Susan Ackerman, Gods, Goddesses, and the Women Who Serve Them

Ackerman, Susan. Gods, Goddesses, and the Women Who Serve Them. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. xiii+296 pp. Hb; $59.99  Link to Eerdmans

Susan Ackerman is Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth. This new book collects ten essays Ackerman has written over the course of her career. Rather than simply reprint the essays, Ackerman has occasionally polished the writing, refined her arguments, and added some additional bibliography. In addition, for most chapters, Ackerman introduces the essay by giving a context for the article and reflecting on the article some years after it was originally published. These introductions are extremely valuable. I wish more authors would add these kinds of updates and personal recollections of the origin of previously published essays.

Ackerman GoddessesPart one collects three essays on goddesses.  First, in “And the Women Knead Dough” Ackerman discusses the worship of the Queen of Heaven in sixth century BCE Judah (Jeremiah 7:16-20; 44:15-19, 25). She stands by her original conclusion that the queen of heaven combines the East Semitic goddess Ishtar and the West Semitic Astarte (16). She returns to this issue in chapters 9 and 10. This cult prospered in sixth century Judah and gave women religious and political power. “Asherah, the West Semitic Goddess of Spinning and Weaving?” deals with an intriguing phrase in 2 Kings 23:7, Josiah tore down the quarters in the Temple “where women did weaving for Asherah.” Ackerman argues Asherah was a patron goddess for spinning and weaving. Women weaving in the temple is found in other cults in near eastern gods, although not for Asherah in particular. Ackerman focusing on Tiamat in “The Women of the Bible and of Ancient Near Eastern Myth.” Since Tiamat is not the sort of god anyone would typically worship, Ackerman argues Tiamat is a type that represents an object lesson regarding proper gender behavior (58). The stories of Tiamat’s conflict with Marduk have an unhappy ending because Tiamat defied gender norms in the Ancient Near East (70).

Part two comprises three articles on priests and prophets in the ancient Near East. First, chapter 4 is an update to her 2002 JBL article, “Why Is Miriam Also among the Prophets? (And Is Zipporah among the Priests?)” As she explains in the introduction, questions that were raised while she was writing her 1998 book on women in the book of Judges. There are four “anomalous women” who are counted as prophets rather than priests (Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Noadiah [Neh 6:14]). Ackerman suggests male-authored depictions of liminality and gender conventions restricted Miriam from religious authority (priesthood) but not the prophetic office. So, what about Zipporah? Since she occupies a priestlike role, “the Bible admits the possibility women could assume the role of prophet within Israelite society” (109). Zipporah implies women could take on priestlike functions.

In “The Mother of Eshmunazor, Priest of Astarte” (ch. 5) and “Priestesses, Purity, and Parturition” (ch. 6), Ackerman observes a curious thing about Israelite religion: there is very little evidence for priestesses although there is plenty of evidence “right next door” in Phoenicia. In these two chapters, Ackerman lays out the evidence for priestesses in Phoenicia and suggests the reason there are no priestesses in Israel is Leviticus 15:19-30. Women are unclean for seven days following menstruation, and there are other texts that cut women out of cultic settings during their reproductive years. Therefore, only pre-puberty and post-menstrual women may have had a cultic function. She draws attention to Psalm 68:25-26 [ET 24-25], “the young women playing the timbrels” in a sacred procession. “Young woman” (עַלְמָה) may refer to a sacred function for prepubescent women.

Part three comprises Ackerman’s two essays on queen mothers, the first on the Queen Mother and the Cult in Ancient Israel (ch. 7) and the second more broadly in the Queen Mother and the Cult in the Ancient Near East (ch. 8). 1 Kings 15:13 and 2 Chronicles 15:16 mention Ma’acah as “queen mother” (גְּבִירָה). The text describes Ma’acah as placing Asherah images. Ackerman suggests this was part of her duties as the Queen Mother. “It is artificial to seek to divorce the political role of the Judean Queen Mother from a cultic function” (169). In her survey of queen mothers in the ancient Near East, Ackerman observes Bathsheba was a Queen Mother, citing Canticles 3:11 as evidence for Bathsheba’s powerful role in crowning her son as king. The article ranges into the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew understood Mary as a Queen Mother! Or better, the article hints, there is evidence in Matthew for the emerging cult of Mary in the apocryphal infancy gospels.

Finally, part four deals with women and worship. Chapter 9, “At Home with the Goddess” brings evidence from the other essays in this collection together to ask how the queen of heaven relates to the practical worship in the home. She examines places like Bethel and Dan, and how women like Ma’acah used her position as a Queen Mother to devote herself to Asherah. Part of this essay addresses how Asherah may have been worshipped in homes in the ancient near east through libations, offering cakes, etc. She concludes: at some points in Israel’s history, a significant cross section of the population was “at home” with the goddess. Finally, in “Women and the Worship of Yahweh in Ancient Israel,” Ackerman suggests later prophetic texts deem women as apostates (Hosea’s Gomer, for example). But texts outside the prophetic books have a more positive view of women worship gods other than Yahweh. Ma’acah worships Asherah. Some take part in the cult of heaven (Jer 7:16-20), others weep for Tammuz in the temple’s courtyard (Ezek 8:14).

Conclusion. Collecting and updating these essays makes them conveniently available to scholars and students working on religion in the ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible. Ackerman’s introductions are extremely helpful. This should be standard practice for career-spanning essay collections like this. Although these essays overlap, Gods, Goddesses, and the Women Who Serve Them is a valuable collection for those interested in the development of Israelite religion and the role of women in worship in the Hebrew Bible.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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