“I have blessed you by YHVH of Samaria and His Asherah”
-Inscription on a 2800 year-old pottery fragment discovered in the Sinai desert
While doing research for the Greatest Commandments Project, examining commandment #52, “No Asherah tree shines near the altar of the Lord”, I came across some liberal scholars and archaeologists who suggest, in light of recent archaeological digs, that the God of Israel was often worshiped alongside Asherah, a Semitic mother goddess popular among the Hittites, Amorites, and mentioned in numerous Ugaritic religious texts. She may have also been worshipped in later Egypt as the goddess Qudshu.
She is addressed perhaps more than any other false deity in the Bible – with numerous hostile references to her in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Judges, Kings, Isaiah, and Micah. Jeremiah also references this goddess by title.
But what makes this idol unique is its connectedness to Yahweh worship. There have been numerous archaeological finds which suggest worship of her and Yahweh together was a common practice in ancient Israel, with Asherah being worshipped Yahweh’s consort.
Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh and by his Asherah; from his enemies he saved him!
-Ancient Israelite inscription found near Hebron
Don’t worship Asherah. Maybe.
Before we delve any further, look carefully at a Torah commandment that deals with Asherah idolatry in a negative light:
Do not set up any wooden Asherah groves beside the altar you build to the LORD your God, and do not erect a sacred stone, for these the LORD your God hates.
Now, the wording here is very important, as you’ll see in a minute. While, at face value, this suggests that the God of Israel hates Asherah idolatry, some Jewish religious texts have interpreted these words to mean something very different!
Asherah in the Zohar
The Zohar, the Jewish mystical book responsible for Judaism’s Kabbalah, contains statements regarding the Asherah idolatry that looks at Asherah not as a separate deity, but part of God’s very presence.
"It says in Deuteronomy, '"You shall not plant for yourselves an asherah or any kind of tree beside the altar of the Lord thy God which (asher) you shall make for yourselves." Are we to suppose that anywhere else it is permitted [to plant an Asherah]? [Of course not!] The truth is that the Heh [the letter of God's name that represents the feminine Divine] is called Asherah, after the name of its spouse, Asher, and the meaning of the verse is therefore: "You shall not plant another Asherah by the side of the altar which is established upon this [Asherah]." Observe that throughout the Scriptures the worshippers of the sun are called servants of Baal and the worshippers of the moon servants of Asherah; hence the combination "to Baal and Asherah." If this is so (that Asherah is the name of the feminine aspect of God), why is it not used as a sacred name? The reason is that this name brings to mind the words of Leah, "happy am I, for the daughters will call me happy (ishruni)," but this one is not "called happy" by other nations, and another nation is set up in its place. It is written, "all that honored her despise her" (Lam. 1:8). But the real altar is one that is made of earth, as it is written, "An altar of earth you shall make for me." That is why it says in Genesis, "dust from the earth."
-Zohar I, 49a, emphasis mine
Carefully note what’s going on here:
The author of this Zohar passage asserts a radical position using Hebrew word plays: in Hebrew, the word ‘asher’ is used for the word ‘which’. But, as the Zohar amplifies each word, reading meaning into otherwise mundane words, it takes ‘asher’ to be a divine name for the masculine aspect of God, then looks at the Asherah word to mean the divine aspect. If one reads it this way, the commandment becomes,
You shall not plant for yourselves an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord thy God Asher you shall make for yourselves.
-Zohar interpretation of Deuteronomy 16:21
Since Asherah, they say, is a name for the female divine presence, the commandment merely prohibits Asherah shrines next to God’s altar, as it would be redundant.
Liberal theologians and scholars suggest that Yahweh was worshipped in ancient Israel alongside his female companion Asherah, at least until the Deuteronomist and hardline Monotheists cursed Asherah out of the Bible.
Mystical Jewish sources suggest Asherah is simply the female aspect of God, and is not a separate deity.
My take is, isn’t it possible to take the plain meaning of the text? That Asherah was indeed a goddess worshiped in the Canaanite region, that Israel picked up idolatrous practices from her neighbors, and that God had to offer explicit commandments against this idol?
I find the liberal explanation, using the worst possible intentions of biblical figures, to be predictable. The evidence supports the idea that idol worship was rampant – something supported by conservative and liberal theologians alike, as well something the biblical texts witness to.
The mystical explanation as offered in the Zohar is rather Scripturally acrobatic. I mean, the whole premise lies on the idea that an ordinary Hebrew word in the commandment is really a Divine Name for God. Where’s the evidence that? It’s Scriptural acrobatics.
What say you, fine blog reader? Did God have a wife?