The Hebrew Bible uniformly recognizes the unique deity of the Lord, the God of Israel who identifies himself to Moses as “I AM” transliterated as Yahweh. Only he is the God of the heavens and the earth, the creator of all things, the sole Lord of the heavenly hosts who sits on his throne ruling over the divine council. In contrast to him, authors of the Hebrew Bible make mention of many other deities worshipped by foreign nations—and all too often, by Yahweh’s own people as a result of unfaithful syncretism. Among these gods and goddesses is Asherah, one of the most prominent goddesses in Ancient Near Eastern religion and a regular temptress of the people of Israel. While modern critical scholarship often considers Yahwehism to simply be an evolution of Canaanite religion, even going so far as to claim Asherah was originally Yahweh’s consort, Scripture plainly testifies against this. This paper will highlight the uniqueness of Yahweh against Asherah by identifying Asherah in context of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) religion broadly, evaluating Asherah in the Hebrew Bible, and defining Yahweh’s relationship to Asherah through biblical witness.
Asherah is a staple of the typical ANE pantheon. She most frequently occupies the role of the queen mother of the pantheon and consort to the master of the pantheon. In Ugarit, Asherah was known as Athirat and was the consort of the high god El.1 Asherah plays a prominent role in the Ugaritic stories of Kirta (sometimes called Keret) where she is referred to as the divine patron of Tyre and Sidon.2 In the story, El directs the weak and heirless king Kirta to marry the daughter of a rival king’s kingdom. Kirta makes a vow to Asherah that if he can marry Hurriya, he will richly endow her temples. He succeeds in winning the rival king’s daughter Hurriya in marriage but fails to fulfill his vow. In response, Asherah curses Kirta with disease and misfortune. El holds council with the pantheon and asks who is willing to cure Kirta, but none are willing to risk opposing Asherah or the disease she sent. In the end, El creates a dragon like beast to overcome the illness but Kirta cannot escape her curse and loses his kingdom because of his oldest son leading a rebellion.3 Given her status and power as the divine matriarch, Asherah was held in high prestige in Canaanite religious life.
Asherah’s relationship with Baal, the preeminent deity of Canaanite religion during the time of the kings of Israel and Judah, is complicated. Some sources portray Asherah as the mother of Baal, though earlier sources state that Baal is not a member of the family of El and Asherah and is instead a son of Dagan.4 Other sources show Baal taking Asherah to be his consort,5 or Asherah attempting to seduce Baal.6 Regardless, by the time of the united kingdom in Israel, Baal and Asherah were two primary deities in pagan worship.
The Hebrew Bible (MT) includes roughly 40 references to Asherah in various forms.7 Only a few of these appearances refer directly to the Canaanite goddess; most appearances refer to some sort of object used in cultic worship. In Hebrew, three references can either be the singular form הָאֲשֵׁרָ֖ה (“Asherah”), the plural masculine אֲשֵׁרִ֑ים (“Asherim”), or the plural feminine הָאֲשֵׁרֽוֹת (“Asheroth”). The masculine plural form uniformly refers to a cult object or objects throughout the historical books of the MT, while the feminine plural form also refers to the cult object but with particular emphasis on her femininity in association with a masculine deity, namely Baal.8 The singular form is most broadly used and can refer to either the goddess directly or to the objects used in worship of her.9
The Hebrew Bible spends little time in explaining what Asherah represented and why she was such a persistent recipient of Israel’s worship against Yahweh’s command. However, it is likely she took on the broad role of the matriarchal fertility goddess, similar to her role in Canaanite religion and subsuming the role of other goddesses like Anat and Astarte.10 She would have been seen as the chief deity for safe childbearing, successful harvests, healthy livestock, and any other manifestation of abundance and fecundity.11 At times, Asherah was publicly accepted and explicitly worshipped as a goddess. In 1 Kings 16:31-33, Ahab established a temple for Baal and Asherah in Samaria. This sort of organized state religion would have included cult prostitution, as 2 Kings 23:7 mentions.12
For the most part, however, Asherah worship in Israel and Judah may not have been as purely pagan as it was during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel. Canaanite paganism was only rarely a state religion, but was a persistent feature of family religion.13 Even if one recognized that Yahweh alone was the God of heaven and earth, the practice of crafting Asherah figurines as talismans when offering vows may have persisted.14 Syncretistic cultic worship is clearly portrayed elsewhere in the Bible; consider Jephthah offering to sacrifice his daughter to Yahweh.
In the MT, these Asherah figurines are depicted as carved and decorated wooden objects, usually small enough to be concealed in a person’s lap. They are described as פֶסֶל (pesel, “graven image” made of wood) and גִּלּוּל (gillul “idol” which can be made of wood, stone, or clay) and can be crafted, cut down, and burned.15 Archeology has found thousands of small clay figurines with large breasts throughout this historic lands of Israel and Judah dated to the time of the kings; while written records have not yet definitively identified these as idols specifically depicting Asherah, she is the most likely candidate.16
The Hebrew Bible denounces both manifestations of Asherah worship mentioned above, whether state sponsored or perpetuated by the family. First Kings 18 illustrates the Bible’s rebuke of a state cult to Asherah. It recounts the contest between the gods of Ahab and Jezebel, namely Baal and Asherah, and Yahweh. Though this passage is primarily concerned with proving Yahweh is the true God of what is attributed to Baal—the storm-bringer who provides rain and the warrior who triumphs over his enemies—the inclusion of the prophets of Asherah in 1 Kings 18:19 implies Yahweh is also the true God of what is attributed to the goddess—abundance and fecundity. In fact, the provision of flour and oil (abundance of food) for the widow of Zarephath and resurrection of her son (fecundity, childbearing) in the preceding passages portray Yahweh’s supremacy over Asherah just as starkly as the fire from heaven displays his triumph over Baal.
On the level of pagan family religion, the prophets regularly harangue Israel and Judah for their use of idols. Isaiah 44 records a lengthy mocking description of crafting an idol.17 The one who crafts an idol for ritual use builds a fire to cook with and warm himself with wood from the same tree he crafted the idol. How can the same wood which services the man by being burned also demand human service by being carved into a god? Oswalt notes that וְהָיָ֤ה לְאָדָם֙ לְבָעֵ֔ר (“it shall be for people to burn”) in Isa 44:15 denotes the idea of possession; God gave humanity the resources out of which they craft idols as a blessing to meet their needs but instead they enslave themselves to these blessings as they try to meet the idol’s needs.18 Thus highlights the great irony of idolatrous religion. In humanity’s attempt to bend the world and the divine power to their own will through talismans, vows, and magic, they end up subjecting themselves to masters of their own creation which have no power to serve them, much less save them.
The Asherah idols Israel was so prone to carve could not provide abundance or fecundity. However, Yahweh could. Just before this diatribe against idolatry Isaiah records Yahweh identify himself as the one who formed Israel “from the womb” (44:2) and say to his people “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams” (44:3-4). Yahweh was a God unlike the gods of the other nations in that he truly could (and did) provide for his people, and so it would make sense that Yahweh would expect a different kind of religion than that of the other nations’ paganism. He would not be persuaded by oaths or manipulated by sacrifices, but he could be moved by compassion. Yahweh was after repentance and devotion—a lively faith for the living God.
1 N. Wyatt, “Asherah,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst (Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999), 99.
2 Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2016), 264.
3 Matthews and Benjamin, Parallels, 260-267.
4 Mark Smith, and Wayne Pitard. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle : Volume II. Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU/CAT 1.3-1.4. (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 47.
5 Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 180.
6 Wyatt, “Asherah,” 99.
7 Sung Jin Park, “The Cultic Identity of Asherah in Deuteronomic Ideology of Israel.” Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 123 (2011): 554.
8 Park, “Cultic Identity,” 564.
9 Park, “Cultic Identity,” 563.
10 William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? Archeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 177.
11 Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 187.
12 Scott B. Noegel, “The Women of Asherah: Weaving Wickedness in 2 Kings 23:7.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 83, no. 2 (April 2021): 208–19. https://search-ebscohost-com.rts.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLAiFZU210412000438&site=ehost-live.
13 John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: 2006), 135.
14 Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 195.
15 Park, “Cultic Identity,” 555.
16 Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 180.
17 Though no variation of the term “Asherah” appears in Isaiah 44:9-20, the prophet uses the term פֶסֶל, which an Asherah (ritual object) is an example of. What is true of the פֶסֶל in Isa 44 would be true of the Asherim described elsewhere.
18 John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah 40-66, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 182.
Benjamin, Don C. And Victor H. Matthews. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. Fourth edition. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2016.
Dever, William G. Did God Have a Wife? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
Merrill, Eugene H. Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
Noegel, Scott B. “The Women of Asherah: Weaving Wickedness in 2 Kings 23:7.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 83, no. 2 (April 2021): 208–19. https://search-ebscohost-com.rts.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLAiFZU210412000438&site=ehost-live.
Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
Park, Sung Jin. “The Cultic Identity of Asherah in Deuteronomic Ideology of Israel.” Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 123, no. 4 (2011): 553–64. doi:10.1515/ZAW.2011.036.
Pitard, Wayne and Mark Smith. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle : Volume II. Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU/CAT 1.3-1.4. Leiden: Brill, 2009. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=308508&site=ehost-live.
Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.
Wyatt, N. “Asherah,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst. Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999.