with the coming of kingship and patriarchy, and cite to Ken Wilber (Up from Eden, 1996) to pages where he discusses that point at length. So we actually agree with you here too. Since we never made the claim to which the review objects, we had no occasion to discuss the various authors mentioned in the review (e.g., Gimbutas, Eisler, Starhawk) on the subject.

Finally, the review, as detailed as it was, presumably for space reasons actually only substantively discussed the first 80 pages of the 295 pages of the main text of our book. The most important parts came after the early chapters that were reviewed. We hope that readers will be interested in reading the concluding chapters too, as we had much to say about the cosmic and psychological meaning of Adam and Eve’s transgression and its meaning for people in the present day.

Arthur and Elena George

At Tuesday, September 23, 2014 11:34:00 PM, Blogger Arthur George said...

This follows our first comment above in order to address the 2 Hebrew language points contained in the above review of our book, The Mythology of Eden.

First, the review wonders why we did not discuss the plural ending for the name of the goddess Asherah. This is because there are no occasions in the Hebrew Bible where any plural for Asherah the goddess is used. This is logical since there can be one goddess Asherah. In the one instance when Asherah together with other goddesses is meant, in Judges 3:7, the feminine plural asherot is indeed used (Hebrew Bible scholars consider that here Asherah is being lumped together with the other goddesses under her name). The masculine plural that the review wonders about, asherim, is used not in relation to the goddess Asherah but in relation to her cult symbol, a wooden pole called an asherah, and actually sometimes the Hebrew Bible does use the feminine plural for it, in 2 Chronicles 19:3 and 33:3. In biblical Hebrew, it is not uncommon to see both the use of masculine plural endings for feminine nouns (e.g., for “women” - nashim) and feminine plural endings for masculine nouns (e.g., “fathers” - abot). In light of the above factors, we didn’t feel there was enough basis to read any significance into the use of the masculine plural ending for the cult object most of the time, so that’s why we didn’t discuss it. We don’t recall any Hebrew Bible scholar who has published on Asherah making any arguments based on the masculine ending.

Second, the review suggests that “Elohim/elohim” might include goddesses, in part based on whether the word may come from eloah, which the review indicates may be a feminine noun. In the context of the Hebrew Bible arguing for monotheism under a father god, there is only occasional opportunity for Elohim/elohim to be plural (e.g., Gen. 6:2, 4) even for male deities, and even fewer to mean goddesses, so we need to understand the meaning of the word in this context. Still, in rare instances it is used to refer to a goddess(es), as in 1 Kings 11:5 & 33, where elohim is used twice (in a singular meaning) in the phrase “Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians.” When we say in our book that Elohim/elohim is a generic term for God, we were just stating the general rule as it is typically stated in the scholarly literature because that was all that was needed for our purposes, and we did not actually mean to exclude the few exceptions where it is used to refer to a goddess. Regarding the possibility of a feminine noun “eloah,” being relevant to this question, I don’t recall any biblical scholar arguing this. Since in that word the final hey is marked with a mappiq, the ending is a consonant, not the typical -ah feminine ending (a single letter vowel). So the word is grammatically masculine. All the major Hebrew lexicons (HALOT, BDB, and Holladay) list it as such and define it as meaning a “god,” with its plural being ”elohim,” with no exceptions noted. The web link in the review that suggests that it may be a feminine noun is a Wikipedia article on Elohim which, as to “eloah” links to another Wikipedia article that contains a notation that the proposition that “eloah” is a feminine noun is “dubious,” and the article does not cite to any source supporting the idea (the article also contains a notation that a cite is needed). We would never base any conclusion on such a source. Since, as noted, Elohim/elohim (which is also the plural form of eloah) in at least a few instances is used to refer to a goddess, the word is not tied to natural gender and the question whether eloah is feminine actually is not necessarily relevant.

Arthur and Elena George

At Wednesday, September 24, 2014 1:15:00 PM, Blogger Medusa said...

Thank you for taking the time to comment on my review. This is in reply to your first comment. I will reply to your second comment in another comment. Thank you for the information that you and Elena are married. I wondered about that, but since the relationship is not stated either in the information on the back cover of the book or in the Preface or Introduction (and there is no “About the Authors” page) I assumed the you and/or your editors had decided it wasn’t germane to evaluating the book.
Re: your objection to my statement that you “offer evidence that the group called the Israelites… were the same as the Canaanites,” after which I quote your book’s statement that “the real history is the reverse of the Bible’s account. The Israelites were the result rather than the cause of the collapse of the Canaanite city-states”-- I base my conclusions on the following statements in The Mythology of Eden: (bottom of p. 29-top p. 30): “Who were these new people [Israelites, stated in previous paragraph] and where did they come from? Archeologists and most scholars now agree that they were Canaanites, from both sides of the Jordan.” Then, (on p. 31): “In this early period, ‘Israelite’ material culture was hardly distinguishable from general Canaanite culture....Nor is there any extra-biblical evidence of distinctive religious practices.” You then discuss a few divergent practices that emerged among the part of the population which came to be identified as Israelite, but conclude, (p.31, 3rd paragraph) “But in the end Israelite culture retained substantive continuities with the Canaanite culture from which it emerged; even Yahweh and the Hebrew Bible drew heavily upon Canaanite literature, religion, and other culture.” And at the bottom of p. 34 (my bolding): “In summary, the history of Israel shows that the Israelites were actually the dreaded Canaanites themselves—their own worst enemy. Rather than coming new and ready-made from the Sinai desert, Israelite religion began as traditional Canaanite pagan religion....Canaanite religion was native, not foreign to the Israelites.”
Re: your comment that I discussed only the first 80 pages--this is not true. While I went into extensive detail about the Preface, Introduction, and chapters 1-3, in the paragraph after the chapter 3 discussion, I summarized the topics in the rest of the book. I also discuss the contents of the graphics section and even tell what is contained in the extensive back matter. I know of no reviewer who will go into detail for every chapter of a book of over 400 pages. For one thing, readers often do not like to know everything in a book (this is known as a spoiler, and is actually more objectionable in fiction than non-fiction), for another, many authors don't like extensive detailing of their book and they feel the readers may now not have motivation to buy the book since they now know everything that is in it. The usual approach of reviewers is to give a general statement about the contents of the book and their brief response to it. Most reviewers, particularly those in non-scholarly print publications,and now even in online group blogs are limited to reviews of about 500 words. My review of The Mythology of Eden is about 3750 words. One reason I like reviewing on my blog is that it allows me sufficient space to discuss books in detail. However, even I have limits ;-)

At Wednesday, September 24, 2014 1:24:00 PM, Blogger Medusa said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At Wednesday, September 24, 2014 1:28:00 PM, Blogger Medusa said...

Though some biblical scholars may give, as the rationale for using the term “asherim” for the poles, that the poles and the Goddess are two different things, in the light of the discovery by Ruth Hestrin (with which others now concur) that the Tree and (and therefore, imo, the poles) are not only symbols of Asherah but also in biblical times were understood to be synonymous with Asherah, I and other spiritual feminists wonder how to understand the masculine plural ending for the poles and trees representing her. There has also been discussion among us of the elo- part of the word, elohim as possibly indicating the feminine. Obviously biblical scholars and Goddess scholars have different points of view. My observation over the last 30 years or so is that Goddess and other spiritual feminists’ earlier ideas have later been verified by archeology and anthropology. The trees and poles representing Asherah are one example. The polytheism of the Israelites is another. So I will continue to ask questions whether or not the possible answers are (presently?) acceptable to biblical scholars.

At Monday, July 20, 2015 7:36:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Medusa, I really appreciate everything you have to say here, both in the review and your excellent rebuttal comments.

I am sick to death of educated adults claiming there is no evidence of Goddess-oriented, matrifocal societies, when we KNOW this was the case throughout the world.

Nothing is more saddening than Women disputing our own herstory or engaging with men who deign to write books such as these; how truly, truly insulting such men are.

Finally, how dare the authors not even bother to appropriately acknowledge Starhawk, Dashu or Marler? Or Z Budapest.

Unlike me, you have responded very graciously to the authors' "feedback" on your review (for, of course, we must defend every single breath we take and word we utter, as per the patriarchy).

I simply refuse.


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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.