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Asherah/Asherim: Bible

by Susan Ackerman

Asherah, along with Astarte and Anath, was one of the three great goddesses of the Canaanite pantheon. In Canaanite religion her primary role was that of mother goddess. In mythological texts from the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 b.c.e.) city-state of Ugarit, she is called “the creatress of the gods”; her consort at Ugarit, the god El, is called “creator.” El is also referred to as father and patriarch at Ugarit, as Asherah, likewise, is called mother. Their children form the pantheon of the gods, who are said to number seventy; a Hittite myth similarly mentions the seventy-seven and eighty-eight children of Asherah. On occasion in Ugaritic myth, Asherah performs the maternal role of wet nurse. Ugaritic and other Canaanite materials further associate Asherah with lions (indicating power), serpents (representing immortality or healing), and sacred trees (signifying fertility). Thus Asherah’s children at Ugarit can be called her “pride of lions”; the goddess is called “lady of the serpent” in second-millennium b.c.e. inscriptions from the Sinai; the late-thirteenth-century b.c.e. Lachish ewer dedicated to Asherah is decorated with images of sacred trees.

The Canaanite association of Asherah with sacred trees is also found in Israelite tradition. For example, one of the Canaanite epithets of Asherah, elat, “goddess,” is etymologically identical to the Hebrew word for the terebinth tree (ela). Another word for “terebinth” (alla) and two words for “oak” (elon and allon) are also closely related. Gen 2:4b–3:24 may further suggest the association of Asherah with sacred trees, since the way that Eve, “the mother of all living” (3:20), is described in the Eden story mimics in certain respects the role of the Canaanite mother goddess Asherah. If a correspondence holds, then the trees of life and of knowledge in the Eden narrative may also reflect Asherah imagery.

Most significant, though, in demonstrating Israel’s association of Asherah with sacred trees are biblical materials that describe the asherah (singular) or asherim (plural), the cult object(s) that are associated with the goddess Asherah more than thirty times in the Hebrew Bible. These cult objects are generally described as being in the shape of a pole or stylized tree. Like a pole or tree, they can be said to be planted, stood up, or erected. Conversely, when destroyed, these cult symbols can be described as being cut down, hewn down, or uprooted; they can also be said to be burned, overturned, or broken. Both the Greek and Latin translations of the Bible, moreover, render the words asherah and asherim as “grove” or “wood.”

According to the biblical record, these sacred poles or stylized trees associated with Asherah were erected by the Israelites throughout most of their history, especially during the premonarchic (tribal) period (Judg 6:25–26, 28, 30)) and during the period of the divided monarchy, both in the northern kingdom of Israel (1Kgs 14:15; 16:33; 2 Kgs 13:6; 17:10, 16; 23:15; and parallel references in 2 Chronicles) and in Judah, in the south (1 Kgs 14:23, 15:13; 2 Kgs 18:4; 21:3, 7; 23:6, 14; and parallel references in 2 Chronicles). These sacred poles were situated in various locations. In Judges 6, a sacred pole of Asherah is said to have stood beside the altar of the Canaanite storm god, Baal. The Bible also connects sacred poles with the “high places” (open-air cult sites?) and frequently mentions that they stood “on every high hill and under every green tree” (1 Kgs 14:23; 2 Kgs 17:10; 18:4; 21:3; 23:13–14; 2 Chr 14:3; 17:6; 31:1; 33:3, 19; 34:3; Jer 17:2). Both of these phrases are stereotypically used by the biblical writers to describe sites of idolatrous worship, implying, as does Judges 6, that the worship of Asherah was an apostate behavior in Israel and improper for followers of YHWH.

Yet despite these and other references associating Asherah with apostasy (for example, Exod 34:13; Deut 7:5; 12:3; Judg 3:7; 1 Kgs 18:19), and despite the fact that the Israelites are explicitly forbidden in Deut 16:21 to erect one of Asherah’s sacred poles beside an altar of YHWH, there are multiple indications in biblical tradition that many in ancient Israel did regard Asherah’s cult icon as an appropriate sacred symbol within the religion of YHWH. For example, one of Asherah’s sacred poles stood next to YHWH’s altar at Bethel, one of the two great cult sites of the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kgs 23:15). Another of Asherah’s sacred poles stood in that kingdom’s capital city, Samaria. The sacred pole of Samaria, moreover, which was erected during the reign of King Ahab (reigned 873–852 b.c.e.), was allowed to remain standing by the reformer King Jehu (1 Kgs 16:33; 2 Kgs 13:6), even though Jehu was generally at pains to remove all non-Yahwistic cults and cult imagery from the land. This fact suggests that Jehu perceived the sacred pole as appropriate in the worship of YHWH.

Archaeological discoveries from the late 1970s and early 1980s have further indicated that, at least in the opinion of some ancient Israelites, YHWH and Asherah were appropriately worshipped as a pair. From the site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, in the eastern Sinai, come three ninth- or eighth-century b.c.e. inscriptions that mention YHWH and “his Asherah” (meaning YHWH’s companion [consort?], the goddess Asherah) or “his asherah” (meaning YHWH’s sacred pole that represents the goddess Asherah and that sits in his temple or beside his altar). An eighth-century b.c.e. inscription from Khirbet el-Qom, about twenty-five miles southwest of Jerusalem, contains similar language in 1 Kgs 15:13 and 2 Kgs 18:4, 21:7, and 23:6 (with parallels in 2 Chronicles) indicate that at least during certain points in the ninth, eighth, and seventh centuries b.c.e., Asherah’s sacred pole was perceived as an appropriate icon to erect in Jerusalem, even in YHWH’s temple. Also, vessels in the temple were used to make sacrifices to Asherah (2 Kgs 23:4), and in a compound within the temple’s walls, women cult functionaries wove garments used to clothe Asherah’s cult statue (2 Kgs 23:7). Thus it appears that, although generally the biblical writers—especially certain prophets (Isa 17:8; 27:9; Jer 17:2; Mic 5:14) and the authors responsible for Deuteronomy, Judges, 1 and 2 Kings, and 2 Chronicles—regarded Asherah worship as inappropriate, at least some and possibly many in ancient Israel incorporated the goddess’s cult imagery and ritual into the cult of YHWH.

Unfortunately, our sources do not provide enough information to identify definitively which Israelites were particularly attracted to the worship of Asherah or the reasons for this attraction. One possibility is that in royal circles, especially in the southern capital city of Jerusalem, the cult of Asherah was particularly attractive to the king’s mother. Not only was the queen mother’s position in the palace generally paralleled by Asherah’s position as mother goddess in the heavens, but also the queen mother’s status as the wife of the king’s father suggests an affinity to Asherah’s cult. This is because southern royal ideology typically described the king’s metaphorical father as YHWH. For those ancient Israelites who saw Asherah as YHWH’s consort, this should suggest a correspondence between the queen mother, the wife of the king’s biological father on earth, and Asherah, the wife of YHWH, who was the king’s metaphorical father in the heavens.

Whether women, more generally, were more likely to be devotees of Asherah’s cult is unknown. There is some biblical evidence that does see women as particularly attracted to goddess cults (for example, women’s role in the cult of the queen of heaven, according to Jer 7:18 and 44:17–19, 25), and the various female figurines found in domestic contexts at multiple Israelite sites might also suggest this, assuming, as many scholars do, that women played an especially important role in family-centered religious activities. Nevertheless, the presence of Asherah’s cult in the Jerusalem temple and in the cult city of Bethel indicates that worship of the goddess was also appealing to men, given that it was an all-male clergy that officiated at these (and at every) Israelite religious site.

The presence of Asherah’s cult in Israel also raises questions about the nature of the monotheistic confession that is often assumed to be a core principle in Israelite faith. Generally speaking, biblical scholars assume that full-blown, radical, or philosophical monotheism came to Israel fairly late in its history, during the time of the exile in the sixth century b.c.e. Prior to this, we have abundant evidence that other gods and goddesses were worshipped in Israel in addition to (or sometimes instead of) YHWH. Yet even in these earlier materials, we sometimes see evidence of a phenomenon that comes to dominate in the exilic period: the impulse to assimilate the attributes of the many gods and goddesses of older polytheistic systems to the one god, YHWH. Language that speaks of God as mother, for example (as in Deut 32:18; Num 11:12–13; Isa 45:9–10, 49:15; 66:13), probably represents the assimilation of Asherah’s maternal characteristics to YHWH.

Bibliography

Ackerman, Susan. “The Queen Mother and the Cult in Ancient Israel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 112 (1993): 385–401.

Ibid. Under Every Green Tree: Popular Religion in Sixth-Century Judah. Atlanta: 1992.

Day, John. “Asherah in the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Literature.” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 (1986): 385–408.

Meyers, Carol, General Editor. Women in Scripture. New York: 2000.

Olyan, Saul M. Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel. Atlanta: 1988.

Wiggins, Steve A. A Reassessment of ‘Asherah’: A Study According to Textual Sources of the First Two Millennia b.c.e. Kevelaer, Germany: 1993.

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28 Comments

I agree with BethSheba "Patriarchy has traditionally worked to obscure the original traditional gender equality in Judaism." My mother who died 15 years ago studied biblical archaeology. From her studies it was clear that Judaism emerged from the unification of widespread mother goddess worship/religion with a patriarchal one. Some of the rights of women that remain in Jewish texts are a carry over or reference to a time when there was equality. As someone who loves to sing Gospel music, the only challenge I have is the obvious omission of the female principle from the trinity. Somehow, the Mother has become the "holy ghost." It is not a stretch to understand that early tribal people worshiped a god representing a father, a goddess representing a mother, who bore children -- the holy son and holy daughter. Over millennia the mother, and holy daughter were essentially erased from biblical texts, and we're left with a holy spirit -- a strange substitute for a fertile mother goddess.

Thank you for your excellent article Susan. I've been working with an ancient Temple Calendar that was encrypted within the Zohar. The Temple Calendar shows a type of map of the soul of God and the names of EL, Elat (the feminine El), Hadad (Ba'al - Lord of Heaven), Asherah (Queen of Heaven), Adam (Yahweh, Yamm), Sarah (wife/sister of Abraham) and Seth (3rd Son of Adam) - these are all featured on it. Gods soul and therefore the business of the Temple appears to have had a perfectly balanced conception of the Masculine & Feminine residing in/of the Divinity of the Sun.

This proves your thesis.

Monotheists sometimes do not realize that One divinity may have names that reflect different aspects of the Soul, and Patriarchy has traditionally worked to obscure the original traditional gender equality in Judaism - so they try and explain passages in the bible by saying Solomon was betraying Yahweh by worshiping foreign divinities when in fact Elat, Asherah and Hadad were part of the overall cosmology of the Temple.

El and Elat represent the most abstract and divine of the Soul of the divinity - the Neshamah. On the next level down - Hadad and Asherah rules the Heavens and represent the Ruach of the Soul while Yahweh/Adam & Sarah represent the Nephesh of the soul which is closest to the animal nature of Man - thus Yahweh displays more human qualities such as Jealousy and Anger and is sometimes at war with the divinities higher nature as represented by Hadad & Asherah.

Please email me and I'll be happy to give you a complimentary copy of my paper Susan (alra@live.co.uk).

Best - Bethsheba Ashe.

http://www.amazon.com/Zohar-Co...

The Temple Calendar of King Solomon:

We must open our hearts and mind... In the beginning Yahweh created,,, the heavens and earth, animals ,man and woman in Genesis chapter 1 to 50.. Brothers and Sisters.. no other names can make it.... Please seek the kingdom of Yahweh , and to his son our Savior Yahshua messiah his name.... Halelu Yah ,,, Halelu Yah.... Shalom .......

I came here today in a quest to look up Asherim because I was reading Exodus 34 and came across verse13 " you shall destroy their altars and cut down their Asherim idols, for you shall worship no other Gods". Now I think that this Goddess is possibly the root of pagan cults such as Wicca? God warns us in the verse before to not make a covenant with them lest it becomes a snare for us and to destroy them.

Wow, interesting interpretations. But scripture is crystal clear that those kings that brought in other gods are the very reason the one true God executed His wrath on Israel.

Who brought in other Gods? Ashera is the original God of the area. This article just says the original Jewish God had a Godess. Ancient Caananite pottery has Asherah and YHWH holding hands (1500 BC). For several thousands years the Jewish God had a wife. But like all history/religion/philosophy things change over time. The Jewish God is the basis for the Christian God...which means the Christians are missing the original Godess. Not that you have to agree...it is simply what the article says.

So simple and yet misses the mark Steve

Steve, I enjoyed your replies. It's obvious even in these comments why knowledge gets lost...people's personal opinion, inability to read and understand, inability to recognize what they have been taught May have been altered and in fact was but they are so intent on forcing their opinion they don't read and learn. Sad

Dear Margo, Is it possible your opinions are inhibiting you from the truth? It is very difficult to reflect honestly on oneself, when your history gets in the way.

Margaret Barker has shared some fantastic material *ÌÎå©Ì _ a related study called Israels great Angel

I guess that I am shocked. The first commandment is : There shall be no other gods before me. Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and soul. The Lord God is a jealous God . In fact one of his name is Jealous. He is a consuming fire. He did not have a consort with any of these false gods. In fact the Word says they sacrifice to demons and is demonic worship. They are idols who cannot see or hear. How far the earth is from the one true God.

El/Elohim was the Syrian cult god, and group of Gods (im=plural). This is also in the Bible.

In the scripture of Genesis.1:26)Holy Bible- KJV..And God said,Let US make Man in OUR Image, after OUR likeness.Was God speaking to,Other Gods?. When the Words US And OUR is used,is it indicating that there is a group of one or more in likeness or Images ?. Then VS.27. It states; And God created man in his own image, in The Image of God created he him "Male and Female created he Them. My question is ;Why does God become singular from Us and Our to "He- His". As we worship and try to experience a closer humaness relationship within our physical imagery and likeness (Spiritual)Soul with God, the teachings and preaching is not clear which allow us to ask these questions. The scripture teaches us that No man has ever seen God and lives, and Jesus teaches us that God The Father is a Spirit, and He desires us to worship Him in Spirit and Truth. The scripture also teaches us that after He created man He blew His breath in man and man became a living soul. It also teaches us that God Spirit is likened unto the wind; we do not know whence it cometh or where it listeth (goest). This gives the understanding that we as living souls is what interacts with Gods spirit to Worship and communicate with Him. Not the physical imagery or likeness.The teaching of today is causing confusion with mans relationship with God, paying too much attention on the Imagery or worshiping a Man, and loosing the relationship of The SPIRIT that speaks to the living soul in all of us. Amen.

The word used in Hebrew Elohim is a plural which means both the plural of Gods, the God of Gods and the The God. http://www.qbible.com/hebrew-o...

The verb used with Elohim is male singular. Sorry, Elohim in that usage is an Honorific, despite the fact I believe the early Israelites believed in a God 7 Goddess pair.

You would probably enjoy reading a literal transcription of the Hebrew.

This is because God is one divine being with three forms that you identify right after the question. He is not speaking to other gods but to himself. As akward as this may seem Christians know that Jesus is the physical form ofthe Father we look towards in Heaven.

The reference you included at the end of this article in support of verses showing God as "mother" is incorrect. Num 11:12-13 is Moses speaking to the Lord. Likewise, the other verses you gave do not show in any way God as "mother". He is our Father, our Maker, our Creator. He is not our mother.

"This fact suggests that Jehu perceived the sacred pole as appropriate in the worship of YHWH." This fact does not suggest this. Your reference of 2 Kings 13:6 states "Nevertheless, they did not depart from the sins of the house of Jeroboam, which he made Israel to sin, but walked in them; and the Asherah also remained in Samaria." This fact states that Israel continued in the sin which they had been doing for some time under previous kings. Not the way that YHWH commanded them.

God is most certainly female. But his point is what you are reading in the Bible comes from the politics of erasing half of God. Like if Obama rewrote the Bible, and took Jesus out after thousands of years of him being a the central part of the faith. The Torah (Gen, etc) makes it clear God is plural. We made man in OUR image, OUR likeness, etc. Elohim means group of Gods, also common in the Bible. you can't read the books of Moses without constant references to a plural God (and not as in trinity, one God in different forms).

God made the earth with the help of Jesus who is god-like but not God. This is described in Proverbs 8:30 and Colossians 1:15, 16. Thus, he says "let us make man in our image." As to the gender of God, he/she doesn't have a body as we do so how could we really say. He is referred to as male in the Bible but most likely because men were viewed as heads or leaders.

As to why Ashereth was so popular was because the Isrealites failed to remove all Canaanite influence from the land. Some were not removed in Joshua's conquest of the Promise Land and it proved to be a thorn in Israel's side in more ways than one.

To those familiar with Hebrew usage, it is well known that expressing a singular entity in the plural, as in Elohim, is an intensification -- "an honorific" as Gwylym notes above, also noting that the verb used with Elohim is male singular. It amounts to saying "God of gods." Also, when God created Man in his own image, he created the female by taking her out of, or deriving her from the male, thus establishing the complement of primary/derivative. Yes, God does have a mate, a complement; but she is not a separate entity, she is derived from the One as primary. There is not more than one god. It's this same principle of unity in complement that makes divorce offensive to God: "WHAT [yes, that's what it says!!] God has joined together let not man put asunder," Mt. 19:6, Mk. 10:9. And who is God's mate, his complement? If he is heaven, his complement is earth. If he is divine Spirit, his complement is the human soul. Revelation 21:9 ff. does a pretty good job of showing you who God's mate and complement is, a summary of all the glimpses of her we have seen throughout the Word. His mate certainly is not some humanly constructed self-deifying "goddess" fantasy!

Your confusing an editorial comment of the narrative with Jehu mindset. The discerning author is this article is suggesting that Jehu thought that it was appropriate; there is no declaration that the narrator's comment (about continued sin) is wrong.

God exists beyond our concepts of man and woman, therefore God has no gender. God is pure spirit.

That may be your concept of God, but that is not the Judeo-Christian understanding of God. We are made in god's likeness, male female made he Them. But that's just for followers of the Abrahamic (Jewish Christian islamic) God.

To be specific, God (Elohim) is a parthenogenetic creation, meaning male AND female, as YHVH created her to be a unity. Oddly enough, the Christian myth preserved some remnant of this theology as Mary (Miriam), while it was scrubbed from Judaism. Not entirely though, there are still numerous obscure references to the parthenogenetic goddess in the hebrew bible. Its just not a very happy topic for patriarchal Judaism.

Using the possessive plural in these comments makes it impossible for you and others who do this to contemplate this objectively and within the context of the time period, and the identity or beliefs of the characters or narrator. Note your use of ideological cliches.

As Christ, a mother, a companion sister of, and a woman redeemed. I wont care to convince any.

How to cite this page

Ackerman, Susan. "Asherah/Asherim: Bible." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 21, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/asherahasherim-bible>.

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