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Rereading the Bible As History, Beyond Sexism and Religious Intolerance

Sir Frank Dicksee, "Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth's Vineyard." Public domain image.

Sir Frank Dicksee, "Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth's Vineyard." Public domain image.

For a woman who has dedicated her life to biblical studies, I am startlingly... secular. I am fascinated by the history of the Bibleits oral origins, its six-hundred-year-period of writing and redaction at the hands of wave after wave of scribes, its modern-day influence, and, of course, its womenbut I am woefully wary of The Book's true purpose: persuading its readers to believe in one God.

Every writer has an agenda. That's right. Every writer, ever. The poets, the dreamers, and me. And the authors and redactors of the Biblethe single most influential book in western historywere no different. Its oldest sectionslikely written in the court of King David or King Solomon or soon thereafteraimed to both document the lives of Israel's first kings and to prove their kings' legitimate claims to the throne because God chose them. Later, in the period of the Babylonian exile, displaced Jews with no homeland and no answer to the question of how their almighty God could smite them so used The Book to tie their disparate people together, under one God.  

In fact, prior to the period of Babylonian Exile, it was not uncommon for Jews to worship the One God alongside other gods and goddesses. Thousands of clay figurines of household goddesses have been unearthed by archeologists throughout the region and attributed to the early Israelites. These figurines are not unlike today's Mother Mary statuettes or images of Jesus; devotional representations of deities worshipped by the ancient Israelites and kept, beloved, in their family homes.

And the Bible itselfa book written with a distinct agenda: to persuade readers to worship one Goddoes not deny this fact. In fact, some of our greatest sources documenting the history of widespread polytheism and goddess worship among the ancient Israelites comes from the Bible itself. Repeatedly, The Book tells us how wicked and evil the Israelites were because they worshipped other gods and goddesses alongside the One God.

The Bible tells us how wicked and evil polytheists were, yes. But it tells us this while telling us that they were polytheists. The very book meant to convince us there is (and was) only one God documents a long and unrelenting history of not one, but many gods and goddesses.   

King Solomon, for example, Israel's wisest king, a king loved and remembered for his vast united Israelite kingdom and for building the First Temple (the temple) in Jerusalem, was himself a goddess worshipper, and it is the Bible that tells us this fun fact:  

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women ... from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, ‘You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.’ Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love... and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God... He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites.
— 1 Kings 11, New International Version

Right. So... Solomon. Son of King David. One of Israel's most beloved kings. Chosen by God to rule the Nation of Israel. Chosen by God over David to build the temple in Jerusalem. Devoted to God. And... DA DA DA... worshipper of the goddess Ashtoreth and the god Molek (Moloch), to name a couple. 

The point is not whether Solomon sinned because he worshipped other gods and goddesses alongside the one God. The point is he worshipped other gods and goddesses alongside the One God. How do we know? The Bible tells us so

And I would be remiss if I did not point out that, since its inception, the monotheistic movement has tied women to polytheism, vilifying both in one fell swoop. When we find out that God was displeased with Solomon, the first words we read are "King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women" whom God had warned men against because "they [would] surely turn [the hearts of men] after their gods." The women are to blame. The women have always been to blame. 

Jezebel is perhaps the Bible's most famous woman-we-love-to-hate. She has been reviled not because her character was sexually promiscuous, as the modern meaning of her name suggests, but because she was a polytheist:

Scholars generally identify 1 and 2 Kings as part of the Deuteronomistic History... One of the main purposes of the entire Deuteronomistic History... is to explain Israel’s fate in terms of its apostasy [the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief]. As the Israelites settle into the Promised Land... God’s chosen people continually go astray. They sin against Yahweh [God] in many ways, the worst of which is by worshiping alien deities... When Jezebel enters the scene in the ninth century B.C.E., she provides a perfect opportunity for the Bible writer to teach a moral lesson about the evil outcomes of idolatry, for she is a foreign idol worshiper who seems to be the power behind her husband. From the Deuteronomist’s viewpoint, Jezebel embodies everything that must be eliminated from Israel so that the purity of the cult of Yahweh will not be further contaminated.
— biblicalarchaeology.org

Aha. So Jezebel's story, as told through the lens and agenda of the Deuteronomists, is there to teach us how awful polytheism is... while telling us that as late as the 9th century B.C.E. the Israelites were still polytheists. And what better way to get us to abandon foreign gods and goddesses than to vilify a powerful woman and make her the embodiment of all that is evil about polytheism? Am I right?

Solomon and Jezebel's polytheism is merely a drop in the bucket. They are but two of The Book's more famous examples. The Bible, for all its monotheistic propaganda, is an incredible record not of how the One God arrived on the scene and instantly stole the hearts of humanity, but, rather, of how the forefathers and foremothers of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition took hundreds or thousands of yearsand suffered some bloody battles along the lines of the Crusdades and the Inquisitionbefore being compelled to give up their gods and goddesses in favor of the One God.

I am wary of buying into the message of a book written with such a distinct, a-historical agenda. And I am equally wary of blindly following the teachings of a book that has traditionally disparaged, blamed, and equated women with the evils the book seeks to eradicate. That being said, what amazing stories. What scandalous, flawed, and achingly human characters.

If history is written by the victors, then the monotheistic victors have left us with glimmers of the history they sought to rewrite. We are left with enough that we can roll up our sleeves, dig deeper, and unearth a very different truth, if we are willing to read with our eyes wide open.