Divine Sex Change

One of the greatest problems in reconstructing ancient religions is the ambiguity of the evidence.  Most ancient artifacts are not labeled (they probably didn’t need to be for the original viewers) and few have textual materials explaining them.  This became clear to me when studying the famed inscription found at Kuntillet Ajrud in the mid-1970s.  The most (in)famous aspect of this artifact was that an inscription overlapped a doodle, and due to the urgent desire to interpret the inscription a particular way, the line drawing was supposed to be an illustration of the inscription.  The inscription is commonly translated as something along the lines of “I bless you by Yahweh of Teman and his asherah.”  Many scholars took asherah to mean Asherah, the goddess, despite no evidence for pronominal suffixes on personal names in classical Hebrew.  The doodle shows three figures, perhaps related, of which two were said to be Yahweh and Asherah.  Despite the very clear resemblance to the Egyptian dwarf-god Bes (Kuntillet Ajrud is between Israel and Egypt), it was argued that the figures in the “foreground” should be considered Yahweh and his main squeeze, Asherah.


The artistic analysis of these doodles has always been torturous. Tiny, perhaps insignificant, details were ascribed great importance—particularly those indicating the gender of the figures.  For the Yahweh-Asherah connection to work, one had to be male and the other female (with the male preferably in front).  The problem was that both figures seemed to have penises (in keeping with Bes’s typical representation).  In order to make it clear that the right-hand figure was female it was claimed that she was wearing a lion skin and the “penis” was literally a tail, the leopard’s tail, seen between “her” legs. The problem seemed to be a possible scrotum appeared to be present.  The left-hand figure, larger (therefore, in front) had a clear scrotum, and that sealed the case, in a manner of speaking.  Little chestal circles were said to be breasts on the right-hand figure, but male nipples on the left-hand figure were lacking.  Oh, and they were dancing, as shown by the woman playing the harp in the “background.”  Believe it or not, seriously scholarly debate raged over this—nothing short of the discovery of Yahweh’s wife seemed to be at stake!  A colleague recently emailed me to tell me the final report of the archaeologists concludes that the “scrotum” on the right-hand figure was a mere dust smudge and so, aha!, she is a female after all!

I argued years ago that this drawing was clearly a representation of Bes. The connection with the inscription is accidental (the jug on which the inscription occurs is full of doodles); if someone wanted to illustrate an inscription, they would not draw figures that actually obliterate part of the caption. Assumption is built on assumption here, however, making for a very shaky foundation indeed. Don’t get me wrong: I would like to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity. It is not good for the god to be alone. Still, it is going to take more than a divine sex-change operation to transform Bes into Asherah. If nothing else this divine gender-bender ought to serve as a cautionary tale for scholars, yet somehow I doubt that it will. We see what we want to see.

Bes Leave It Alone

One of the constant enjoyments of teaching is the interactive learning that takes place. I tell my students that I learn from them just as they learn (hopefully) from me. One place this has been happening regularly is in an Ancient Near Eastern Religions class I teach. Students have to provide weekly class reports on somewhat obscure deities that I chose for them to research. One of the groups was assigned Bes, the minor Egyptian protective deity, and their research had uncovered the suggestion that Bes may have originally been a cat-deity. As Halloween approaches with its plethora of black cats, I found this connection to be fascinating.

The Egyptians domesticated the cat, and revered it. The nimble catcher of vermin (although, in all fairness, vermin are only doing what vermin have evolved to do), the cat was seen as a protector. When in need, why not call upon a deified cat, an everlasting cat, if you will? It makes sense that Bes with his stubby proportions and bewhiskered face, often portrayed poking his tongue out, might have evolved from a feline original. His iconography often features leonine imagery as well. We may never know his true origins, but Bes was widely recognized in the ancient world as an effective protector.


Back in 1987 I volunteered as a digger at Tel Dor in Israel. This was my first exposure to archaeology, and I loved every bit of it. The digging, the expectation of discovery, the honest physical work, the endless bouts of Herod’s revenge — well, some parts were better than others. One of the artifacts I discovered was a sky-blue faience head of Bes intended, apparently, to be worn on a necklace (there is a hole drilled through his head). I also found two bronze seed-beads that went with the necklace in the same matrix. Often I have wondered who, in an Israelite context, wore that amulet of Bes and what fate befell the wearer nevertheless. Bes is paradigmatic of our trust in help from beyond, but every once in a while even Bes ends up being dropped in the dirt only to be dragged out again by some future cat.

Here Comes the Bride – Maybe


This is one of my favorite doodles from the ancient world. Its rich ambiguity lends to its appeal — some see it as salacious, while others see it as sacred. For those of you unfamiliar with the graphic details of the Asherah debate, this image is an ancient graffito from a desert way-station called Kuntillet Ajrud, a one-period site from the eighth century BCE. Like any number of other ancient drawings, this one would have probably remained in the obscure curios-portfolio of ancient scholars if it hadn’t overlapped an inscription that mentions “Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah.” Discovered in 1975–1976, this inscription, along with a couple others, revolutionized many scholarly assessments of ancient Israel’s religion. Yahweh had a soft side after all, a wife no less, the old god!

I’ve taken some flak in my circumscribed academic career for suggesting that this inscription, and a perhaps somewhat similar one from Khirbet el-Qom, are ambiguous. Sure, I’d like to see Yahweh happily married as much as the next guy, but is that what is going on here? Yahweh and Asherah, sittin’ in a tree? My doubts don’t stem from a squeamish conservatism (come on!) but from a concern of over-interpreting ambiguous evidence. Asherah, as a goddess, was rediscovered with the excavation of Ugarit. Forgotten by time with only cryptic references in the Hebrew Bible to some kind of cultic item called an “asherah,” scholars were excited to learn that she had a body and a personality. Many aspects of that personality fit, circumstantially, with a lovely pairing with Yahweh; wherever Asherah appears she is the consort of the high god, she is royal, matronly, and never showy.

The image above, however, has nothing to do with the inscription it overlaps. The two larger figures in the foreground are clearly Bes, the minor Egyptian protective deity. The characteristics are so clichéd that only the will to see Yahweh and Asherah arm-in-arm suggests anything different. Scholars like a happy ending just as much as anybody else, but I am obligated to state that, taken objectively, Asherah simply isn’t in the picture here.