• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Wednesday, March 23, 2011

    The Bible's Buried Secrets: Did God Have a Wife?

    As the internet seems to have proved time and time again the more tenuous a given hypothesis is, the more those who defend it resort to peppering their arguments with confident-sounding phrases such as 'certainly', 'clearly' and 'undoubtedly'. In a similar vein I suspect that those seeking to promote rather dull, and fairly obvious theories resort to describing them with phrases such as "grounbreaking" and "revolutionary". Then again, it would be a mistake to extrapolate too far on the basis of one programme.

    Part 2 of BBC2's The Bible's Buried Secrets - Did God Have a Wife? didn't just resort to such melodramatic terminology in its opening abstract, but seasoned its entire run-time with such overblown metaphors. Time and again presenter Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou told us that what she was telling us "rocks [monotheism] to its core", is "the biggest secret of all" one that "shakes the very heart of monotheism" and "rocks the foundation of modern monotheism".

    The source of all this rocking and shaking is Stavrakopoulou's revelation that Israel was not always monotheistic. Whilst this may shake some fundamentalists and those who have only paid passing attention to their Hebrew Bible, such a conclusion is the only reasonable reading of the books of 1 and 2 Kings, not to mention Judges, Samuel, Chronicles and the prophets. Israel and Judah were frequently being chastised for worshipping other Gods. There's less unity behind Stavrakopoulou's claim that monotheism didn't emerge until the Jewish exile in Babylon, but the evidence to support such a claim is relatively thin. The odd archaeological find showing "God's wife" only proves that some of the Israelites worshipped a female deity. It hardly proves that this was the belief of the entire nation, nor even a significant percentage.

    Part of the problems here seem to come from a implied theory that the various parts of the Hebrew Bible present a united front. There are of course many who would hold to such a theory overall, but few who really knew the subject would insist that "the story the Bible tells us" is of a nation who were monotheistic from God's very first words to Abraham, apart from "occasional lapses".

    In reality, the Bible accuses the northern kingdom (Israel) of being almost entirely idolatrous from the moment Solomon's Empire divided. What's strange about this presentation is that despite Stavrakopoulou explaining in the previous programme about the split between Judah in the South and Israel in the north, and about how Jewish writers may have attempted to smear their rivals in the north, none of this gets a look in. Israel is presented in the documentary as if it were a united nation from the time of Abraham to the exile. Yet Israel no longer even existed by the time of the latter event.

    The experts were also a little disappointing this time around. In the traditional corner was Rabbi Ken Spiro, who is heard saying that his message is "not PC" before he has even been introduced. He pops up again and again to presumably to provide a bit of balance, but the excerpts included don't really present him as having credible reasons for his disagreement. There's also a couple of brief clips of Walter Moberly, who doesn't say a great deal, and of Islamic scholar Muhsin Yusuf in the programme's brief, and seemingly token, mention of Islamic monotheism. And there are also brief words from Judith Hadley and Ze'er Meshel. But the main scholarly contribution is from Herbert Niehr who is agrees with Stavrakopoulou to such an extent that at times they seem almost like an unlikely double act.

    That's not to say that the programme was not interesting. I picked up several things that I had not known before from the nature of the archaeological artefacts at Ugarit to the pottery finds linking Yahweh and Asherah, though the latter didn't really strike me as "the most important artefact in the history of God". And it was good to see that the programme had made a late correction to incorporate the news that this once lost piece of pottery looks to have re-emerged.

    As with the first instalment the technical quality of the documentary was very good: nice images, reasonably good pacing and catching an archaeological dig as they uncovered something must have been particularly pleasing. But the arguments here are just far too overblown so that rather than developing the understanding of a wide range of people, both believers and sceptics, the film is so couched in melodramatic language that only DanBrown-o-phile conspiracists will take its information seriously.



    • At 7:53 pm, March 23, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Hi Matt,

      Another good review. Must admit I had to go back through my own review and knock out some of my phrases to calm me down. I did think that it was even more disappointing than the previous week.

    • At 6:23 am, March 24, 2011, Blogger Ross said…

      Is this documentary worth watching? It seems that it's common for secular documentaries about the Bible and related matters to be sloppily researched.

    • At 12:28 pm, March 24, 2011, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Hi Will,

      Not had a chance to read your review yet, but feel free to post it on the Facebook wall (I get bored of seeing my own avatar there all the time!).


      I think it is worth watching, even if its a bit annoying. For what its worth, I don't think it is sloppily researched - Stavrakopoulou is a Senior Lecturer at Exeter Uni and did her PhD at Oxford. I think its just the way it's communicated simplifies things in the wrong places and her rhetoric is overly hyperbolic, at least for my tastes.


    • At 6:50 pm, March 24, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Hi Matt,

      'Fraid I'm one of the few without Facebook!!!

    • At 6:07 pm, March 28, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      outre theological/archeological bible theory has become a cottage industry for the Phd's who have some media savvy and flair for the dramatic

      she's much more pleasant to look at than crossan

      meanwhile the stolid theologians toil away in anonymity in their grey academic tenures

    • At 3:25 pm, April 05, 2011, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Firstly, Victor - awesome pseudonym. I can certainly see your point though she's a bit more than just a PhD - s senior lecturer.



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