Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The darkness of the asherahs or Jesus who is the light

Lately I find myself not wanting to write. There are many reasons but I think I understand, tonight, that the chief reason is the heinous material I am seeing written by those who call themselves Christians. Progressive Emergent Christians, it is true, but nonetheless they write with the identity of Christian. In this case I began reading, thinking I was going to read a posting by an emergent Christian that would be a Christ centered devotional. After all the title is, “The Danger of the Light.

And the light that is Jesus can be dangerous. Didn't Jesus, speaking of himself, state, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” My eyes literally filled with tears as I read Julie Clawson’s posting. Clawson, who has recently written The Hunger Games and the Gospel: Bread, Circuses, and the Kingdom of God, writes:

As I listened to the discussion last Sunday, the illustration that came to mind was the repeated attempts one reads of in the Hebrew Scriptures to remove the lampstands from the Temple. Granted, the scriptures speak of removing the presence of the pagan goddess Asherah and tearing down the poles or trees erected to her in the Temple, but as archeology shows, those poles in the temple were the lampstands or menorahs. Asherah as a symbol of the feminine and embodiment of sexuality and reproduction was depicted by a tree with seven branches in bloom (to represent fertility) as shown in the picture, exactly the way lampstands for the tabernacle/temple are described in Exodus 25. It was this symbol of the female and of sexuality that was repeatedly removed from the temple, only to return again and again. 
 In other words the menorahs in the temple were symbols of a fertility goddess. Clawson continues with the words, “Light is dangerous. It illuminates structures of oppression and reveals the truth and beauty of women and the body. Such things are scary to a culture trying to cling to hierarchies of patriarchal power.”

However archeology doesn’t show that the menorahs were asherahs but rather, that the Israelites kept bringing the symbols of false goddesses into the temple. As for the Asherah poles being the lampstands of the temple, Professor Richard E. Averbeck, author of “tabernacle” in the Dictionary Old Testament: Pentateuch, explains that some scholars see the lampstands as partially formed like a “stylized tree of life” in ancient Mesopotamia. The Asherahs also have a history that links them to the ancient tree of life but not to the lampstands. Averbeck writes:
However it is important to remember two things. First, the Asherah tree itself derived from the tree of life imagery of the ancient Near East, although Canaanite religion associated it with Asherah the goddess of fertility. Any similarities between the menorah and the Asherah arise from their common background in this tree of life imagery.  Second it is clear from the text that Asherah were to be eliminated, along with other accoutrements of the fertility cults (see, e.g. Ex 3413, Deut 7:5, 12:3; Judg 6:25, etc.) Moreover they were not to be planted or utilized in the Israelite worship system, even at legitimate solitary altars (Duet 16: 21; cf. the solitary altar law in Ex 20: 24-26), much less in the tabernacle. The Menorah was in no way conceived of as an Asherah.[1]

Reading of Ezekiel’s awful vision of the abominations happening in Jerusalem and the temple one sees the utter desecration occurring. The “idol of jealousy” that Ezekiel sees north of the altar gate was an Asherah.[2] It was one among many examples of false worship going on in the temple at that time. Yet Bishop John B. Taylor in his commentary on Ezekiel points to Ezekiel’s remark that God’s glory was still there. He writes:

It is remarkable that, despite all the corruptions that existed, Ezekiel should say that the glory of the God of Israel was there (4). It was as if he wanted to throw in sharp relief the difference between the God who belonged there and the deviations which were practiced there, so making the crimes all the more heinous. Perhaps he was also trying to say that God would stay with his people until the very last moment of their rejection of Him. (Italics authors)

Clawson, after confusing the light that is Christ’s with that which with falseness illuminates sexuality and women’s bodies goes on to tear apart the scripture in an unbelievable method. The early church, she reasons, read stories of the martyrs therefore they considered such stories scripture. But now since certain texts have been canonized the martyrs are excluded. She writes, “Illuminating the oppressions and temptations of empire became too dangerous. It was easier to extinguish that light than to see what it revealed.” Amazing, Clawson doesn’t realize that many Christians today read and contemplate the lives of the martyrs!

Certainly the canon, (the Bible), contains the stories of martyrs: what of Stephen, and James the brother of Jesus? What of all of the believers Paul put in prison and had killed. What of the martyrs of Hebrews 11 or Antipas the faithful witness of Revelation? Very clearly John describes the martyrs under the altar—they were there because of the “word of God and because of the testimony which they maintained.” In fact, the light has not been extinguished—in this century and the last; the light of dying martyrs shines even brighter.

The lampstands undoubtedly pointed to God’s light. In the great festival of light Jesus taught in the temple proclaiming that he was the light. “I am the Light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” Some may choose to lift up the symbols of darkness over Jesus who is the light of the world. But like the ancient Israelites who turned their backs on the Lord, to worship the baals and asherahs of ancient fertility cults, they must know that God has and does plead for them. God in Jesus Christ, eternal Son of the Father, has suffered, died and offered life.  

[1]Richard E. Averbeck, “Tabernacles,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholars, Editors, T. Desmond Alexander & David W. Baker, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 2003) 815.
[2] John B. Taylor, Ezekiel An Introduction & Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, D.J. Wiseman, General Editor, (Leicester Inter-Varsity Press 1969) 98. Scripture records at least three times that the Asherahs were placed in the temple.  


will spotts said...

I understand your frustration. This is sad even in a sea of sad things.

The writer you mention can be insightful in other cases. Yet the lens through which she writes leads to such an hideous distortion on so many levels.

First there is the interpretation of the text - which the author seems to have concluded is hostile to women, and therefore untrue ... Her conclusion is shared widely today. But no feminist, no one concerned with the treatment and status of women who knew what they were talking about would ever embrace the asherah / ancient pagan view.

Viola Larson said...

One of the things I didn't say and should have, is that in order to see the asherahs as she does, "true" objects of worship and enlightenment, Clawson has to totally renounce most of the Old Testament. She is rewriting everything.

Anonymous said...

Though I have never before posted on it, I greatly appreciate your blog, Viola, for it cogency and thoughtfulness. Too soon, too many in the church forget that some of the things the LORD freed the Hebrews from, and that Jesus has freed us from are the vileness of fertility cults and the perversion of sexual intimacy into "worship". The perversion degrades both those "serving in the temple" and the "worshipers" availing themselves of the services. Scripture also makes clear what a horrible affront that kind of stuff is to the our God and Savior.
Indeed, exchanging truth of God for the lie of being "relevant" or "innovative".

A PCUSA pastor who grieves over this denomination and the like-minded members of other fellowships

Viola Larson said...

Anonymous thank you for posting. I usually ask that people leave their name but in your case I will not. you are right in everything you write and in your grief.

Viola Larson said...

I am wondering if Clawson is making the same spiritual journey that Sue Monk Kidd did, as she moved from writing books for evangelicals to writing ,The Dance of the Dissident Daughter a book that turned toward goddess worship.

will spotts said...

Viola - I couldn't say, but calling equating the asherah poles and the lampstands in the temple / tabernacle is so far down that path that it would be a very small leap. For some reason that path - order of movement from one religion to another - is almost common enough to be a cliche.

This article already regards regards the asherah cult or its symbols as desirable - things the patriarchy is busy stamping out in its desire to oppress.

(Which is, of course, ironic - given the role of goddess worship and misogyny in ancient patriarchal societies. The two are very strongly linked.)