Yahweh and his Asherah

cd223
Thursday 4 July 2019

It is a commonly held belief that religion starts wars, but to what extent does war impact religion? My research project is on how, if at all, war changed religion in the ancient Near East, particularly in relation to goddess worship. The past five weeks I have focused on researching goddesses, mostly Asherah and her cult, with the intention of exploring the changes to the concept of the goddess, the changes to her cult, and why these changes occurred, next summer. To learn about Asherah, I have examined various textual sources, including the Hebrew Bible and various journal articles, and noted their analysis of both visual and textural material.

Over all these sources, there is one archaeological find which is discussed time and time again, with little consensus on its interpretation and meaning. This particular archaeological find is a large storage vessel, known as Pithos A, dating from c.800 BCE. Pithos A was found at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a sort of ancient motel located at the intersection of routes crossing the Sinai dessert. On the surface of Pithos A are an inscription and an adjacent drawing, the interpretation of which is particularly contentious. The drawing shows three figures; two standing next to each other, overlapping slightly, and behind them, to the right, a seated figure plays a lute. The inscription adjacent to this drawing is commonly translated as “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah”.[1]

William G. Dever argues that this inscription should be understood as showing the relationship between Yahweh and Asherah; she is his consort, she belongs to him.[2] Furthermore, he argues that the drawing illustrates the inscription; the seated female figure with the lute is a representation of the goddess Asherah.[3] He believes that the figure is seated on a lion-shaped throne, known as a cherub throne. Lions are a symbol of ferocity and are associated with kings or deities; such a throne would be an appropriate seat for a goddess, for Yahweh’s consort.

However, Judith M. Hadley points out that

Copy of the painted scene and inscription from Pithos A, c. 800 BCE, found at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud.

the seat is more like the chairs of lords and princesses, specifically the chair of Princess Sitamun from the 18th dynasty.[4] While the chair does have features of a cherub throne, such as the paw feet, many items of furniture from this historical period had these sorts of features. The fact that the figure is sitting on a chair which is somewhat like a cherub throne does not necessarily entail that the figure is royalty or divinity.

Hadley argues that we cannot – with any certainty – identify the seated lyre player as Asherah.[5] Firstly, Asherah is a goddess, she is female, but the lyre player is not necessarily female. The round circles on the figure’s chest are often interpreted as breasts, but they could be male nipples. In this period, both men and women wore long skirts, so the figure’s clothing does not indicate its gender. The figure’s hairstyle is more like a male wig than a women’s hairstyle; most women are depicted with hair of at least shoulder length, whereas the lyre player’s hair is shown to be cut around their ears.

Although the inscription adjacent to the drawing mentions Asherah, it does not mean drawing illustrates the inscription, or that the writer and the artist are the same person. There are many drawings and inscriptions on all of the objects found at the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud site; the site was a stop for travellers, so many different people had the opportunity to paint and write on the walls and other objects. Beck believes that the lyre player and the right-hand standing figure were drawn by the same ‘artist’ because of stylistic similarities, such as the nipples on both figures, but that the left-hand standing figure was added later by a different ‘artist’. This explains why the two standing figures overlap slightly.[6] If the drawings and the inscription are not by the same person, and the drawing does not illustrate the inscription, then we cannot use the inscription as evidence for the identity of the drawn figures. The inscription mentions Asherah, but that does not mean that the drawing represents Asherah.

In addition, the inscription might not even refer to the goddess. The term ‘asherah’ can refer to a wooden pole, or a sort of stylised tree.[7] This wooden pole was a cult object which stood at holy places, and was believed to signify the presence of a deity, similar to standing stones. In this specific inscription, ‘asherah’ has a pronominal suffix, which functions as a possessive pronoun; the ‘asherah’ belongs to Yahweh.[8] This pronominal suffix has led to disagreement about the translation of the inscription, suffixes cannot be attached to proper nouns, such as the name Asherah. For this reason, the inscription on Pithos A can be translated as ‘…Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah’,[9] referring to the wooden cult object rather than his consort.

This example shows the level of uncertainty and disagreement there is in relation to ancient archaeological sources and the significance that their interpretation can have for our knowledge of ancient religion. While there is disagreement about the identification of Asherah in visual and textual sources, and disagreement about her relationship with Yahweh, we know from multiple sources that Asherah was worshiped. I look forward to spending my time next summer researching how her cult changed, and why this once significant deity ceased to be worshiped in the Ancient Near East.

 

I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw team for giving me the opportunity to undertake this research project, and to thank my supervisor, Dr Madhavi Nevader, for her support and guidance.


References:

[1] Binger, Tilde, ‘Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel and the Old Testament’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, Sheffield Academic Press: Sheffield, 1997. p.102

[2] Dever, William G., Did God Have a Wife?, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Michigan, 2005. pp.164-167

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hadley, Judith M., The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2000. p.151

[5] Hadley, The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah, pp.144-152

[6] Beck, P., ‘The Drawings from Horvat Teiman (Kuntillet ‘Ajrud)’, Tel Aviv 9, 1982, p.36

[7] Olyan, Saul M., ‘Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel’, Society of Biblical Literature 34, 1988, p.1

[8] Binger, ‘Asherah’, p.105

[9] Ibid.

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