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.

Asherah’s Ashes

Academics are often poor communicators. The stunning irrelevance of most research should stand as a rather obvious clue to that. Of course, I’m old school in my approach to research. When afforded the opportunity to do so, I produced at least one scholarly article per year, and these were based on extensive research. One of the misconceptions about research is that it involves only that which supports your theory. My first article and first book, both on Asherah, demonstrated that rather clearly, I hope. A kind of scholarly orthodoxy had grown up around the goddess, originating largely in Frank Moore Cross’s work, but also in that of a few other scholars. Nobody challenged these results although they were clearly built on shaky ground. Before I finished my dissertation it had been decided that Yahweh was married to Asherah, and the two merrily danced together on a pathos graffito from Kuntillet Ajrud. After my work was published, I was surprised to see how completely it was ignored. I, like John Mellencamp, had challenged authority. And we know who always wins.

I recently read an article entitled “Iconism and Aniconism in the Period of the Monarchy: Was There an Image of the Deity in the Jerusalem Temple?” by Garth Gilmour, in a Routledge volume entitled Visualizing Jews Through the Ages. Gilmour uses a crudely incised sherd originally found in 1920 in Jerusalem, to build a turret on the house of cards of conjecture. The incised stick figures which, if you squint just right, may be a male and female, it is suggested, are none other than Yahweh and Asherah. Probably grooving together in the temple. Now don’t get me wrong—I’ve always found the idea of Yahweh having a consort conceptually satisfying. We know that other deities in the ancient world often paired off, and that Asherah was generally the main consort of the high god. The proof, however, was in the pithos. Seeing what you want to see is a constant danger to researchers. That’s why my bibliographies tended to be encyclopedic. Gilmour’s article does not mention any of my several works on Asherah, or even my articles on Baal. Apparently my work harshes the easy conclusions already drawn. Or is insignificant. Caution often is.

Consigned to while away my time in publishing, I’m aware that there’s far too much out there for anybody to be able to read it all. Indeed, when I have rare moments to engage in research during my busy, commuting lifestyle, I find myself increasing aware of obsolesce. New results are published before the proofs get to the author. Still, the number of books out there on Asherah are fairly small. Those supporting the unofficial scholarly consensus are many and top the rankings on Amazon. Nobody likes to be reminded that the dissenting view has logic firmly on its side. We see what we want to see. Research should, in the opinion of this disregarded scholar, involving searching again, even as its name implies. The foundations should be reexamined now and again to make sure the tower’s not about to topple. That’s old school. And old school is now, apparently, understood as merely old fashioned.

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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.

KuntilletAjrud

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.

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.