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Asherah, 10th-7th century BCE

Asherah

Asherah

Our understanding of the goddess Asherah in early Israel derives from the Bible and from written testimony of Israel and her Ugaritic predecessors. The Bible refers to both the goddess Asherah (eg. Judges 3-7; I Kings 15-13; 18-19) and to her cult symbol, a hand-crafted wooden pole or tree, referred to as “asherah” with a lower case “a” (eg. I Kings 14-15; 16-33; II Kings 17-16; 21-3; Jeremiah 17-2). Commands to “cut down,” “hew down,” and “burn” the asherah provide the clues to identifying her symbol as a wooden pole (Exod 34-13; Deut 7-5; 12-3); commands to “plant” and “uproot” favor a tree (Deut 16-21). Asherah, the cult symbol, stood both at local shrines (bamot) with sacred pillars (massebot) and altars (eg. Judges 3-7; 6-25-30; I Kings 14-15) as well as in the Jerusalem temple during the reign of King Manasseh in the middle of the seventh century BCE (II Kings 21-3, 7).

The archaeological evidence divides into two groups, inscriptions explicitly mentioning Asherah and material evidence interpreted as A/asherah. Three inscriptions explicitly invoke “asherah” in association with Yahweh. The scholarly consensus is that the goddess Asherah stood as Yahweh’s consort; the cult symbol “asherah” represented the goddess’ fertility and fecundity aspects now subsumed by Yahweh. At the northeastern Sinai fortress of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, graffiti on large storejars, or pithoi, invoke blessings “by Yahweh and his asherah” and “by Yahweh of Teman and by his asherah.” An inscription from the walls of a tomb in Khirbet el-Qom, located in the Judean hills west of Hebron, is commonly translated as referring to Yahweh and his asherah.

Disparate representations and remains, including a figure and a tree on a cult stand, Judean Pillar Figurines, and remains of wooden poles, have been interpreted as representations of A/asherah. Judean Pillar Figurines fashioned from clay of females shaped liked poles with prominent breasts have been identified with various goddesses but the pole-like depiction and fertility (perhaps through lactation) association favor A/asherah. These figurines first appear in the very late tenth or ninth century BCE, become popular throughout Judah in the eighth and early seventh century, and then quickly die out. In addition to figurines, actual tree remains have been identified as an asherah. Through the tenth and ninth centuries BCE in the town of Lachish, a large “massebah” stood in a pathway(?) and in front of it archaeologists found the remains of a standing olive wood(?) tree trunk. The trunk was identified with A/asherah in conjunction with the standing stone as the two are commonly associated in the Bible (I Kgs 14-23; II Kgs 17-10; 23-4). Asherah may also appear on cult stands. Depictions in the second and fourth registers of the tenth century BCE Ta’anach Cult Stand have also been identified as Asherah, though not all agree with the identifications. Lions, associated with goddess, flank the naked figure in the fourth or bottom register. Two registers up, lions flank an ornamental tree considered a symbolic representation of the goddess. On one side of a contemporary cult stand from Tel Rehov, shaped like a horned incense altar, molded naked females standing erect with legs together flank an incised tree. Based on Asherah’s preeminent status among goddesses in the Bible and the association with the tree, the female depicted may be Asherah. While all these various examples display features associated with A/asherah, none are explicitly identified as such.

Ref- John Day “Asherah” ABD I- 483-87; S. Ackerman, “At Home with the Goddess” pp. 455-68 in W. Dever and S. Gitin eds., Symbiosis, Symbolism, and the Power of the Past- Canaan, Ancient Israel and Their Neighbors from the Late Bronze Age through Roman Palestina. Eisenbrauns, 2003; Karel van der Toorn “Israelite Figurines- A View from the Texts” in Sacred Time, Sacred Space pp. 45-62; J. Taylor, “Was Yahweh Worshipped as the Sun?” BAR 20.3 (1994); S. Ahituv, “Did God Really Have a Wife?” BAR 32.5 (2006) 62-66.

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith

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