God is love, the Gospel of Saint-John tells us. But He is not exactly a lover. At least, not in the Biblical tradition. Yet, he might have been one in the pre-biblical tradition.
On an ancient trade route in the south of Israel, in an artistic atelier of the eighth century BC, at a place now called Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a potsherd was found showing the drawing of a couple, a man and a wife, accompanied in the background by a female lyre player. Above the drawing we read: “… by Yahweh of Somron (Samaria) and his Asherah”.
The inscription is written in the Phoenician language. This is not a counter-indication of its authenticity, since the relation of Israel and Judah with the Phoenicians was at its highest at that time. Concerning the drawings, many scholars recognize in them figures of the Egyptian god Bes, and claim that there is no connection between the inscription and the drawings – the inscription, it is supposed, being added later. Yet, according to others things remain uncertain, some even claiming that one of the figures does show Asherah, the mother goddess of Canaan, who traditionally is related to El (the Ugarit chief god) but is staged here as Yahweh’s companion, his consort or wife.
In any case, in its totality, the scene pictures the monotheist god Yahweh in a context incompatible with the monotheist narrative. This would not be problematic if the potsherd dated from the second millennium BC. But it dates from the eight century BC, i.e. the golden age of the Hebrew language, coined by prophets like Hosea, Isaias, Jeremiah, and others. It is the age in which monotheism establishes itself, which it does in a violently critical gesture to the then-existing religion. The social context supposed in the books of the prophets – as well as in 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles – shows a wide spread pagan religion against which the monotheist Yahweh cult is often desperately fighting. It is by breaking gods that Yahweh becomes the one and only monotheist God.
So, it is not completely unthinkable that a picture such as the one found in Kuntillet ‘Ajrud shows us Yahweh and his wife as they were part of everyday life in antique Israel before the Exile (eight and seventh century BC). Yet, it is only after the annihilation of that image that Yahweh has developed into the monotheist God as familiar to us today.
In Deuteronomy 33: 2-3 (at least if we can trust the translation of the biblical archeology scholar Meindert Dijkstra), we see Asherah sharing the stage with Yahweh:
YHWH came from Sinai
and shone forth from his own Seir,
He showed himself from Mount Paran,
Yea, he came among the myriads of Qudhsu,
at his right hand his own Asherah,
Indeed, he loves the clans
and all his holy ones on his left.
And in 2 Kings we read:
The carved image of Asherah that he [Manasse, king of Judah] had made he set in the house of which the Lord said to David and to his son Solomon, ‘In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever … (21: 7)
In the age before the Exile, the time to which the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud potsherd is dated, even Judah’s king related Asherah to Yahweh. Monotheism only emerged in the very fight against this kind of phenomena.
Monotheism did not so much fight the female side of the divine as it fought sexual difference or, even more drastically, difference in general. The monotheist God incorporates the idea of a being that is not marked by the differences with which all other beings are marked (life/death, man/wife, et cetera) – and this is precisely the thing in which He himself differs from all else that is. All is equal in being different from the One without any difference.
What is more, the monotheist God is that non-difference that inhabits the heart of all that is, and it is now He who makes things differ from themselves. In that sense, we humans differ from ourselves – i.e. we grow, live and die, have relations (including sexual ones) with one another, et cetera – by the grace of a power that never changes and perfectly masters all those differences.
In this perspective, it becomes a little clearer why the monotheist God cannot be defined as ‘eros’, since eros is a name for the irreducible, ever proliferating difference that, according the antique Greek, marks us as human beings. Eros is the term for the human condition marked by difference that does not refer to ‘one’ difference. Monotheism, then, can be defined as the ‘making one’ of differences: all that is, is marked by one difference, i.e. the difference from the One who is not marked by difference. When Christians define the monotheist God as love, it is precisely not erotic love, but agape, the love that has overcome all differences.