Department of Theology & Religious Studies
Evidence for Asherah*
Asherah has appeared paired with Yahweh in positive ways. Furthermore, the early eighth century BCE prophets do not condemn Asherah worship. The worship of Asherah was evidently acceptable before the Deuteronomistic reform movement gained momentum in the seventh century BCE, but since the text of the Bible was significantly composed or edited by the Deuteronomistic school or even later, this fact is not immediately apparent.
Asherah Makes a Comeback
Words based on the lexeme asherah–asherah, asherim, asheroth (these will be used in the text for ⊃ăšērāh: Deuteronomy 16:21; Judges 6:25, 26, 28, and 30; 1 Kings 15:13; 16:33; 18:19; 2 Kings 13:6; 18:4; 21:3, 7; 23:4, 6, 7 and 15; 2 Chronicles 15:16; ⊃ăšêrāh: 2 Kings 17:16; ⊃ăšērîm: 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 17:10; 23:14; 2 Chronicles 14:2 [Eng. 3]; 17:6; 24:18; 31:1; 33:19; 34:3, 4 and 7; Isaiah 17:8; 27:9; ⊃ăšêrēhem: Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5; 12:3; 1 Kings 14:15; Jeremiah 17:2; ⊃ăšêrêkā: Micah 5:13 [Eng. 14]; ⊃ăšērôt: Judges 3:7; 2 Chronicles 19:3; 33:3) occur 40 times in the Hebrew Bible. For at least 2,000 years, any connection with a goddess was forgotten – or perhaps originally, denied. If there was an original direct or indirect reference to a goddess in the Hebrew Bible, already in the LXX, any concept of a goddess by that name is gone: the Hebrew ⊃ăšērāh and ⊃ăšērîm are translated ’alsos, which can mean a temenos or sacred place – even without trees. And the Vulgate lucus is merely a translation of the Greek.
In two verses (Isaiah 17:8 [a gloss] and 27:9), the LXX has “trees,” and twice (2 Chron. 15:16 and 24:18), the LXX indicates the goddess Astarte. Perhaps when it seemed that a goddess was clearly indicated (especially in 2 Chronicles 15:16), the translator assumed it was Astarte. The Vulgate also gave the meaning “grove” (lucus) in all verses except four in Judges. In Judges 3:7 we have “Ashtaroth” (=Astarte) instead of asheroth, and in the other three verses (Judges 6:25, 26, and 30), the Vulgate has nemus, “wood” or “grove.” So here also we have the idea of trees. So, not surprisingly, the KJV translates the passages with “grove.”
But by the late 19th century CE, belief in this goddess begins to reappear.
The Assyrian evidence of a goddess Ašratu convinced many that there was probably “a Canaanitish goddess of fortune and happiness” (BDB, p. 81). But BDB notes that Stade, Robertson Smith, and Wellhausen thought that only a sacred pole was referred to in the Bible.
In 1885, the Revised Version used the translation “Asherah” for the singular ⊃ăšērāh. In Exodus 34:13, the text has “Asherim,” and the footnote reads, “probably the wooden symbols of a goddess Asherah.” The RV continues to translate as Asherim (with capital) thereafter and Asheroth in Judges 3:7; 2 Chronicles 19:3; 33:3. T. Witton Davies (1920 Peake’s) sees the asherim as “representations in wood of the old Semitic goddess Ashera, mentioned (Ashirta) in the Tell el-Amarna tablets... That pillars and Asherim are so often mentioned together supports the theory that the first were such altars as were used in sacrificing to the second” (p. 235 on Deuteronomy 7:5).
It was the tablets found at Ras es-Shamra (old Ugarit) that brought the goddess into prominence. This was evidence that a goddess of that name was worshiped in the general region
in the second half of the 2nd millennium BCE.
There is, and has been, a consensus that most of the biblical references are to some sort of wooden object (“sacred pole”) used at cultic sites (“high places”) in conjunction with standing stones (massebas) and, not always mentioned (assumed?), altars. But the objects associated with the asherim differ in the different books of the Hebrew Bible. For example, the association with high places and stone pillars is characteristic of the Deuteronomistic History (assuming meanwhile the reality of this description). And even if this is a fair inference from the Dtr text, it is still an open question whether this corresponds to beliefs of the people at the time written about, or it is a polemic redefinition by the Deuteronomist(s).
For example, the stereotyped formula for Judah in the Deuteronomistic History: “For they [Judah] also built high places, pillars and sacred poles on every high hill and under every green tree,” 1 Kings 14:23 – as according to 2 Kings 17:10, Israel also did. King Asa in 1 Kings 15:12 does not remove the sacred poles by name! Besides the qedeshim (“sacred prostitutes”) he removes “the idols his fathers had made,” and in v. 13 he removes his mother from being Queen Mother because she made “an abominable image” for Asherah. Hezekiah indeed removes pillars and the sacred pole (note the singular) in 2 Kings 18:4.
This action has been seen as the fulfillment of Exodus 34:13: “You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles.” Yet in Exodus these objects are seen as part of the worship of another god (v. 14), which they are not in Kings, rather they are the wrong worship of the right god.
In 2 Kings 21:3, 7 “an Asherah” (v. 3) is later referred to as the image (pesel) of “the” Asherah (v. 7). It is not clear whether the verb in this passage refers to the asherah or the pesel; and a translation of the phrase ⊃ăšer ⊂āśāh does not appear in the original text of the LXX (cf. BHS). The parallel account in 2 Chronicles 33:7 claims that Manasseh set up pesel hassemel, where 2 Kings 21:7 has pesel hā⊃ăšērāh. Thus in the time of the Chronicler, asherah was likely seen as the statue of some (foreign) deity, probably not called “Asherah.”
Most commonly it is accepted that the asherim are wooden objects, originally connected with a goddess – but whether they were objects used in her worship, symbols of her (artificial trees?), or actual images, is not clear. Nor do we know whether or not Asherah was still worshiped as a goddess in the first millennium BCE, or whether merely the symbols have survived. Nor is it clear whether the apparent references to a goddess are genuine recollections of an earlier worship, or a later polemic when cult objects for Yahweh were no longer a problem, but the attraction of foreign goddesses was.
Yet some of the biblical references seem to refer to an actual goddess, though exactly which ones is not agreed on, and it is not unanimous that any do. The dating of the composition of the texts is, as usual, debatable. Hence for the Hebrew ⊃ăšērāh; the NRSV English translation uses the form Asherah in: Deuteronomy 16:21 (ftn.); Judges 6:25, 26, 28, 30 (all ftn.); 1 Kings 16:33 (ftn.); 18:19 (text); 2 Kings 13:6 (ftn.); 17:16 (ftn.); 18:4 (ftn.); 21:3 (ftn.); 21:7 (text); 23:4, 6, 7 (all text); 23:15 (ftn.) and 2 Chronicles 15:16 (text). The text to the footnotes reads “sacred pole.”
Despite this quasi-consensus, the LXX idea that asherah is a temenos or shrine is supported by several recent writers. In Lipiński’s opinion, the only texts which mention a goddess or her emblems are Judges 3:7 and 1 Kings 18:19, both of which he considers textually dubious (1972, p. 114). Even those who believe that the word is the name of a goddess think that in origin it may be derived from the word for “place” or shrine, as in Akkadian, Phoenician and Aramaic.
Further discussion of the biblical evidence will be given in the section on the Bible. We shall here position the actual situation in monarchic Israel/Judah – as revealed in the contemporary inscriptions – between the goddess worship of the second millennium and the (largely) wooden object of the Hebrew Bible and shrine/trees of the LXX in the late first millennium BCE, and try to see the evolution of the concept of asherah over time.
The differences in opinion among scholars about the meaning of the word in the inscriptions are to a large extent determined by the weight given to the data BEFORE the inscriptions as opposed to the data AFTER the inscriptions.
In the second millenium BCE material, asherah is emphatically a goddess. However, this material is not in Hebrew and belongs to a culture of a different time and different place. We know that even if a god name is found in different cultures, this does not mean that the entity is thought of in the same way by the Hebrews – and indeed there are several aspects of the Ugaritic goddess which are not found at later times. On the other hand, while the biblical data is in Hebrew and comes from the same general region and culture, it is later and polemic. The de-deification of gods by the Deuteronomists is well established. We have no evidence that the idea of a cult object called an asherah is not the invention of the Deuteronomist. Thus to explain the asherah in the inscriptions by means of the biblical data may be anachronistic. We can only try to see how the idea may have progressed over time.
Three sets of data are available for our understanding of the early first millennium: the Ugaritic literature – the myths, legends, and lists on the clay tablets found at Ras es-Shamra, Syria, dating to the late second millenium BCE; contemporary inscriptions – inscriptions found in the Palestine area, dating to the first millennium BCE; and iconography – the study and interpretation of images, drawn or modeled, figurative or symbolic.
In Babylon, a goddess Ašratum, partner to the god Amurru, was worshiped in the period between ca. 1830-1531 BCE. She is known there as “the Lady of the Steppe” (bēlet sēri); “bride of the king of heaven” kallat šar šamī, and “mistress of sexual vigor and rejoicing” (bēlet kuzbi u ulsi). These titles appear to connect Ašratum with “Amorites,” who came from the north-west of Babylon.
In the texts from Mari, 1830-1760 BCE, most of the population seems to be “Amorite,” and a “land of the Amurru” is mentioned.
Lipiński (1972, pp. 101-3) discusses several South-Arabian inscriptions, a North-Arabian stele, and a few Thamudic personal names, which bear witness to the goddess Athirat in Arabia in the middle of the first millenium BCE.
From the Ugaritic literature, the myths and legends of 14th century Ugarit, known from the tablets found at Ras es-Shamra, we know that Athirat (as Asherah was then pronounced) was the chief goddess of the city state. She was the wife of the high god, El. She is called “creatress” (or, perhaps, “mistress”; CTA 4.i.23; iii.26, 30, 35; iv.32, qnyt ⊃ilm), “of the gods” and probably “mother of the god(s)” (PRU II.2.43, ⊃um ⊃il[m]), although the name of the deity here is not mentioned.
Athirat also has some connection with the sea. Her full title appears to be “Lady Athirat of the Sea” (rbt ⊃atrt ym).
Athirat and probably Anat are called “the wet nurses [of the gods]” (CTA 15.ii.26-8, mšnq[t ⊃ilm]). The text is broken where the second name occurs, but as btlt is preserved, one may assume that Anat is indicated. Athirat has this nurturing function in another text as well: that of “Shachar and Shalim and the Gracious Gods” (cf. also Wiggins 1993, pp. 74-9 and the references there, e.g. CTA 23 ([KTU 1.23]). This text mentions in lines 23-4 that the gracious gods “suck the teats of the breasts of Athirat” (ynqm b⊃ap zd ⊃atrt [wrhmy]); (and Rahmay; perhaps to be identified with Anat in light of CTA 15.ii.26-8, although it must be noted that nowhere else is Anat called Rahmay). Athirat thus has some connection with birth and fertility. Whether or not this makes her a “fertility goddess” will be discussed in the section on plaque and pillar figurines.
Unless the figurines have relevance, these features of the Ugaritic goddess are not found in the biblical text, which is not surprising since there is room for doubt whether a goddess is mentioned at all.
INSCRIPTIONS FROM TIMES WHEN THE WORSHIP WAS LIVING
* Inscription #3 from Khirbet el-Qom
* Pictures and Graffiti from Kuntillet ⊂Ajrud
* The Ekron Inscription
Inscription #3 from Khirbet el-Qom
There has been considerable scholarly debate concerning inscription #3 from Khirbet el-Qom, located 12 kilometers (8.5 miles) west of Hebron and 11 kilometers (6.5 miles) ESE of Lachish (grid ref. 1465-1045). The text was illegally chiseled out from a pillar in a burial cave near the site of Khirbet el-Qom (cf. Dever 1970, p. 146), which Dorsey identifies with biblical Makkedah (1980, p. 192). Palaeographically, the inscription dates to ca. 750 BCE (Lemaire 1977, p. 603; G. I. Davies 1991, p. 106 #25.003; Smelik 1991, p. 152; and Dever 1970, p. 165); however Dever states in n. 53 that Cross prefers a date closer to 700 BCE, as also perhaps Ahituv (1992, p. 111), who identifies this inscription as #1, as against all others for whom it is #3. For photographs of the inscription see Dever 1970, pls. VI B and VII; Malamat 1979, pl. 38; Zevit 1984, fig. 6; and Ahituv 1992, p. 113.
The inscription is difficult to read, for several reasons. First, besides being naturally cracked and faulted, the stone surface appears to have been poorly smoothed and prepared. The tools used to smooth the writing surface left further ridges and striations in the rock. The long scratches on the surface of the stone were made before the inscription was written, perhaps while it was being smoothed to prepare it for the inscription. The letters of the inscription have been cut over the long scratches, as is evidenced by the tiny ridges of chalk displaced by the act of gouging out the letters. The long scratches cannot therefore be considered an attempt to “erase” the inscription. Secondly, when the inscription was incised, the engraver formed some letters with a high degree of pressure, thereby making a strong impression in the rock, but other letters were poorly formed and hardly incised at all. This creates difficulties for anyone trying to read the text, for the strokes of the letters are barely distinguishable from the natural cracks and striations in the rock. Indeed, Dever believes that the text is more a graffito than a true inscription. He thinks that the stylus was probably only a sharp stick (1970, p. 162).
This has not made interpretation easy and makes dogmatism impossible. (On the other hand, it gives us a little more confidence in the text; forgers, as we have seen, tend to produce rather good and clear texts.)
My transcription reads as follows:
3. wmsryh l⊃šrth hwš⊂lh
1. Uriyahu the rich wrote it.
2. Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh
3. for from his enemies by his (YHWH’s) asherah he (YHWH) has saved him. **
4. by Oniyahu
and at bottom:
5. by his asherah
6. and by his a[she]rah
**Alternatively, if we consider lyhwh and l⊃šrth a compound linguistic stereotype hendiadys (cf. Melamed, 1961, pp. 131-3), this line would read “(and) by his asherah, for from his enemies he has saved him.”
There is debate over the use of word dividers; there are indeed word dividers in lines 1 and 2, although the one after brk (blessed) is not certain.
Line 1: This line most probably reads ⊃ryhw.h⊂šr.ktbh (cf. G. I. Davies 1991, p. 106 #25.003.1). A close inspection of the second letter of the second word reveals that the long scratch is not a part of the letter, which is indeed an ayin, albeit poorly incised. This is probably due to the difficulty in writing the letter over this long scratch, which apparently was already there. Jaroš notes that the fact that the ayin is a triangular shape is not troublesome, since circular and triangular ayins are known to appear next to each other (1982, p. 32). The transcription should therefore be read h⊂šr, as suggested by Lemaire (1977, p. 599), Miller (1981, p. 317), and Zevit (1984, p. 40), and contra Mittmann (1981, p. 141), who doubts that a “rich” man would advertise that fact in a funerary inscription. Not only does this transcription do justice to the inscribed text, it also conforms to the context. We may think of Isaiah 53:9, unless this is a corruption.
The last word in this line, ktbh, raises an interesting problem. The use of ktb as a noun in the sense of a written document (ketāb ) is not attested in pre-exilic times; pre-exilic Hebrew used miktāb. O’Connor asks if ktb could be a term for some kind of verse (1987, p. 229 n. 7) and takes this first line as a heading: “Uriah the prosperous: his message” (1987, p. 224). Zevit (1984, p. 44) notes further that the syntax of the line is also strange for pre-exilic Hebrew. If ktb were used as a noun, one would expect ktb (l)⊃ryhw h⊂šr instead. Lemaire (1977, pp. 599-600) seeks to solve the problem by regarding ktbh as a suffixed Piel verb, thereby translating “l’a fait écrire.” However, the Piel form occurs only in Isaiah 10:1, where it is not used in a causative sense, as it would be in the inscription, but rather is used in a frequentative sense, which would not fit in this case. The Piel is not used in post-biblical Hebrew either, as the causative is expressed by the Hiphil. In the light of this, it is probably best to regard ktbh as a suffixed Qal (cf. Mittmann 1981, p. 142; Jaroš 1982, p. 33; also Müller 1992, p. 41 n. 109). However, it does not necessarily follow that Uriyahu himself had to carve out the inscription (although that could also be possible; cf. Müller 1992, p. 41). He could have had someone else inscribe that which he had dictated, and yet still state that he “wrote it” (cf. 2 Kings 10:1 where one is not meant to assume that Jehu himself wrote all the letters that were dispatched). In this case, Uriyahu “wrote” the inscription that was carved out of the rock, perhaps by Oniyahu.
Line 2: Dever (1970), Lemaire (1977), Naveh (1979), Miller (1981), Mittmann (1981), Jaroš (1982), Spronk (1986), G. I. Davies (1991, p. 106 #25.003.2) and Ahituv (1992, p. 111) are all agreed that this line reads brk.⊃ryhw.lyhwh. Zevit (1984), on the other hand, finds a faintly inscribed taw after the kap in brk, thereby reading brkt “I blessed,” and thus making Abiyahu (his reading of line 4) bless Uriyahu and pray on his behalf. This would follow the formula discovered at Kuntillet ⊂Ajrud (see below, especially inscription #1), but the absence of the direct object marker in this instance (unlike the formula) could be an argument in favor of rejecting the reading brkt.
Line 3: This line creates the most difficulty, mainly because it has the most “shadow writing.” It appears that someone has retraced many of the letters, thereby leaving “ghost images.” Whether this was done by the writer or some later visitor to the cave is uncertain. The duplicated letters are on the whole very faintly inscribed, and may have served as some sort of emphasis. This duplication of the letters makes the line difficult to read and open to many interpretations. Jaroš (1982, pp. 33-5) and Zevit (1984, pp. 41-2) both tackle the extraneous letters and perform an admirable task of deciphering the numerous scratches and making some semblance of order out of the chaos. Dever (1970, p. 161) originally read the third line as wm⊃rr.ydl⊃šr thhwš ⊂lh, which he translated “and cursed shall be the hand of whoever (defaces it).” Garbini reads m⊃rr yd kl ⊃šrt hhwš⊂ lh and argues that the word ⊃šrt means “to bless” and is used euphemistically for its opposite “curse,” on the basis of the inscribed hand. Since the hand is turned downwards, Garbini thinks that it is a curse, rather than a blessing. He translates “and cursed be the hand of everyone (female?) who would curse his salvation” (Garbini 1978, pp. 192-3). There are several problems with this reading, which Dever admits (1970, pp. 160-2). Indeed, in his 1984 article (p. 22; and cf. 1990, p. 148), Dever appears to have abandoned this earlier reading and seems to follow Naveh and Lemaire. Therefore, a discussion of the inherent problems with this earlier reading is unnecessary.
Another interesting treatment of this line is that of Mittmann, who reads wmmsr ydh l⊃l šrth hwš⊂ lh, and translates “und aus Bedrängnis heraus preist er den Gott seines Dienstes, der ihm hilft” (“and from affliction he praised the God of his service [the God whom he serves as priest], who helps him,” 1981, p. 144). Whereas this transliteration is possible in theory from the letters that appear to be inscribed on the stone, it does not seem to be likely. To get this reading, Mittmann has to read the head of the first doubled resh as a dalet, written before the yod. He then considers that the double engraving on the head of the he is the dalet in its correct place, followed by a shadow he, which he takes to be the he of ydh (1981, p. 143). Furthermore, Dever (1984, p. 32 n. 6) believes that the necessary vocalization of Mittmann’s consonantal rendering makes for awkward syntax. However, the problem is not so much syntactical, but that to get Mittmann’s reading, one would expect the Hiphil of ydh here, which would be hwdh, but the yod in the text is well defined, and likely to be correct. Furthermore, the use of “the God of his service” (l⊃l šrth; or “the God to whom he ministers as a priest”) is strange. Additionally, the second lamed which Mittmann needs to obtain this reading is probably one of the “ghost” letters, as it is faint and tentative, unlike the first lamed. It is better to consider this second lamed as a “shadow” of the first one. A better translation is that of Lemaire (1977, p. 599), Miller (1981, p. 317), Jaroš (1982, p. 34), and Zevit (1984, p. 43), reading wmsryh l⊃šrth hwš⊂lh.
Zevit considers the he in l⊃šrth to be a mater lectionis for a final a vowel, rendering the double feminization of the name as Asherata (⊃ašērātā; and see Angerstorfer 1982, pp. 11-14, who vocalizes ⊃šrth as aširta, and considers her a separate goddess, related to the Ugaritic Athirat). This use of the he as a mater lectionis is well attested from the eighth century BCE onwards (Zevit 1984, p. 45, and cf. Zevit 1980, p. 14). Zevit continues by comparing Asherata to other proper names, such as Yotbata (Numbers 33:33), Timnata (Joshua 19:43), and Ephrata (Micah 5:1 [Eng. 2]), as well as to some nouns in poetic texts. Whereas his examples are all perfectly justified in themselves, there is no evidence for this double feminine on a personal name, as distinct from a place name. Rather, these should probably be taken as instances of an old ending of direction or intention, now used merely for the sake of poetical emphasis (GK §90g, also n. 1, and cf. Ugaritic; and cf. Müller 1992, pp. 31-2 for the interpretation of the ending in these place names as feminine accusative/genitive).
Line 4: The word l⊃nyhw has also been read as l⊃ryhw; but this is unlikely – the resh and nun are not similar enough to be confused. It might also be l⊃byhw, but there is no other nun to compare it with. Oniyahu may be a later member of the same family, buried in the same tomb. The writing may be slightly different but does not necessarily imply a different writer. The relationship to the preceding three lines is uncertain. This fourth line may indicate the writer of the inscription or, since pre-exilic texts are usually not signed, the name may indicate the addition of a later burial in the tomb.
Lines 5 and 6: Line 5 has a clear reference to asherah, the only word clearly recognizable. Line 6 may also refer to her/it, but as is, is not legible.
Pictures and Graffiti from Kuntillet ⊂Ajrud
The Nature of the Site
Kuntillet ⊂Ajrud, “the solitary hill of the water-wells” (Meshel 1978b, p. 50), is located approximately 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Kadesh-barnea in northern Sinai, on a hill overlooking Wadi Quraiya (grid ref. 0940-9560; cf. North 1989, p. 119 for possible origins of the toponyms). The site is strategically located near an intersection of several ancient routes traversing the desert: the Darb el-Ghazza from Gaza and the southern Mediterranean coast southwards to Eilat; the east-west route following Wadi Quraiya; and a branch route south to Themed and southern Sinai. In three seasons of excavations over the years 1975-6, a team from the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, under the direction of Ze’ev Meshel, uncovered remains of what Meshel believes to be an Iron II religious center from the end of the ninth, beginning of the eighth century BCE (Meshel 1979, p. 27). This date is largely confirmed by an analysis of the pottery at the site (Ayalon 1995), as well as Carbon-14 dating (Segal 1995).
I suggest that this site was a hostelry, perhaps an example of the biblical mālôn (Genesis 42:27; 43:21; Exodus 4:24; and Jeremiah 9:1 [Eng. 2]). The architecture does not suggest a shrine, nor the pottery. It is only the inscriptions which suggest a religious use of the site, and these seem to indicate travelers not pilgrims, as the inscriptions refer to gods of other sites (e.g., Samaria), and the travelers are of different cultures.
Several pieces of frescoes and inscribed wall fragments were discovered in the bench room, a few of the adjoining rooms, and in the eastern building. The inscriptions are in Phoenician script (although Ackroyd 1983, p. 250 questions whether or not one can differentiate between “Phoenician” and “Early Hebrew” script; but for differences between scripts, especially Philistine but also Hebrew and Phoenician, see Naveh 1985), and mention several deities, including yhwh, b⊂l, ⊃l, and ⊃šrh (in the form ⊃šrth). Although fragmentary, they seem to be of a prayerful or dedicatory nature. Meshel believes that originally these fragments would have been on the walls and door jambs, where traces of inscriptions are still to be found (1978a, “The Inscriptions”; no page numbers in text). One of these plaster inscriptions will be discussed below (for more on this inscription as well as the other inscriptions on plaster see G. I. Davies 1991, pp. 80, 82; Smelik 1991, pp. 157-8; Ahituv 1992, pp. 158-62; Meshel 1993, p. 1459 and 1994, p. 100).
The inscriptions on the pithoi have been the most studied.
Pithos A: Inscription 1, over the heads of the Bes figures (see section on iconography below) reads:
⊃mr. ⊃...h...k. ⊃mr. lyhl[l⊃l] wlyw⊂śh. w... brkt. ⊃tkm. lyhwh. šmrn. wl⊃šrth.
“X says: say to Yehal[lel⊃el] and to Yo⊂asah and [to Z]: I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his asherah.”
Several suggestions may be made for the first name. Meshel has suggested ⊃Ashyahu (=Joash), t[he kin[g]] (Weinfeld 1980, p. 284; Meshel 1986; 1993, p. 1462; 1994, p. 99; cf. G. I. Davies 1991, p. 81 #8.017). The date is possible, but a little extreme, and the suffixed divine name is both not biblical form and not consistent with the only readable name here which has a pre-fixed theonymn.
lyhwh. šmrn was originally translated as “Yahweh our guardian” or “Yahweh who protects us” (Jaroš 1982, p. 59). A better translation is “Yahweh of Samaria” (Emerton 1982, p. 3 following a suggestion of Gilula 1978-9). This fits with the “Yahweh of Teman” in the second inscription.
The inscription also invokes the blessing of “his asherah.” (There is the possibility that this should be “its [Samaria’s] asherah,” cf. 1 Kings 16:33; 2 Kings 13:6; cf. Tigay 1987, pp. 173-4. However, this interpretation is not usually accepted, especially in light of the inscription on Pithos B.) Who/what is this asherah? That it is not the personal name of a goddess is suggested by the use of a pronominal suffix, which though known in Ugaritic, is not exampled anywhere in biblical Hebrew. Margalit, taking the word as generic, translates it as “his consort” (1990, p. 284). If asherah means shrine, then this would be “his sanctuary” [temple?]. This meaning has not been found in Hebrew (but compare the LXX translation, which despite Deuteronomy 16:21, should probably be translated “shrine” not “grove”). Therefore, in this inscription, “his asherah” most probably refers to the wooden cultic object representing the goddess Asherah, which is often found in Yahweh’s temple. Olyan believes that the asherah mentioned in the books of Kings is the same that is acting as an agent of blessing in the inscription. He states that “when the biblical and epigraphic data are correlated, the chronology certainly fits” (1988, p. 33). Koch believes that the Israelites considered asherah to be a kind of “power for felicity,” or else linked with some special association with blessing (1988, p. 100).
Pithos B: Inscription 2 reads:
⊃mr ⊃mryw ⊃mr l.⊃dny hšlm. ⊃t brktk. lyhwh tmn wl⊃šrth. ybrk. wyšmrk wyhy ⊂m. ⊃d[n]y...k
“Amaryau says: say to my lord: Is it well with you? I bless you by Yahweh of Teman and by his asherah. May he bless you and keep you and be with my lord...”
This inscription reads like a letter heading. We may compare an ostracon from an Edomite shrine at Horvat ⊂Uza: ⊃mr.lmlk.⊃mr.lblbl./hšlm.⊃t.whbrktk/lqws. “(Thus) said Lumalak [or
This is significant in the light of the Edomite inscription above, which confirms Qaus as the god of Edom – and we know of no other gods for Edom. Amaryau is a northern Israelite form of theophorous names.
Inscription 3 reads:
kl ⊃šr yš⊃l m⊃š hnn... wntn lh yhw klbbh
“Whatever he asks from a man, may it be favored...and let Yahw(eh) give unto him as he wishes (according to his heart).”
Inscription #8.022 of G. I. Davies 1991 has yhw (sic. no final h) but does not mention asherah. When I studied this pithos in the Israel Museum, I noticed that above this inscription is one of the other texts mentioning Yahweh of Teman (Meshel counts five of them). It reads lyhwh. htmn. wl⊃šrth “by [or, for] Yahweh of Teman and by [or, for] his [or its] asherah” (cf. G. I. Davies 1991, p. 80 #8.016; and Ahituv 1992, p. 156 and Keel and Uehlinger 1992, p. 257). Ahituv and Keel and Uehlinger include this inscription with number 3. The lack of an h with Teman in the other inscriptions and the uncertainty of the final m mean that this inscription needs further study.
Inscriptions on plaster mentioning asherah read:
ytnw.l . . . ⊃šrt
“They will celebrate unto/ give to . . . asherah/Asherata”
These two fragments may be separate. The word for asherah reads ⊃šrt without a final h, usually interpreted as “his.” If this is not merely broken off, it would support the reading in the Ekron inscription (see below), and perhaps Zevit and Hess’s proposal to read the name as Asherata.
The Ekron Inscription
During the summer of 1990, 15 inscriptions on pottery shards were discovered by a team of archaeologists led by Trude Dothan of the Hebrew University and Seymour Gitin, director of the W. F. Albright Institute for Archaeological Research, at Tel Miqne (Khirbet el-Muqanna⊂; grid ref. 1356-1315), thought to be biblical Ekron (Dothan and Gitin 1993, p. l052; and cf. Dothan and Gitin 1992); and now a new inscription discovered at the site seems to make that identification certain (Gitin 2005, p. 51; Dothan and Gitin 2008, p. 1957). The site is located 35 kilometers (22 miles) south-west of Jerusalem, along the edge of the inner coastal plain, near the Shephelah which served as a “buffer zone” separating Philistia and Judah.
The relevant inscription written on a storage jar – probably for olive oil – of the seventh century BCE reads: qdš l⊃šrt “for (the goddess) Asherat” (Dothan and Gitin 1993, p. 1058), or “sanctified to Asherat” (Anonymous 1990, p. 232; and cf. Gitin 1990, p. 59 n. 18; Wolff 1991, p. 514; Gitin 1993, p. 250; for photographs of the inscription see Wolff 1991, p. 514 fig. 25; Gitin 1993, p. 251 fig. 2a and 2b; Dothan and Gitin 1993, p. 1058). It should be noted that this inscription appears to be written on the same storage jar, but with the two words on opposite sides of the vessel. Because the inscriptions consist only of either isolated letters or one or two words, and because inscriptions from the coastal cities at this time are so few, we do not know what language is represented here. Gitin thinks it may be Phoenician, but as no inscription has the biblical spelling ⊃šrh, we cannot know whether or not the Hebrew of the time also spelled it, as here, ⊃šrt with a final t. The reflection of semblance between ⊃šrt and the ⊃šrth discussed above might suggest that it was a goddess’s name, pronounced as in Ugarit; or on the other hand it might give weight to the idea that the goddess in question was known as Ashirta (Angerstorfer 1982) or Asherata (see especially Hess 1991, 1995 and 1996). If this were the case, then the suggestions of Hess (1991), Zevit (1984) and Angerstorfer (1982) should perhaps be re-examined.
This is also a warning not to readily back-project a biblical meaning to these earlier texts. Since the Phoenician word asherat does have the meaning “shrine,” it is possible that it has that meaning here. The finding of another word lmqm does not invalidate this, as maqom refers to the whole temenos area (cf. Lemaire 1994, p. 146).
* Khirbet el-Qom
* Drawings from Kuntillet ⊂Ajrud
* Finds from Lachish
* Pella Cult Stands
* Ta⊂anach Cult Stands
Though the hand, probably apotropaic, is interesting, it apparently has nothing to do with asherah. It may be a left hand – but this seems very unlikely. It is a right hand, palm out. Margalit (1989, p. 371) interprets the additional scratches depicted on my drawing of the inscription (Hadley 2000, p. 85 fig. 1, and cf. Hadley 1987) as a depiction of a rudimentary tree, symbolic of the asherah mentioned in the inscription. In my drawing of the inscription, I included only those scratches which intersected with parts of the inscription. Apart from these, there are numerous other scratches, some deeply incised, and some less deeply. Therefore, those scratches which Margalit interprets as a rudimentary tree are only some of the many scratches on the surface of the rock, including some in the incised hand and between the fingers. (For a photograph of the full inscription with these scratches see Dever 1970, pls. VI B and VII and Zevit 1984, fig. 6.) Finally, many of these scratches are oriented from the left downwards to the right, thus running in a contrary position to Margalit’s tree (cf. Hadley 2000, p. 85 fig. 1 for only one of several of these scratches). Therefore, it is best to interpret the “tree-like” nature of these scratches as an interesting coincidence, unrelated to the inscription.
Drawings from Kuntillet ⊂Ajrud
The drawings on the pithoi are mainly animal motifs – horses, ibexes, a boar, lions, a tree flanked by two ibexes, and a cow and a calf. There are, however, human figures, including worshipers, two grotesque figures and a lyre player. The search for an iconography of the goddess has focused on the two last sets. Are the drawings illustrative of the inscriptions? The brush lines of the two are dissimilar, and inscriptions overlap drawings – and the drawings seem to be earlier than the inscriptions. In short, there does not seem to be any intentional relation between the two.
Are any of these human figures female? The two grotesque figures are questionable: is the appendage between their legs a penis or the tail of a lion skin? Do the indicated breasts of the right hand grotesque figure – and of the lyre player – represent female breasts? While some have suggested that the pair of grotesque figures represent Yahweh and his consort, Asherah (cf. Gilula 1978-9, pp. 134-5), the most likely interpretation of the figures is that of Bes (despite the lack of distinctive physical characteristics typical of iconographic representation of dwarfism). The scene would then be apotropaic, with Bes, a minor Egyptian god, warding off evil (for a thorough discussion see Beck 1982, pp. 27-31; supplemented by Keel and Uehlinger 1992, pp. 246-52 and my discussion in Hadley 2000, pp. 137-44). The right hand figure is not female in general depiction, and the representation of Bes with breast and nipples is not unknown. But the differences do suggest a different painter, and that any interpretation of the two as a unified composition is unwarranted.
If neither of these grotesque figures is Asherah, what of the lyre player? The musician is depicted sitting on a “throne,” above and to the right of the two standing Bes figures. The player is facing away from the Bes figures. Dever (1984), though accepting that the two figures are Bes figures, argues that the lyre player is Asherah. Again we ask, is this figure even female?
Dever (1984, p. 23) believes that the dots on the seated figure represent an ankle-length skirt and a shawl around the shoulders. Iron Age parallels show that the depiction might be of a short kilt plus a long robe. Once again, the depiction of breasts is not conclusive. After all, both men and women have breasts and nipples.
b) Hair style.
The style of coiffure of the ⊂Ajrud lyre player is a common Egyptian style male wig.
c) The “lyre.”
One of Dever’s examples which he believes is especially instructive is an LB bronze stand from Episkopi, showing on one panel a seated lyre player with a similar hairstyle to that of the ⊂Ajrud figure, and interpreted as a male (Dever 1984, p. 24; and cf. Barnett 1935, pl. 28, and Catling 1964, pl. 34). Catling is unsure whether the figure is human or divine (1964, p. 206). As this figure has been identified as a male, and as Catling’s figure with a similar garment as well as a similar coiffure also appears to be male (1964, p. 209), it seems that this “especially instructive” parallel helps to confirm my opinion that the ⊂Ajrud lyre player is male (and cf. Loud 1948, pl. 76, fig. 1, which depicts a Philistine jug from Megiddo, showing a male lyre player).
d) The “throne.”
Dever identifies three characteristics of the stereotyped features of the sphinx or cherub throne known from Late Bronze-Iron Age Canaan. These are (1) lion’s-paw feet, (2) the paneled sides, which he believes represent the stylized feathered wings of the cherub, and (3) “the distinctive short back with a tendency toward a back-turned flair at the very top, recalling perhaps the tips of the cherub’s wings” (1984, p. 24).
We may compare the chair of Princess Sitamun from the 18th Dynasty (Baker 1966, color plate 4b) to this “throne.” Although this belonged to a princess, note that it is considered a “chair,” not a throne. Yet it has lion’s-paw feet, paneled sides (although in this instance paneled with Bes figures, and not with a scale pattern. For a chair of Princess Sitamun with a scale pattern see Metzger 1985, Tafel 32, Abb. 229), and a sloping back. Many of the New Kingdom and later Egyptian chairs had sloping backs, with upright supports as well, which are missing on the ⊂Ajrud chair. Therefore, the closest stylistic parallels for the ⊂Ajrud “throne” are those of a chair of a princess, and not a goddess or even a king. Even if the lyre player is female, and of some high rank, there is nothing to suggest a goddess. Certainly no goddess would play accompaniment for a minor deity like Bes. But as there is no obvious connection between the lyre player and the grotesque figures, this is not a necessary argument.
Schroer (1987, p. 30) interprets the “cow and calf” motif to be representative of Asherah. She believes that the semel of the Old Testament may have been a representation of the goddess as a cow. However, the association of Asherah with a cow is not exampled.
Who the worshipers are worshiping is not clear, though Taylor (1993, pp. 217-18) argues from the way the heads and eyes are depicted that they are worshiping the sun.
I suggest that Asherah may be represented on the pithos by her symbol. The association of Asherah with a tree is indeed arguable. The association of the “tree of life” with a deity is clear, and the “sacred pole” of the Bible is quite possibly a symbolic tree (and see Deuteronomy 16:21). Thus the sacred tree flanked by ibexes may well represent Asherah. The lion beneath may represent Asherah’s supporting animal (though Wiggins 1991, pp. 387-9 does not agree that Asherah is associated with lions).
Finds from Lachish
1. The Late Bronze Age ewer.
This ewer, found during the Starkey expedition to Lachish in 1934, probably dates to the late 13th century BCE, i.e. near the beginning of the Iron Age. It has a series of very roughly drawn animals and trees, with an inscription above. The inscription was read by Cross (1954 and 1967) as mtn.šy [l][rb]ty ⊃lt “Mattan. An offering to my Lady ⊃Elat.” Puech (1986, p. 18) tentatively suggested reading the name Reshef after Elat. The word Elat is positioned over a representation of a tree. This is unlikely to be a coincidence, and may suggest the identification of Elat with Asherah. As Asherah was known as the consort of El, the name Elat may refer to Asherah, unless it is a generalized name for a goddess, which is unlikely in a dedication. If the first animal in the series is a lion, so identified by Hestrin (1987b, p. 213; 1991, p. 54) despite the feathery tail, this may be a further identification of Asherah.
2. The gold plaque.
The plaque depicts a naked goddess, standing on a trotting horse, and holding two lotus blossoms in each hand. The figure resembles “Qudshu” figurines, and Qudshu most probably is another name for Asherah. However, the horse support is a problem. Asherah appears to be associated with a lion; so this goddess is more likely Astarte, who is often associated with horses (cf. Clamer 1980, pp. 160-1).
Pella Cult Stands
These two stands, probably from the 10th century BCE, resemble the “horned altars” known from excavations at Israelite sites. The best preserved one has an intriguing incised tree motif. The other, poorly preserved, is highly decorated. The front of this second stand has a “façade” with two naked female figures. The figure on the right has a Hathor-type coiffure. The object under this figure is not preserved, but the figure on the left is standing on an animal, either bovine or a lion. Most scholars seem to think it is the latter. If so, then the representation may well be that of Asherah, as the Hathor wig would suggest.
It is a pity that these two stands were not discovered in situ, but rather mixed up in a rubbish dump (cf. Potts 1990, pp. 97-100).
Ta⊂anach Cult Stands
1. “Lapp’s” stand.
The stand is built up of four superimposed hollow clay squares topped by a ridged basin, and is well preserved (Lapp 1969a, p. 42; cf. Glock 1978, p. 1147; and 1993, p. 1432). On the façade (and continuing to the sides) of the stand are human and animal representations. Four different levels are present. On the lowest register, a naked female is standing en face, flanked by two lions. She is grasping the lions by the ears. In the next register, two sphinxes with Hathor headdresses are represented. No symbol of divinity has been preserved between them. It appears that the edges of the clay around this hole have been smoothed, and so it may be that a hole was intended to be in this position, with no other symbol. The next highest level again portrays two flanking lions. However, in this case, a tree between two ibexes is depicted, instead of the naked female figure. The ibexes are standing on their hind legs, and eating (blossoms?) at the top of the tree. The top scene portrays a pair of voluted columns flanking a quadruped which is supporting a sun disk. At the bases of the two columns are two smaller objects, which may depict cultic stands. The identity of the quadruped is a matter of some debate; Lapp (1969a, p. 44); Dayagi-Mendels (1986, p. 163); Hestrin (1987a, p. 67; 1991, p. 57); and M. S. Smith (1990, pp. 20, 51), among others, believe that it is a bull calf. Glock (1978, p. 1147; 1993, p. 1432) and Taylor (1987a; 1987b; 1988), on the other hand, believe that it is an equid (but see Glock 1992, p. 290 where he appears to follow Hestrin’s suggestion of a bovine). The most likely interpretation is that it is a horse, because the tail is represented as hairy, the pointing of the ears, the long muzzle, the prominent hooves, and the absence of horns (Taylor 1993, pp. 30-2 and 31 n. 2; 1994, p. 57; and cf. Keel and Uehlinger 1992, p. 180).
We may argue that the top scene represents Yahweh (or El, perhaps already identified with Yahweh). There is general agreement that the naked female figure and the tree flanked by ibexes on the second and fourth levels are depictions of Asherah (Taylor 1988, p. 560; cf. Dever 1983, p. 573; Dayagi-Mendels 1986, p. 163; Hestrin 1987a, p. 77; 1987b, p. 220; 1991, p. 58; Taylor 1987a; 1987b; 1993, pp. 28-9), but not total consensus. The goddess is thus represented both by a symbol and by an anthropomorphic depiction. Taylor argues that the “hole” in the third tier is the equivalent of the anthropomorphic representation of Asherah, and indicates the lack of iconography of Yahweh (1988, p. 561; and cf. 1993, p. 29). Although there is no sign of burning within the stand, it is also possible that the hole allowed fire internally to represent the deity.
2. “Sellin’s” stand.
This stand is more poorly made than the other one, but it is of the same general style (cf. Sellin 1904, p. 75 fig. 102 and pls. 12-13; Lapp 1969b, p. 16; Glock 1978, p. 1144). It appears that this stand depicts alternating registers of sphinxes and lions on the sides, with the tree and ibexes in the bottom center. In this case, however, a pair of sphinxes flanks the tree and ibexes scene. Finally, on the top of the stand is a protuberance which looks like part of a proto-aeolic capital. There are thus some resemblances to the other Ta⊂anach stand, although Beck interprets them differently (1994, p. 381). But they may both represent the same two deities, Yahweh and Asherah.
This iconographic evidence suggests that in the 13th century BCE Asherah was worshiped in Lachish also, and that her symbol was a stylized tree attended by ibexes. In the tenth century she appears to be worshiped alongside of Yahweh, as evidenced by the Ta⊂anach stands.
The female figurines found so commonly throughout the region have often been known as “Astarte figurines.” Now, with the popularity of Asherah, some of these are beginning to be associated with her instead.
* Pillar Figurines
Tadmor separated these figurines into two groups, the recumbent figurines (“concubine”) without signs of deity, and the standing figurines with symbols of deity. She argues that the first group represents human figures, and so will not be discussed here (cf. Tadmor 1982).
The “goddess” figurines.
These figurines have been found both in Egypt and in the Levant. They represent a naked female facing front. The legs may be separated, with the feet turned sideways. The goddess may be wearing a “Hathor” style headdress and be holding lotus plants or snakes. They may be standing on horses or lions. As the lion is often associated with Asherah, the ones mounted on the backs of lions may be meant as representations of Asherah.
The Winchester College relief (Edwards 1955) has a naked female figure, standing on a lion, wearing the “Hathor” wig and holding snakes. Written in hieroglyphs is the inscription “Qudshu-Astarte-Anat.” “Qudshu” is inscribed above the figure, and the other names on each side. Some therefore interpret qdš as “holiness” of the two goddesses named (cf. Stadelmann 1967, pp. 112-13; Patai 1976, p. 203). It is impossible to be confident in identifying the goddess portrayed here, especially as it would seem that there is fluidity in identifying these three (or two) goddesses.
These rounded figurines become the norm in the Iron Age (IA II, post 1000 BCE) especially in Judah. They have been discussed extensively by Holland (1975) and Engle (1979).
The heads were finely made in an open mold, while the bodies are crudely hand-made. The breasts are exaggerated, and supported by hands or arms. Below the waist, the figurines are unmolded, forming “pillars” and devoid of any sexual indicators.
That these figurines are pottery and not wood makes it difficult to believe that they were the asherim of the Bible. It is possible that they are copies of larger statues to be found in sanctuaries. It is, of course, possible that the figurines are not strictly cultic but have some other, unknown, function.
ASHERAH IN THE BIBLE
* Words Used with the Word Asherah/Asherim
* Asherah/Asherim and Deuteronomy
* Josiah’s Reform
* “The” Asherah?
* Passages Where Asherah May Be the Goddess
* Passages Which May Originally Have Referred to the Goddess
Words Used with the Word Asherah/Asherim
That the objects were made of wood is abundantly clear. The verbs used with asherah are:
krt; “to cut”: Exodus 34:13; Judges 6:25, 26, 28 and 30; 2 Kings 18:4; and 23:14.
gd⊂ (Piel); “to cut down”: Deuteronomy 7:5; 2 Chronicles 14:2 [Eng. 3]; and 31:1.
śrp; “to burn”: Deuteronomy 12:3; (implied in Judges 6:26); 2 Kings 23:6; and 23:15.
nt⊂; “to plant” or “to establish” (cf. BDB, p. 642c): Deuteronomy 16:21.
⊂śh; “to make”: 1 Kings 14:15; 16:33; 2 Kings 17:16; 21:3, 7 (although in v. 7 it is unclear whether the asherah or the pesel of the asherah is meant); and 2 Chronicles 33:3.
bnh; “to build”: 1 Kings 14:23.
⊂md; “to stand”: 2 Kings 13:6; (Hiphil) “to set up”: 2 Chronicles 33:19.
nsb (Hiphil); “to set up”: 2 Kings 17:10.
ys⊃ (Hiphil); “to bring out”: 2 Kings 23:6.
dqq (Hiphil); “to make into dust”: 2 Kings 23:6; and 2 Chronicles 34:4.
swr (Hiphil); “to take away”: 2 Chronicles 17:6.
b⊂r (Piel); “to consume, burn, remove”: 2 Chronicles 19:3.
thr (Piel); “to purge”: 2 Chronicles 34:3.
šbr (Piel); “to break into pieces”: 2 Chronicles 34:4.
nts; “to pull down” or “to break down”: 2 Chronicles 34:7.
ntš; “to pluck up”: Micah 5:13 [Eng. 14].
The verbs in Isaiah 17:8 (r⊃h “to look upon”); Isaiah 27:9 (qwm “to arise” [after being cast down]); and Jeremiah 17:2 (zkr “to remember”) are more general. However, here the asherim are paired with altars or images, and thus the implication is that the asherim are objects.
In addition to these passages, there are some verses in which asherah does not seem to be an object (especially 1 Kings 15:13; 18:19; 2 Kings 21:7; 23:4 and perhaps 7; 2 Chronicles 15:16; and possibly Judges 3:7, which is textually doubtful). This has led most scholars to conclude that the goddess Asherah is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in addition to the wooden cultic image.
Asherah/Asherim and Deuteronomy
Almost all the references come from the Deuteronomistic literature or later. The date of composition of the book of Kings is much debated, and the existence or nature of sources within it even more so. But it is unlikely that anything like the present book was written before the time of Hezekiah, and the references to A/asherah appear to belong to the historian, and not to any postulated sources.
Some scholars have suggested that the asherah was an invention of the Deuteronomistic writers to explain the fall of the northern kingdom and to warn Judah of a similar fate if she did not repent. Their arguments fail if the account of Josiah’s reform is accurate.
One of the reforms of Josiah is said to be the removal of cultic objects dedicated to Baal and Asherah from the temple (2 Kings 23:4) and the bringing of “the [not “a”] Asherah” out of the temple (2 Kings 23:6), and burned it, crushed the charcoal and scattered it on graves (to pollute even the ashes). (2 Kings 23:15 omits the definite article, but in curious language. The burning of the high place is described in the same terms as the burning and crushing of the asherah in v. 6 – the burning of the asherah looks like an addition by a scribe who missed reference to it here.)
The Asherah is in this chapter both a goddess (vv. 4, 7) and a wooden object (v. 6: image? symbol? JB has “sacred pole” in v. 4. NRSV “the image of” Asherah). The women weaving for Asherah (v. 7: the qedeshim?) are in the temple of Yahweh, which again suggests that Asherah was the spouse of Yahweh. The reference to Baal in v. 4 is obviously polemical, as Baal and Yahweh are too obviously rivals for them to co-exist in the same temple, although in some places Baal is another title for Yahweh (Hosea 2:16). There is the possibility, of course, that it means objects dedicated to Baal appropriated to Yahweh, but of which the author disapproved, though this is unlikely.
Most scholars hold that the account of Josiah’s reform is basically historical, and used reliable sources, but some see it as merely a narrative based largely on Deuteronomy 12. There is little that strikes one as obviously independent, but the relationship between the text and that in Deuteronomy is hard to determine. The date of composition of the Deuteronomistic History (framework of Deuteronomy to end of Kings) is strongly disputed. The regnant US view is that a first draft was composed in the reign of Josiah (a king otherwise unknown to history) and a supplemented version was composed after the fall of Jerusalem. But a later date of composition, though with its own problems, cannot be totally ruled out.
The reform of Josiah has been attributed to political motives, specifically the desire to throw off Assyrian hegemony. This was forcibly argued by Oestreicher in 1923 (p. 39). Since then a dispute has raged as to the extent to which Assyrian religion was imposed (or adopted “voluntarily”) by Judah. Gressmann in 1924 (pp. 313-37) agreed with Oestreicher, counting asherim as Assyrian. So too Nicholson (1967, pp. 9-17), who considered the account in Chronicles, which dissociates the reform from Deuteronomy, to be the less tendentious. McKay (1973) and Cogan (1974), among others, argued that Assyria did not export its cult. Spieckermann challenged this view, arguing indeed that Asherah was essentially the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar (1982, p. 221). But the debate is not resolved.
The Hebrew word asherah is usually defined in the biblical text, either by the definite article or a pronominal suffix. Nine times out of the forty occurrences it is undefined (absolute singular: Deuteronomy 16:21; 2 Kings 17:16; 21:3; and 23:15; masculine plural: 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 17:10; and Isaiah 27:9; and feminine plural: 2 Chronicles 33:3. In 2 Chronicles 15:16, the vowel pointed after the preposition l indicates indefiniteness, while in the parallel passage in 1 Kings 15:13 it is usually pointed as definite, though some editors prefer the indefinite.
The NRSV translates Deuteronomy 16:21 as: “You shall not plant any tree as a sacred pole [Asherah; ftn. and RSV] beside the altar that you make for the Lord your God”; the JPS translation is: “you shall not set up a sacred post – any kind of pole.” The older translation of “an Asherah of any kind of tree” (RV) is not defensible because ⊃šrh is not a construct. If we do not have an explanatory gloss here, the JPS Tanakh translation seems the most acceptable. The verb used here, nt⊂, is usually translated “to plant” and has therefore led some scholars to believe that asherah must be a living tree. However, nt⊂ can also be used in the sense of “establishing” a people (several references in BDB, p. 642c); the heavens (Isaiah 51:16); a tent (Daniel 11:45); nails (Ecclesiastes 12:11); and the ear (Psalm 94:9). It is therefore not necessary to insist that asherah must be something which can grow, merely because of the verb used. One would not expect asherah to be definite in this verse because the prohibition is about anything which could serve as an asherah. This passage further illustrates that an asherah can be made of different types of wood. It may well have come in different sizes, and may also preserve a hitherto relatively unknown practice of dedicating an asherah (as a wooden pole) to any deity.
The remaining verses which do not have the definite article with asherah are polemics against “foreign” cults or cultic objects in general (1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 17:10, 16; 21:3; 23:15; 2 Chronicles 33:3; and Isaiah 27:9). Presumably the Deuteronomist did not care about any specific asherah; they were all idolatrous, and so they all had to go. In three of these passages, asherah is singular. 2 Kings 17:16 falls within a larger polemic about the evils of the children of (north) Israel, rationalizing their subsequent deportation to Assyria. In this verse, “asherah” probably refers to the asherah which stood in Samaria, and so is a single item anyway. Six verses earlier, we have “asherim” on every high hill and under every luxuriant tree, and so that verse would presumably refer to the other asherim situated at the high places throughout north Israel.
Similarly, 2 Kings 23:15 describes Josiah’s reform extending to the sanctuary at Bethel, and so refers to the asherah in the sanctuary there. The preceding verse chronicles the destruction of the masseboth and asherim (in this case definite), and would therefore cover the remaining asherim throughout the country. It is interesting that v. 15 is the only place within this account of Josiah’s reform where asherah appears indefinite. Perhaps “the asherah” is reserved for that which stood in Jerusalem, and therefore the one which would be known to the writer’s audience (although Ahab’s asherah is also definite in 1 Kings 16:33). Koch (1988, p. 101) thinks “the different syntactical use raises the question whether or not the capital’s Asherah has been portrayed somewhat differently than as a sacred pole, which in other places is what is most likely meant.” Furthermore, the Hebrew of v. 15 is very difficult and may add to the confusion.
2 Kings 21:3 is an interesting case (see also the discussion of v. 7 below). Here asherah may be singular because it is likened to the asherah (definite) which Ahab made. But masseboth is indefinite as well, and so the intention may be that Manasseh rebuilt the very same bamoth which Hezekiah had destroyed and then established new masseboth and an asherah. In three versions (LXX, Syriac, and Vulgate), asherah is plural, perhaps to agree with masseboth. But if one assumes that the asherah which he made was for the temple in Jerusalem, there is no need for it to be plural. The parallel account in Chronicles is also indefinite, but is in the plural.
The other four verses have asherah in the plural; thrice masculine and once feminine. These are all a part of the Deuteronomist’s polemic against “foreign” cults. In fact, most of the occurrences of asherah in the plural either belong to non-Israelite cults, or refer to the destruction of the asherahs in a cultic reform, or else are a part of general condemnations of the cult. This has led Perlman to conclude that asherim (as opposed to asherah, which refers to either the goddess or a cult object placed in the temple) were found outdoors on high hills, and not in buildings. She therefore believes that asherim (and asheroth in 2 Chronicles 19:3) were sanctuaries, either located in groves or else composed of wooden poles symbolically representing groves (1978, p. 34).
Since Asherah is a proper name, one might not expect the definite article. However, what may be happening is that the term “asherah” is in the process of losing its identification with the goddess and becoming merely the wooden object. While Asherah was still worshiped as a goddess during the monarchy period, perhaps by the time of the Deuteronomist, and certainly the Chronicler, the term had ceased to be used with any knowledge of the goddess whom it had originally represented, and from whom it received its name. This may also be a possible explanation for the use of the article with other names such as Molech or Tammuz.
Passages Where Asherah May Be the Goddess
There are several passages in which the description of the asherah and the context in which it occurs have led most scholars to believe that the goddess Asherah is indicated. These will now be examined in turn.
1. Judges 3:7.
In this verse as well as in 2 Chronicles 24:18 the verb ⊂bd “to serve” is used. ⊂bd is most often used with rulers or deities (cf. BDB, p. 713). Ackerman thinks that the use of this term, especially in Chronicles, indicates that the cult of Asherah is a sacrificial one which would also explain the placement of asherah poles next to altars (1992, pp. 61-2). ⊂bd can also be used with cult objects, as is evidently the case in 2 Chronicles 24:18, where the asherim are paired with the ⊂ăsabbîm (cf. also 2 Kings 17:12 and 21:21 where the idols [gillūlîm] are served). It should be noted that this verse (2 Chronicles 24:18) is not among those generally believed to mention the goddess, although by the post-exilic period, “heathen” are often polemically accused of “worshiping” sticks and stones (cf. Isaiah 44:13-17, as well as Jeremiah 2:27).
In many of these “summary” passages (Judges 2:13; 10:6; 1 Samuel 7:4; and 12:10), the gods in question are “the Baalim and the Ashtaroth” and not the Asherah. It should also be noted that here in v. 7 asherah is in its feminine plural form, one of only three such instances. It is possible that the Deuteronomist originally included the “standard” polemic against foreign gods, the Baalim and the Ashtaroth, and the scribe copying the text confused Ashtaroth with Asherah because of a polemical pairing of Asherah and Baal.
The other two occurrences of (plural) asheroth appear in 2 Chronicles, and are also late. It seems that the tendency of the redactors was to pluralize asherah and Baal. This may be because by the time the Chronicler (and perhaps even the Deuteronomist) was writing, the distinction between the goddess (or god) and her cultic paraphernalia had become obscured.
2. 1 Kings 15:13 and 2 Chronicles 15:16.
We turn now to 1 Kings 15:13, and its parallel account in 2 Chronicles 15:16. Here Asa removes Maacah his mother (or grandmother?) from the position of Queen Mother because she made a mipleset, “horrid thing” (BDB, p. 814a), for the asherah. It is then this mipleset which Asa cuts down (krt), beats into dust (dqq, Chronicles only), and burns (śrp) in the Kidron. As there is no mention of the removal of the asherah, scholars have interpreted asherah here to refer to the goddess. Since the object is here cut down and burned, and this is the same treatment which is often afforded to the wooden cultic object of the goddess, it is reasonable to assume that the mipleset was similar to an asherah.
The parallel account in 2 Chronicles 15:16 mentions asherah in the singular, contrary to all other places where the Chronicler uses the plural. It may be that the Chronicler did not fully understand the Kings passage. Perhaps by the time of writing (probably around the mid fourth century BCE, cf. Williamson 1982, p. 16, and Japhet 1993, p. 28), the term “asherah” had ceased to mean either the goddess or her cult symbol, and the two ideas had become blurred. It seems that to the Chronicler an asherah was a pagan idol, the embodiment of a pagan deity, but not distinct from it. Therefore by the time of the Chronicler, the idea of a heavenly deity behind the object (at least in the case of the asherah) may have faded, or else become so polemic that when the Chronicler thought of an asherah, only a wooden cultic object came to mind.
3. 1 Kings 18:19.
This verse appears in the midst of Elijah’s contest with Baal. Here Elijah calls not only the 450 prophets of Baal, but also the 400 prophets of Asherah to his contest on Mount Carmel. Most scholars consider this part of the verse an addition, especially since the prophets of Asherah are not mentioned again. The LXX, however, mentions the prophets of Asherah again in v. 22. The fact that we have an inscription mentioning Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah from the late ninth-early eighth centuries BCE may help to support the view that this part of the verse is not an addition. If, on the other hand, it is an addition, it may be seen as an attempt by the Deuteronomists to discredit the worship of Asherah by associating her with Baal.
4. 2 Kings 21:7.
A similar passage to the Asa account is 2 Kings 21:7. Here, Manasseh places an image (pesel) of the Asherah in the temple. Verse 3 states that Manasseh made (⊂śh) an asherah (without the definite article). Whereas in v. 3 asherah is indefinite, in v. 7 asherah has the definite article. The first part of v. 7 reads, wayyāśem ⊃et-pesel hā⊃ăšērāh ⊃ăšer ⊂āśāh babbayit. The parallel account in 2 Chronicles 33:7 mentions that Manasseh set up ⊂et-pesel hassemel, replacing hassemel for hā⊃ăšērāh. Frevel considers pesel hassemel in 2 Chronicles 33:7 as another instance of the Chronicler denying the existence of a goddess Asherah (1991, pp. 267-8). However, this may indicate not a deliberate obscuring of the goddess, but rather an assimilation into her symbol which has already occurred.
5. 2 Kings 23:4-7.
2 Kings 23:4 describes how Josiah had all the vessels which were made for the Baal and the asherah and all the host of heaven brought out of the temple and burned in the Kidron. Many scholars therefore believe that the god Baal and the goddess Asherah are indicated here. The vessels mentioned would thus be dedicated to these deities for use in their cults (cf. the discussion of this passage in Frevel 1995, pp. 545-51). However, it may be possible that we have here the beginning of the confusion (or fusion) of the goddess with her cultic image.
Verse 6 continues with Josiah bringing out the asherah (still with the definite article) which he burned in the Kidron and beat into dust, and then he strewed the dust on the graves. This is hardly a thing which one could do to a goddess, whereas it is a perfectly reasonable thing to do to the image of the goddess. Verse 7 has a description of Josiah dismantling the houses of the sacred prostitutes, where the women wove bāttîm (lit. “houses”) for the asherah. The term bāttîm has provoked much scholarly debate. Most scholars consider it a scribal error for baddîm, “garments,” presumably for the sacred prostitutes, or else for the statue of the goddess (cf. Patai 1967, pp. 295-6 n. 56; and Gray 1970, p. 730, who reads kuttōnîm following LXXL, which translates stolas). Another interpretation of bāttîm is that of “hangings” for the sacred enclosure (cf. Schroer 1987, pp. 41-3). In my opinion, the most likely explanation is that the women wove partitions to section off an area of the temple in which to house the cultic statue of Asherah. This division of the temple into separate areas would give the illusion of a house within the larger temple building, and therefore justify the use of bāttîm. Alternatively, if one were to emend the text, one could read that the women wove garments or linens for the asherah-statue.
Passages Which May Originally Have Referred to the Goddess
One problem which has confronted scholars is the total absence of the condemnation of Asherah worship by name in the writings of the pre-exilic prophets (and cf. Amos’ silence concerning Baal worship). Asherah is mentioned in only four passages in the prophets, and all these are probably late. This has led some scholars (notably W. Robertson Smith 1907, Lipiński 1972, and Lemaire 1977 and 1984) to conclude that Asherah as a goddess was unknown to the ancient Israelites. Alternatively, other scholars have sought to emend the text in places in order to obtain references to Asherah, Astarte, and Anat (for an extended discussion of passages which may allude to the goddess see Frevel 1995, pp. 250-532; and cf. Dijkstra 1995, pp. 68-9 who emends ⊃ēšdat in Deuteronomy 33:2 to read Asherah, and Wacker 1995 who also discusses Hosea 4:12, 18 and 9:13).
1. Hosea 14:8 (NRSV).
8 O Ephraim, what have I v to do with idols?
It is I who answer and look after you. w
I am like an evergreen cypress;
v Or What more has Ephraim
w Heb. him
Hosea 14:9 (JPS Tanakh)
9 Ephraim [shall say]:
“What more have I to do with idols?
When I respond and look to Him,
I become like a verdant cypress.”
Macintosh (1997, p. 576) suggests that Ephraim speaks the first line (as Tanakh) but that Yahweh speaks the second (and fourth, as Tanakh), so that it is Ephraim who is compared to a tree (so also Vulgate and ibn Ezra). In usual reading, it is Yahweh who is compared to a tree, and this would be the only time in the Bible that Yahweh is so compared. This has led several scholars, beginning with Wellhausen, to emend the text to obtain a reference to Asherah and Anat. Wellhausen replaces (1898, p. 134), “It is I who answer and look after him” with “I am his Anat and his Asherah” (⊃ănî ⊂ānîtî wa⊃ăšûrennû with ⊃ănî ⊂ănātô wa⊃ăšērātô).
It is possible, however, that the writer of this verse wanted to stress that Yahweh was able to function as a fertility deity in place of Asherah (or Baal, but Baal lacks the connection with a tree). It may be that the writer intended the cypress to be Yahweh in order to portray his fertility aspects as even more effective than those of Asherah, as he was a “luxuriant tree, bearing fruit,” as opposed to a humanly constructed pole. The anti-asherah polemic need not indicate that the cypress was Asherah. Additionally, we may also have reason to believe that these verses help to show the gradual evolution of the term “asherah” from a goddess represented by her cultic image to simply the image itself. One does not need to emend the text in Hosea 14:9 to be able to see this process occurring. It is interesting to note, however, that if one were to emend the text in this verse, we would have perhaps the first example in Hebrew of a pronominal suffix on a personal name.
2. Amos 8:14 NRSV:
Those who swear by Ashimah [other translations read “the guilt”] of Samaria [hannišbā⊂îm be⊃ašmat šōmrôn] and say “As your god lives, O Dan,”
Although ⊃ašmāh (and its masculine counterpart ⊃āšām) is well known in the Bible, some scholars (cf. NRSV) see a reference to the Syrian god Ashima. Others wish to emend ⊃ašmat to ⊃ăšērat, and thereby obtain a reference to the asherah of Samaria (cf. Yamashita 1963, pp. 135-6 for a discussion of this view, although he himself believes otherwise). Nevertheless, since the text as preserved has a perfectly good Hebrew word which admirably fits the context, there is no need whatsoever for emendation. One can only speculate upon the real meaning behind the “guilt of Samaria,” but if the asherah was still standing there, it is easy to believe that the phrase might bring it to mind.
A few passages in the Hebrew Bible seem to refer to a goddess. All these references seem to belong to the Deuteronomistic writers. In all but one of the verses which are generally taken to refer to a goddess, the definite article – not a suffix – is used. This might be considered a redundancy. It is possible that by the time of the Deuteronomist(s) the term had come to refer to the object only.
Asherah does not occur in theophoric Hebrew names; even though Baal names are known. Anat appears in a personal name in 1 Chronicles 7:8 and Nehemiah 10:20 [Eng. 19], and more often in place names.
Therefore it is possible to trace a process by which the term asherah changed from denoting a goddess and her image to merely an object. As seen above, the passages in the Hebrew Bible which mention asherah can be attributed to the hand of the Deuteronomistic Historian or later, and are largely condemnatory. It may be, then, that religious reformers in the time of Josiah and later wanted to eradicate the worship of Asherah, whether it was the wooden cultic symbol or the goddess herself. But during the centuries before this, Asherah has appeared paired with Yahweh in positive ways. Furthermore, the early eighth century BCE prophets do not condemn Asherah worship. The worship of Asherah was evidently acceptable before the Deuteronomistic reform movement gained momentum in the seventh century BCE, but since the text of the Bible was significantly composed or edited by the Deuteronomistic school or even later, this fact is not immediately apparent.
Part of this discrediting can be seen in the Deuteronomistic attempt to pair Asherah with Baal, instead of her real partner, Yahweh. Evidently this attempt worked because a gradual shift in the understanding of asherah can be seen. At first, in the tenth century BCE, as shown by the Ta⊂anach stands, Yahweh and Asherah were linked together as god and goddess in a consort relationship. Then, from the mid ninth to the mid eighth century BCE Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet ⊂Ajrud inscriptions, it is clear that Yahweh and Asherah are still positively linked, but now her cultic symbol is indicated. Although still associated with the goddess, the cultic pole appears to be being taken over by Yahweh, since it can now be designated “his asherah.” It may have become a symbol of Yahweh’s developing fertility aspects. Then, by the time of the Chronicler, it appears that the distinction between Asherah the goddess and asherah the cultic pole has become totally obscured. The later versions seem to bear out this conclusion. It is thus possible to catch glimpses of the process by which the term asherah changed from denoting a goddess and her image to becoming merely an object, as the goddess Asherah and her worship was gradually eradicated, only to be re-discovered now, over two millennia later.
*Much of this article is an abridgement of Hadley 2000.