The descent of Ishtar (Judges 6)

Modern Christian readers og Judges 6 may be astonished to learn how quickly – and evidently almost casually – Israelite families fell into the worship of pagan gods and set up shrines in their honour. It is helpful to see how widespread and universally accepted these myths of pagan gods were. For example, there are several versions of the Descent of the Goddess Inanna (also called Ishtar) into the underworld.

A Sumerian version begins with the goddess Inanna determined to visit the underworld, perhaps in order to rule there. She gains admission but must pass through seven gates in order to enter the underworld. At each gate she is divested of the symbols of her prestige and divinity: her crown, Jewelry and garments. The process is symbolic of death, and Inanna arrives naked, as the dead do when they enter the underworld. Inanna is then condemned for her act o entering the underworld, and her corpse is hung up.

Inanna’s servant Ninshubur appeals to the gods, and Enki, the god of wisdom, fashions two creatures who enter the underworld and revive Inanna. Inanna is allowed to return to the world above but must find a substitute to take her place. She determines not to take anyone who has mourned for her but is angered to discover her former lover Dumuzi arrayed in splendid robes rather than in mourning clothes. Dumuzi’s sister Geshtianna pleads for him, and an arrangement is made whereby Dumuzi and Geshtianna will each spend half of the year in the underworld. Their cycles of descending into death and again ascending symbolize the seasons and the apparent annual death of vegetation (in an Akkadian version, no plants on Earth would grow while Inanna/Ishtar was in the underworld).

Variants of this myth can b found throughout the ancient world. Dumuzi is mentioned in the Bible under the name Tammuz. The Canaanite counterpart to the Sumerian Inanna or the Akkadian Ishtar is Astarte (or sometimes Anat). The Egyptian goddess Isis plays a similar role. Although the details differ, there are overtones here as well of the Greek myth of Persephone. Through these myths ancient peoples attempted to come to terms with issues of fertility, the seasons, sexuality and death. Because the myths were almost universally held, and because they seemed to help people understand the most fundamental problems of life, it was difficult for the average Israelite to avoid succumbing to their allure. Despite all they had been told to the contrary, many Israelites believed that they could embrace these myths and the gods and goddesses behind them and yet remain faithful to their God, Yahweh, and His covenant.


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