The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center turned out to be even more captivating than I expected; perhaps I had become a bit blase about the history and culture after nearly two years of adult education classes on Judaism. The complete Dead Sea Scrolls collection consists of thousands of fragments of more than 900 scrolls dating from the biblical era, 250 BCE to 68 CE. Discovered in caves along the northwest coast of Israel’s Dead Sea during the years 1947-56, they are almost 1,000 years older than the next oldest copies of the Bible. While about 207 of them are biblical manuscripts, the majority are not and include prayers, laws and commentary. The exhibit catalog calls them a “spiritual map of ancient Israel.” Displays of pottery, coins, parchments and other artifacts from at least two milennia ago precede the actual scrolls in the exhibit and provide context. I was particularly taken with a display of small terra cotta figurines dating from the 8th century BCE that were excavated from the remains of houses. Only a few inches tall with prominent breasts, it’s believed they represent the Canaanite goddess Asherah and were likely used in rituals associated with fertility and pregnancy. Remnants of more than 2,000 such figurines have been unearthed.Apparently ancient Israel wasn’t as monotheistic as we commonly think. Even though the Temple was the center of religious life, scholars believe popular religious customs continued to be practiced in homes until the Babylonian exile that began in 586 BCE and that many people of the biblical period viewed Asherah as the consort of the god of Israel.
This was a new insight for me about Judaism but reminiscent of some of the various theories about Mary Magdalene’s role in Christianity. On a personal level, the household goddess statue at the exhibit sparked a frisson of connection with my own set of feminine images, most of which were bought or received as gifts during my childbearing years. I’m not sure I think of them as goddesses, and I don’t use them in any particular ritual way, but having them about — the two shown below on the window sill above the kitchen sink — serves to affirm and inspire as I go about my daily tasks.