Yahweh and Asherah: More Archaeo-Porn for the Masses

[ADDENDUM: March 23, 2011

I just wanted to direct readers to three items I have written, two of which are free. I offer them since the issue below gets into the issue of monotheism in Israel. First, there is a pre-publication version of an article that was published by the Bulletin for Biblical Research (“Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible“). Second, there is the paper I read last year at an academic conference entitled “What is/are (an) elohim?” It’s initial material was the result of a paper given at the international meeting of the SBL in Edinburgh a few years ago. Most scholars mis-define the term due to not taking the time to think about how it is that an Israelite writer could call a half dozen things elohim — things that no Israelite would view as “ontologically identical.” That means elohim cannot be rightly understood as a being with one set of particular attributes, and so plural elohim does not undermine the idea (doubtless held by the biblical writers) that Yahweh was unique among other elohim, and having more than one elohim does not neatly equate to polytheism. Third, there is my dissertation, entitled “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature.” That one isn’t free.]

Several people have sent me this link on whether Yahweh, the God of Israel (and the Old Testament) had a wife — the goddess Asherah. I guess it comes when your specialty is the divine council in Israelite religion. So let’s look at it briefly.

This is an old subject for specialists (as in decades old), but for the non-specialist, this will sound shocking. So, is this just another example of the archaeo-babbling religion media shoving one side of an issue down the throats of the masses just to gain readership, or do we have an attention-seeking scholar to credit for this one (Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou)?

For now, my money is on the media. It’s usually a safe bet, but I can’t let Dr. Stavrakopoulou be devoid of responsibility here. Lest my comments below be misunderstood, let me say up front that Stavrakopoulou is a genuine scholar with the right credentials. But that isn’t the problem. Her credentials are not the paleobabble. No one who earns a PhD in any field is dumb. But sometimes degree smarts or agendas get in the way of clear thinking.

Exhibit A is the breathless questioning accompanying the news item on various fronts:

Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou asks whether the ancient Israelites believed in one God as the Bible claims.

She puts the Bible text under the microscope, examining what the original Hebrew said, and explores archaeological sites in Syria and the Sinai which are shedding new light on the beliefs of the people of the Bible.

Was the God of Abraham unique? Were the ancient Israelites polytheists? And is it all possible that God had another half?

Let me add another important question of my own:  Can we think clearly, please? Just for a few minutes?

What these questions suggest is that all Israelites would at one time have embraced a divine wife for Yahweh. Really?  On what basis? So, because we have some inscriptions that *might* point to the goddess Asherah (see below) we can then conclude that, at some point, all Yahweh worshippers believed in a divine couple? Did we just become omniscient? Why is that demonstrably true over against the view held by basically all scholars of Israelite religion — that the textual and material record in Canaan shows us religious diversity?  By analogy, we have hundreds of thousands of words from the first two centuries AD telling us things about Jesus of Nazareth and we wouldn’t dare conclude that all Jesus followers in that time period believed the same things about Jesus!  But a couple of inscriptions gives us not only a unified point of Israelite theology, but evidence for the evolution of monotheism from polytheism. Say what?

I’ve said before that all scholars in biblical studies should be forced to take a course in logic, and this matter is a real case in point.

Religious diversity is a far more coherent model. Diversity, of course, means that some would have believed Yahweh had a wife, while others would not. What a surprise. The Hebrew Bible itself tells us (on nearly every page of the Deuteronomistic History1, so to speak) that many Israelites rejected the “orthodox Yahwism” of the prophets, opting for alternative worship fo Yahweh. Finds like those at Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom point to such diversity — but apparently Dr. Stavrakopoulou (more likely, the popular media) wants them to argue for “orthodox polytheism” in Israel which evolved toward “orthodox monotheism.” These objects do not make such a narrow case. All they can actually tell us is that, at some point during the biblical period in Israel, someone believed Yahweh had a wife. That would make sense to me, as I can’t think of a time when everyone in any religion belived lock-step with everyone else.

But there are actually other alternative understandings of the pieces. It’s hardly so neat a picture as the media storyline leads readers to believe.  I’ll try to summarize succinctly.

Yahweh and Asherah

In a nutshell, the hub-bub is about certain archaeological finds (most notably Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom) bearing inscriptions that mention Yahweh by name and “his asherah” (or, more accurately, “asheratah”). The conclusion is drawn that Yahweh had a wife. But matters are far more complicated than that. Here are the options.

1. Yahweh and “his asherah” = Yahweh had a wife. In this view, the term “asheratah” is taken by many to be a proper name (Asherah) plus a third person masculine suffix (translated “his”). The problem with that view is that, as a rule, proper personal (or deity) names in Hebrew and other ancient Canaanite texts, do not take such pronouns suffixes. This basically rules out that the “asherah” as the goddess herself accompanying Yahweh right from the start. Some have argued in the academic literature for exceptions, but the examples offered have not met with consensus acceptance. At any rate, if we presume that this rule can be broken so that we have “his [Yahweh’s] Asherah,” what do we learn?  That at least one scribe at one place in Canaan apparently believed the divine couple was married. But other options that don’t break the rules of normative Hebrew and Semitic morphology make better sense.

2. “His asherah” refers generically to a goddess wife, not specifically “the” goddess Asherah. This is sort of “Plan B” for some who want a goddess wife but know that #1 above violates Hebrew morphology.

3. “His asherah” refers to a shrine, not a deity. This view makes good sense since it is well known by scholars (but not nearly as sexy) that “asherah” in the Hebrew Bible refers to a shrine, or pole (sacred tree) that was the symbol of Asherah (e.g., Deut 16:21). This would mean that “Yahweh and his asherah” = “Yahweh and his sacred tree cult object.” Again, this would point to one of many forms of Yahweh worship in Canaan (think of how many forms of Christianity there are today and you get the idea of diversity within one theological tradition).

4. “His asherah” could point to a tree object associated with Yahweh himself, not asherah at all. This has some coherence because Yahweh was associated with a “tree of life” (the garden of Eden story). Biblical scholars know that Yahwism tended to absorb the attributions of other deities — including goddesses — into Yahweh. In other words, one of the theological (polemic) tactics used by biblical writers was to take the attributes or epithets of a foreign deity (like Baal) and conceptually apply them to Yahweh, thereby asserting that Yahweh was the true god of XYZ, not this other deity that bears that title. When it came to goddesses, this was also the case, and so Yahweh could be identified with a goddess symbol. If this option is the right choice, then we’d have more of an orthodox Yahwistic statement with no association with a goddess at at all – we’d have a usurpation of another deity’s symbol.2

So where does this all lead us? To clearer thinking. To some honesty with the material. The claims that are being made about Yahweh and Asherah in this report are fallacious, as they absolutely over-extend the data, not to mention neglecting decades of prior scholarship on the issue.

Suggested reading on the spectrum of views of these archaeological finds and “asheratah”:

For an excellent, accessible survey, see Richard Hess, Israelite Religions (Baker, 2007), 283-289.

Other sources:

J. Day, Asherah in the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Literature, JBL 105 (1986) 385–408

J. Day, Asherah, Anchor Bible Dictionary I (1992) 483–487

Wiggins, A Reassessment of ‘Asherah’. A Study According to the Textual Sources of the First Two Millennia B.C.E. (AOAT 235; Kevelaer/Neukirchen-Vluyn 1993)

W. A. Maier, Asherah: Extrabiblical Evidence (HSM 37; Atlanta 1986)

B. Margalit, The meaning and significance of Asherah, VT 40 (1990) 264–297

S. M. Olyan, Asherah and the cult of Yahweh in Israel (SBLMS 34; Atlanta 1988)

Hadley, Yahweh and “His Asherah”: Archaeological and Textual Evidence for the Cult of the Goddess, Ein Gott Allein (eds. W. Dietrich & M. A. Klopfenstein; Fribourg/Göttingen 1994) 235–268

William Dever, Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Eerdmans, 2008)

  1. Deuteronomy through 2 Kings. See for example, Judges 2:13; Judges 3:7; and also Jer 44:17-25.
  2. This perhaps helps explain why the biblical writers do not use the feminine form of the word “god(dess)” in the Hebrew Bible; they use the masculine term even when referring to a goddess (see 1 Kings 11:33 where “Ashtoreth” is referred to as elohim – the masculine plural ending of the word for deity).