July 14, 2016
New York Times
Two months ago, an ancient parchment scroll was discovered after a man at the Western Wall of what used to be the Jerusalem temple dislodged a large stone while placing his prayer in a crevice. It has taken scholars two months to carefully unroll the dry scroll in order to decipher what was written on it. A radio-carbon test has also determined that the scroll dates from the late sixth century BCE. The scroll was found inside a leather pouch, which indicated to experts that the scroll was buried on purpose. The pouch protected the scroll from the elements and contributed to its excellent preservation.
The radio carbon dating corresponds to a turbulent period in the history of the Jewish people. In the late sixth century BCE, the country of Judea with its capital at Jerusalem was overtaken by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia. The scribes, priests, and upper class members of the community were taken as captives back to Babylon. These scribes and scholars, however, were not treated like prisoners and continued their writing and worship tradition while in Babylonia. Nebuchadnezzar surmised that if he had the leaders in captivity, the rest of the population would be compliant. Unfortunately, that did not turn out to be the case. After several uprisings, Nebuchadnezzar returned with his armies, quelled the revolts, and destroyed the historic Jerusalem temple in 587 BCE.
When Cyrus, the king of Persia, overtook the Babylonian empire some forty years later, he freed the Israelites held in captivity, let them return to Jerusalem, and allowed them to rebuild the temple. It is believed it is at this time that the scroll was dropped into the Western Wall of the new temple as it was being reconstructed. This wall is now often referred to as the Wailing Wall as it is the last remnant of this temple, which was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans.
Scholars have painstakingly translated the ancient Hebrew text into modern Hebrew and most recently into English. Portions of the content of that scroll are listed below. The scroll appears to be partial notes taken of a meeting among the scribes. The notes discuss the problems scholars were having with rationalizing the conquest of Judea by Babylon. Biblical scholars believe that the work of these scribes during their exile resulted in the almost final edition of the Torah. It is this edition that was brought back to Jerusalem after the exile and which forms the core of the first five books of the Judeo-Christian Bible. This final editing of the Bible is often referred to as the Priestly edition. It differs from earlier versions entitled J for Yahweh, E for Elohim, and D for Deuteronomy.
Partial text of scroll:
Josiah: If we are God’s chosen people, why was Babylon able to conquer us and destroy our temple?
Aaron: I think this is definitely something we are going to have to deal with in our final reworking of The Book. Somehow, we are going to have to explain this.
Micah: I was at the library the other day and read Babylon’s epic myth Enuma Elish. It’s all the people here talk about. It seems pretty old by the look of the scroll.
Aaron: Well, what does it say?
Micah: At the beginning of the story, there is a pantheon of gods, but Marduk, one of the male gods, tells the males in the pantheon that he wants to be the supreme god. He pledges that if the others agree, he will kill Tiamat. She is the goddess that is in charge of the sea. He gets the okay, and he cuts up Tiamat into pieces. Marduk then creates the earth by separating the heavens from the sea.
Aaron: But that is exactly what we have been trying to do—get rid of Asherah. I mean I know our ancestors used to worship Asherah as the wife of Yahweh, but she is now just a hindrance. It’s too hard to justify our exclusion of women in the priesthood if Yahweh has a wife. We don’t allow women to even enter the temple when they have their blood week, so how can we continue to justify a female goddess? I think we should get rid of her, just like Marduk did.
Josiah: Maybe that’s been our problem all along—keeping that ancient goddess idea. I think we now know better. We need to focus on Yahweh alone.
Micah: I have an idea. If we are going to get rid of Asherah, we are going to have to put down women even further. Otherwise, they will try to resurrect some form of her. Remember that story that Jeremiah told us. He said there were women at the temple who said, “But since we stopped burning sacrifices to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have met our end by the sword and by famine.” We have already restricted them from learning to write, from being part of commerce, and from performing duties in the temple. Remember when the Canaanites had harlots performing services in their temples? I mean, really. How bad is that?
Aaron: OK. So how about if revise that story we had sketched out about the creation of Adam and Eve. We had the draft about eating from the tree and let Adam take the first bite. I think we should change that to have Eve take the first bite instead. That will make her look like the guilty one. The tree is a good symbol too because Asherah is worshipped in nature near trees and poles. People will get the analogy right away I think.
Josiah: That is a great idea! When our people were in Egypt, they brought back a lot of goddess symbols. The Egyptian symbol for goddess is the cobra. How clearer can that be? So I think we should make the one who tempts Adam and Eve a snake. That way, we get two points against Asherah—putting the fruit of the tree there to tempt Eve and then having the snake be the bad guy. What do you think?
Micah: Genius. I think it will really do the trick. Then we can explain that the reason we were overthrown was because of the goddess. Once we get rid of her and every female figurine, we will be as strong as Babylon. I think the people will understand this completely, don’t you?
Aaron: Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I will write up this conversation and then we can use it to do that final edition of The Book. This is going to be great. No more worship of the goddess. I’m all in, how about the rest of you?
Josiah: Count me in.
Karen L. Garst
P.S. Yes, the discovering of the scroll and the article by the New York Times are fiction. However, everything in the article prior to the dialog is acknowledged by biblical scholars. In the dialog, Asherah was one of the goddesses in Canaan. There is a piece of pottery that has been found that says “Yahweh and his Asherah” indicating they may have been worshipped together. Karen Armstrong, a leading biblical scholar, writes that the first five books of the Old Testament or the Torah were finalized during the exile in Babylon. The story of Marduk and Tiamat is contained in the Enuma Elish, a Mesopotamian myth. It dates from the second millennium BCE.
 Jeremiah 44:18.