Marriage in the Bible, Part 1
Whenever the topic of biblical marriage comes up, I always think of the first couple of the bible. That happy loving couple that proceeds all others: YHWH and Asherah.
The Name Game
Pullquote: YHWH originally had a consor — Asherah, a fertility goddess with a sweet tooth.
Yes, YHWH originally had a consort. Exactly how it happened is hard to say (there was alcohol, that trip to Vegas…). The best guess is that we’re seeing a divide between the folk religion and the more rarefied religion of the priests. The early Israelites likely had a popular religion that maintained a lot of the old religions from Canaan and the surrounding regions.
This folk religion seemed to have a place for the gods Baal and El. Baal was the Canaanite god of thunder, lightning and rain. El was the supreme Canaanite deity. But gods are fluid things. Over time, the distinctions between gods can fade. It looks like Baal may have supplanted El, and then YHWH supplanted Baal, as depicted in Judges and Isaiah.
During this process YHWH picked up the characteristics of his two rivals. The word Baal became a title, meaning “lord” or “master.” El became a generic word for God, which shows up even in the name of the nation: Isra-El. YHWH became the supreme deity, and as part of the spoils he gained a consort: Asherah, the wife of the supreme deity.
So who was this “Asherah”? She was probably a mother goddess, with the usual implications of fertility. She was symbolized by a pole, perhaps a stylized tree, that stood beside the alter of Baal or YHWH. While her consort got animal sacrifices, Asherah got offerings of cakes (Jeremiah 7:18). Apparently she had a sweet tooth.
A Messy Break-Up
It’s hard to pin down when all of this happened. It doesn’t help that the names of the gods became generic terms. Even the word Asherah came to mean the sacred groves where the gods were sometimes worshiped. So an 8th century BCE inscription refers to “YHVH of Samaria and his Asherah.” Does this mean that Asherah was still worshiped as YHWH’s consort, or does it somehow refer to the shrine of YHWH?
One thing does seem clear: the fall of Northern Israel to the Assyrians in the 8th century put the fear of some God into the rulers of the comparatively small kingdom of Judah. Seeing your larger, more successful sibling get wiped out will do that to you. In the late 7th century, King Josiah decided that he’d had enough of the polytheism stuff and engages in drastic reforms:
“And he brought out the Ashe’rah from the house of the LORD, outside Jerusalem, to the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron, and beat it to dust and cast the dust of it upon the graves of the common people.” (2 Kings 23:6)
Josiah cleared out the temple, kicked out the temple prostitutes, destroyed the mountaintop alters outside of Jerusalem, and “rediscovered” the book of monotheistic law that became Deuteronomy. Having finally made Israel right with God, he promptly gets executed by the Egyptians. A generation after his reforms, Judah falls to the Babylonians.
The survivors are understandably cranky. They give the Prophet Jeremiah a piece of their minds, referring to Asherah as the “Queen of Heaven”:
“As for the word which you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no evil. But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.” (Jer. 44:16-18)
Not an auspicious start to biblical relationships. Asherah didn’t completely disappear, however. When Moses is instructed by God to make a menorah to light the temple, it is described as a stylized almond tree (Exodus 25.31-39). The biblical historian Margaret Barker suspects that this sacred tree figure was one of the symbols of Asherah. So the menorah may be one last lingering trace of the bible’s first couple.
Vorjack is a librarian/archivist and a public historian, living with his wife in history-soaked Albany, New York.