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Mythology/Religion

Is God Divorced?

Asherah_480w

It’s hard to find a mainstream scholar who believes that early Israel was monotheistic. When “God” said, ‘You shall have no other gods before me,’ what do you think he meant – that there weren’t any other gods around? Why bother to mention it?

Most archaeologists have come to accept that the Israelites of the Iron Age were no less “pagan” than their Canaanite neighbors. [1]

For whatever reason, when the Israelites took to the hills, they seemed to have brought many of the old Canaanite gods with them. One of those gods may have been Yahweh. There is certainly a strong argument that Yahweh is simply a version of the Canaanite god El. Regardless of his origin; it does seem that he came to the hills replete with that most important accoutrement of Canaanite deities – a consort!

Asherah is arguably the most important goddess in the Canaanite pantheon. The prototypical mother of gods and humans and consort of the chief god, El, she is also the mistress of the sea and the land, and protector of all living things.

We have long known Asherah from the immense library of 13th-century BCE cuneiform tables found in Syria at the site of Ugarit. But there are also more then 40 references to Asherah in the Old Testament.

Asherah in the Bible:

A cursory reading of the Books of I and II Samuel and I and II Kings demonstrates that the worship of Yahweh’s wife, Asherah, did not die out but remained a part of ritual and cult throughout the monarchies and until the conquest of Judah, that is, from c. 1000 to 596 BCE.

They praise Asa, king of Judah (911 – 870 BCE), for removing his grandmother Ma’acah from official duties after “she had an abominable image made for Asherah”.

“He even deposed his grandmother Maacah from her position as queen mother,  because she had made a repulsive Asherah pole. Asa cut the pole down and  burned it in the Kidron Valley.” [1 Kings 15:13]

They condemned the long-reigning Manas’she of Judah (698 – 642 BCE) for doing “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” in “making an Asherah”.

“He took the carved Asherah pole he had made and put it in the temple, of which  the  Lord had said to David and to his son Solomon, “In this temple and in  Jerusalem,  which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my Name forever…” [2 Kings 21:7]

And they boast the achievements of Josiah (639 – 609 BCE), including the destruction of offering made to Asherah at the temple of Jerusalem, the abolition of “the Asherah from the house of the Lord” and demolition of a shrine there in which women “did weaving for Asherah”.

“The king ordered Hilkiah the high priest, the priests next in rank and the doorkeepers to remove from the temple of the Lord all the articles made for Baal and Asherah and all the starry hosts. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron Valley and took the ashes to Bethel. He did away with the pagan priests appointed by the kings of Judah to burn incense on the high places of the towns of Judah and on those around Jerusalem—those who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and moon, to the constellations and to all the starry hosts. He took the Asherah pole from the temple of the Lord to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem and burned it there. He ground it to powder and scattered the dust over the graves of the common people. He also tore down the quarters of the male shrine prostitutes, which were in the temple of the Lord and where women did weaving for Asherah.” [2 Kings 23:4-7]

In the Book of Jeremiah, the women bake cakes to Asherah:

“Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the  people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, “We will not listen to  the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our fathers, our kings and our  officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.”

The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were  making cakes like her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?” [Jeremiah 44:17]

These passages reflect both the worship of Asherah and efforts to stamp out her cult during the Iron Age.

Archaeological evidence:

In the later Iron Age, from 900 – 586 BCE, the archaeological evidence suggests even more strongly that the people worshiped many gods. Jerusalem – center of state and cult, site of the Temple, and seat of the divinely ordained king – has yielded cultic stands, inscribed animals bones used in divination, seal bearing symbols of Mesopotamian and Egyptian gods, and hundreds of figurines of large-breasted women that many people associate with either Asherah herself or the Asherah cult. These finds mainly from Judean hoseholds, depict only upper bodies, with lower bodies encased in a “pillar”. The pillar has been interpreted as exemplifying a tree, but it may be just a stylish way of representing the goddess.

“I have blessed you by YHVH of Samaria and His Asherah”

In the 1970s, excavations at Ajrud in the northern Sinai revealed what most scholars now believe was a fort, one of many such ninth-to-eighth-century BCE structures build on the edges of the small kingdoms that had arisen in the region a century or more previously. Some of the rooms within the fort contained fragments of plaster walls, and it was this surface upon which the famous inscription was found, invoking the blessing of “Yahweh by his Asherah”. A pottery shard from Ajrud shows a seated female figure with a blessing that reads: “I have blessed you by YHVH of Samaria and His Asherah”. [2]

What we have with these inscriptions is evidence of the worship of Asherah as part of popular religion.

Other important Israelite cult centers, Khirbet El-Kom, Schechem and Ta’anach, have yielded cult stands featuring lions and winged sphinxes, ibex with trees, and a rare human image of a youth strangling a serpent. The 10th-century BCE ceramic cult stand from Ta’anach shows a goddess, possibly Asherah, flanked by lions, a common motif in the ancient Near East. An inscription, from Khirbet el-Kom near Hebron, reads: “Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh and by his Asherah; from his enemies he saved him!” [3]

So what happened to Asherah? Archaeology offers a clue. It turns out that Asherah hosehold figurines become severely limited in number and virtually disappear by the Persian period. The elite circles among the Israelites recognized the usefulness of monotheism in the same way that the emphasis on the worship of Amun in Egypt during the New Kingdon (c. 1540 – 1070 BCE) and Marduk in Babylon during the Neo-Babylonian Empire (c. 629 – 539 BCE) arose.

That is, it enabled the development of a powerful priesthood in support of a state religion and divinely inspired monarchy. Then came the fall of Judah and exile in Babylonia form 586 to 538 BCE. It was easier during the exile to say “Our god is punishing us.”

The fundamental lesson for them was that Yahweh was indeed a “jealous god”, punishing those who flirted with other gods. The conclusion? Don’t do this again! And many of the exiles in Babylon, as well as the remnant left back in Judah, learned that lesson.

Ultimately, the campaign to eliminate the goddess succeeded. Alas, “God” divorced his beloved Asherah!

Thanks for reading,

Related article: The Old Testament and Iron Age Palestine

Notes:

  1. Scham, Sandra; “The Lost Goddess of Israel”, Archaeology Magazine, March/April 2005, Pgs. 36-40.
  2. Dever, William G., “Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk  Religion in Ancient Israel”, Eerdmans Publishing, 2005
  3. Finkelstein, Israel; Silberman, Neil Asher, “The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts”, Free Press, May 28, 2002.
  4. Jayyusi, Salma Khadra; Thompson, Thomas L.; “Jerusalem in Ancient History and  Tradition” T.& T.Clark Ltd; 1 April 2004), Pg. 139 – “The Hebrew Goddess”.
  5. Hadley, Judith M.; “Evidence for Asherah”, December 2008, http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Hadley_Asherah.shtml

About elpidiovaldes

Human, All Too Human.

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