Good Goddess

This past week Asherah has been on my mind. Some of my readers will know that I wrote a book on Asherah, based on my doctoral dissertation. Those who’ve read it (admittedly few) will know that in it I lament the easy association of generic goddesses with a mythological figure with a distinct background and character. The complication has a number of sources, but became particularly acute when inscriptions reading “I bless you by Yahweh… and his asherah” were discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud a few decades back. Since then it has become neo-orthodoxy that Asherah was Yahweh’s wife and she represented trees, lions, goats, fertility, water, wisdom, and any number of other phenomena. Those who question this are called “conservatives” and evidence deniers. Those who write popular books on this assumption end up on news programs and some start appearing at conferences in very nice clothes.

Photo credit: Deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

So why am I thinking of Asherah? A friend sent me the news story of a female figurine discovered in an accidental find at Tel Rehov in Israel. Upon seeing the story, I was awaiting the inevitable equation with Asherah, but was surprised to read that Amihai Mazar, the archaeologist consulted, suggested it might be Astarte, or someone else. You see, figurines of naked females were quite common in ancient Israel. No consensus has arisen as to which goddess is represented, if any. They don’t have names inscribed, and they may have been like, ahem, action figures for the woman hoping for a child, or for the safe delivery of a child. We simply don’t know. The other reason I’m thinking of Asherah is that I recently read a book where it was simply assumed that Asherah was Yahweh’s wife.

Don’t get me wrong—I’d like to see Yahweh as happily married as any other god. In fact, I think it would be odd if nobody thought he was. There is a difference, however, between thinking this makes sense and grasping at minimal evidence to declare it a fact. If someone were to discover an unambiguous inscription reading, for instance, “Asherah and Yahweh sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g,” then I’d be the first to say mazel tov. I have no theological bias against it. The problem is we simply do not know enough about the goddesses of antiquity. We know there were many. And we know there were women who didn’t claim divinity as well. Who these figurines represent, we just don’t know. Perhaps Yahweh, even now out on a date with Asherah, is smiling down knowingly. If so, I wish them well. Until I see some unambiguous evidence, however, I will be a doubter.

Holy Matrimony

BBC Two is currently airing a series entitled The Bible’s Buried Secrets, unfortunately not yet viewable in the United States. The episode “Did God Have a Wife?” is presented by my colleague Francesca Stavrakopoulou, who did, no doubt, an admirable job. So once again Asherah finds herself in the news. The issue of monotheism is intricately tied up with how gods related to one another in the ancient conceptual world of Israel and its neighbors. Since the gods were modeled on humans, their behaviors could be embarrassingly human as well. Myths of actual divine marriages are rare, and extra-consortial affairs seem to have been pretty common. This aspect survives in the classical Greek world where Zeus’ many trysts are among his most notable deeds.

In a society like ancient Israel where marriage was a regular expectation of all young people who survived to marriageable age, an obvious mystery attends a single god. If Yahweh is male – and the Hebrew Bible seems not to dispute this point – would he not require a spouse as well? The well known Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom inscriptions appear to suggest that Yahweh had a wife, and if he had the Religious Right should only rejoice since that would seal their definition of marriage forever in this literalist nation. And yet, the Bible remains decidedly mute on this point. In the end, it is interpreted that male is superior to female, again, pleasing certain religio-political factions.

Marriage in a human institution. It is a practice concerning which the Bible is strangely taciturn. In ancient times marriages (unless among the gods) were secular, not sacred ceremonies. Among a human population in danger of dying out through attrition, marriage ensured prolific reproduction. According to Christianity, even God had a kid. In a world that has changed in ways that biblical writers could never have imagined, marriage as a source for an increasing population is more problematic than it is essential. It seems that the jealously guarded definition of marriage is really just another green-eyed monster lurking in the Neo-Con closet. Maybe once Yahweh’s marriage certificate surfaces the issue of what marriage is really about will be discussed rationally.

Asherah to Asherah

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.

Loving spouses or battling foes?

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?

God’s Wife

Podcast 13 follows up on the previous two posts concerning Asherah. Here a little more background is provided on the discussion/debate concerning the goddess. I trace the origins of Asherah, best attested at Ugarit, and explain why this should be our primary source of information about the character of the goddess. I consider the 40 biblical passages briefly before moving on to the Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Epigraphic South Arabian material. Clearly the most important evidence for the debate on whether Yahweh was wed or not is the set of inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom. I examine these bits of evidence as well, explaining why I doubt that they intend to portray a divine couple. The podcasts closes with what I believe to be the way forward — a clear understanding of Asherah based on Ugarit and read without a scholarly agenda (yes, they do exist!).

Who’s Your Daddy?

Is there an epigrapher in the house?

Is there an epigrapher in the house?

As long as I’ve broached the issue of Yahweh and his Asherah, it would be fitting to consider the supporting evidence of Khirbet el-Qom. The attention of William Dever was drawn to this burial site as long ago as 1969 by a badly striated inscription purchased from an antiquities dealer that had been traced to the location. Indeed, the exact spot of the excised inscription was discovered where it had been removed from a pillar near a tomb. Dever originally translated the inscription with no reference to Asherah and with an admission of its poor state of preservation. It was only after Kuntillet Ajrud was discovered (see yesterday’s post) that scholars began reading Asherah back into this extremely difficult epigraphic puzzle.

Since that time, Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom have become the requisite two witnesses to seal the case: Yahweh had a wife named Asherah. Now slow down a bit! What does the second witness say? The Khirbet el-Qom inscription is extremely problematic; those who’ve examined it closely do not all agree that “asherah” occurs in it at all. If asherah appears here it is grammatically unwieldy: “blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh for from his enemies by his asherah he has saved him,” and that’s only if the word really is “asherah.” Although Dever has gone on to write a book about God’s wife, he has never changed his original translation sans asherah. I followed his publications on the topic to see his revised translation, but surprisingly, he defers to others, some of whom have never seen the original. Am I the only one who sees something odd here? Only after “Asherah” appears in a grammatically awkward way from Kuntillet Ajrud does she get back-read into Khirbet el-Qom, in an even more awkward syntactic construction, and voila! Yahweh is happily wed!

My scholarship suffers from no conservative agenda, and I cannot be accurately classified as conservative by any stretch of the imagination, but I simply cannot
abide sloppy scholarship (and I’m the one without a full-time job!). It seems to me that if Yahweh was married, even if so considered by a tittering band of heterodox Israelites who liked to hang out in tombs and scrawl graffiti on public property, we would find some solid indication. So far all we have is ambiguous references to Yahweh of Samaria (and Tema) and “his asherah” at Kuntillet Ajrud and a badly defaced inscription from Khirbet el-Qom that may or may not even mention “asherah.” I cannot see this as strong evidence for a case of divinely wedded bliss.

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.