Asherah (/ˈæʃərə/; Ugaritic: 𐎀𐎘𐎗𐎚 : ‘ṯrt; Hebrew: אֲשֵׁרָה), in Semitic mythology, is a mother goddess who appears in a number of ancient sources. She appears in Akkadian writings by the name of Ashratum/Ashratu, and in Hittite as Asherdu(s) or Ashertu(s) or Aserdu(s) orAsertu(s). Asherah is generally considered identical with the Ugaritic goddess ʼAṯirat.
Asherah is identified as the consort of the Sumerian god Anu and Ugaritic El, the oldest deities of their respective pantheons. This role gave her a similarly high rank in the Ugaritic pantheon. The name Dione, which like ‘Elat means “Goddess”, is clearly associated with Asherah in the Phoenician History of Sanchuniathon, because the same common epithet (‘Elat) of “the Goddess par excellence” was used to describe her at Ugarit. The Book of Jeremiah, written circa 628 BC, possibly refers to Asherah when it uses the title “Queen of Heaven”, stating: “pray thou not for this people…the children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out drink offerings to other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.”(Hebrew: לִמְלֶכֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם) in Jer 7:18 and Jer 44:17–19, 25. (For a discussion of “Queen of Heaven” in the Hebrew Bible, see Queen of Heaven.)
In Israel and Judah
Between the 10th century BC and the beginning of their exile in 586 BC, polytheism was normal throughout Israel; it was only after the exile that worship of Yahweh alone became established, and possibly only as late as the time of the Maccabees (2nd century BC) that monotheism became universal among Jews. Some biblical scholars believe that Asherah at one time was worshiped as the consort of Yahweh, the national God of Israel. There are references to the worship of numerous gods throughout Kings, Solomon builds temples to many gods and Josiah is reported as cutting down the statues of Asherah in the temple Solomon built for Yahweh. Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh had erected this statue. (2 Kings 21:7) Further evidence includes, for example, an 8th-century combination of iconography and inscriptions discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud in the northern Sinai desert where a storage jar shows three anthropomorphic figures and an inscription that refers to “Yahweh … and his Asherah”. The inscriptions found invoke not only Yahweh but El and Baal, and two include the phrases “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah” and “Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah.” There is general agreement that Yahweh is being invoked in connection with Samaria (capital of thekingdom of Israel) and Teman (in Edom); this suggests that Yahweh had a temple in Samaria, and raises a question over the relationship between Yahweh and Kaus, the national god ofEdom. The “Asherah” is most likely a cultic object, although the relationship of this object (a stylised tree perhaps) to Yahweh and to the goddess Asherah, consort of El, is unclear. It has been suggested that the Israelites might consider Asherah as a consort of Baal due to the anti-Asherah ideology which was influenced by the Deuteronomistic History at the later period of Monarchy.
Further evidence includes the many female figurines unearthed in ancient Israel, supporting the view that Asherah functioned as a goddess and consort of Yahweh and was worshiped as theQueen of Heaven.
Asherah poles, which were sacred trees or poles, are mentioned many times in the Bible.
The Hebrew God Yahweh is conceived of biblically as a male deity, with the covenant relationship between him and Israel often portrayed as that of a marriage between husband and wife.
(The other name by which the deity is most often referred to in the Hebrew Bible is Elohim [translated “God”], an originally plural form meaning “gods.” “The LORD” in English versions translates Yahweh–the assumed pronunciation of YHWH [a name of uncertain meaning], there being no vowels in the original Hebrew text.)
The perception of God as masculine is of course not surprising in a patriarchal or male-ruled society. As noted by Susan Ackerman, there are some feminizations of Yahweh in Isaiah (e.g., “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you” [66:13]; see also 42:14 and 49:15).
But then Isaiah also refers to kings as “nursing fathers” (49:23) and to daughters who “shalt suck the breasts of kings” (60:16), words that cannot be taken literally. In any case, Yahweh outside of some Isaianic imagery is masculine in the Hebrew Bible.
In the New Testament, “God” translates the Greek Theos, with God remaining a male deity. Thus Jesus regularly uses the word Father (Greek Pater, in Jesus’ Aramaic Abba) for God (e.g., Matt. 6:8-9; Mark 14:36; Luke 10:21; John 17:1; see also Paul’s use in Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6).
Elaine Pagels points out that some Christian Gnostics thought of the divine in both masculine and feminine terms, with Jesus referring to the Holy Spirit as his Mother in the Gospel of Thomas and in the Gospel to the Hebrews, and with the Apocryphon of John describing the Trinity as Father, Mother, and Son.
As Pagels notes, however, such views were suppressed as heretical, with none of the Gnostic texts included in the New Testament canon. (The Nag Hammadi Library)
There is archeological evidence that at least some ancient Hebrews perceived of Yahweh as having a consort or female companion. This could be the origin of the mysterious Lady Wisdom found in Proverbs and the Apocrypha. (She is in some of the Gnostic texts as well.)
Wisdom (Hebrew hokma, a feminine noun) is personified in Proverbs not only as a woman but as a preexistent entity with Yahweh.
“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way,” says Lady Wisdom, “before his works of old,… and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him”
It was through Wisdom that Yahweh “founded the earth” (3:19), she is “a tree of life” to those who lay hold of her (3:18), and she offers to reward all who seek her:
“I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me” (8:17).
In the Apocrypha, Lady Wisdom is identified with the Torah or biblical law (Sirach 24:23; Baruch 4:1). In the New Testament, the preexistent Word (Greek Logos) at the beginning of the Gospel of John is reminiscent of Wisdom, and in 1 Cor. 1:24 Paul calls Christ “the wisdom of God” (Greek Theou Sophia).
The metaphor of Yahweh and the Hebrew people as husband and wife is found first in the book of Hosea, and continues in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. It is a troubled marriage, for despite Yahweh’s “love toward the children of Israel,” they “look to other gods” (Hos. 3:1).
The wife’s infidelity is thus a metaphor for the Israelite people’s idolatry.
“Thy maker is thine husband,” Isaiah tells Israel, yet she beds down with others (Isa. 54:5; 57:7-8).
“Turn, O backsliding children,” Yahweh pleads in Jeremiah (3:14), “for I am married unto you.”
At one point Yahweh divorces Israel for her adultery, only to have “her treacherous sister Judah” commit adultery also (Jer. 3:8). Ezekiel 23 allegorizes Samaria and Jerusalem, the Israelite and Judahite capitals, as two sisters with a host of foreign lovers while both are married to Yahweh.
Particularly disturbing to feminist commentators are the biblical passages that describe Yahweh’s brutal punishment of the women who symbolize Israel’s unfaithfulness. As noted by Kathleen M. O’Connor, the portrayal of physical abuse by the divine in such passages implicitly condones such behavior in humans. Yahweh strips “the virgin daughter of Babylon” in Isa. 47:1-4, and helps the Babylonians rape Jerusalem in Jer. 13:26.
In Lamentations, Yahweh trods “the virgin” Jerusalem “as in a winepress” (1:15), and in Ezekiel he tells his wife Oholibah (Jerusalem),
“I will raise up thy lovers against thee,” and they will “strip thee out of thy clothes”; they will take away not only “thy sons and thy daughters” but “thy nose and thine ears,” and “thus will I make thy lewdness to cease from thee”
Needless to say, the thought behind these metaphors of Yahweh the husband physically abusing his wife presents a challenge to modern biblical interpreters. Through such imagery “the Bible,” writes Sharon H. Ringe in The Women’s Bible Commentary,
“seems to bless the harm and abuse with which women live and sometimes die.”
The brutality seems hardly ameliorated by Yahweh’s assurances to his mutilated wife of a brighter tomorrow, for they make God sound like the stereotypical wife beater who minimizes what he has done and promises not to do it again:
“In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee… Again I will build thee, and thou shalt be built, O virgin of Israel,… and shalt go forth in the dances of them that make merry”
(Isa. 54:8; Jer. 31:4).
ASHERAH – The Lord God’s Lady?
The goddess Asherah was the consort of El (“god”), the supreme god of Canaan and father of the popular Baal.
In the Bible her name often appears as ha asherah, meaning “the” asherah. In such instances the reference is not to the goddess but to a symbol of her, an object (in the plural asherim) that was apparently a sacred pole, tree, or group of trees (hence the translation “groves”) at Israelite sanctuaries or “high places” as well as by altars of Baal. The erecting of asherim was among the “evil” deeds of kings like Ahab and Manasseh, and cutting the things down was a regular chore of “right” kings like Hezekiah and Josiah.
The presence of Asherah or her symbol at places where Yahweh, the biblical God of the Hebrews, was worshipped raises the question of whether the Canaanite goddess was considered also to be the consort of Yahweh.
We know from references to,
- “the sons of God” (Gen. 6:1-4; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7)
- “the host of heaven” (1 Kings 22:19)
- “angels” (Gen. 19:1; Ps. 103:20)
- God’s statement “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26),
…that Yahweh was not alone in his heaven.
We know also that Yahweh supplanted the Canaanite El to the extent that God’s other names in the Hebrew Bible include El, El Elyon (“God Most High”), El Shaddai (“God Almighty”), and the (originally) plural form Elohim (as in Gen. 1:1).
But did Yahweh take El’s woman too?
The answer may well be found, appropriately enough, in some graffiti, inscriptions dating from the eighth century B.C.E., found on walls and storage jars at two sites, Khirbet el-Kom and Kuntillet Ajrud, in Israel. (See Dever’sRecent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research.)
The graffiti includes blessings such as,
“I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his asherah,” and “I bless you by Yahweh of Teiman and by his asherah.”
Does this mean by Yahweh and by his goddess? Or is it saying “by Yahweh and by his sacred pole”?
All we may safely assume at this point has been well put by the French epigrapher Andre Lemaire:
“Whatever an asherah is, Yahweh had one!”
by Ronald L. Ecker