Exilic Absorption of the Female Goddess in Deutero-Isaiah

Exilic Absorption of the Female Goddess in Deutero-Isaiah February 16, 2015

Divine Name Yahweh Stylized as a Man

Despite his original divine masculinity, the anthropomorphic Yahweh was eventually emasculated in later biblical and post-biblical conceptions. This desexualization of Yahweh was an inevitable result of the evolution of radical monotheism. The expression “radical monotheism” was popularized by Tikva Frymer-Kensky in her classic work, In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (New York: Free Press, 1992). It refers to the belief that there is only one deity in the entire cosmos. This is not the religious perspective we find throughout most of the Hebrew Bible. It is an evolutionary development in Judaism.

As Judaism continued to develop its monotheistic tendencies during the exilic period, earlier Israelite views concerning an anthropomorphic Yahweh with a divine female consort were eventually jettisoned. This can be seen through a close reading of exilic and post-exilic biblical material, especially the second half of Isaiah (chpts 40-55). This tendency provides one more piece of evidence supporting the fact that these chapters derive from a later exilic author scholars refer to as Deutero-Isaiah.

This is not to suggest that Deutero-Isaiah truly professes radical monotheism, only that this material advances towards that direction. It’s interesting to note, however, that Deutero-Isaiah shows a remarkable increase in linking the god of Israel with divine feminine motifs. There may be a reason for this. Mark Smith provides intriguing commentary on this trend in his recent book How Human is God? Seven Questions About God and Humanity in the Bible:

“Female imagery for God in the Bible accelerated once goddesses were no longer—or at least less of—an issue in ancient Israel. As Elizabeth Bloch-Smith has brilliantly suggested, this loss of goddesses in Israel may help to explain the relative proliferation of female imagery for God in the sixth-century passages of Isaiah 42:14; 46:3-4; and 49:15 (cf. Isaiah 45:10-11; 66:9, 13). The author of Isaiah 40-55. . . apparently was trying out a rhetorical strategy for understanding Israel’s chief deity. This may not have been an option in earlier periods in Israel’s history when goddesses were still part of the religious landscape. The new female language of God in Isaiah 40-55 seems to be a new way to tell a new story about an old God” (p. 65).

Smith’s articulation of this trend emphasizes the evolutionary nature of religious views in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is a compilation of diverse scribal material written over a thousand year period in Israelite and Judean history. The scholarly consensus holds that these writings, which include various genres such as narratives, laws, poetry, wisdom sayings, prophecy, and apocalyptic texts were composed from approximately the twelfth through the second centuries B.C.E.

Religious views exist in a perpetual state of flux. With documents written over a thousand year period, it’s no wonder we encounter so many different ways of conceptualizing divinity in the pages of the Hebrew Bible, including the possible absorption of the female goddess.

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