Bible and Beyond

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I would like to focus on a single well-known archaeological artifact as an entry into ancient Semitic iconography. More specifically, I would like to examine the Lachish ewer—and related artifacts—in order better to understand the ancient Canaanite goddess Asherah,1 who is mentioned at least 40 times in the Hebrew Bible.

From the Biblical references, it appears that Asherah is referred to in three different manifestations- (1) as an image, probably a statue or figurine representing the goddess herself; (2) as a tree; and (3) as a tree trunk. The latter two are, in effect, symbols of the goddess.

According to the Book of Kings, an image of Asherah was even set up in the Temple- Manasseh, king of Judah (696–641 B.C.E.a), “set up in the House [of the Lord] a graven image [pesel] of the Asherah that he had made” (2 Kings 21-7). Later, in a religious reform, Josiah, king of Judah from 639 to 608 B.C.E., cleansed the Temple and, in that connection, “brought the Asherah out of the House of the Lord” and burned it in the Kidron Valley (2 Kings 23-6). Asherah was a problem for the Israelites even before Manasseh installed her image in the Temple. Asa, one of the earlier kings of Judah (911–869 B.C.E.), removed his own mother from being queen-mother because she had “made an idol to [or of] Asherah [mifleṣet l-asherah]” (1 Kings 15-13). Asa took the idol and burned it.

Asherah is also mentioned in connection with the northern kingdom of Israel, where Ahab (874–853 B.C.E.) erected a temple to Ba‘al for his wife Jezebel and “made an Asherah” for the temple (1 Kings 16-33).

In other Biblical passages, Asherah appears as a tree. For example, in Deuteronomy 16-21, we are told, “You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord.” Asherah as a tree is also mentioned in the story of Gideon- The Lord tells Gideon to destroy the altar to Ba‘al that his father had erected and also to “cut down the Asherah that is beside [the altar to Ba‘al]” (Judges 6-25). Then he was to build an altar to the Lord and sacrifice on it a young bull as a burnt offering; the fire for the burnt offering was to be “the wood of the Asherah that you shall cut down” (Judges 6-26).

Several scholars have noted that even today in Israel, Jordan and Sinai local Arabs sometimes regard a lone tree or grove as sacred and protect it from the depredations of goats. Often, the tomb of a “holy man” (called a weli) rests under these trees.

Asherah as a tree trunk is mentioned at least 18 times in the Bible. In this manifestation Asherah is referred to in the plural as Asherim. These tree trunks are often placed beside standing stones, or pillars (maṣṣeboth) (e.g., 2 Chronicles 31-1). The verbs used in the passages mentioning the Asherim—cut down, burn, root out (e.g., Deuteronomy 7-5, 12-3; Micah 5-14)—indicate that they were made of wood.

In short, the goddess Asherah is represented in the Bible by three of her manifestations—as an image representing the goddess herself, as a green tree and, as the Asherim, tree trunks.
It is interesting that the three different manifestations of Asherah are also referred to in a much later Jewish rabbinic text, the Mishnah, the book of laws and legal debates compiled in about 200 C.E., which, no doubt, includes many earlier traditions. According to the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 3-7)- “There are three kinds of asherahs- (1) a tree … (2) [a tree that is] chopped and trimmed for idolatry [leaving a trunk] … (3) an idol.”2

Going back in time, instead of forward, we find references to Asherah in numerous pre-Biblical Near Eastern texts, both in Egypt and Syria-Palestine. The best known are the tablets from ancient Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) on the Mediterranean coast of modern Syria. The Ugaritic tablets, written in a cuneiform alphabetic script, date to the 14th or 13th century B.C.E. and provide our greatest source of evidence for pre-Israelite Canaanite religion. These tablets describe the relations between the Canaanite gods, their rivalries, their heroic and pedestrian deeds and their wars. Asherah is called Athirat in these textsb and she appears frequently as the consort of El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon in the second millennium B.C.E. She is also referred to as ’Elat (’lt), the feminine form of El, a name obviously appropriate for the consort of El.

In the Ugaritic tablets, Asherah (that is, Athirat or ’Elat) is the mother of the gods. In her other aspects, she is also the goddess of love and the one who attends to household tasks.
In the second millennium B.C.E., El was replaced by Ba‘al as the chief god in the Canaanite pantheon, and in the Bible Asherah is often paired with Ba‘al (e.g., Judges 6-25, 2 Kings 21-3, 2 Kings 23-4). Indeed, of all the pagan gods, the Biblical authors’ strongest hostility is directed against Ba‘al.

With this background, let us turn to the famous Lachish ewer. Found at Lachish (Tell ed-Duweir) by the British archaeologist James L. Starkey in 1934, the ewer (a kind of pitcher with a handle) is generally dated to the late 13th century B.C.E., say about 1220 B.C.E., just at the time the Israelites were emerging as a people in the land of Canaan. The handle is completely missing; so are parts of the body and neck. Most of the pieces were in a rubbish heap outside the wall of the so-called Fosse Temple, a Canaanite temple found in a fosse, or defensive moat, that surrounds the site. At least one piece, however, was found on the floor of the sanctuary itself, so the pieces were probably discarded shortly before the building was destroyed.

The ewer is decorated—and it is this decoration that we shall try to understand. But the vessel is famous not simply because it is decorated; it also contains a rare alphabetic inscription in the ancient Semitic script. It is one of the earliest and most significant Canaanite inscriptions ever discovered, marking an important waystation in the development of the alphabet.
The decoration and inscription are, I believe, related. Let us look at both.

While the neck of the vessel contains a variety of lines, wavy and straight, the more interesting decoration is on the shoulder of the vessel’s globular body. There we see a procession of animals and trees and near the neck, the inscription, going around the vessel from left to right.c
To follow the various items in the decoration we will start with the best-preserved tree, on the lower right corner. Like the rest of the drawings, the tree is represented schematically, as a straight vertical line from the middle of which spring three semicircular lines. This tree represents Asherah, as I shall try to show.

Flanking the tree and facing it are two ibexes with long horns curving backwards, their heads raised. The bodies are formed by two triangles joined at their apexes. The position of the feet indicates that the animals are standing still.

To the left of the left-hand ibex is a difficult-to-identify image, probably a bird, as suggested by the excavator.

Farther to the left are three animals—and then the vessel is broken. Looking at these three animals from left to right, we see first a lion ready to jump, identified as such by the way it stretches its body; its feathery tail is a puzzle, but nevertheless it seems to be a lion. To the right of the lion is a pair of fallow deer—a male and a female, the male with branching horns. Both are drawn in a manner similar to the ibexes.

On the top right of the drawing is another tree, easily recognizable although part of it is missing. A pair of ibexes flanking it can be reconstructed from the few lines that have been preserved.
The inscription wends its way around the neck from left to right and is painted in red. Professor Frank M. Cross of Harvard has reconstructed and translated the inscription as follows-

mtn. šy l[rb]ty ’lt

Mattan. An offering to my Lady ’Elat.3

Who Mattan is we do not know. Apparently he made an offering to ’Elat. ’Elat, it will be recalled, is the feminine form of El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon in the second millennium B.C.E.—the pre-Biblical equivalent of Asherah. Probably the ewer and its contents were presented as an offering to this goddess.4 It is no accident that the word ’Elat appears over the tree that represents ’Elat/Asherah.

Of course not every ancient depiction of a tree represents a sacred tree. But it is generally agreed, with Elizabeth D. Van Buren, that
“a tree may be defined as ‘sacred’ when it is set upon a base or elevation or placed in a position of prominence, even if it does not actually form the central motif of the composition. Two human beings, animals or birds are often placed on each side of the tree.”5

The sacred tree symbol formed part of the tradition of most cultures of the ancient Near East from a very early period. Depictions of the sacred tree are found in Iran, Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Cyprus, as well as in other Mediterranean countries. It symbolizes the source of life and represents growth and revival.6

The highly artificial, stylized sacred tree was a standard motif of Assyrian art from the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E. In Syria, Phoenicia and Palestine, the sacred tree between two facing animals or other figures was a common motif of religious significance from the early second millennium on. This motif appears in Palestine on a variety of pottery vessels from Taanach, Megiddo, Lachish and other sites.7 Very recently a krater was found with this motif at Tel Yin‘am by Harold Liebowitz of the University of Texas.

Several other pottery vessels from the Fosse Temple at Lachish are also decorated with a depiction of the sacred tree, flanked by ibexes or birds, on the shoulder. But one—a decorated goblet—is of special interest. It bears a drawing of two ibexes facing each other, repeated four times. However, instead of the usual sacred tree, a pubic triangle appears between the ibexes. The triangle is outlined in red paint, with dots representing the hair in black.

This interchange of tree with pubic triangle proves, in my opinion, that the tree indeed symbolizes the fertility goddess, one of the attributes of Asherah.

From Egyptian iconography we find several quite explicit examples of sacred trees providing food and symbolizing the source of life. In one Egyptian painting—from the tomb of Senndeyen (XIXth Dynasty; 1345–1200 B.C.E.) at Deir el-Medineh—we see a goddess in human shape, formed from the trunk of a tree, presenting food to a man and woman. In another painting, this one from the burial chamber of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, the king is suckled by a breast that grows from the tree. The breast is held for the king by the goddess’s arm, also growing from the tree.

In the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.E., Canaanite deities were worshipped in Egyptian temples. This may have resulted from the influence of settlements of Asiatic workers near Egyptian cities (mainly Memphis and Thebes) where the Canaanite pantheon was worshipped. The Asiatics may have been brought to Egypt as prisoners following Egyptian military expeditions to Syria during the reign of Tuthmosis III in the 15th century B.C.E.8 The Canaanite gods were partly merged with the Egyptian deities when there were similarities in their functions—as so often happened in the ancient world.

In several Egyptian examples, we see a naked goddess standing in a frontal position—quite unusual in Egyptian iconography, where most figures are depicted in profile. This too may reflect Canaanite influence. Although this naked goddess is usually called Qudshu (Semitic root meaning “holy”), some scholars believe she is the equivalent of Asherah. A hieroglyphic inscription on one example reads “Qudshu, ‘Ashtart, ‘Anat.”9 One scholar argues that Qudshu is used here as an adjective defining ‘Anat and ‘Ashtart as holy.10 William F. Albright and Frank Cross consider Qudshu as the Egyptian equivalent of the Ugaritic ‘Athirat ’Elat and the Biblical Asherah.11 In the stela shown below, Qudshu—standing on a lion and holding lotus flowers and snakes—is flanked by Min, the Egyptian god of fertility, on one side, and by the Canaanite god Reshef on the other. Reshef holds a spear and an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, thus drawing on both the Egyptian and Canaanite pantheon.

Just as Canaanite deities appear in Egypt, so aspects of Egyptian deities appear in Canaan. One frequent example is the so-called Hathor wig. Hathor is a prominent Egyptian goddess; a Hathor wig is an almost heartshaped headdress with a prominent curl at the bottom of each side. During Egyptian rule in Canaan, the Hathor cult no doubt penetrated the region and she was identified with a Canaanite goddess.

This brings us to a group of small pendants from Ugarit and the nearby site of Minet el-Beida. Most of these pendants are made of sheet gold (but some are silver and bronze) in repoussé technique.d They portray a goddess. In many, but not all, examples the goddess wears the Hathor wig. In fact, they are ‘Athirat/’Elat, the Canaanite equivalent of the Biblical Asherah. The stylized human figure on these pendants contains only the face, breasts and pubic region, but note that a branch or stylized tree is engraved above the pubic triangle. The figure of the deity is depicted schematically and with great economy; only the head, breasts, pubic triangle and the tree are indicated.

A similar pendant has been found at Tell el-Ajjul in the Negev of southern Israel.

Putting all this together—primarily the inscription ’Elat above the tree on the Lachish ewer; the demonstrated interchange between the stylized tree on the Lachish ewer and the pubic triangle on the Lachish goblet, as supported by the above-mentioned pendants with a tree branch above the pubic triangle; the nursing, food-providing aspects of Egyptian tree representations; the interchange of deities among neighboring ancient Near Eastern cultures; and the Biblical references to Asherah as a tree—it seems clear that the tree on the famous Lachish ewer is intended to symbolize the goddess identified in the Bible as Asherah.

This discussion should help us settle another very controversial inscription-cum-drawing.e In 1975–1976 at a site known as Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (Horvat Teman) in the Sinai desert, Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Meshel excavated a building that contained a number of inscriptions dating to about 800 B.C.E. The one we are concerned with is on a large storage jar, or pithos, over 3 feet tall. The inscription reads-

brkt . ’tkm lyhwh . šmrn . wl’ šrth

I have blessed you by Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.

Three figures appear on this pithos.f There is a dispute as to whether the middle figure is male or female; some say they see breasts on the figure, indicating a female. Whether the appendage on the two lefthand figures is a tail or a penis is unclear. If the middle figure is a male, then the lyre player, clearly a female (she too has breasts), is the candidate for Yahweh’s consort.

But a growing consensus among scholars concludes that both the figures on the left are depictions of the Egyptian god Bes (who was adopted elsewhere in the Near East) with his typical, well-known features—arms akimbo, grotesque face, feathered headdress—an ugly little god found in Canaan as well as Egypt.g

That Asherah is not pictured in this drawing is confirmed by another drawing on this same pithos, a grouping by now familiar to us- ibexes flanking a sacred tree. Here is the Asherah beside Yahweh—in the form of a sacred tree representing the goddess. This grouping—from Egypt, to Lachish, to Ugarit—stands for Asherah. In short, the Asherah mentioned in the inscription is not a divine name but an object or a cult symbol.

Our discussion of Asherah may also help us better understand the numerous female pillar figurines, found mainly in private houses in Judah, dating from the eighth to the sixth centuries B.C.E.12 These pillar figurines come from the last centuries of Solomon’s Temple, before it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. At times during this period, you will recall, the cult of Asherah had even penetrated into the Temple at Jerusalem—an image of Asherah was set up by Manasseh (2 Kings 21-7). These clay figurines consist of three elements—the pillar, the heavy breasts and the head. The first two elements are formed by hand in all the figurines, while the head was either made in a mold or shaped by hand, showing that the pillar and the breasts are the most significant parts. I believe that the pillar represents the trunk of a tree—the Asherah—and that together with the large breasts it symbolizes the mother-goddess who gives life and nourishment. Placing the image of Asherah in the Temple doubtless legitimized the popular worship of the goddess, so that keeping her figurine as an amulet in private homes was considered acceptable. We have here three stylized elements, just as there were on the pendants from Ugarit; two elements are the same—the head and the breasts. On the Ugaritic pendants the third element was the pubic triangle, often surmounted with a tree. In the pillar figurines, the tree trunk replaces the female genitalia. It is now suggested that these pillar figurines, like the Ugaritic pendants, can be identified as Asherah, the mother goddess who gives life and nourishment.

Let us take one last brief look at the Lachish ewer. We have not discussed the other animals depicted here. The two fallow deer are a problem and the speculations proposed are too uncertain and tenuous to go into here. The lion at the head of the procession, however, is more easily understood.

In the ancient world, the lion often accompanied the chief goddess.13 On the Egyptian stela shown in this article, Qudshu stands on a lion. This is also true of Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.E.) plaques and amulets from Syria. Recall the pithos from the Sinai dating to the Iron Age (c. 800 B.C.E.) that contained the inscription about “Yahweh and his Asherah” and a depiction of the sacred tree flanked by two ibexes. Look at the drawing- The sacred tree representing Asherah is placed above a lion.

This frequent association of Asherah with a lion helps us to understand another very famous artifact, the last one we shall look at, the well-known cult stand from Taanach (see cover). Excavated by the American archaeologist Paul Lapp in 1968, it dates to the late tenth century B.C.E. and is almost completely preserved. The elaborate iconography makes it almost unique among the pottery cult vessels uncovered in Israel. It stands 2 feet high and is square and hollow, open at the base. This square shape requires some explanation. The natural way of making a pottery vessel is by turning it on a wheel which produces a rounded object. This square stand was probably intended to represent a building or, more precisely, a shrine. The stand is composed of four levels, or registers, and may represent either a four-story building, that is, a towerlike edifice, or various aspects of a one-story building.

The top register contains a young, four-legged animal facing left. Lapp correctly identified this animal as a bovine14—a young bull without horns (‘egel). Above the back of the bull is a schematically modeled winged sun-disc (the wings are indicated by several incisions), symbolizing the supreme god not only in the Mesopotamian and Hittite pantheon, but also in the Canaanite pantheon. The young bull represents, or is an attribute of, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon, Ba‘al (who had replaced El, the head of the pantheon in the second millennium B.C.E.).
The next register should be familiar to us- A sacred tree sprouting three pairs of curling branches flanked by two clumsily shaped ibexes nibbling at the upper branches, symbolizing the chief goddess Asherah, consort of Ba‘al and the source of fertility. Flanking this group are two lionesses. Again we have the association of lions with the symbol of Asherah.

The third register has a opening into the empty center, probably the entrance to the shrine, flanked by two sphinxes (a lion’s body, bird’s wings and a female head). (One scholar, however, says the empty space represents the new Israelite concept of the incorporeal God Yahweh.)

What about the bottom register, featuring a nude woman flanked by two standing lions? I believe we have here another representation of Asherah, the mother goddess, this time represented as a nude woman, similar to her depictions on the Egyptian Qudshu plaques. The fact that the lions in the second and fourth registers are almost identical in shape and position indicates that they belong to the same deity. And, as we have seen, the lion functions as a guardian or accompanying animal of the goddess Asherah. Thus, we find Asherah on this cult stand, once as a sacred tree and a second time as a nude woman. The stand was no doubt intended for the worship of Ba‘al and Asherah, probably in a shrine at Taanach.

Clearly these are not a random assemblage of unconnected cult scenes, but rather scenes that combine into a coherent unit. The potter was no doubt familiar with the intricate world of cultic signs and symbols that permeated his society.

For further details and additional citations, see Ruth Hestrin, “The Lachish Ewer and the Asherah,” Israel Exploration Journal 37 [1987], p. 212, and “The Cult Stand From Ta’anach and Its Religious Background,” Studia Phoenicia V [1987], p. 161.

a. B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), used by this author, is the alternate designation corresponding to B.C. often used in scholarly literature.

b. The Ugaritic t_ (th) is equivalent to the s\ (sh) in Hebrew, the Ugaritic feminine ending -r is equivalent to the Hebrew -h.

c. In that period, the direction of writing was not yet fixed and inscriptions were written in either direction.

d. Repousse is a method of making a relief decoration by pressing or hammering the reverse side.

e. See Ze’ev Meshel, “Did Yahweh Have a Consort?” BAR 05-02, and André Lemaire, “Who or What Was Yahweh’s Asherah?” BAR 10-06.

f. Some scholars have attempted to identify one of the triad as the Hebrew God Yahweh and another as his consort Asherah. In the picture the left-hand figure is proposed as Yahweh, and one of the other two as his consort Asherah.

g. But see letter of Baruch Margalit of Haifa University, “Bes or Yahweh?”, Queries & Comments, BAR 15-06.

1. For a general discussion, see William F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Baltimore- Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1942); W. L. Reed, The Asherah in the Old Testament (Fort Worth, TX- Christian Univ. Press, 1949); Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (Garden City, NY- Doubleday 1968); Frank M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, MA- Harvard Univ. Press, 1973); Walter A. Maier III, ‘Asherah- Extrabiblical Evidence, Harvard Semitic Monographs (Atlanta- Scholars Press, 1986); John Day, “Asherah in the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Literature,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 (1986), pp. 385–408; Saul M. Olyan, Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel (Atlanta- Scholars Press, 1988).

For some different views, see Edward Lipinski, “The Goddess Attirat in Ancient Arabia, in Babylon and in Ugarit,” Orientalia Lovaniensa Periodica 3, 1972, pp. 101–119; André Lemaire, “Les Inscriptions de Khirbet el-Qom et l’Asherah de Yhwh,” Revue Biblique 84 (1977), pp. 597–608; M. Gilula, “To Yahweh Shomron and to his Asherah,” Shnaton 3 (1978–1979), pp. 129–137 (in Hebrew); Lemaire, “Who or What was Yahweh’s Asherah?” BAR 10-06; J. A. Emerton, “New Light on Israelite Religion- The Implications of the Inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud,” Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 94 (1982), pp. 2–20; William G. Dever, “Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? New Evidence from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) 255 (1984), pp. 21–37.\

2. The Mishnah, transl. Jacob Neusner (New Haven, CT- Yale Univ. Press, 1988), p. 666.

3. Cross, “The Origin and Early Evolution of the Alphabet,” Eretz-Israel 8 (1967), p. 16; and “The Evolution of the Proto-Canaanite Alphabet,” BASOR 134 (1954), pp. 20–21.

4. Cross, “The Evolution of the Proto-Canaanite Alphabet,” pp. 20–21.

5. E. D. Van Buren, Symbols of the Gods in Mesopotamian Art (Rome- Pontifical Inst., 1945), p. 22. The significance and function of the sacred tree has given rise to more discussions than almost any other symbolic element; cf. the comprehensive study by H. Danthine, Le palmier-dattier et les arbres sacrés dans l’iconographie de l’Asie occidentale ancienne (Paris- Geuthner, 1937), pp. 210–213.

6. Henri Frankfort, Cylinder Seals (London- Macmillan, 1939), pp. 204–207; Frankfort, Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient (Baltimore- Penguin Books, 1953), p. 68. In Syria too, a bedecked “maypole” was an object of worship; in one Syrian cylinder seal the head of the deity dwelling in the object emerges at its top; cf. Edith Porada, Corpus of Ancient Near Eastern Seals in North-American Collections- The Collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library, vol. 1, Plates (New York- Pantheon, 1948), no. 956.

7. Ruth Amiran, Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land (Jerusalem- Massada Press, 1969), pp. 161–165, figs. 164–166, pl. 50.

8. W. Helck, “Zum Auftreten fremder Götter in Ägypten,” Oriens Antiquus 5 (1966), pp. 1–14.

9. I. E. S. Edwards, “A Relief of Qudshu-Astarte-Anath in the Winchester Collection,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 14 (1955), pp. 49–51.

10. R. Stadelmann, Syrisch-Palastinensische Gottheiten in Ägypten (Leiden- Brill, 1967), p. 113.

11. Albright, “Some Observations on the New Material for the History of the Alphabet,” BASOR 134 (1954), p. 26; Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, pp. 33–34, 43–46.

12. I. R. Engle, “Pillar Figurines of Iron Age Israel and Asherah-Asherim,” Ph. D. dissertation, Univ. Of Pittsburgh, 1979.

13. As far as I know, Raphael Patai was the first to identify the pillar figurines with Asherah. See Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (New York- Ktav, 1967), pp. 29–52. For the view that the plaques or figures cannot be associated with any particular goddess, see Marie-Therèse Barrelet, “Deux déesses syro-phéniciennes sur un bronze du Louvre,” Syria 35 (1958), pp. 27–44, and James B. Pritchard, Palestinian Figures in Relation to Certain Goddesses Known Through Literature (New Haven, CT- American Oriental Soc., 1943), p. 86.

14. Paul W. Lapp, “The 1968 Excavations at Tell Ta’anek- The New Cultic Stand,” BASOR 195 (1969), pp. 42–44, at p. 44. Some scholars have suggested in discussions that it should be identified as a horse, but an important element—the mane—is missing.