Asherah, God's Wife in Ancient Israel. Part IV

One of the most important deities that many, if not most, ancient Israelites worshiped was YHWH’s heavenly spouse or consort, the goddess Asherah (the Hebrew linguistic equivalent of Ugaritic Athirat, the wife of El). The Hebrew Bible makes frequent mention of her, or more commonly, her cult symbol, the asherah (probably a stylized tree[1]).

As YHWH came to assume the titles, imagery, and functions of El, he also appropriated El’s consort Athirat, and this fact seems to be further underscored by the close relationship that existed between the Asherah cult object and YHWH from early on. The most commonly cited biblical passages that mention Asherah herself include Judges 3:7; 1 Kings 14:13; 18:19; and 2 Kings 21:7; 23:4. For instance, Asherah is mentioned between the divinities Baal and “all the host of heaven” (לְכֹל צְבָא הַשָּׁמָיִם) in 2 Kings 23:4 as worshiped in the Jerusalem temple during Josiah’s reforms. Additionally, 2 Kings 21:7 condemns king Manasseh for putting “the molded image of Asherah” (אֶת־פֶּסֶל הָאֲשֵׁרָה) in YHWH’s temple. This attestation most likely refers to Asherah herself and not her cult object, since it would seem quite strange to have an image made for what was already a symbol.[2] Furthermore, 1 Kings. 18:19, although probably a later addition to the text, indicates by paralleling the names Asherah and Baal (probably an attempt by the biblical authors to discredit Asherah by association with Baal, since there is no significant evidence from antiquity outside of the Hebrew Bible that portrays Baal and Asherah as consorts[3]), that a knowledge of Asherah existed in Israel down to the exile c. 586 B.C.E.[4] Additionally, archaeological, iconographic,[5] and inscriptional evidence indicates that ancient Israelite worship of Asherah alongside YHWH was very common, and that her cult object stood in a special relationship to YHWH. Although there is not space here to discuss in depth many of the issues surrounding each relevant discovery,[6] one point that must be mentioned are the many hundreds, if not thousands, of terracotta female figurines that have been unearthed throughout Israel, and especially in domestic contexts, all the way down until the exile.[7] As archeologist William Dever has cogently argued along with many other prominent biblical scholars, these figurines (often will “pillar bases,” perhaps representing trees in accordance with the fact that Asherah was represented by stylized trees) are most likely Asherah, and were probably used by Israelite women as talismans, or perhaps as votive offerings, to assist in the processes of safely conceiving, bearing, and raising children.[8] Since Asherah could be seen as a fertility goddess,[9] this does indeed make good sense.

I agree, therefore, along with most modern biblical scholars, that Asherah was worshiped in ancient Israel and typically was perceived as the consort of YHWH. This conclusion makes the most sense of the biblical, archaeological, iconographic, and epigraphical evidences, which strongly suggest that Asherah and her symbol were considered an important part of the cult of YHWH, including the royal, so-called “official,” cult in the Jerusalem temple, except perhaps during the reigns of Hezekiah (whose reforms ultimately failed, probably in part because he was seen as overturning centuries of deeply held religious tradition[10]) and Josiah.


[1] Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 52-57.

[2] As noted in Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 43-44.

[3] See Saul Olyan, Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 14; and Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 48, 60-61.

[4] As noted by Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Godesses of Canaan, 44-45.

[5] For a terrific volume on iconographic evidences pertaining to deities in ancient Israel, see Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998).

[6] Note must be made, however, of the important inscriptions found at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom which refer to “YHWH and his A/asherah.” For the issues surrounding these heavily debated inscriptions, see Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 49-52; and Smith, The Early History of God, 118-125.

[7] For the discussion which follows concerning the figurines, see William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 176-196; and Raz Kletter, The Judean Pillar Figurines and the Archaeology of Asherah (Oxford: BAR International Series, 1996); “Between Archaeology and Theology: The Pillar Figurines fro Judah and the Asherah,” in Studies in the Archaeology of the Iron Age in Israel and Jordan, (ed. A. Mazar; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001).

[8] Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 187-189, 194.

[9] Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 192-195.

[10] Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 212.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com David J

    Yeah, that possessive pronoun stuck on the end of the name “Asherah” has caused quite the uproar through the years, that’s for sure. When my professor at the time taught this, you should have seen the faces of some of the “believing” students when he postulated that perhaps the people worshiped them via “orgiastic fertility rites.” Oh man, that really got them frothing at the mouth… :)

  • Christine

    It seems that Asherah was associated with Babylonian religion which was popular in Israel and apparently a competitor to Yahwism as it developed. The mere fact that Israelites worshiped Asherah doesn’t make her a real deity any more than the fact that they constantly worshiped idols. Just what is the evidence that Asherah was a part of the First Temple rites? I don’t see any.

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    The real issue is how much of her worship was introduced into Israel and how much was “authentic.” Recognizing that in a scholarly sense this is an irrelevant and perhaps misleading question – but if there is real revelation to Israel it is a pertinent question to Mormons. I worry that in this Mormon context we sometimes exaggerate her too much into our projections about our conception of Heavenly Mother.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com David J

    It is interesting to note that some of the idols they’ve found were located within a stone’s toss of the First Temple. I always kind of chuckle at that.

    And Clark, did you mean to say “concept of heavenly mother”??? :) I’m just funnin’ ya… Regardless, I don’t know of anyone who would dare say that the Mormon doctrine of heavenly mother (which, from what I’ve heard, has been removed from the latest edition of Gospel Principles) is Asherah. At least not while sober. So you are probably right. Furthermore, a “wife” and a “consort” are two very, very different things… (winking)

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/ TYD

    David J, Christine, and Clark,

    Although I will discuss this in the next post, it is my view that ancient Israel emerged predominately from Canaanite populations, and so the worship of Asherah (that is, Ugaritic Athirat) is not an innovation at all, but rather a natural development given Israel’s heritage. To say this another way, Israelite religion as portrayed by the Deuteronomists is misleading, because worship of Asherah alongside YHWH was traditional, both in popular and royal circles. In reality, it was the Deuteronomists who were innovators, and their condemnation of Asherah represents a significant change in Israelite religious conceptions of the divine realm. Thus their historiographic presentation of Israel as syncretistic, that is merging “authentically” Israelite religious beliefs and practices with “inauthentic” Canaanite religious beliefs and practices, is misleading and inaccurate. The evidence may been seen archaeologically, as well as if one reads carefully between the lines of the Deuteronomistic corpus (moreover, the earlier prophets do not condemn her, and this argument ex silentio, in my judgment, has force given the other evidence I have cited in the above). Now, whether Asherah “really exists”, is not a question I was trying to answer in the post. Rather, the point is she was traditionally worshiped in ancient Israel.

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  • Kevin Barney

    I agree with TYD no. 5.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com David J

    Now, whether Asherah “really exists”, is not a question I was trying to answer in the post. Rather, the point is she was traditionally worshiped in ancient Israel.

    And that, my friend, is also how one should approach any deity (even the mainline ones). I actually agree with you on Asherah. As I indicated earlier, a lot of (academic) sweat and blood has been spilled over this thing through the years. But your take on it is in line with what I learned and where I stand on it too. It just makes the most sense that way. But man, some people go overboard with Asherah.

    On the Dtr redactions/redactors: When I was in grad school, we used to say things like “those naughty DHs!” and the like. Funny only to nerds like us, I guess…

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com David J

    TYD, peasant uprising theory for Canaanite origins? That’s my favorite. I really liked that book “Chieftains of the Highland Clans,” if you have read it. It’s great.

  • Christine

    I don’t think that for Mormons the issue is whether Ashera was indigenous to Canaan or part of the existing culture and thus not an intrusion into cultural norms. That something is “authentic Canannite” is beside the point that I was raising. The question is whether recognizing Asherah was like worshiping idols and thus idolatry or a form of perpetrating Canaanite fertility rituals which were an affront to every biblical writer that addressed them. It seems that there is at least some issue as to whether Asherah worship is acceptable before God — an issue that is prominent throughout all Israelite writings. I disagree that the earlier Israelite writers don’t condemn her — she is essentially part of the fertility rites that they unanimously reject as being contrary to their Israelite identity. Worship of idols is as much an authentic Canaanite practice as the notion that Asherah is a consort (note, not a wife) but that doesn’t mean that idols worship is an acceptable practice in Yahwistic religion.

    Further, I think that it is precisely because of the Mormon belief in a Mother in Heaven that Asherah is of interest in Mormon discourse. To pretend otherwise seems like attempting to pretend that the 800 lbs. gorilla isn’t in the room.

    Further, I don’t doubt that Deuteronimist redactor (or redactors) was misleading with respect to the nature of the high places and cult rituals that were prominent in Yahwistic worship prior to Hezekiah’s purge to consolidate his own power structures in Jerusalem. However, the silence goes both ways — Asherah is not the god Yahweh, the highest, who is worthy of sole devotion in Israel according the major pre-exlicit prophets.

    Is there anything to suggest that Asherah was a part of the First Temple cultus?

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com David J

    The question is whether recognizing Asherah was like worshiping idols and thus idolatry or a form of perpetrating Canaanite fertility rituals which were an affront to every biblical writer that addressed them. It seems that there is at least some issue as to whether Asherah worship is acceptable before God — an issue that is prominent throughout all Israelite writings. I disagree that the earlier Israelite writers don’t condemn her — she is essentially part of the fertility rites that they unanimously reject as being contrary to their Israelite identity.

    I think the source-critical approach would say that the older authors were okay with it, and then the “naughty DHs” came along and streamlined it into the received text. So if you’re looking at the MT as the received text, you have a point, but if you’re going to look at it diachronically, TYD may be right.

  • Christine

    I never use the MT — I always stick to the critical text.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com David J

    The point is still valid though – if you choose to look at the received text (final version) and not diachronically, like I said above, there is room for “kosher” pre-exilic Asherah worship (pardon the pun, I couldn’t resist).

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    Christine,

    First off, thanks for your participation here!

    I would suggest that Asherah worship was common in traditional pre-exilic Israelite religions, including royal circles. I think that it is clear on archaeological grounds on account of the pillar figurines and the inscriptions that have been found in the last decades mentioning Asherah/the asherah, as well as through the abundance of Deuteronomistic polemic against Asherah/the asherah in the Hebrew Bible, that her worship was common in ancient Israel. Given my comment in no. 5 above concerning Israelite origins, I consider the reference in 2 Kings 23:4 (among others) where Josiah removes Asherah/the asherah from YHWH’s temple as reflecting the fact that she was closely connected and worshiped alongside YHWH traditionally; in fact, she was established there in the Jerusalem temple at the very least by king Manasseh. The Deuteronomists, however, have created a different historiographical presentation suggesting her worship was actually foreign to ancient Israel. I consider this presentation an innovation and inaccurate for the reasons I suggested above.

    Best,

    TYD

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    Oh, and Kevin, thanks for stopping by as always!

    Best,

    TYD

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    In one sense, of course we have to separate out the questions of what a community believed, source evolution from the questions of theology. As Christine noted though Asherah is interesting to Mormons precisely because of possible theological parallels. And yes, many apologists have used this point – albeit often quite uncritically. Now of course there is a danger in all this. But if we are doing more than just the basic history question one has to conceive theologically how to read the texts. (Recognizing this wasn’t your topic – just that it is a question that sits in the background)

    Now I’ve long thought, like David, that it was just accepted prior to the Deuteronomists. But that doesn’t mean it was theologically viable anymore than the idea that all the other gods around were fine, just not to be worshipped.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    Clark,

    Thanks for your comments as well! I was saving my reflections on Mormon discourse on Jehovah and other issues for a later post. This series is just setting up some basic historical background. Feel free, however, to make suggestions and flesh out your thoughts here on the subjects and questions you raise!

    Best,

    TYD

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.com Nitsav

    “perpetrating Canaanite fertility rituals”

    There’s no evidence for these at all outside the Israelite polemic, and most scholars have concluded that they are an Israelite distortion of Canaanite culture.


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