What Is an Asherah? by Ellen White

Asherah is an ancient Near Eastern mother goddess. In Ugaritic, Akkadian, and similar texts, she is a powerful, important goddess, the mother of the seventy great gods and the consort of El, the chief god. Asherah’s name also appears in the Hebrew Bible. Yet, it is not always clear that the biblical authors are referring to the goddess when they use the word “asherah.”

Who (or what) is Asherah in the Hebrew Bible?

The term asherah appears forty times in the Hebrew Bible, but only eight of these instances occur in the singular form. Most occurrences appear with the definite article (“the” asherah) or a possessive suffix (“his” or “their” asherah). Since Hebrew does not capitalize proper names the way English does, it can be difficult to know when a proper name is being used. Yet, in Hebrew, it is unusual for a proper name to be accompanied with “the” or a possessive pronoun (for example, I am not “the Ellen” nor would my husband call me “his Ellen”). This suggests that the majority of the references to the term asherah in the Hebrew Bible are related to the goddess but may not address her directly. One might infer that the reference is to an object when a definite article or possessive suffix is used, but without either, it is ambiguous. The term could refer to an indefinite object (one asherah among many) or be the proper name of the ancient Near Eastern goddess.

Why do most passages in the Hebrew Bible seem to refer to an object rather than a deity?

In the ancient Near East it was common for deities to be represented by objects (i.e., a cult symbol). These objects were a physical manifestation of the deity and enabled the people to worship the deity in effigy. Asherah’s cult symbol was a living tree or a consecrated wooden pole.

The vast majority of references to Asherah in the Hebrew Bible are found in the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), and one of the most important themes in these books is the rejection of other gods. One way the author(s) of the Deuteronomistic History could demean Asherah is by referring to her cult symbol rather than her name, thereby transforming her from a goddess to an object that could be discarded.

In the Deuteronomistic History, kings were often evaluated by how they responded to Asherah worship, which was apparently widespread among the Israelites. Evil kings, such as Jeroboam and Rehoboam, fostered Asherah worship (1Kgs 14:15, 1Kgs 14:23), and Ahab and Jezebel officially endorsed and promoted her cult (1Kgs 18:19). Yet, good kings, such as Asa, Josiah, Jehoshaphat, and Hezekiah (also Gideon the judge) attempted to eradicate Asherah worship (e.g., Judg 6:25-30, 1Kgs 15:13, 2Kgs 21:7). Despite these efforts, Israelites remained devoted to Asherah (Isa 27:9, Jer 17:1, Mic 5:14), which indicates that the beliefs expressed in the Deuteronomistic History are not the ones that governed popular practice.

Why was Asherah worship so ingrained in Israelite religion?

The answer is not simple or clear but is likely twofold. First, Asherah was connected with fertility, childbirth, and motherhood. These states were highly valued but dangerous and often elusive in ancient Israel. Therefore, people may have been scared not to worship her (basically seeing her cult as a form of insurance). Second, there is some evidence from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom (archaeological sites) that suggest Asherah was the wife of Yahweh, who may have assimilated the persona of El. Since Asherah was associated with El, she became associated with Yahweh. Yet, these inscriptions refer to “Yahweh and his Asherah.” The possessive suffix again causes an interpretive problem: is this Yahweh and his goddess wife or Yahweh and his cult object? The idea that Asherah was Yahweh’s wife is tenuous, but it is the best explanation of the evidence so far. Therefore, if Asherah was indeed considered to be Yahweh’s wife, then she would have occupied an important place in the Israelite cult.

Ellen White, "What Is an Asherah?", n.p. [cited 24 Oct 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/what-is-an-asherah

Contributors

white-ellen

Ellen White
Editor

Ellen White, PhD (Hebrew Bible, University of St. Michael’s College), formerly the senior editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society, has taught at five universities across the United States and Canada and has spent research leaves in Germany and Romania. Her publications include Yahweh’s Council (Mohr Siebeck, 2014) and Layer by Layer: A Primer on Biblical Archaeology (Anselm Academic, 2019). She has also been actively involved in digs at various sites in Israel.

Canaanite mother goddess

The Mesopotamian language, written on cuneiform, that was used by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.

Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.

Related to the religious beliefs connected to Deuteronomy, which emphasized monotheism, the Jerusalem temple, observance of the Law, and the destruction of idolatry.

The history of ancient Israel contained in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, which shows the influence of Deuteronomy's theology.

a model of a person or deity

ability to bear offspring

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Visible or tangible form of something ethereal, abstract, or invisible.

related to the city of Ugarit

1Kgs 14:15

15“The Lord will strike Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water; he will root up Israel out of this good land that he gave to their ancestors, and scatter them ... View more

1Kgs 14:23

23For they also built for themselves high places, pillars, and sacred poles on every high hill and under every green tree;

1Kgs 18:19

19Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat ... View more

Judg 6:25-30

25 That night the Lord said to him, “Take your father’s bull, the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that belongs to your father, and ... View more

1Kgs 15:13

13He also removed his mother Maacah from being queen mother, because she had made an abominable image for Asherah; Asa cut down her image and burned it at the W ... View more

2Kgs 21:7

7 The carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the Lord said to David and to his son Solomon, “In this house, and in Jerusalem, whi ... View more

Isa 27:9

9 Therefore by this the guilt of Jacob will be expiated,
    and this will be the full fruit of the removal of his sin:
when he makes all the stones of the alta ... View more

Jer 17:1

Judah's Sin and Punishment
1The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts, and on the horns of ... View more

Mic 5:14

and I will uproot your sacred poles from among you
    and destroy your towns.

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