The Asherah in Ancient Israel: Goddess or Sacred Tree?

The word or name “asherah” appears in the books of Deuteronomy, Judges, Kings, and Chronicles. Some scholars have equated certain texts, inscriptions, statuettes, and drawings with the asherah, identified the asherah of the Bible as a goddess, and claimed that a goddess named “Asherah” was the consort of Yahweh (Olyan, Asherah and the cult of Yahweh in Israel; Dever, Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel; Gilmour, “An Iron Age II Pictorial Inscription from Jerusalem Illustrating Yahweh and Asherah”; Ahituv, “Did God Have a Wife?”; etc.). These suggestions primarily come from Ugaritic texts, an inscription and drawing on an ostracon from Kuntillet Ajrud, an inscription from Khirbet el-Kom, a drawing from the Ophel in Jerusalem, and numerous female figurines found throughout the area of ancient Israel. Did the ancient Israelites invent or adopt a goddess named “Asherah” that became the consort of Yahweh, or has this word been misinterpreted? Inscriptions and figurines from the period of the Israelite Monarchy often identified as a goddess named Asherah are important for understanding religious syncretism in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. However, there are a variety of weaknesses with these associations, and a significant possibility is overlooked that the “asherah” in the Bible may be different than what or who is tentatively identified as 'Athiratu at Ugarit. In some of the texts discovered at the ancient city of Ugarit in modern day Syria, a goddess (or possibly object?) called ’Athiratu has been identified as “Asherah” due to linguistic differences between Ugaritic and Hebrew, and the religious content of these particular texts. However, in many of these somewhat ambiguous texts, ’Athiratu appears alongside both deities and objects, such as the sun, earth, sea, incense censer, lyre, etc., allowing the possibility that ’Athiratu was not a proper goddess at Ugarit but an object. Further, even if  ’Athiratu was a proper goddess at Ugarit and a transliteration into Hebrew as “Asherah” is correct, so many Semitic words use the vowels that make up those words that other translations or identifications are highly plausible. The archaeological discoveries from Israel that are claimed to be depictions or descriptions of a goddess Asherah have been shown to be merely reference to an asherah of Yahweh (i.e. “Yahweh and his asherah” rather than "Yahweh and Asherah"), while the drawings such as those from Kuntillet Ajrud were not done in conjunction with the inscription and have nothing to do with either Yahweh or the asherah, but are depictions of the Egyptian god Bes and an Egyptian harp player (Day, Yahweh and the gods and goddesses of Canaan; Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel; Lemaire, "Who or What Was Yahweh’s Asherah?"). The clay female figurines have various interpretations, but none has any inscription indicating Asherah, Yahweh, or identification as a particular goddess. While their exact usage is unknown, it is possible that they were merely female dolls used as toys. The male counterpart of these female dolls may have been the other commonly found clay doll depicting a man riding on a horse. Instead, the usage of the asherah in the Hebrew Bible indicates not a goddess, but a wooden object or tree. The earliest appearance, in Deuteronomy, commands to “not plant for you an asherah of any tree beside the altar of Yahweh your God...” (Deuteronomy 16:21). Here, the “asherah” appears to be a type of tree associated with religious activity. In the book of Judges, Gideon is commanded to cut down the asherah which is beside the altar of Ba’al (a title meaning “lord” used for Canaanite gods, but typically for the prominent weather god Ba’al Hadad), then offer a burnt offering using the wood of the cut down asherah as fuel for the fire (Judges 6:25-30). This story in the book of Judges suggests yet again that the asherah was a wooden tree erected or planted next to an altar for some type of religious activity. In fact, elsewhere in the book of Judges the goddess Ashtaroth is specifically mentioned in the context of pagan gods in opposition to Yahweh, thus distinguishing the asherah from Ashtaroth in the book (Judges 2:13, 10:6). Further appearances of the asherah in the books of Kings and Chronicles also mention cutting the object down and burning it, and each usage is best explained by identifying the asherah as some type of tree, symbolic or real. One passage where the asherah may appear to be referring to a goddess, since 450 prophets of Ba’al and 400 prophets of the asherah are mentioned, can again be explained as referring to a religious object that had prophets, spokesmen, or speakers, since the definite article ("the") is used with asherah to indicate that it was an object and not a goddess (1 Kings 18:19). The use of the definite article is an important factor in identifying the asherah as an object rather than a proper name of goddess. In addition to being identified in the Bible as a tree or wooden object, the asherah is never referred to as a deity, a statue, an anthropomorphic representation, or a sentient being. A goddess named “Asherah” is also not mentioned in any known Phoenician inscriptions of the 1st millennium BC, and thus it is unlikely that “Asherah” was understood as a goddess, especially one of the chief goddesses, in the Iron Age southern Levant. Instead, Ashtarte was the principle goddess of Ugarit and the Phoenicians, representing fertility, and was the consort of Ba’al. This goddess Ashtarte is spelled “Ashtoreth” in the books of Judges, 1 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. In all of these contexts, Ashtaroth is specifically mentioned as a pagan goddess, and often alongside other pagan deities. Thus, a distinction between Ashtarte and the asherah is clearly made: “For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians” (1 Kings 11:5). What then was “the asherah” in the Bible? A religious object, likely a sacred tree, that was associated with religious worship of a prominent god (both Yahweh and Ba’al are mentioned with an asherah in the Bible). The idea of a sacred tree is quite common in pagan, ancient Near Eastern societies. There are hundreds of pieces of art from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant that depict sacred trees and place them in a religious context. In particular, Neo-Assyrian depictions of the sacred tree with winged creatures around it appear to illustrate that the idea of a sacred tree had been passed down for many generations and through many cultures—perhaps originally going back to the story of the tree in the Garden of Eden. The use of the asherah in the Bible supports the idea that some of the Israelites participated in pagan practices, such as the use of a sacred tree cult object at a shrine for Yahweh, and merged some of those pagan practices into the worship of Yahweh (religious syncretism). However, there is no evidence that the asherah in Israel was considered a separate goddess, and there is no evidence that the Israelites ever considered Yahweh to have a consort. Rather, the Israelites were actually commanded never to make cult objects and to destroy any of those that they found, although in practice this was not always fulfilled. Again, the picture of Israelite religious practices from the Bible is in agreement with the archaeological and ancient textual evidence—at times rampant religious syncretism, but no creation of a goddess consort for Yahweh named “Asherah.”

~Titus~

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