Friday, October 4, 2013

Dolls and Idols

A couple of decades back I attended a lecture by Raphael Patai on Israelite figurines. Patai argued that female figurines found on excavations in Israel were representations of the goddess Asherah, whom he identified as a female fertility goddess. He noted that the figurines were about ten inches high and made of clay. None of the figurines were labeled.

After the presentation, I asked why these figurines might not be dolls. He replied that the figurines had exaggerated sexual characteristics and that Barbie dolls did not have exaggerated sexual characteristics. At that point all the women in the room burst out laughing.

I did not ask the question to make fun of Professor Patai, whom I greatly respect. I simply wanted to hear a good argument about an alternate hypothesis. I still would.

William Dever makes the same argument that the figurines represent the goddess Asherah in his book Did God Have a Wife? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmanns, 2005).

In discussing the archaeological context of the figurines, Dever says,
there is no obvious "pattern" of distribution that would help to specify just what these figurines signified or exactly how they were used. They were certainly not "toys" (below). (p. 181)
So Dever has promised to argue why these female figurines were not toys. A bit later in the book he fulfills his promise after a fashion. His argument is:
A few even go to the absurd extreme of declaring that the figurines are merely toys --- which I call the "Barbie-doll syndrome" (p. 188).
As effective as this mockery may be rhetorically, it is not an argument. It does not state why these figurines need to be figures of Asherah and not dolls.

Unfortunately, Dever provides some evidence that undermines his argument.

Dever notes that the figurines are found
in all sorts of contexts, nearly all domestic: in houses; in cisterns, pits, and rubbish heaps; and in debris of all kinds. But they are relatively rare in tomb deposits, as well as in clear cultic contexts (p. 180).
He continues:
context is fundamental to determining the meaning of archaeological artifacts, so we are led to conclude that the female figurines have more to do with household than with community cults, more with ongoing life events than with death and funerary rituals (pp. 180-81).
All of this fits nicely with the view that these figurines are dolls rather than idols. The Hebrew Bible mentions Asherah several times, and usually in the context of a cultic installation (e.g. Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5; 12:3; 16:21; Judges 6:25-30; 1 Kings 14:23; 16:32-33; 18:19; 2 Kings 17:10, 16; 18:4; 21:3, 7; 23:4, 6-7, 14-15; Isaiah  17:8; 27:9; Jeremiah 17:2).

If the figurines were Asherah images we should expect them in the context where we usually do not find them and not in the contexts where we do.

So the question remains: Why can't these figurines be dolls?