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Von Feldt On Dever's Did God Have A Wife? In Fr 19:1


Kevin Christensen

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I think Alyson Von Feldt's review is the most important LDS essay on the topic of the Divine Feminine since Daniel Peterson's ground-breaking "Nephi and His Asherah." Written in a personal, highly engaging style, she not only provides engaging LDS perspectives on Dever's book, but also contributes some strikingly original (even inspired) insights that deserve not just LDS consideration, but professional consideration. Whereas Dever chides Ancient Near Eastern archeologists in general for their neglect of theology, and Biblical theologeans for their neglect of archeology, Von Feldt points out Dever's neglect of non-Biblical Hebrew texts, such as 1 Enoch. Whereas as Dever draws a distinction between the literate 'official" religion of the cities and the popular religion uncovered by archeology, Von Feldt notes the importance of other literate Hebrew traditions, and makes fascinating comparisons.

But whereas Dever notes that there would have been many variations of the popular Israelite religion (p. 7), he speaks of only one monolithic book religionâ??presumably because there is only one Hebrew Bible. He has not considered the possibility that there could have been other narrative texts more closely aligned with everyday religious practices. There could have been an alternative tradition, with bookish adherents as well as folkish adherents.

She cites Margaret Barker's work to striking effect. For example, discussing an offering stand that Dever depicts his in text, Von Feldt says:

Keeping in mind Barker's work on the Enochian texts and this strong association of Asherah with the image of a tree, it seems to me that the offering stands combine the throne of God with the tree of life. In 1 Enoch 24:1â??25:7, the mountain throne stands next to an exquisitely fragrant tree. In 1 Enoch 26:2, a stream flows from beneath a holy mountain. In 1 Enoch 48:1, a "fountain of righteousness" is identified. In 1 Enoch 28:3, a stream is described as issuing from the top of a mountain (throne), flowing water and dew. So it may be significant that the offering bowls were placed on top of the pillar thrones.

This leads in turn to Von Feldt's most remarkable original observations. She discusses in detail an artifact that Dever only touches upon in relation its depiction of Asherah.

With that, I turn at last to a scrutiny of what Dever believes is the most remarkable artifact of ancient Israelite religion found to date. It is an elaborate terra cotta rectangular pillar from tenth-century BC Taʿanach (p. 154). I believe that Dever's archaeology and Barker's reconstruction of wisdom theology come together to elucidate this artifact, also bringing light to our own Latter-day Saint temple tradition.

Dever's book contains a drawing of the Ta'anach offering stand. The FARMS Review surpasses the drawing in Dever's book by providing a high resolution photo of the actual artifact. If you view the pdf, you can zoom in several times to get a better look. This photo is very helpful in following Von Feldt's detailed analysis of the symbols on the artifact, which leads to several wonderful insights:

But I would go a bit further. To me, the Taʿanach stand is a plausible model of the creature in Ezekiel's visions.22 To my knowledge, this has never been suggested. Ezekiel describes first a whirlwind, a great cloud, fire, and the color amber (Ezekiel 1:4), elsewhere lamps (1:13) and lightning (1:14). If incense was burned in or on this stand, smoke and perhaps flames would have been emitted. In Ezekiel's second vision (Ezekiel 10), an angel is commanded by the Lord to reach in between the cherubim to gather coalsâ??easy to do when the structure is fenestrated. The fenestrations themselves could have been the eyes that Ezekiel describes: "And their whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels, were full of eyes round about" (Ezekiel 10:12).

She makes detailed arguments for this identification, and follows these observations to another insight:

I have suggested that the Taʿanach offering stand represents the throne of God. I have discussed its two Asherah icons and possible Yahweh symbol. I have considered that the offerings associated with this stand may have been invocation offerings rather than memorial offerings. I infer that the men-cherubim wearing the Hathor wigs could be understood to be mortals who have received wisdom and been transformed into angels. So, taken all together and understood in light of the wisdom tradition, the Taʿanach stand may well be physical evidence of a theology of apotheosis. In the countryside of Israel in family shrines, ordinary men and perhaps women sought heavenly wisdom. They may have believed they could become holy ones, ascend to the throne of Yahweh, and receive cosmic knowledge. They may have understood that the power to bestow this experience was in the hands of Asherah, and their offerings of invocation were symbols of her life-giving essence. If we add a Book of Mormon text to the interpretation, we can see that the stand, like others of its kind, may also have encoded the incarnation of Yahweh. Because the Taʿanach stand is so productively interpreted by Ezekiel's vision, it is possible that apocalyptic has found new rootsâ??in the ancient religion of the countryside.

Profound insights come as frequently in Alyson's review as the word "power" in Margaret Toscano's recent Sunstone essay. That is to say, whereas Toscano offers social complaints, Von Feldt offers timeless wisdom.

In Kerry's interesting podcast discussion of Alyson's review, he notes some of the above (not the discussion of deification), but he takes issue with one statement from her conclusion:

So I ask again, can we conclude from all this evidenceâ??Dever's archaeology, Barker's wisdom theology, and now the Book of Mormon tree of life imageryâ??that the Latter-day Saint doctrine of a Mother in Heaven is a restoration of the ancient Israelite belief in the Goddess Asherah/Wisdom?

I regretfully suggest that no, it is not. Though the Book of Mormon prophets seem to allude to Asherah, we have very little modern revelation by which to substantiate and flesh out this belief. We may not yet connect the dots between the Asherah of ancient Israel, the tree of life image in the Book of Mormon, and the very limited (though potent) modern-day prophetic teachings about a Heavenly Mother.

Kerry disputes her negative conclusion, but I think he's jumping the gun. She's clearly not disputing the connections, nor the relevance, but whether the limited modern teachings fully restore the ancient Israelite belief. I think her point is that the modern teachings are too limited at present to constitute a full restoration. She wants more, but wants its to come through revelation, rather than speculation or the spade.

She concludes by sensibly saying that:

We cannot find certain truth through a study of texts and archaeology alone, but we can be sure that new revelation is more likely to be forthcoming when we have made good use of the knowledge that is already available.

I found this to be a breathtaking review. (And Margaret Barker is also tremendously impressed.) I'd read Dever on my own some months before, and enjoyed his book, but Alyson sees more even than Dever in Dever's own evidences. She changes perception, and opens eyes to see new things. Highly recommended. It's the kind of knowledge extending review that makes the FARMS Review so special and significant in Mormon studies.

Kevin Christensen

Pittsburgh, PA

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It's clear Von Fedt had a leg up on Dever; her knowledge of pseudopigraphical works, as well as restoration scripture, add a very relevent angle to the discussion. Even then, Dever's work combined with Von Fedt's information is a fascinating combination.

I must admit I had a slightly difficult time following Von Fedt's narrative. It's simply a reader's preference, I realize, but I still read the article with great interest. I think this demonstrates the weight behind the arguments therein. I found the article both fascinating, and narratively weak.

She ought to get with Margaret and collabo on a book.

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Nice review Kevin, and I agree that she has one up on Dever, and her insights and ideas were really, REALLY wonderful, which is why I podcast her first instead of the amazing Bokovoy/Heiser exchange. I understand why you don't go along with my sentiment that she waffled however. I still think she did. I understand that she wants it all to come via revelation from church leaders only, but all knowledge does not come through the church, whether scientific, political, or religious. God has many, many astonishing ways of teaching truth, not just exclusively through the LDS First Presidency. That is why I think she waffles. But it is minor compared to her wonderful review, I will be the first to admit.

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Nice review Kevin, and I agree that she has one up on Dever, and her insights and ideas were really, REALLY wonderful, which is why I podcast her first instead of the amazing Bokovoy/Heiser exchange. I understand why you don't go along with my sentiment that she waffled however. I still think she did. I understand that she wants it all to come via revelation from church leaders only, but all knowledge does not come through the church, whether scientific, political, or religious. God has many, many astonishing ways of teaching truth, not just exclusively through the LDS First Presidency. That is why I think she waffles. But it is minor compared to her wonderful review, I will be the first to admit.

I kind of felt like she aborted the discussion too suddenly. The ending consisting of "No" needed explanation, in my opinion.

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Well, discussion about the Divine Feminine and LDS tradition and scripture can and should continue. Alyson's essay should encourage that. The essays that have been gradually thawing the post-Allred chill on the topic have been grounded in solid research, rather than simply emotionally and politically-charged speculations unconstrained by scripture or archeology. This includes Daniel Peterson's Nephi and His Asherah, Kevin Barney's FAIR essay, Margaret Barker's essays, Dever, Welch's essay comparing the Hymn of the Pearl to Eliza Snow's Oh My Father, and Kerry's recent interesting essays.

Kevin Christensen

Pittsburgh, PA

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the post-Allred chill

I was there when the respondent to Ms. Allred's "Christa" Sunstone presentation (in which she expressed doubt that a Christus could possibly affect atonement for womankind, He being male and unable to appreciate women's issues and all) asked her, "Just what part of omniscient don't you understand?"

USU "Perhaps Blake's finest hour" 78

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I have several podcasts on Wisdom, the MotherGoddess concept, etc., as well. For some reason this subject just resonates with me, so I can't let it go, and I find her in the Jewish Kabbalah, recent biblical scholarship and Mormon scholarship. I think it's truly delightful myself.

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Kevin Barney's FAIR paper, "Do We Have a Mother in Heaven" is a pdf that can be found by looking here:

http://www.fairlds.org/apol/ai180.html

I agree with Kerry on this being a hypnotically fascinating topic. (I recall getting a copy of The Hebrew Goddess many years ago when it was still hard to find. What a rush!) I liked Toscano's first essay on the topic (in Sunstone, The Missing Rib), but was disappointed with her latest in a recent Sunstone (which unhelpfully harped on "power"). What's nice about being LDS is that what little we have is enough to let us explore the themes within the context of faith, rather than an alternative to it.

Another way to appreciate Alyson's essay is to compare it with the BYU Studies review of Dever a few issues back. It was nice, timely, generally favorable, about what you'd expect. Alyson brings out so much I didn't expect that I got giddy. Incidentally, Alyson has a forthcoming FARMS Occasional Paper's essay on Wisdom teaching in the Book of Mormon. Just when it will be forthcoming is a mystery to me, but it's a very powerful and provocative paper, again making connections in familiar texts in ways that transform them.

Kevin Christensen

Pittsburgh, PA

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I was there when the respondent to Ms. Allred's "Christa" Sunstone presentation (in which she expressed doubt that a Christus could possibly affect atonement for womankind, He being male and unable to appreciate women's issues and all) asked her, "Just what part of omniscient don't you understand?"

USU "Perhaps Blake's finest hour" 78

Hey, I was there, too. The presentation was outside, in the hotel courtyard, at the sunstone symposium in about 1991--the summer before I left for graduate school. I recall also Mr. Ostler saying something about "before we go running off to Mt. Olympus looking for new gods . . ." (presumably he meant the Greek Mt. Olympus???)

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