Yahweh and his Asherah
At first I was going to make this a post about Early Israelite polytheism, but that is such a huge subject matter that I decided to make this post an overview of Asherah worship in pre-Exilic Israelite society.
There is widespread evidence—both in the archaeological record and the pages of the Hebrew Bible—which indicates that Israelite folk religion was highly polytheistic in nature despite the monotheistic claims of the Deuteronomist.
Asherah, a fertility goddess, was a very important part of the Early Israelite pantheon. In fact, evidence indicates that she was nearly as important as Yahweh.
As you know from my last Hebrew Bible post, the Deuteronomist wrote the books of Deuteronomy through IIKings. He was writing during the rule of King Josiah, and it is very likely that he was writing for King Josiah.
II Kings, specifically 22:1-23:30, tells the story of Josiah’s sweeping religious and political reforms. It describes a priest finding a lost book of laws in the temple, and Josiah rushing to ensure the enactment of those laws. Many scholars believe that that book of laws was, in fact, the Book of Deuteronomy. Moreover, they believe that Josiah commissioned Deuteronomy in order to make it the basis for his intended reforms. There is significant textual evidence to support this theory throughout the D books.
One of the laws in this book—in addition to forbidding the worship of any other gods besides Yahweh (which means that other gods were popularly worshiped)—forbade the presence of any likeness of Asherah within the temple precincts. Josiah swiftly carried out the execution of that law, and removed all likenesses of Asherah from the temple. The temple in question was, of course, the temple in Jerusalem, meaning that Asherah was worshiped in that temple, possibly right alongside Yahweh, and possibly as his wife/consort.
Evidence to support the supposition that Asherah was worshiped alongside Yahweh as his wife/consort was uncovered in 1975 at the early eighth century BCE site of Kuntillet Ajrud in the northern area of the Sinai Peninsula. It was found on the walls of what archaeologists believe functioned as an Israelite military structure.
The inscription reads “….Yahweh and his Asherah.” This image was found surrounded by other images and inscriptions of and regarding Asherah, Yahweh, Ba’al, and El (the latter two were also popularly worshiped in Ancient Israel/Judah).
Of course, you will notice that there are three figures in this image. The figure in the foreground is a man, and the seated figure in the background is a woman. Thus we can conclude that the man is Yahweh and the woman is Asherah. But the third figure standing between Yahweh and Asherah has both breasts and male genitalia. While scholars cannot agree on the identity of this person, it seems likely that that figure is either El or Ba’al.
What is interesting, though, is that the D books push the idea of Asherah as the consort of Ba’al when it’s fairly evident that she was worshiped as the consort of Yahweh. I tend to believe that D did this on purpose in order to make Asherah appear less important to future generations to assure the continued to success of Josiah’s reforms. If that is the case, then we must admit that D was pretty successful.
This post contains a significant lack of positive, conclusive statements regarding historical fact simply because there is no way of knowing these things for sure. We only have the text, our knowledge of the politics of that text, our knowledge of the historical context of the compilation of that text, and the relevant archaeological record available to inform the conclusions we reach.
Nothing regarding the motivations of the Deuteronomist or the reality of ancient Israelite worship can be spoken of in absolutes because we have no absolutes. In the absence of absolutes we can only make educated hypotheses. And what you see in this post are the hypotheses I agree with based on my readings of the facts available to us.
Brendan Perry: Babylon
Spirit rise to greet the sun
Takes my hand and beats the drum
Tries to make me understand
We are as one in a sea of sand.
I’m praying for rain,
To see desert flowers again
Underground the children sing
In spite of what the storm may bring
In their hearts a dormant seed
Dreams of life beyond the reeds
In our hearts and minds we see
The hope that springs eternally
Whilst underground the hidden stream
Flows into the man machine
The eagle flies up towards the sun
High above the fields of Babylon
In one claw he holds an olive branch for peace
In the other twelve arrows for his enemies, for his enemies
Sons and daughters of America
You lay down your lives
For the warlords of America
Not for your sake, not for mine