The Queen Who Is Hidden in the Gospels, Part II

At the end of Part I, I asked, Would the people in Jesus’ time have known who the Queen of Heaven was? Yes, they certainly would have, but to see why, we must look at how the state religion of the Kingdom of Judah (which therefore came to be called Judaism) was founded and at the career of the prophet Jeremiah. The full history of the founding of Judaism can become a very long story, which I will save for another time. Here I want to touch upon only the details relevant for answering that question about the Queen.

As I have argued elsewhere, all religions begin at some time and place. They also have both a foundational myth and an actual history. The Tanach is unique in giving both the myth and the history. The foundational myth is, of course, the life of Moses. As all religious scholars and most liberal Jews know, the actual history is told in II Kings 22, which relates how Hilkiah, the High Priest of Jerusalem, in 621 BCE persuades the young, gullible King Josiah that the book “found” hidden in the Temple is the lost Book of the Law of Moses. It is obvious that Hilkiah (and his editorial committee) have just written this book, because Josiah had never heard of the Law of Moses as being anything other than an oral tradition. However,  once persuaded, he had the populace swear allegiance to this book as the constitution for a new state religion. Josiah then proceeded to abolish all the aspects of Pagan religion that had flourished in Jerusalem during the four centuries since its founding by David—for this book provided that only Yahweh, the tribal god of the Israelites, could henceforth be worshipped in Jerusalem. This event has been labeled the “Deuteronomic Reform.” As usual, people who are starting a new religion prefer to argue that they are merely reforming an older one.

The idea that Judaism was established by Abraham or Moses is part of the legend of Moses created in the Torah. The idea that Moses (assuming that he was an historical figure), David, Solomon, and all those other guys back then were devout monotheistic worshippers of Yahweh only is historical nonsense, as reading the historical books in the Tanach with open eyes will show. As Raphael Patai documented in The Hebrew Goddess, the periods when Yahwism was dominant add up to a small fraction of that long period. Note that Judaism began as a henotheistic religion, not monotheistic, a fact central to the theology of the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism, who pointed out that Judaism is based on the history and identity of the Jewish people, not on monotheism. That is, Yahweh in Israelite religion was thought to be the best of the gods, not the only one.

Judaism flourished in the Kingdom of Judah for 35 years, until 586 BCE, when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and deported all but the peasant farmers (the majority of the population, of course) to Babylon. In the course of the war, many Judeans fled for refuge to Egypt. One of them, the prophet Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, had no doubt been a ringleader in that “Deuteronomic Reform.” In Egypt, Jeremiah, who had no sense of humor at all, continued to fulminate against the worship of any deity but Yahweh, threatening the Judeans in Egypt with total destruction in the name of Yahweh. However, they had had enough. They informed Jeremiah that all his bloody reform had done was get their city destroyed and themselves exiled. In Jeremiah 44:15-19 (a passage apparently recorded by Jeremiah’s secretary, Baruch) the Judean women tell him

 “We will not listen to what you have said to us in the name of Yahweh, but we will certainly do just what we have said. We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and pour libations to her, as we have done, we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then had we plenty of food and were well and saw no evil. But since we left off burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring libations to her, we have wanted all things and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine. When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven . . ., did we make her cakes to worship her and pour libations to her, without our husbands?”

But Jeremiah continued to threaten them in the name of Yahweh and became such a pain in the ass that they assassinated him. This particular passage would have been read in the synagogue at least once a year, as the Haftarah, “portion,” for that day. However, the presence of the Queen of Heaven would have been felt even more strongly because she continued to be worshipped by all the non-Jewish cultures in the mid-Eastern lands surrounding Judea.

Strict monotheism was first proposed by the Second Isaiah, in Babylon around 550 BCE, meditating on what in hell had gone wrong, at just about the same time that monotheism was proposed by the pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece. This Isaiah believed that they had been punished for not realizing that Yahweh was the only God. When Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and allowed the Judeans to go home (only about a third did), they began rebuilding the Temple, and its college of scribes began rewriting their history as the story of how that Only God had been trying to get their attention.

This writing continued throughout the fifth century BCE, at the end of which Ezra and Nehemiah, empowered as officials of the Persian Empire, published the Torah as a finished book. The book “found” by Hilkiah was incorporated into the larger book called Deuteronomy, the “Second Law,” since the legend of Moses said that the first Law, as penned by him, had been lost when the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant. During that same century a “heterodox” Jewish Temple flourished in Elephantine in Egypt, probably founded by those same refugees who had chewed out Jeremiah. It contained the standard three-pronged Canaanite altar on which stood the statues of Yahweh and his two wives, the Asherah and Astarte. It was the latter, cognate with Ishtar and Aphrodite, who was specifically called the Queen of Heaven. Note that what was heterodox was not this Temple—it was continuing the traditional Israelite religion—but the new state religion of Judah, which the Samaritans condemned as a new-fangled cult.

Now, there simply is no evidence one way or the other about whether the Queen of Heaven was worshipped by anyone in Judea during the next four centuries, and I am not going to try to make an argument from silence. Rather, next it will be time to look at what Jesus himself said, according to the canonical gospels and the writings by the “other” Christians of the first few centuries CE.

More will be revealed.

 

 

 

 

  • Kate Gladstone

    Re:
    “It is obvious that Hilkiah (and his editorial committee) have just written this book,”
    — then why wasn’t it obvious to Josiah?

    • Merri-Todd Webster

      Maybe because he was a kid at the time?

  • Kate Gladstone

    Re:
    “This particular passage would have been read in the synagogue at least once a year, as the Haftarah, ‘portion,’ for that day. However … ”
    However, it isn’t.
    Although all Haftarot are from the prophetic/historical books of the TaNaKH (Hebrew Bible) NOT all passages from the prophetic/historical books get used as Haftarot — or ever did. It takes about three minutes (at most) to find and peruse a Haftarah calendar (listing of which passages get read, and when) on Google or Wikipedia … and I’m annoyed that you didn’t take those three minutes (which would have confirmed that the Jeremiah passage you’re citing is one of many that isn’t on the calendar. (There are probably reasons for thee omission of the many that get omitted: one omission from the Haftarah calendar, for instance, is Isaiah 53.)

    I don’t know if the “queen heaven” passage ever _was_ on the Haftarah calendar anywhere, or anywhen … but then I do not know of _any_ place or time when every theoretically “Haftarah-eligible” portion _actually_ made the cut for the synagogue lectionary.
    That makes your guess that it “would have been read” … well, disconcerting, from such a man as you are. (Isn’t it considered rather bad manners — in non-supersessionist religious circles, that is — to state what some bit of liturgy “would have been” before checking with the religious tradition’s own publicly available documentation to see what the liturgy _is_, let alone what it actually _was_ at the period you’re describing?)

  • Kate Gladstone

    I can see how the word “Astarte” is likely to be a cognate of the word “Ishtar” — but I don’t know enough Greek (let alone Greek historical linguistics) to see the word “Astarte” as a cognate of the word “Aphrodite.” Can you help me out, please, Aidan? What are the relevant sound-changes that connect “-star-” with “-phrodi-” cross-linguistically?


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