Today’s guest post is by long-time friend of the blog:  Mary Ann.

Heavenly Mother as Lady Wisdom, Asherah and/or the Holy Ghost: What You Should Know

The recent Mother in Heaven essay sparked quite a few discussions on the nature of female deity. I’m thrilled that Heavenly Mother got her own essay, as I was never quite satisfied with the short paragraph and two footnotes in the “Becoming Like God” essay.[1] I don’t mind the essay’s brevity. We have very little doctrine on Heavenly Mother in spite of rampant speculation over the years. As the essay illustrated, we know she exists and our leaders feel it is inappropriate to pray to her. That’s pretty much it.[2]

In these discussions surrounding Heavenly Mother, I’ve noticed common theories popping up in comment threads. I’d like to point out strengths and weaknesses of three common arguments: Heavenly Mother as Lady Wisdom, Asherah, and/or the Holy Ghost.

Heavenly Mother as Lady Wisdom

Arguments:

  1. Interpreting Lady Wisdom in the book of Proverbs as the Divine Feminine (or a separate goddess in her own right) is well-established in academia and elsewhere. Gnostic and Eastern Orthodox teachings include Sophia (direct translation of Wisdom), the feminine aspect of God.
  2. Proverbs 8 presents a strong argument of Wisdom as a real figure, not just an ethereal concept.
  3. Symbols of Lady Wisdom, especially the tree of life, and certain key words in Proverbs 8 tie Lady Wisdom to the ancient goddess Asherah (more on that below).  
  4. A parallel in Wisdom Literature to Israel’s Lady Wisdom is the Egyptian goddess Maat. However… Maat was viewed as an existential concept of cosmic order more than a strong individual persona. BUT… Maat’s characteristics were eventually subsumed into Isis, so there is distant association with a mother goddess.


Counterarguments:

  1. Personification is figurative. Mercy is personified in scripture as female, Justice as male – it doesn’t mean they refer to specific deities. The House of Israel was often personified as an unfaithful spouse to illustrate how personally God took idolatry. Lady Wisdom could be metaphorical.
  2. If you turn Lady Wisdom into Heavenly Mother, then who is the Strange Woman? The advice in Proverbs is of a father to his son, encouraging him to seek Lady Wisdom instead of being lured in by the Strange Woman (Prostitute or Harlot). While the Strange Woman’s reasoning (worldly wisdom) is seductive, following her leads to death. Pursuing Lady Wisdom (God’s wisdom) is the way to eternal life. The ideas are similar to Lehi’s Tree of Life vision, but different symbolism is used. If you make Lady Wisdom literal, then you need to account for the Strange Woman.
  3. Many people tie Lady Wisdom to Christ via the idea of “Logos” or “The Word.”  The New Testament gospel of John starts out with defining Christ as “The Word” and descriptions of being with God at creation sound suspiciously like Proverbs. Col. 2:2-3 implies that all wisdom and knowledge is to be found in Christ. D&C 93 also contains similar concepts as Proverbs and John, but this time with Christ as the Spirit of Light and Truth.
  4. A different support for Lady Wisdom as Christ: If you see the Harlot (Mother of Abominations, Great Whore, etc.) imagery of Revelations, 1 Nephi 14, and 1 Nephi 22 as derivations of the Strange Woman figure in Proverbs, then the foil, Lady Wisdom, has morphed into Christ and his church.

Heavenly Mother as Asherah[3]

Arguments:

  1. The Canaanite mother goddess Asherah was originally the wife of the father god El. Yahweh (Jehovah) was their son. Eventually El’s characteristics were subsumed in Yahweh, including the relationship with Asherah. There is good archaeological evidence that Asherah was viewed as Yahweh’s consort by Israelites.[4] If there was any ancient echo of Heavenly Mother, Asherah is the best bet.
  2. Asherah and Lady Wisdom are both associated with the Tree of Life. Canaanite beliefs paired the Tree of Life with fertility and motherhood. Nephi drew a connection between the image of Mary, mother of Christ, and the tree in the Tree of Life vision, lending support to that association.
  3. In Elijah’s 1 Kings 18 stand-off calling down fire from heaven, both prophets of Baal and prophets of Asherah (translated as groves) were present. The scripture only notes the punishment of Baal’s followers, not Asherah’s.
  4. The many admonitions against Asherah worship in the OT (usually translated as groves in the KJV) could be attributed to the strict beliefs of the Deuteronomist reformers. As they compiled what is now the OT, the strict monotheistic Josiah reformers would’ve hated implied support of Asherah worship. Essentially, much of the OT could be viewed as revisionist history. The Book of Mormon confirms that compilers of the Hebrew Bible omitted or obscured many plain and precious truths.

 Counterarguments:

  1. Just because Israelites had polytheistic Canaanite beliefs incorporated into Yahweh worship doesn’t mean those hybridizations were appropriate. From the New Testament to the modern day, church leaders constantly fight the incorporation of outside beliefs into the gospel. Prophets fighting Canaanite influences (including Asherah worship) in the OT is highly probable, Deuteronomist reformers notwithstanding.
  2. Although Nephi associated the Tree of Life with motherhood, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he adhered to Asherah worship. God speaks to people according to their understanding and that was imagery he’d understand. (Jeremiah was a contemporary of Lehi, and he was *definitely* not keen on Asherah worship. See Jeremiah 7:18, 44:17-19, 25.)
  3. Nephi noted that the Hebrew Bible lost many plain and precious truths. Theoretically, the Book of Mormon was to help restore many of those truths. The only association of divinity and motherhood in the Book of Mormon are the few references to Mary. As many have noted, there is no overt reference to a Heavenly Mother in any modern scripture in this dispensation. Right now Asherah worship does not look like a plain and precious truth restored.
  4. Joseph Smith went through the Bible and never noted that Asherah worship was appropriate then or now.[5]

 Heavenly Mother as the Holy Ghost[6]

Arguments:

  1. Both the Hebrew and Aramaic words referring to God’s Spirit is feminine. In Greek, it’s neutral. Not until Latin do we get a masculine attachment.[7] In 1902, Charles W. Penrose (as editor of the Deseret News) cited the feminine spirit/breath moving upon the waters in Genesis 1:2 as biblical support for Heavenly Mother.[8]
  2. The dove, associated with the Holy Spirit in both Old and New Testament, was also associated with the OT fertility goddess Asherah.[9]
  3. Some religious groups view the Holy Spirit as feminine including the Syrian Orthodox Church and Messianic Jews. Other groups have also tied the mystical Jewish concept of Shekhinah (divine presence, feminine aspect of deity) to the New Testament Holy Ghost.
  4. Father-Mother-Son trinities have a history in ancient Near Eastern cultures (Osiris-Isis-Horus in Egyptian mythology, for example). This isn’t a new concept.

 Counterarguments:

  1. LDS teachings lean towards a male Holy Ghost, so… yeah.[10] Joseph Fielding McConkie in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism wrote, “the Holy Ghost is a spirit man, a spirit son of God the Father.” The lds.org Gospel Topics entry on the Holy Ghost is pretty clear about referring to it as a “He.”
  2. LDS doctrine on the Holy Ghost as a personage of Spirit is inconsistent with the concept of Heavenly Mother as a post-mortal exalted being with a resurrected body.[11]
  3. There is scriptural precedent to support a male Holy Ghost: John 16:7-8, 1 Nephi 8:5-6, and 1 Nephi 11:11.[12]

 Discuss.

 Relevant on-line articles:

Margaret Barker’s “The Mother in Heaven and Her Children” at the 2015 FairMormon Conference.

Dan Peterson’s “Nephi and His Asherah” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 9, no. 2 (2000):

Ryan Thomas’ “Biblical Allusions to Asherah” at RationalFaiths.com:

David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido’s “A Mother There: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven” in BYU Studies 50, no. 1 (2011). (BYU Studies website is down, otherwise I’d include a link.)

Val Larsen’s “Hidden in Plain View: Mother in Heaven in Scripture” in SquareTwo, vol. 8, no. 2 (Summer 2015):

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[1] I’ve referenced Footnote 45 in more places than I can count. By far my favorite part of that essay.

[2] I was also relieved that Heavenly Mother was referenced as a single entity throughout the essay. I’m all about eliminating shadows of polygamy wherever possible.

[3] Religions in each culture have regional variation and morph over time. This is a very simplistic understanding of Canaanite religion. There isn’t a ton of archaeological data on Canaanite rites and practices.

[4] Just as archaeological evidence on Canaanite religion is scant, pre-Josiah Israelite practices are also a bit hazy. Even though Asherah figurines and symbolism existed in Israel, we still don’t understand exactly how they were incorporated into Yahweh worship.

[5] It’s a weak argument, but I could see someone using it.

[6] Pushing this idea has been tied to excommunications. Not a fave among church leaders.

[7] The arguments about the gendered terminology are more complex, but this gets the gist across.

[8] See Footnote 52 in Paulson and Pulido’s 2011 “A Mother There” BYU Studies article.

[9] Weak argument. By the time of Jesus, doves were also tied to representing Israel, atoning sacrifice, suffering, and a sign from God. It wasn’t just fertility and God’s Spirit. (http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/the-enduring-symbolism-of-doves/)

[10] Funny story: when the Father-Mother-Son trinity was catching on with feminist thought in the late 19th century, President George Q. Cannon (member of the First Presidency at the time) reacted vehemently. “We are warranted in pronouncing all tendencies to glorify the feminine element and to exalt it as part of the Godhead as wrong and untrue, not only because of the revelation of the Lord in our day but because it has no warrant in scripture, and any attempt to put such a construction on the word of God is false and erroneous.” (In Juvenile Instructor 30 (May 15, 1895): 314-17. As quoted in Paulsen and Pulido’s 2011 “A Mother There” BYU Studies article.)

[11] There’s an interesting theory going around that Heavenly Mother voluntarily gave up her resurrected body in order to act as the Holy Ghost. Let’s say I’m enduring mortality with a physically defective mortal body, that body being a major contributor to my trials in this life. I’m really looking forward to a perfected physical body in the resurrection. If you’re telling me that I’m going to give up that resurrected body to spend the rest of eternity testifying to my children about their dad and their brother, then I’m questioning your sanity.

[12] Church leadership has been having a “thing” lately with scriptural precedent (see: women and the priesthood).