God's Consort

On Thursday, the Kibbutz offered a walking tour down to one of the archaeological dig sites that is on their property. This particular walk was down to the cave of John the Baptist. Whether John the Baptist was ever actually there is debatable, but what is clear is that in this cave is the earliest known drawing of John the Baptist, which dates to around the 4th century. This picture of John the Baptist was actually featured as the cover story of “Newsweek” on August 30, 2004. Besides the John the Baptist drawing, the other thing that is quite clear is that this has been a holy site for thousands of years. There is a saying I have heard several times since coming here: “once a holy site, always a holy site.” Though the significance of any given site may change over the centuries, the holiness of a site is understood as passed down. And this site was one of those; there are at least three distinct uses for this holy site (I will only discuss the first in any depth).

This site was Jewish from the beginning. A sample taken from the plastered wall of the cistern was radiocarbon dated to the era of David. Originally, it seems as though site was a giant cistern where the people would congregate to try to entice God to send the rains. Remember that in this land, rain was life or death. There is a hole in the top of the cistern that captures water, and opens in an outer court, which would flood if the cistern were full. On the side of the court there are eight cut stones that, if the courtyard was entirely flooded would be about half submerged in water. The stones are quite obviously representative of something, as they would have served no practical function. They are most likely representation of divine presence: the heavenly court.

In the middle of the eight stones there is one stone that is slightly bigger than the other stones that is balanced on a small square pillar, less than half of the size of the massive stone on top of it. The evidence from other known shrines says that this big stone is the LORD, and the surrounding stones are his heavenly court. The evidence supporting this is the small pillar the large stone in balanced on. Often, in the Bible, the LORD is viewed as sitting: heaven is God’s throne and the earth is his footstool (Is. 66:1; see also 1 Chron. 28:2, Ex. 24:10, and so forth). The LORD is balanced on a smaller stone because He is viewed as sitting down, and this smaller stone is his footstool, which likely represents the earth. Also, as I said, this was a site where people would come to pray for God to send the rain. The idea of God as the one who controls the rain is actually a very Biblical one; consider the life of Elijah, or Psalm 29 (where God is painted as the cloud-rider, a title that typically belonged to Baal), and so forth.

Next to this stone is a smaller stone - the same height as all the others, but much thinner. It is thought that this is God’s wife: Asherah. There have been several archaeological discoveries that indicate that ancient folk Judaism believed that God had a consort, and Asherah was her name. For example, a piece of pottery was discovered in 1975 in the Sinai desert that had this inscription: “I have blessed you by YHVH of Samaria and His Asherah.” Similar inscriptions are found in several other places. Of course, this makes sense as we read of several kings who worshipped Asherah alongside the LORD. II Kings 23:6 even tells us that there was an Asherah pole in the temple.

Originally, Asherah was Baal’s consort, but it seems likely – and even supported by the Bible – that the Israelites adopted much from the cult of Baal, and in a sense, remarried Asherah to the LORD. This seems to have been a later development, but not that late. It appears to have been a battle for well over a hundred years. Asherah was a fertility goddess known as "the one who walked the sea" so, it would be fitting for her to be in a court that would half-flood.

Of course, the Torah forbids the setting up of stones to represent the divine (e.g. Deut. 16:22; Lev. 26:1), but passages like 1 Kings 14:22-23 make it obvious that the law wasn’t necessarily followed. Indeed, if this is a place where Asherah and God are represented as married, I doubt they had too much concern for the Torah. Indeed, standing stones and Asherah poles are all over the Bible. And of course, this would be even more offensive to the prophets were these people actually trying to marry God and Asherah.

It is now thought that this was one of the sites where “holiness” and “water” were united. These sites are found in extra-biblical literature as holy sites.

Eventually, this cistern was abandoned and no longer used as a cistern. However, “once a holy site, always a holy site.” Eventually, probably not long after the cistern was abandoned as a cistern, it became a mikvah: a Jewish ritual-bathing place. Apparently, it was a very popular one. When the diggers were digging, they unearthed thousands and thousands of broken tools and pots and so forth.

Around 70 A.D., with the destruction of the temple and the chaos that followed, the mikvah was abandoned as well. However, holy sites are not abandoned. It appears that, though abandoned, this site was remembered as a holy site: a site where “holiness” and “water” were united. A monk, knowing well the story of John the Baptist apparently knew also of this site and quickly made the connection between a site of holiness and water and John the Baptist. Thus, he came to the cave and apparently it became a religious site again. The monks who lived there carved several things into the rock that suggest that they had John the Baptist in mind. On one side, there is a carving into the plaster of a man with wild hair, dressed in animal skins, and holding a staff. On the opposite wall is a picture of a dove and a beheaded head. All of these images point to John the Baptist of course.

As to the question of whether John the Baptist was ever actually there, I don’t know. It is possible, but I doubt it. Nonetheless, visiting this ancient holy site was a fantastic experience. Plus, our tour guide – who was involved in the original dig and wrote a masters thesis on it – was brilliant, and had a sense of humor that was like a mirror of Woody Allen’s. Overall, a very good time.

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