April 15, 2005



Avi Yan



1.0) Introduction

The Book of Kings is an exiting and intellectually stimulating piece of biblical literature. It paints a portrait of the rich palace intrigues and theological conflicts that transpired across the ancient Near East. It has been generally accepted that the Book of Kings is part of the deuteronomistic collection. In other words, the book was redacted by a person or group of people based on, according to J. Gray, three governing theological principles. In order to analytically interpret the Book of Kings, it is important to understand these three principles. The first principle states that loyalty to YHWH is based on one’s strict adherence to the cultic rituals listed in the Book of Deuteronomy. This includes centralization of ritual practice in the Temple in Jerusalem. The second principle states that fulfillment of the word of YHWH occurs through prophecy. The third principle states that if one does not adhere to the cultic rituals listed in the Book of Deuteronomy and/or worships outside of the Temple in Jerusalem, then YHWH will inflict divine retribution.           

The deuteronomist gives longer treatment to events that deal with the aforementioned themes. He lauds the building of the Holy Temple to YHWH through a comprehensive detailing of its construction and inauguration across four chapters. The Elijah and Elisha prophetic narratives are extensively recounted across sixteen chapters. Naturally, the final significant theme of the Book of Kings is disloyalty of the ancient Israelites to YHWH, through the worship of other gods and goddesses.

A superficial reading of the Book of Kings illustrates that worship of the god Baal took place at various places and times in Ancient Israel. It is apparent that the deuteronomist regarded Baal-worship as disloyalty to YHWH of the worst kind, and that several times throughout the monarchy there was an attempt to purge the nation of Baal-worship. However, a more thorough study of the Book of Kings also reveals ancient Israelite veneration of the goddess Asherah, or of the cultic objects known as asherim. While it is obvious that the deuteronomist scorns Asherah worship, it is difficult to decipher the monarchic attitude towards Asherah worship.

This paper explores the many questions that The Book of Kings raises, concerning Asherah. Specifically, this paper addresses five issues that I have deemed crucial to understanding Asherah. Firstly this paper will discuss whether in ancient Israel Asherah was worshipped as a goddess, or merely as a cultic artifact. Next this study will examine physical and textual manifestations of Asherah, based on archaeological and biblical evidence. Thirdly this essay will focus on how and why Asherah was worshipped by ancient Israelites. Fourthly, this paper will discuss deuteronomistic, monarchic, prophetic and priestly views of Asherah worship. Finally this paper will place Asherah into ancient theological perspective by relating Asherah to the rest of the ancient Canaanite pantheon of gods.


2.0) Asherah

2.1) Was Asherah a goddess, or merely a cultic artifact?

            In the Book of Kings, references are made both to Asherah (leAsherah) and to the asherah (haasherah). Scholarly opinions vary on whether during the monarchic period there was a formalized cult that worshipped the goddess Asherah, or if the worship of the asherah icon was a manifestation of Yahwism in popular religion.

            Based on the textual evidence from the Book of Kings, R. Pettey concludes that the asherah as simply an extension of Yahwism is untenable. He cites verse 1 Kings 18:19, extracted from the theological battle that took place on Mount Carmel, as evidence: “Now summon all Israel to me on Mount Carmel as well as the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets (neviim) of Asherah who eat at Jezebel’s table.” Neviim can normally interact with the deities on behalf of other people. Thus, the existence of the 400 prophets of Asherah indicates that Asherah was a goddess and that there was an established and active Asherah cult during the monarchic period.    

            Contrarily, Mark Smith believes that as early as the period of the Judges, the icon of the asherah, like the name and imagery of El, continued in the cult of YHWH, but did not refer to a separate deity. Smith notes that unlike YHWH, Baal and El, Asherah does not appear as a theophoric element in ancient Israelite names. Smith also asserts that scholars must be reminded that the Bible is a book a historiography rather than a book of history. As such, its contents cannot stand alone as facts.

            Archaeological evidence adds another interesting element to this debate. Hebrew texts that date to approximately 800 BCE have been recovered from Kuntillet el-‘Arjud in the south-west of the Negev desert. The three recovered texts are letter-heads, and they have been translated as follows:

1.) Message of my lord the king. Say to Yehalel and to Yoasah. Now, I have blessed you by YHWH of Samaria and by his Asherah (asherata).

2.) Message of Amaryaw, say to my lord: Is all well with you? I have blessed you by YHWH of Teman and by his Asherah.

3.) I have blessed you by YHWH of the Teman and by his Asherah.

            Due to the possessive pronoun, these texts seem to indicate that asherah is an object, rather than a goddess. However, while asherata translates from modern Hebrew as ‘his asherah’, certain scholars assert that when asherata translates from ancient Hebrew, it drops the possessive pronoun, and simply becomes ‘Asherah’. If one accepts the latter definition, then from these texts, one can interpret Asherah as a goddess.


2.2) How is Asherah manifested in the archaeological and textual record?

            In his study of the iconography of Syro-Palestinian goddesses from 1500-1000 BCE, I. Cornelius identifies goddesses as those female images that any of the following apply to: they have wings, they have a crown, they are holding animals or standing on animals, or they are being worshipped. Cornelius adds that Canaanite goddesses were nearly always represented naked. From these criteria, one could expect Asherah to be represented, for example, as a naked, winged female. However, since many goddesses were active in the 1500-1000 BCE time period, it is difficult to differentiate a specific deity from an icon. Furthermore, no iconographic item has come to light with Asherah’s name on it, and the many Qedeshet (cult prostitute) stelae that have been excavated cannot be demonstrated to be representations of Asherah. Thus, Cornelius labels the identity of Asherah as the ‘million dollar question’.           

Asherah is depicted in the Ugaritic texts as a respectable old lady who possessed motherly features. Likely, Asherah was revered in ancient Ugarit as the divine matriarch. Several bronze statuettes, dated to the second millennium BCE, have been excavated from Ugarit. One statuette, that certain scholars have interpreted as representing Asherah, depicts a standing goddess wearing a long robe covering almost her entire body. Another statuette, possibly representing El, portrays an aged, seated god, wearing an equally long robe.

A cult stand excavated from the site of Ta’anach may attest to Israelite veneration of the goddess Asherah in the early monarchy. Dated to the tenth century by its excavators, this square hollow stand has four levels, depicting a number of divine symbols. All four levels have interesting implications for Israelite theology in the early monarchy, but only the first and third levels lend allusions to Asherah-worship. The first level depicts a naked female figure with each of her hands resting on the heads of lions flanking her. As mentioned earlier, many different goddesses were active in this time period, and there is no way of verifying whether this image is a representation of Asherah or of another goddess. The third level has a sacred tree, composed of a heavy central trunk sprouting symmetrically three pairs of curling branches. Two ibexes stand on their hind legs, facing the tree in the center, and on the outside of the two ibexes are two lions. Mark Smith identifies this as the asherah tree, the cultic object associated with the worship of the goddess Asherah. Smith hypothesizes that at this early point in the monarchy, Israelite theology was undergoing a transition between the veneration of the goddess Asherah and the veneration of the asherah cultic object.

            Both the cultic stand excavated at Taanach and the post-exilic Mishnah testify to the representation of the asherah cultic object as a tree. Avodah Zarah 3:7 details what kinds of asherah worship are forbidden, and classifies an asherah as any tree, living or dead, that is worshipped. Contrary to these sources, various biblical texts indicate that the asherah cultic object was not represented as a tree. In 2 Kings 21:7, Asherah is represented by a graven image rather than by a tree or wooden post: “The sculptured image of Asherah that he made he placed in the House concerning which the Lord had said to David and to his son Solomon…” The wording in 2 Kings 17:10 leads one to believe that the asherah cultic object is something other than a tree: “They (the Israelites) set up pillars and asherim for themselves on every lofty hill and under every leafy tree.” If the term ‘under every leafy tree’ can be considered to be other than deuteronomistic rhetoric, one would not imagine that a sacred tree would be set up underneath another tree.


2.3) How and why was Asherah worshipped?          

            Based on the Book of Kings, it is apparent that asherah-worship was widespread across Ancient Israel and Judah, and was practiced by various social strata, including monarchs, priests and peasants. There is textual evidence of asherah-worship inside and outside the royal cult of Samaria, and even inside and outside the royal cult of Jerusalem. Verse 2 Kings 13:6 describes asherah-worship inside the Samarian royal cult: “However, they did not depart from the sins which the House of Jeroboam had caused Israel to commit; they persisted in them. Even the asherah stood in Samaria.” Verse 2 Kings 17:10 describes asherah-worship outside of the Samarian royal cult: “They (the Israelites) set up pillars and asherim for themselves on every lofty hill and under every leafy tree.” Even the ‘pure’ Judean royal cult was not exempt from asherah-worship, as witnessed in 2 Kings 23:6: “He (King Josiah) brought out the image of Asherah from the House of the Lord to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem, and burned it in the Kidron Valley…” In Jeremiah 17:2, Jeremiah scorns the former worship of asherim by Judeans, outside of the royal cult: “While their children remember their altars and asherim, by verdant trees, upon lofty hills.”

            Since the deuteronomist was not interested in the particulars of Asherah-worship, there is little biblical text detailing how formalized Asherah-worship took place. Nonetheless, from the Book of Kings we can make a few inferences about how formalized Asherah-worship manifested itself. From 2 Kings 23:4 we can infer the extent to which Asherah-worship was entrenched in Temple ritual: “Then the king ordered the high priest Hillkiah, the priests of the second rank and the guards of the threshold to bring out of the Temple of the Lord all the objects (hakelim) made for Baal and Asherah and all the host of heaven.” The presence of cultic objects associated with Asherah-worship in the Temple demonstrates that formalized temple rituals were associated with the veneration of the goddess Asherah.

            One of these formalized temple rituals is illustrated in 2 Kings 23:7: “He (King Josiah) tore down the apartments of the male prostitutes which were in the House of the Lord, and in which women wove garments for Asherah.” Smith postulates that garments were traditionally hung on the asherah cult objects, bearing similarity to the clothes hung on cult statues in Mesopotamia and Ugarit. Pettey postulates an alternative and admittedly more interesting explanation. He argues that weaving may be a euphemism for sexual intercourse. If so, then the women were having sexual intercourse with the male prostitutes, all in the name of Asherah.  

            In Ancient Ugarit, Asherah was revered as the mother of many minor deities and as the mother of seventy sons. Thus in Ugarit she was perceived as a caring wet-nurse to gods and men, and she represented fertility. It is likely that Asherah also represented fertility to the Ancient Israelites, demonstrated by the blossoming asherah tree or by the possible sexual cult practices that transpired in the Temple.

            Based on Hosea 4:12, Smith posits that the Israelites may have used the asherah as a tool to communicate with the deities: “My people: It consults its stick, its rod directs it! A lecherous impulse has made them go wrong, and they have strayed from submission to their God.” Thus, the cultic asherah objects may have been in competition with prophetic inquiry as a source of divine information.

            Although omitted from the biblical texts, a Talmudic passage alludes to the healing power of the asherah. Pesahim 25a mentions that when curing oneself of an illness, it is possible to use any remedy, except the wood of an asherah. That an extra-biblical source published as late as the Talmud is concerned with the cultic powers of the asherah brings one to believe that the cultic features of the asherah were likely more widespread and popular than the biblical sources indicate.


2.4) What were the deuteronomistic, monarchic, priestly and prophetic perspectives of the goddess Asherah and asherah-worship?

            In concurrence with the deuteronomistic theological principles, the deuteronomist decries the Asherah cult as morally aberrant, and demonstrates the divine consequences of asherah-worship. For example, in 2 Kings 17:16, the deuteronomist attributes the destruction of the Northern Kingdom in part to their worship of the cultic asherah object: “They rejected all the commandments of the Lord their God; they made molten idols for themselves, two calves, and they made an asherah and they bowed down to all the host of heaven, and they worshipped Baal.” The deuteronomist scorns asherah-worship as disloyal to YHWH and deserving of divine punishment.

            Contrarily, even the Yahwistic members of the Israelite monarchy do not have such a polarized perspective of Asherah and asherah-worship. For example, in 2 Kings 3:2 when Jehoram is conducting a minor religious reform, he removes the pillars of Baal that his father Ahab had made, but he does not remove the asherah that Ahab had made in 1 Kings 16:33. Similarly, when Jehu embarks on his bloody Yahwist crusade, he slaughters “…all the prophets of Baal, all his worshippers, and all his priests…” (2 Kings 10:19), but he does not harm the prophets, worshippers or priests of Asherah. Due to the apathy of these Yahwistic monarchs towards eradicating worship of Asherah, it can be concluded that while Yahwistic monarchs viewed Baal-worship as disloyal to YHWH, they did not perceive Asherah-worship as disloyal to YHWH.

            Likewise, it can be shown that Yahwistic prophets perceived Asherah-worship as inoffensive to YHWH. Although Elijah summoned the 400 prophets of Asherah to Mount Carmel, they did not partake in the competition between Baal and YHWH. Consequently they were not slaughtered alongside the Baalistic prophets and were presumably free to continue in their cultic practices. Pettey suggests that Elijah did not see them as a danger to the cult of YHWH.

            In presenting the ‘discovered’ scroll of the teachings to King Josiah, the priest Hilkiah was aiming to reform the way that YHWH was worshipped. This involved removing the objects made for Asherah from the Temple of the Lord. Thus, it is likely that the priest Hilkiah disapproved of the cult of Asherah and the worship of asherim. It is understandable that a Temple priest in Jerusalem would attempt to abolish asherah-worship. Temple priests could not regulate and tax asherah-worship because it was decentralized, occurring at shrines and high places across the nation.


2.5) How did Asherah fit into the Canaanite pantheon of gods?

            Located on the coast of Syria, the ancient city of Ugarit flourished in the Bronze Age, and was destroyed by an earthquake in the first half of the twelfth century BCE. Archaeologists have recovered numerous mythical texts from Ugarit, and our current understanding of late Bronze Age Syro-Palestinian thought is centred on these texts. These texts, dating from the 14th or 13th century BCE, present the divine couple of Ilu and Athiartu. As Ugaritic is closely related to ancient Hebrew, scholars interpret El and Asherah as the Hebrew equivalents of Ilu and Athiartu. Hence, these Ugaritic texts attest to Asherah as the divine consort of El, whom according to M. Korpel, was the aged head of the Canaanite pantheon.

            Although the Ugaritic texts and artifacts have greatly contributed to our knowledge of ancient perceptions of Asherah, they have shed little light on how the goddess Asherah came to be equated with a holy tree or sacred pole. Korpel presents an interesting theory. In the early part of the first millennium BCE, the erect stones (maevot) on the cult heights across much of Syro-Palestine were interpreted as symbols of Baal, and the trees associated with these stones represented Baal’s wife, Anat. However, since in Israel not Baal, but El, remained the supreme god, these trees represented Asherah, the wife of El.



3.0) Summary and Conclusion

            Scholars are divided over whether Asherah was revered as a goddess, or merely as a cultic object. Pettey concludes, according to textual evidence from the Book of Kings, that it is untenable that asherah was simply a cultic object. Smith refutes this thesis, saying that one cannot use the Bible as a book of history and that the lack of ancient Israelite names with theophoric elements of Asherah points to the conclusion that Asherah was not worshipped as a goddess in ancient Israel. The translation of ancient Hebrew letter-heads excavated from Kuntillet el-‘Arjud is ambiguous, failing to clarify whether Asherah was revered by the Israelites as a goddess or merely as a cultic object.

            Cornelius clearly states that since no iconographic item has come to light with Asherah’s name on it, it is impossible to specify that excavated female figurines are representations of Asherah. Nonetheless, certain scholars venture that a bronze statuette unearthed at Ugarit symbolizes Asherah. A cult stand dated to the 10th century BCE depicts both the figure of a female goddesses and the image of a sacred tree. Smith theorizes that at this early point in the monarchy, ancient Israel was in transition from worshipping the goddess Asherah to worshipping the asherah cultic object.

            According to biblical references, asherah-worship was widespread across ancient Israel, and occurred both inside and outside of the royal cults of Samaria and Judah. One can even infer that veneration of the goddess Asherah was ritually formalized in the Temple in Jerusalem. Asherah likely represented fertility in ancient Israel, as the goddess did in ancient Ugarit. Prophetic sources indicate that the asherah cult object may have been used as a tool for divine communication, and a Talmudic passage alludes to the healing powers of the wood of an asherah.

            In the Book of Kings, the deuteronomist decries the Asherah cult as morally aberrant and worthy of divine punishment. However, pro-Yahwist kings and prophets are generally apathetic towards asherah-worship, and do little to discourage the Asherah cult. Hillkiah the Temple priest influences King Josiah to remove asherah-worship from the land, in order to further centralize worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.

            In ancient Canaan there existed a pantheon of gods. The gods were structured in a hierarchy and they were interrelated. According to the Ugaritic texts, Asherah was the wife of the creator god El. Asherah was also the mother of seventy sons, who were both gods and men. In ancient Ugarit, Asherah was likely revered as a divine matriarch.

            References to Asherah in the Book of Kings are vague and confusing. Archaeological artifacts help us understand how the ancients perceived Asherah, and extra-biblical texts verify the existence of Asherah, but these sources still shed little light on the extent and practices of the Asherah cult during monarchic times.

            It is my personal opinion that in pre-monarchic times the ancient Israelites worshipped several gods from the Canaanite pantheon of gods. As time progressed and the Israelites advanced towards monolatry, it was necessary to abolish the worship of Asherah as a unique deity. However, the asherah cultic object continued to be worshipped in folk religion as the manifestation of Asherah’s features, such as fertility, that had been attributed to YHWH. It is understandable that the Israelites would be reluctant to completely eradicate their connection to Asherah, the caring and motherly deity whose cult and imagery had been established in their land for centuries.