Dever’s recent contribution continues a long string of publications focusing on ancient Israelite religion, and specifically, Asherah. The distinction of his own interpretation of these phenomena, according to the author, is the full incorporation of archaeological material into the discussion. The work is wide-ranging, seeking to synthesize religion, biblical study, women’s studies, and the development of monotheism. Herein lies an inevitable problem—each of these disciplines, in addition to archaeology itself, is highly specialized and requires considerable finesse. The ability of any one expert in these areas to take on this enterprise would be severely taxed.
The book begins with a definition of the very broadly used term “religion” and a review of the history of the study of Israel’s religion. Specialists in the study of religion show no consensus on a definition of religion, but Dever seems to accept a Tillichian “ultimate concern” (p. 2) definition. Immediately this raises the question of what material remains can tell us about this profoundly internal human inclination. The stress on religion, particularly folk religion, as experiential (p. 12), stresses the difficulty of applying archaeological remains in any kind of precise way to the inner lives of largely non-literate people. Dever’s real contribution here is the provision of a context in which folk religions thrived: small communities far removed from the bureaucratic life of the Jerusalem temple. His review of the history of the study of Israelite religion is marred by the pointed blaming of biblical scholars for not taking the archaeological data into account, even though he admits that much of the information has been inadequately published. One wonders how a biblical scholar is to assess the material that even trained archaeologists find difficult to unravel.
The third chapter on the “Sources and Methods for the Study of Ancient Israel’s Religions” makes a case for the inclusion of archaeology as a “primary source” of information. Dever notes that many past studies have neglected the archaeological evidence and sharply criticizes biblical scholars for not keeping up-to-date on archaeological developments: “I have suggested that the obliviousness of most biblical scholars to archaeological data is due to their being uninformed. Yet that is hardly an excuse for ‘scholars.’ Some archaeologists read in their field” (p. 78, emphasis in original). Such broadsides overlook the immense field of biblical studies which is itself a fully-developed discipline. If a true cooperation between fields is desired, it would seem that an irenic tone would be more effective.
Dever’s fourth and fifth chapters on the cultic terminology and activities in the Hebrew Bible and archaeological evidence for folk religions in Israel are informative, and it is here that the archaeological material is impressively displayed. For biblical scholars seeking the heart of the matter without the polemics against their field, this section of the book is most valuable.
Chapters six and seven move onto the titular aspect of God’s wife, namely, a review of the Asherah material in the Bible and the archaeological record. Here Dever largely restates conclusions from his earlier publications on the subject of Asherah, but unfortunately takes the approach of classifying Asherah as a somewhat amorphous “Mother Goddess” to be identified with Astarte and Anat (p. 185), who are clearly distinct deities in Canaanite religion. Perhaps more distressing is his extreme reliance on the Winchester Museum plaque, an artifact that has been known to be missing for over a decade, and which is highly questionable in many respects. Dever also tackles the female figurines from ancient Israel, confidently associating them with Asherah, despite the total lack of consensus on this issue among Asherah scholars. Clearly the most relevant archaeological material on Asherah, that of ancient Ugarit, is discussed in a cursory way over less than two pages (primarily p. 210) and is only briefly mentioned elsewhere.
Surprisingly, when the discussion turns to the development of monotheism in chapter eight, the discussion becomes textual rather than archaeological. Only after twenty pages of discussion of the biblical text (regarded as highly suspect early in the book), does the archaeological material come into the issue. Even the archaeological data here is shored up by citations of biblical texts, causing the reader to wonder about the sufficiency of archaeology to illustrate this development.
Clearly Dever has a great wealth of information on the archaeology of ancient Israel that bears weightily on the subject of religion as practiced by the ordinary folk of the nation. A book that focuses entirely on this evidence alone would be a valuable contribution to the discussion. There are some serious difficulties, however, that permeate this study. At the very start of the book Dever notes that religion can be known only from the inside (p. ix) and yet notes that he is “more a student of religion than a practitioner” (xi). Although he attempts to redress an imbalance skewed toward a textual reading of religion, his own approach frequently notes the deficiencies of the Hebrew Bible for the study and yet uses the Hebrew Bible to support his own interpretations. Archaeology and the Bible surely must communicate, but they must do so respecting the serious work done by those in both disciplines.