Forgotten Goddess

It’d’ve been nice if someone had told me.  If you’re not a professor, though, you’ve lost your importance.  I’ve only written a book on the subject, after all.  Grousing aside, the headline from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (“The Land”) read “7,500-year-old Burial in Eilat Contains Earliest Asherah.”  Since my dissertation and first book and several articles were on Asherah, I do still have an interest in the old girl.  I’m curious when new material shows up, even since I wrote my book.  Professors, you see, have the time and resources to keep up with things like that.  When your job is acquiring books in a different field, well, who has the time?  I do keep an eye out for headlines, though.  Skimming a newspaper article now and again I can still manage.

So what’s going on in the resort town of Eilat?  According to the article by Viktoria Greenboim Rich, a rescue operation for expansion going on in the city, led to the discovery of a pre-Israelite burial site.  Among the artifacts discovered was the stump of a juniper tree, upright in what appears to be a cultic setting.  In case your chronology’s even rustier than mine, the Israelites show up on the scene roughly 3,300 years ago.  This sanctuary has been carbon dated to nearly twice that age.  We don’t know a ton about what asherahs (lower case) were, other than that they were made of wood, they stood upright in sanctuaries, and they angered Yahweh.  So was this an asherah that was found?  Are they really that old?

It’s an intriguing question.  Writing hadn’t really been invented that long ago.  There were some rudimentary efforts in that direction, perhaps, but Sumerian, the earliest attested written language, wouldn’t show up for a couple of millennia yet.  That means artifacts are unlabeled and there aren’t any texts to describe what they are when we find them.  Did Asherah have a prehistory that early?  We just don’t know.  The trend even since before I was researching the goddess has been to suggest any upright wooden object found in a cultic context is an asherah.  You can hardly blame archaeologists for suggesting that, since wooden objects don’t survive that well in the levantine climate.  We naturally like to fill the gaps.  If this is an asherah then it would’ve been called by a name we don’t know.  Hebrew hadn’t yet evolved by then, as far as we’re aware.  But why else, so the thinking goes, would anyone stick a tree in the ground before telephone poles (those modern asherim) had even been invented?

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