Friday, 11 June 2010

YHWH's Ashera: Consort or Cult Object

I decided to post about this topic after the comments thread from the last post. Hat tip to Tamir for giving me a link to an extremely ineresting article arguing against the YHWH consort theory and a thanks to Shalmo for bringing up the topic in the first place.

Many know by now the assertion that in Ancient Israel the Hebrew God YHWH had a consort Ashera. This view is expressed in these two books:

The Hebrew Goddess by historian and anthropologist Raphael Patai

Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel
Syro-Palestinian archaeologist and biblical scholar William G. Dever

Already in the early twentieth century many Bible scholars asserted that the Israelite monotheism had evolved from some form of polytheism. They based this on the very significant fact that the Tanach describes a people who had very little fidelity for monotheism. The Biblical account, of course, describes the whole thing as an aberration from the true worship of YHWH. However, many believe that this is projection onto the past.

Yechezkel Kaufman is noted for arguing that the idol worship in the Tanach is not a theological belief in many Gods but merely the acceptance of idols as sort of "lucky charms"

This article sums up his position(derisively) as follows:

  1. all Israelites were monotheistic (so much so that one might refer to them as genetically monotheistic),
  2. all these monotheistic Israelites had no idea as to what polytheists–who often lived in their midst--really believed,
  3. the Israelites worshiped idols without understanding what they signified (thus making them the most symbolically challenged people in human history),
  4. there was no social change in ancient Israel insofar as the monotheistic idea was present from the time of Moses to the second temple period,
  5. the Hebrew Bible represents the policies and positions of actual official religions in ancient Israel, and,
  6. it is an accurate witness to all aspects of Israelite history, except when it refers to the depravity of the Israelite people (which just so happens to be one of its most central themes).

Now this debate remained basically theoretical until archaeologists discovered two very relevant inscriptions

The inscriptions from Qutilat Ajrud:
ב] רכת אתכם ליהוה שמרן ולאשרתה ... ] ליהוה התמן ולאשרתה [ ... ] ברכתך ליהוה תמן ולאשרתה יברך וישמרך ויהי עם אדני [ ...י] תנו ליהוה תימן ולאשרת[ה

Roughly translated (wiki) "I have blessed you by YHVH of Samaria and His Asherah" (or perhaps "... by YHVH our guardian and His Asherah", if "Shomron" is to be read "shomrenu")


The inscription from Khirbet el-Kom (near Chevron) reads:

  1. ברך אריהו ליהוה נצרי ולאשרתה הושע לה לדניהו
  2. ולאשרתה

Translated (wiki): "Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh and by his Asherah; from his enemies he saved him!"

Now the question is what is the meaning of "his ashera"

There are basically two possibilities

1. The Ashera refers to a Canaanite goddess Ashera. His Ashera means YHWH's consort Ashera.
2. The ashera refers to some sort of cult object (still considered idol worship to the writers of the Tanach). His ashera means YHWH's "shrine" or something of that sort.

Now lets look into this in detail:

The Tanach usually is discusses the ashera as some sort of object or monument. Such as these verses:
"לא תטע לך אשרה כל עץ אצל זבח ה' אלהיך" "You shall not plant an Ashere any tree next to God's altar" ". וישכימו אנשי העיר בבקר והנה נתץ מזבח הבעל והאשרה אשר עליו " "And the men of the city woke up early in the morning and behold he had smashed the altar of Ball and the ashera which was on it"

We almost never find the Tanach referring to "ashera" as a godess in the same way as it refers to Baal as a god.

This is one possible exception:
ויצו המלך את חלקיהו הכהן הגדול ואת כהני המשנה ואת שמרי הסף להוציא מהיכל ה' את כל הכלים העשוים לבעל ולאשרה ולכל צבא השמים וישרפם מחוץ לירושלם בשדמות קדרון... ויצא את האשרה מחוץ לירושלם לנחל קדרון וישרף אתה בנחל קדרון וידק לעפר... ויתץ את בתי הקדשים אשר בבית ה' אשר הנשים אוגרות שם בתים לאשרה" (מל"ב כג, ד-ז 4 And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest, and the priests of the second order, and the keepers of the door, to bring forth out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels that were made for Baal, and for the Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; and he burned them without Jerusalem in the fields of Kidron..... 6 And he brought out the Asherah from the house of the LORD, without Jerusalem, unto the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron, and stamped it small to powder.... 7 And he broke down the houses of the harlots, that were in the house of the LORD, where the women wove coverings for the Asherah.

Here we see a reference to Ashera as some sort of goddess. The terminology here used in reference to Baal is also used in reference to Ashera. Based on this many archaeologists identify Ashera with the Ugarit goddess Athirat and the Akkadian goddess Ashratum/Ashratu.

What's important to remember is this verse in Malachim is AFAIK the ONLY reference to Ashera as a goddess. The references to it as some sort of cult object are much more common. Also this article asserts that the verse from Malachim is also not referring to a goddess but rather to a cult object. Basically the Tanach itself makes very little reference to a goddess Ashera.

Another argument against the identification of the inscriptions with a goddess is a grammatical issue. In Biblical Hebrew the "possessive suffix" (the "Hu" in "Ashrathu") is never used with a proper noun. So grammatically it would not make sense to identify the "his ashera" as the name of a goddess but makes more sense as an object. I cannot vouch for all Semitic dialects but I believe Arabic similarly has such a grammatical rule.

An interesting argument for the identification of the ashera as a cult object is the following prayer found in Tractate Sukka:

"When they departed, what did they say? 'Praise to you, O Altar! Praise to you, O Altar!'" (m. Suk. 4:5) According to Rabbi Eliezer b. Jacob, they said "To Yah and to you, O Altar! To Yah and to you, O Altar!" (t. Suk. 3:1 end).

In other words even in Mishnaic times when strict monotheism reigned a prayer was made to God and his altar extremely similar to the prayers we find of "YHWH and his ashera"

In conclusion I'm leaning towards the cult object theory. I have a feeling that archaeologists who already have decided that there was polytheism in Ancient Israel are a little bit too eager to find corroborating evidence. But I definitely need to do a little more research.

Here are some internet sources:

Ashera as goddess:

http://web.archive.org/web/20060916100221/http://www.theology.bham.ac.uk/guest/Ancient+Israel/asherah.htm

http://mikranet.cet.ac.il/pages/item.asp?item=7885&str1=%u05D0%u05E9%u05E8%u05D4&find=1


Ashera as cult object:

http://lib.cet.ac.il/Pages/item.asp?item=13226

see here http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jwst/second.htm











17 comments:

Shalmo said...

sorry I should I have said this in the previous note. To understand the two powers in heaven, how two Yahwehs appear in the Tanakh go get "Two Powers in Heaven" by Alan E. Segal. Its an apologetic work trying to reconcile these two YHWHs with monotheism. The irony being before 2nd century BC the thesis of two YHWH was not even considered heresy by Jews. The rabbis were not too happy as this made Judaism all too similar to paganism

Genesis 19:24: Then YHWH rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from YHWH out of the heavens.

Do you see how YHWH occurs twice? So YHWH rains down fire from YHWH?

As with the Amos passage in the previous thread, the text features one YHWH doing something and then referring to another YHWH who did something else. Like how in Amos 4:11 YHWH says I will bring destruction on you like when YHWH did with Soddom and Gommorah

And as I said before its obvous the redacters were working with polytheistic texts. Read up on how Margaret Baker has argued our texts today are monotheistic redactions of older polytheistic text, hence why we see the different gods referring to each other

Shalmo said...

I am glad you brought up the issue of YHWH and his wife Asherah.

I have argued in the past that in fact the garden of Eden story is very fishy when you read it. Notice how only one god is featured, and yet the text features him speaking as elohim or "we" or "us". Who are the plural speaking? And why in such anthropormorphic settings, and an anthropormorphic god, do we get Adam and Hawwah?

What does YHWH mean when he says "we" made man in "our" image?

Simple. In the original version it was both YHWH and Asherah who were the father and mother, quite literally, of Adam and Hawwah. Hence the made in our image, because quite literally they were children of the gods. Hence why ancient hebrews prayed to YHWH and Asherah together.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Could I get a link for Margaret Baker does she have a book?

כד וַיהוָה, הִמְטִיר עַל-סְדֹם וְעַל-עֲמֹרָה--גָּפְרִית וָאֵשׁ: מֵאֵת יְהוָה, מִן-הַשָּׁמָיִם.

IMHO we seem to have a bit of redaction bungling here. I think a simpler explanation would be that originally the verse read something like this

"Then rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from YHWH out of the heavens."

The only thing messing up the verse is that extra YHWH at the beginning. The only way to make sense of the verse is to take it out. I think that turning this into evidence for a dualistic YHWH would not really explain the redundancy in the verse as well as just taking out the initial YHWH.

Amos is much more convincing

Shalmo said...

There are plenty other little quirks as well



http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2008/04/genesis-11-25-is-amalgam-of-near.html

http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2009/03/transformation-of-canaanite-myths-into.html

http://formerfundy.blogspot.com/2010/05/have-jews-always-believed-in-creation.html

Shilton HaSechel said...

>I am glad you brought up the issue of YHWH and his wife Asherah.

Lol finish reading the post I end up arguing with that assertion

>And why in such anthropormorphic settings, and an anthropormorphic god, do we get Adam and Hawwah?

Don't understand the issue

>What does YHWH mean when he says "we" made man in "our" image?

The same thing occurs when God goes to mix up people's languages at Bavel

It's possible that this is a form of expression used when God states his intention to do something as in "let us make man" "let us go down" maybe a royal we of some sort. I don't know if it is necessarily an indication of polytheism.

Shalmo said...

http://www.margaretbarker.com/

get "Two Powers in Heaven" by Alan E. Segal. Why would the rabbis make this into an issue in the first place? Why create the two powers in heaven trying to resolve the polytheism unless they knew something was wrong.

There are plenty of other little quibbles of ancient jewish polytheism all over the Tanakh

Isaiah 27:1: "In that day,
the LORD will punish with his sword,
his fierce, great and powerful sword,
Leviathan the gliding serpent,
Leviathan the coiling serpent;
he will slay the monster of the sea." NIV

The Bible is filled with narratives of YHWH's war with the Leviathan.

Remember in the near eastern religions the serpant was always used in creation myths as a symbol of chaos.

Egyptian mythology in particular played a huge part in this, since their empire was able to spread these ideas far and wide. YHWH just like Ra created things by speech, by speaking their names. When Ra was created he had to fight the serpants of chaos for control, Ra's greatest enemy was the snake god Apophus. Both egyptian and babylonian gods were involved in warfare with the forces of chaos.

So is the serpant portrayed as an enemy of YHWH's children in Genesis any suprising.

The Bible isn’t consistent in describing its God, but one probable description is as follows: Rather than creating the universe ex nihilo, God fashioned the earth to rise out of the seas in divine conflict with the dragon sea god sometimes called Rahab (in Job 26:9-12). This God is merely the “god of the gods,” who like the other gods had a body that needed to rest on the seventh day and was found walking in the “cool of the day” in the Garden of Eden.

for the canaanite origins of the Leviathan myths all over the Tanakh go here:http://books.google.ca/books?id=N9F1hkMuN0gC&pg=PA560&dq=Leviathan+canaan&hl=en&ei=KH4STJnaM8XenAfFgtiRAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CEEQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=Leviathan%20canaan&f=false

for a more explicit discussion on the origins of the Leviathan vs YHWH battle of the gods start reading here from pg.98:

http://books.google.ca/books?id=y-gfwlltlRwC&pg=PA99&dq=Leviathan+canaan&hl=en&ei=KH4STJnaM8XenAfFgtiRAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

some other favourites of mine on polytheism and the bible

http://books.google.ca/books?id=GH-n4ctvlDYC&pg=PA75&dq=Leviathan+canaan&hl=en&ei=KH4STJnaM8XenAfFgtiRAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8&ved=0CEsQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=Leviathan%20canaan&f=false


http://books.google.ca/books?id=BDq7AUgIYacC&printsec=frontcover&dq=bible+polytheism&hl=en&ei=Un0STLyAMsqUnAeE5ZyRAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

http://books.google.ca/books?id=n0v0NB5-n3sC&pg=PA10&dq=bible+polytheism&hl=en&ei=Un0STLyAMsqUnAeE5ZyRAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CE0Q6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=bible%20polytheism&f=false

jewish philosopher said...

You might want to check out The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bible_Unearthed

On page 109 he mentions there that this virtually no remnant of idols in the early Israelite villages. And Finkelstein is far from a supporter of Orthodox Judaism.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Ha! JP (for once) you made my day!

can anyone say cognitive dissonance!

There is similarly no evidence of an Exodus

Make up your mind is absence of evidence evidence of absence or not.

Nu Rabbi Stein
עַד־מָתַ֞י אַתֶּ֣ם פֹּסְחִים֘ עַל־שְׁתֵּ֣י הַסְּעִפִּים֒!

Thanks for the source Shabbat Shalom!

Tamir said...

Shalmo( 11 June 2010 14:24): http://www.margaretbarker.com/

Ah, so it's Margaret Barker, the methodist preacher, researcher of ancient Christianity, and developer of the Temple Theology approach to Bible Studies. It helps when you don't keep calling her "Margaret Baker"( with a missing 'r').

get "Two Powers in Heaven" by Alan E. Segal. Why would the rabbis make this into an issue in the first place? Why create the two powers in heaven trying to resolve the polytheism unless they knew something was wrong.

That would be Alan F. Segal.

Where do "the rabbis make this into an issue" or "create the two powers in heaven trying to resolve the polytheism" ?

There are plenty of other little quibbles of ancient jewish polytheism all over the Tanakh

Isaiah 27:1: "In that day,
the LORD will punish with his sword,
his fierce, great and powerful sword,
Leviathan the gliding serpent,
Leviathan the coiling serpent;
he will slay the monster of the sea." NIV

The Bible is filled with narratives of YHWH's war with the Leviathan.


The verse you bring only mentions God punishing, and slaying, as a master would do to a creature under his control, not as battling with an enemy who might actually win, or is a counterpart to him.

Besides, Psalms 104:26,
"There go the ships; there is leviathan, whom Thou hast formed to sport therein",
meaning God created leviathan and "sports" with it - not a real adversary.

Remember in the near eastern religions the serpant was always used in creation myths as a symbol of chaos ...

Which, at most, proves the Tanakh uses terminology the people where familiar with, not that others' mythology( and theology) was imported "lock stock and barrel".

The Bible isn’t consistent in describing its God, but one probable description is as follows: Rather than creating the universe ex nihilo, God fashioned the earth to rise out of the seas in divine conflict with the dragon sea god sometimes called Rahab (in Job 26:9-12).

Out of the mouth of a non-Israelite, great !

Anyhow, even those verses don't say that the Rahav preexisted the start of creation.

This God is merely the “god of the gods,” who like the other gods had a body that needed to rest on the seventh day and was found walking in the “cool of the day” in the Garden of Eden.

Yet, without descriptions of how He enjoyed those things, or felt about doing them.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Tamir,

It is obviously debatable what the meaning of sea-monsters and Rahab are in the Tanach. I think it is fair to say that they represent an earlier more polytheistic tradition in Israel. Most of your quibbles merely underscore the fact that rather polytheistic elements have been recast in our monotheistic canon. Of course the Tanach is going to describe the sea-monsters as creations of God no monotheistic text would cast Rahav as co-existent with God. The whole question is trying to find the polytheistic myth that predated the fragments we have in our monotheistic works. Nobody is saying that the Tanach itself, the way we have it, is polytheistic.

>Out of the mouth of a non-Israelite, great !

Cummon Tamir Job is an Israelite work. Just because the main character is not an Israelite does not mean that it doesn't reflect Israelite views.

E-Man said...

Shilton said: Nobody is saying that the Tanach itself, the way we have it, is polytheistic.

That is what Shalmo is saying, no?

Shilton HaSechel said...

>That is what Shalmo is saying, no?

Yes, maybe. However, I think that is the wrong approach. It would be very hard to show that the current version of the Tanach is polytheistic. All the things Shalmo points to merely show that the Tanach was either created using earlier polytheistic texts OR relies on knowledge from earlier polytheistic texts.

There might have been an earlier more polytheistic "Tanach" but its not the one we have.

Shalmo said...

Tamir please go read the books I sourced, then come back to me. They already address your arguments

Something more intriguing to bare in mind is how the redactors of the Tanakh empower YHWH. Simply put YHWH is frankly just another Ra, the supreme god who creates through his speech. The entire Exodus myth detailing the origins of Jewry can be seen as a reference to Egypt. The only difference I see between YHWH and Ra is that the serpant, Leviathan is dethrowned already. Rather than YHWH being in war with him, the serpant is reduced to an enemy of YHWH's children.

I'm assuming you are familiar with how Judaism started as polytheism to monolatrism to monotheism, and we indeed see that going on here.

Because where as Ra and his fellow gods had to daily battle chaos, his head enemy being the snake god Apophis; YHWH had already humiliatingly defeated the serpant in the very beginning of the jewish narrative and did not need to continually battle him. Unlike Ra, YHWH had already won against chaos.

Makes all the more sense if you consider that the Exodus myth is designed specifically to make YHWH appear superior to the gods of Egypt. The egyptians gods could turn sticks into snakes, but YHWH's snake ate their snake. Pharoah is a living god, a representative of the gods of Egypt, yet none of them could stop YHWH from hardening his heart. None of them could stop YHWH from unleashing the plagues, where the Tanakh says was done to "bring judgement against the gods of Egypt".

Shalmo said...

Anyway for people who are struggling with the shackles of orthodox judaism (I should know!) then a wonderful book to consider is "The Origins of Judaism" by Robert Goldenberg.

He answers all the questions the rabbis dodge. I'm certain you all struggled at some point with the question of why God does not restore prophecy to Israel? If he gave us prophets when we were so naughty, then why not give us prophets today?

Goldenberg answers that question. It had nothing to do with divine disatisfaction. It was simply because people could not trust the prophets anymore! He makes a very detailed argument (I can't type the whole thing), using the Book of Kings showing where and when YHWH acts as a deceiver, dooming his own prophets. This raised the problem that prophecy may indeed come from YHWH but contain a hidden, sinister message designed to damn those who follow. With such circumstance, who would ever follow a prophet again?

He also provides a good detailed outline of how jewish monotheism developed: http://books.google.ca/books?id=sfYSe7K7cqwC&printsec=frontcover&dq=robert+goldenberg&hl=en&ei=os0VTMrQO8P68Ab2qoidDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCcQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Though the google online text omitts much of the book, so you'll probably have to buy it.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Shalmo,

I think you're assuming a little too much. All the books you cite are essentially theories. They may be true but I would hardly cite them as facts. The truth is we really have an extremely small amount of material to work with so any theory about the beginnings of Ancient Israelite religion are bound to be mostly speculation. Skepticism should be applied to everything not just religion ;)

>Anyway for people who are struggling with the shackles of orthodox judaism (I should know!)

I hope you don't mind me asking but I was always under the impression that you were Muslim.

https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=6254186367530507781&postID=178266761646948668&isPopup=true

Or is that a different Shalmo?

Shalmo said...

there seem to be 10 different Shalmo's :)


hey I came up with the name first!

anon said...

Judaism is a fertility cult. Think circumcise - why would any god want you to cut your penis - it ws related to fertility cults. Yaweh loves the smell of burnt flesh and animal sacrifice. Yaweh controls the rain. Be fruitful and multiply. Cherubs in sexual embrace in temple.

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