I'm reading an author who writes about ancient Hebrews perspective of God, when he makes statement, "The distinction between the God of the ancients and pagan gods was vast, with no hint of Adonai's birth or relations with "other gods", as was common to the myths and legends of pagan deities. In fact, there was no Hebrew term for 'goddess', it was a totally foreign concept to them."

Is this accurate? Did the ancient Hebrew not even develop a word for "goddess"?


The word "goddess"

No word for "goddess" exists in Biblical Hebrew.

Ashtoreth, the goddess of Sidon, is called "the god of Sidon" (אֱלֹהֵי צִדֹנִים) in I Kings 11:5. This is probably due to the fact that no female form of the word אֱלֹהִים 'elohim was in use, leading to the awkward designation of Ashtoreth as a "god." (Grammatically, the word אֱלֹהִים is plural, and the singular is אֱלוֹהַ 'eloah, which was also not used in a feminine form.) Apparently, no female word for "goddess" was in common use at the time of the writing of this passage.

The word b‘lt, which appears in the phrase m'hb‘lt in the Sinaitic Inscriptions to mean "goddess," also never appears in Biblical Hebrew. (This interpretation of the inscriptions is based on interpreting the b to represent the last letter of the first word as well as the first letter of the second word, making it m'hb b‘lt, "beloved of the goddess." Earlier translations translated hb ‘lt "bring sacrifices.")

The Sinaitic inscription has been identified (controversially) as an early form of Hebrew, and if this is true, it would show that Hebrew once had a word for goddess. However, Biblical Hebrew is not necessarily a direct descendant of whatever language is attested in these inscriptions.

Words other than "goddess" for a goddess

The concept of a goddess does appear in the Bible by different names. Ashtoreth was mentioned above. The אֲשֵׁרָה 'ashera tree (Deuteronomy 16:21) was apparently worshiped as a goddess, or at least used in the worship of a goddess (I Kings 15:13). An inscription mentions "YHVH of Samaria and his 'ashera." Some people concluded from this that YHVH was originally understood to have had a consort, but it could also be that the 'ashera was merely an object used in worship and not an actual goddess.

Interestingly, another tree, the 'ela (אֵלָה), which was used in worship (Hosea 4:13), could be understood to mean "goddess" (by analogy to אֵל 'el), and does mean "goddess" in modern Hebrew, but never has such a meaning in Biblical Hebrew.

  • Is אֱלֹהֵי grammatically (obviously not functionally) plural? Jan 18 '18 at 14:10
  • @SolaGratia Yes. The singular would be אֱלוֹהַ (both in construct and absolute form). But I don't think it ever appears as singular in construct form.
    – b a
    Jan 18 '18 at 14:25
  • Thanks! Did the מי get stolen by the word 'Sidon' in construct form, or does it mean 'Sidonites'? Jan 18 '18 at 15:26
  • @SolaGratia It means "god of the Sidonites." My translation was imprecise
    – b a
    Jan 18 '18 at 17:03

Biblical Hebrew indeed does not have a word for "goddess". However, that is not a very good argument to claim that the concept of female deities was foreign to the Hebrews, which is incorrect.

Due to the size of the corpus (420,000 words) we do not have all words. There must have been many more words that are not in our manuscripts. If I remember correctly, we have only 8,000 unique words of Biblical Hebrew. That is simply not enough to use a language efficiently. Thus, the lack of a term for "goddess" could be historical coincidence.

This is even more the case for female terms. Female plurals are only used when the whole group that is referred to is female. If there is even just one male entity in the group, the form used is the male plural. This means that there are, by grammatical construction, less female forms attested.

The concept of female deities was definitely not foreign to the Hebrews. There was a lot of cultural contact in the region in the time the Hebrew Bible was composed, both due to the small sizes of the different nations and to the exile. The Hebrews definitely knew of female deities from other religions. This is evident for instance in Jer 44:15–18, where the Queen of Heaven is mentioned:

Jer 44:17 (KJV): But since we left off to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine.

If you're interested in the subject: dr. Raphael Patai has written a book, The Hebrew Goddess, with the abstract below. I have not read the book myself, so cannot vouch for it.

The Hebrew Goddess demonstrates that the Jewish religion, far from being pure monotheism, contained from earliest times strong polytheistic elements, chief of which was the cult of the mother goddess. Lucidly written and richly illustrated, this third edition contains new chapters of the Shekhina.

  • 1
    +1 answer. Difficult to find today an ancient Hebrew word for "goddess", as a feminine for "god". Female "goddesses" would have been simply called by their name. In addition to Patai's book I'd add William Dever's Did God Have a Wife? {amazon.com/Did-God-Have-Wife-Archaeology/dp/0802863949} There is also a British scholar who did some interesting research on this, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, do google for it, there are to many to put into a comment. Jan 18 '18 at 9:52

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