Every great once-in-a-while I regret no longer being in a position to conduct active research and publication. In the days when a full-time teaching position afforded me that option one of my favorite subjects was the exposure of facile arguments made by otherwise careful scholars. Most of those arguments focused on the presence of Asherah as a fully formed goddess in ancient Israel. Extremely tenuous evidence for the association of the goddess with a variety of ambiguous artifacts has polluted the discussion for decades now. Any vaguely abstract image suggesting a female was declared an “Asherah” representation, sometimes even images as simple as a triangle or a mother cow.
A colleague of mine just pointed out the recent article by Garth Gilmour in Palestine Exploration Quarterly 141 (2009), entitled “An Iron Age II Pictorial Inscription from Jerusalem Illustrating Yahweh and Asherah.” Having more than a passing acquaintance with the goddess, I read his article with considerable interest. A potsherd discovered in the 1920s, but unpublished until now, bears an incised “inscription” of two figures that Gilmour plausibly argues to be highly stylized female (left) and male (right). Basing his analysis of possible identities for this Picassoesque pair on the now canonical interpretation of the Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom inscriptions, he suggests this is none other than the happy couple of Yahweh and Asherah.
I encourage creativity in scholarship; otherwise it has a way of becoming deadly dull. The supposed pairing of Yahweh and Asherah, however, has been excessively overblown by scholars who should know better. When it comes to the point that escapees from Flatland who bear the suggestion of gender must be Israel’s most famous bachelor and his main squeeze, I have to wonder what the basis of solid scholarship is. There are no words obliquely hinting that this is a divine couple, nor is there a sacred context to suggest this shard was in any way religious. Given the fact that the image had formerly been on a spouted jar, perhaps holding water, would not a suggestion of Marduk and Tiamat be more appropriate?
Rorschach tests aside, this incised image is an important piece of a puzzle with far too many pieces missing – the puzzle of the artistic life of ancient Israelites. Given the all-too-human interest in relationships between women and men, I would see no necessity of making deities out of a pair of prospective lovers or foes. Why can’t people just be people?