The Hidden Goddess – Chapter 4 – The Dwelling of God

Oct 1st, 2018 | By | Category: Articles, Hidden Goddess

The Israelites watched in awe as a great cloud descended from heaven and settled within the Temple, filling it with a radiance too brilliant to truly behold.  Before them spread the Glory of God, the pillar of cloud and fire that had led them from their bondage in Egypt, the Holy Spirit made manifest.  They fell to their knees in thanks and praise.  At last, the Shekinah was home. 

Asherah had been buried.  Lilith had been declared the mother of all evils, and Eve had damned all of humanity to death and peril.  The Divine Feminine had been battered and all but forgotten among the children of Israel.  The goddess had no place in the heaven crafted by the Israelites, nor in the earth built by the will of their god.  Yahweh demanded unwavering allegiance.  Any transgressions against that commandment often resulted in brutal showcases of his complete and unforgiving power.  This new god had become something wholly unknown in the ancient world – unattainable, lofty, unknowable.

The old gods had undoubtedly been powerful, bending the will of the earth and man with ease.  But they had also retained something that Yahweh lacked – a spark of humanity.  They had needs and desires, made mistakes, walked among mortals, ate, drank, fought, evolved, and learned.  In any situation, a man or woman could look to the ancient heavens and discover common ground with one of the many deities.  It made the old gods accessible and bridged the impossible distance between mortal and deity.  And it was a dangerous mark of the pagan world that the Israelites could not tolerate.

Since Biblical times, a major tenet of Judaism has been the total ban of any references or representations of an anthropomorphic Yahweh.  He is simply beyond description.  No representation of God is possible as he surpasses the limits of the human imagination.  There is no humanity left in the Israelite God.  Religion was no long based on the personal experience of the sacred.  Instead, the Judeo-Christian world would be built on faith alone.

But almost from the beginning, the early fathers of the Church faced a host of problems with their indescribable God.  Within their own sacred texts, from the Bible to foundational midrashic literature, they encountered countless references to a man-like Yahweh.  In Genesis, God walked among his creations in the Garden of Eden.  In Exodus, the covenant was inscribed by the finger of God himself.  Isaiah reported him as sitting on a throne, and in Psalms he was said to dwell in the city of Jerusalem.  In fact, it is difficult to find any reference to God (especially in the older texts) where he does not possess some man-like need or ability.

The early Judaic scholars were not blind to this discrepancy in rule and practice.  They understood that it could cause confusion among the faithful laypersons.  It became their mission to understand and explain these passages in a way that emphasized the transcendent nature of Yahweh while remaining easily grasped by the common Israelite.  But by stripping Yahweh of his humanity they bestowed it on the one thing they had so diligently worked to subjugate – the goddess.

Before facing the issues of anthropomorphism in the Torah, a concept had already began to develop within the Jewish communities that would greatly affect the way the early fathers approached reconciling the problematic verses.  This idea led to a belief in intermediaries, semi-divine beings that interacted with humanity on God’s behalf.  This development resulted in a glimpse of the revived goddess in Judaism.  An unnamed Wisdom Goddess, an amalgamation of Asherah and other ancient goddesses, began to take shape as one of these intermediaries.  And to truly understand the Shekinah, a brief look at Wisdom is necessary.

Although she is mentioned throughout the Bible, the Book of Proverbs provides a wealth of information on the unnamed entity.  In the eighth chapter, Wisdom proclaims herself as the first of God’s creations:  “When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, when there were no springs overflowing with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, before he made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth” (Proverbs 8:24-26).  According to this chapter, often referred to as the Call of Wisdom, the goddess is portrayed as having been present during the entire creation of earth and mankind.  Other authors will take this idea further and insist that it was Wisdom herself that sparked creation or was perhaps the medium through which God crafted the heavens and earth.  Regardless, it is obvious that Wisdom was seen as being an integral part in the mechanism of creation, hearkening back to a time when all was created by the Goddess.

Eventually, Wisdom would take the place of Asherah as the bride of God.  No longer would Yahweh’s consort be the powerful and overtly sexual goddess of Canaan, but a refined and humble being of knowledge focused solely on the teaching of God and righteousness.  But just like the Mother Goddesses of old, Wisdom had another side to her as well.  In the first chapter of Proverbs, we find her in an interesting situation usually equated to harlots and prostitutes – crying out in the streets and public square.  She rebukes the children of Israel as they ignore her call, promising them “I in turn will laugh when calamity overtakes you” (Proverbs 1:26) and that “they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes” (1:31).

Wisdom would go on to find even greater importance among the Gnostics, who stressed the importance of knowledge for the salvation of the soul.  Under the Gnostic teachings, she would be given a name at long last, Sophia, and became equated with the human soul and the feminine aspect of the Holy Trinity.  And while the Gnostic Sophia is beyond the scope of this book, it provides a fascinating subject for anyone interested in learning more about the development of  Wisdom.

Although the foundations were clearly laid for Wisdom to become a preeminent goddess figure within Judaism, it simply never happened.  Her power waxed and waned, despite the plethora of material written about her in the Bible and the Apocrypha.  As with other, older, goddesses, Wisdom evolved and in time was reborn in the powerful Shekinah.

Originating from the Hebrew root shakhan, meaning ‘to dwell’, the name Shekinah originated in the Onkelos Targum, an Aramaic translation of the Torah from the 1st-2nd century CE.  Like other educated Jewish men, the unknown author of the Onkelos wanted to separate Yahweh from the multitude of anthropomorphic references made about him in the Torah.  To do this, he introduced the Shekinah, a separate entity from Yahweh, yet one that retained the power of God.  Evidence of this is found throughout the Onkelos where verses have been altered to reflect this new concept.

The traditional reading of Exodus 25:8, for example, is “then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.”  That same passage in the Onkelos was rewritten to read, “have them make a sanctuary, and I shall send my Shekinah to dwell among them.”  Again and again, the Shekinah is invoked in verses as a manifestation of Yahweh.  However, at this point in her development, she is merely an aspect of the greater God.  Her purpose was only to serve as a personified, visible entity that the faithful could experience in a tangible way.  She is a hypostasis, an intermediary, like Wisdom before her.

Within the Onkelos, no gender is ever specifically assigned to the concept of the Shekinah.  But just as the name of God, Yahweh, stressed his maleness, the name Shekinah grammatically implied a feminine presence.  The added –ah suffix to the Hebrew shakhan made the Shekinah, undeniably, female.  No special teachings were needed to implant the idea into the minds of the Israelite that the Shekinah was a feminine aspect of the Almighty God.  Every time her name was repeated, her femininity was confirmed.

Usage of the Shekinah spread quickly and was picked up by other scholars and added to a multitude of Targums, of which the Onkelos was only one.  The influence of the Shekinah grew beyond being solely the aspect of God sent to dwell among the people.  She began to be equated to the “glory of God,” and even to the “word of God” which had a special connection to the earlier Wisdom Goddess of Proverbs.  The Shekinah became the face and hand of God, moving among the people in a way that Yahweh never could.  And the people of Israel began to see her everywhere.

In the earliest days of Judaism, after the Covenant had been struck between Moses and Yahweh, the people had believed that God inhabited the space between the angels that adorned the top of the Ark built to house the sacred tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.  The Bible states explicitly, “There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites” (Exodus 25:22).  But how could an incorporeal deity be seen and heard?  Indeed, how could He inscribe the law into stone?  Simply put, He couldn’t.  But the Shekinah could.

It was not God, the Targums insisted, but the Shekinah that appeared between the two golden angels.  It was the Shekinah that had appeared as a cloud on Mt. Sinai and spoke to Moses.  It was by her hand that the stone tablets of the Covenant were written.  She had been the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that had led the Israelites through the wilderness. The Shekinah had fed them, guided them, and taught them.  Though she acted on the behalf of God, she did so independently of Him.

The Shekinah was evolving and her influence and power growing.  When Solomon began work on the great Temple of Jerusalem, the Bible records that Yahweh told him, “I will live among the Israelites and will not abandon my people Israel” (1 Kings 6:13).  The Targums would change this to reflect the Shekinah and would proclaim the Temple had been built solely for her to dwell within.  Until this point, the Shekinah had remained in the Tabernacle or Tents of Meeting that housed the holy Ark of the Covenant.  David, Solomon’s father, had erected one of these Tents to house the Ark.  (Interestingly enough, after doing so, the pious King David went to Gibeon and praised his God in the holy high place associated with none other than Asherah.)

Upon completion of the Temple, the Ark was brought out of the Tent and placed in the Most Holy Place, the sacred inner altar.  Just as the Babylonians and Egyptians before them, the Jews believed that their God would physically reside in the Holy of Holies.  But it was not Yahweh that took up residence in the Temple.  Instead, it was the Shekinah.  Once again, she descended in a cloud and “filled the temple of the Lord.  And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud for the glory of the Lord (the Shekinah) filled his temple” (1 Kings 8:10).  The Onkelos afterwards refers to the Temple as the “house of the Shekinah.”  And Rabbi Azaria, writing in the name of the 4th century Palestinian Amora declared that not only did she fill the Temple with her presence but also with her ceaseless love for the people of Israel.

Of course, as with all religious concepts, disagreements were natural among the men shaping the Judeo-Christian faiths.  Some believed that the Shekinah had descended to earth only at the dedication of the Tabernacle, while others believed that she had dwelt on earth since the first moments of creation (possibly even acting as Wisdom with a role in the actual creative process).  However, many that believed the Shekinah had always dwelt on earth believed that a series of transgressions by man had caused her to go into exile.  The iniquities of her people, from the first moments in Eden to the destruction of the infamous Sodomites, had caused her to flee and abandon her post among the Israelites.  With each corrupt generation, she had retreated deeper into heaven.  It took the actions of seven righteous men – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, Kehat, Amram, and Moses – to bring her slowly back to earth and finally into the Ark within the Tabernacle.

With the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BCE, the Israelites found themselves, once again, in exile.  The Temple of Solomon was destroyed and the people forced into Babylonia.  According to the prophet Ezekiel, the Shekinah had departed the Temple just before the destruction occurred, taking temporary refuge on the Mount of Olives.  But just like any mother, her dedication to the children of Israel called to her and she eventually joined them in their diaspora.  In the city of Nehardea, she found a new home in a synagogue built from the dust of Jerusalem.  There she would appear physically to the faithful gathered in study of the Torah.  It is from these appearances that we learn that the Shekinah often appeared as a glorious light and to the sound of tinkling bells.  For the early Jews it was obvious – wherever they roamed, the Shekinah went with them.

When the Jews were finally allowed back into Judah, and the modest Second Temple constructed, the Shekinah was expected to return to her former seat.  Whether she did or not, however, was a subject of great disagreement.  Some argued that she remained in the Second Temple continuously, while others believed she only visited the Temple at certain times.  Still others maintained that she never dwelt within the new temple at all.  The Shekinah’s absence, they argued, was one of the many reasons that the second incarnation of the holy dwelling was inferior to the first built by Solomon.  The Glory of the God had left, unrestrained by the Temple walls, and had dispersed among the people.

Within the midrashic literature, it is clear that the Shekinah physically manifests among the Israelites.  She seeks out those gathered to study the Torah, but she did not limit herself to the learned men of Israel.  She ministered to the spirit of the sick and downtrodden, bringing them comfort in their times of need.  Where people gathered to dance and sing in celebration, she manifested among them in their joy.  When a sinner took to his knees to ask for forgiveness, the Shekinah wept beside him.  But it was not only the faithful that attracted the benefaction of the Shekinah.  Even the pagans and idolaters that the Israelites were so quick to damn were no strangers to the Shekinah.  When they gathered in the name of love and hospitality, no matter which deity they called upon, the Shekinah descended and walked among them.  It was not simply the act of religious devotion that called to the Shekinah.  Kindness and need called to her, and her affection was not limited to or by Yahweh.  Her separation from God was complete.  She now stepped beyond the Glory of God and into her own divinity.

The earliest evidence of the Shekinah taking her place as a separate entity dates from the 3rd century CE.  By this time, the Shekinah had already evolved from the Glory of God to become the Holy Spirit itself.  Therefore, from this period on, any reference to the Holy Spirit became a reference to the Shekinah as well.  When Rabbi Aha around 300 CE wrote that the Holy Spirit defended Israel before God himself, it was the Shekinah that had actually stood before Yahweh.  After admonishing Israel for its sinfulness, she turned to God and said, “Say not: I will do to him as he hath done to me.”

By confronting God, the Shekinah displayed the breadth of her own growing prowess.  She was a goddess, built from the dust of the vanquished Asherah and molded by the hands of Wisdom.  And this did not sit well with some in the Jewish community.  Just as her predecessors had been dangerous affronts to the God of Israel, many saw the growing influence of the Shekinah as equally blasphemous.  Rabbis warned the faithful to remember that the Shekinah was no more that a physical manifestation of the true God.  But by becoming the knowable face of the deity that could not be ascertained or imagined, the Shekinah filled a void left behind by the departure of the divine feminine in Judaism.

Like Lilith and Wisdom, the Shekinah would find her story developed in even greater detail within the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah.  Emerging as the Matronit, the Shekinah became arguably the most important member of the Kabbalistic tetrad.  Just as the Shekinah had once interceded between Israel and God, the Matronit was the intermediary between heaven and earth.  And she was undeniably heralded as a goddess. In the same way the Shekinah had remained on earth with her people after the destruction of the Temple, the Matronit tended to Israel when God (or the King in Kabbalah) had retreated to the highest levels of Heaven.  This separation diminished the King, however, as without the Matronit he was no longer whole.  And this is where Lilith makes her entrance into the story of the Shekinah.

As the Matronit suffered the Babylonian exile with the Israelites, the King found himself growing bored and lonely.  The Matronit had barely stepped foot into Babylonia when the King found himself a new bride to fill the emptiness.  From the Matronit’s own handmaidens, he choose her replacement – Lilith.  Once a lowly she-demon, Lilith reigned as the bride of God.  While the King enjoyed his time with the sultry Lilith, the Matronit found herself at the mercy of foreign gods.  The Matronit became unwillingly bound to the children of pagan lands.  And just as the Shekinah had walked among the idolaters, so too did the Matronit.  Yahweh had demanded the destruction of all that did not worship in his name alone.  But in the arms of the Shekinah-Matronit, all were welcome.

According to the Kabbalah, the Matronit remains in exile until this very day.  And on her throne sits Lilith, delighting in the weakening of the King and the suffering of the Israelites.  Only with the coming of the Messiah will the Matronit be reunited with God and Lilith destroyed.  It is a day that the Jews still await.

Like many of the powerful goddesses before her – Asherah, Inanna, Athena, and countless others – the Shekinah’s wise and compassionate aspects were balanced by her terrible ruthlessness in battle.  Just as any loving mother, transgressions against her children unleashed a dreadful and deadly side of the goddess.  To the Shekinah-Matronit, the King entrusted all of the legions of Heavenly warriors and the entirety of His armaments.  Standing ready with the fiery chariots of God, the Shekinah-Matronit waged war against foes both human and divine, delivering holy justice to all who awakened her wrath.

Building on this image of the punitive goddess, the Kabbalah gives the Shekinah yet another role.  When the Angel of Death could not touch a particularly righteous man or woman, the Shekinah stepped in to release their soul to Heaven.  The Talmud records six such individuals – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.  Each was believed to have left this life, not through the reaping of Death, but through a kiss of the Shekinah.

Just as in the Old Testament, the name Shekinah never appears in the New Testament books of the Bible.  But this has not stopped many from finding her presence within the story of the Christian messiah, Jesus Christ.  Just as in the rabbinical writings, the Shekinah could be interchanged with any passage discussing the glory of God.  When Luke writes that the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night were terrified by the “glory of the Lord”  (Luke 2:9) shining about them, the ancient Israelites would have readily accepted that it was the Shekinah that appeared to herald the coming of Christ.  For wherever the light of God shone, the Shekinah was present.

The book of John contains another passage that easily connects the goddess to the Son of God.  John 2:14 states: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  Jesus is, the Gospels proclaim, the true Temple of God.  Not one built from stone and mortar, but raised from blood and bone.  The Glory of God, the Shekinah, rested upon him and filled him.  Indeed, her influence could even be seen as he prayed.  Luke 9:29 proclaims that as Jesus prayed his face transformed and “his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.”  In the same book, a cloud descends and covers Christ and his disciples and speaks to them, proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God.  There can be little doubt that the cloud, once again, was none other than the Shekinah reprising one of her oldest manifestations.

The concept of Christ’s glory is mentioned some eighteen times throughout the Gospels, and all can be read in relation to the Shekinah.  Paul takes the connection even further when he refers to Jesus as “the Lord of glory” (2 Cor. 2:8), the same title used nine times in the apocryphal Book of Enoch.  While the ancient Israelites gathered around Moses had been unable to look upon the glorious Shekinah, the followers of Christ were allowed to behold the glory of God through him.  References to the glory of Christ can be found throughout the entirety of the New Testament.

It is, of course, quite controversial to link the savior of Christ to a powerful goddess figure.  In fact, it could be considered outright blasphemy.  But for those writing the chronicles of Jesus, the figure of the Shekinah would have been both familiar and welcomed.  So ingrained in to the Jewish mindset was the Shekinah, that she can still be found in modern Judaism.  Eventually, the Shekinah would evolve into another Jewish representation of the Divine Feminine, the Shabbat Hamalka.  Also known as the “Queen of the Sabbath,” she is the personification of the Sabbath day of rest.  To this day, songs are sung to her every Friday afternoon while women light candles in her honor.

The Shekinah filled a very real void in the heart of Judaism.  The comforting presence of the Mother Goddess had been forcibly removed, leaving the people at the mercy of a merciless Father God.  The people of Israel had sworn an oath to Yahweh to serve no other god but him, but still they felt the emptiness left from the departure of the goddess.  It is no wonder that, eventually, they found a way to incorporate the feminine back into their faith in a way that did not contradict the belief in One God.  The Shekinah is a truly Jewish goddess, built on the remains of the goddess of old yet unique in her own right.  And she would leave her mark on the goddess yet to come.

Today, the Shekinah is embraced by those looking to restore the feminine to faiths built on the masculine.  But sadly, she is often overlooked and her power greatly diminished.  For the ancient Israelites, however, she was a being of immense importance.  No other aspect of God was more approachable, more comforting, more tangible than the arms of the Shekinah.  When God abandoned his people, the Shekinah remained.  Whether they found themselves in the depths of Egypt, Babylon, or Rome, they knew that the Shekinah walked among them.  And as the Jews spread throughout the world, so too did the Shekinah, embracing Jew and Gentile alike.  While ruthless when angered, the Shekinah emanated divine love and acceptance.  She was, undoubtedly, the true Mother Goddess of Israel.

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