Good Question: What would an inscription about a consort of Yahweh really prove?
Date: May 19, 2002
This question came in:
"I don't know if you have ever came across this question but I know it is not on your site. It has to do with a few articles I have been looking at on the internet and in various books. I think the name of the author of one of the books is Morton Smith( Maybe) I know that is the right last name. Ok on to the question: archaeologists have found two inscriptions in the area around Jerusalem (again I am not positive) and they both say that Yahweh had a consort or Goddess Asherah (spelling?) they then deduce from this that ancient Israel started out as a Polytheistic nation that latter "evolved" in to a Monothiestic Religion. I am really confused over this, it really under mines Judaism and Christianity. I still believe Jesus Rose but how do I reconcile what the critics are saying with the Bible."
First let's get a quick overview of the data, make some observations/comments about its interpretation, and then ask the questions of implications thereof…
1. The data.
There are at least three such inscriptions that I personally know of: two at Kuntillet Arjud (outside of Judea) and one at Khirbet el-Qom (near Hebron).
Those at Kuntillet Arjud are closely linked to the Northern Kingdom of Israel (e.g. Yahweh is called the "Yahweh of Samaria"):
"Yahweh of Teman and his asherah"
"Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah"
"The unusual finds (especially the inscriptions and pictures) testify to the uniqueness of the site. The subject matter of the inscriptions, the references to various deities, and the presence of dedicated vessels all suggest that Kuntillet was a religious center; however, the lack of things usually associated with ritual sacrifice (e.g., altars) and the architectural layout of the site indicate that the remains are not those of a temple. It appears that the site may have served as a “wayside shrine” that, due to its location, was associated with journeys of the Israelite kings to Elat and to Ezion-geber, and perhaps also with the travels of pilgrims to S Sinai. These were able to journey S along the Darb el-Ghazza from Kadesh-barnea, stopping at the place to make dedications to Israel’s god in the bench room of the main building…The strong N (Israelite, not Judean) influence in the remains seems to connect Kuntillet with the N kingdom of Israel or with one of the Judean kings closely aligned with the N kingdom of Israel. This N influence is evident in the reference to “Yahweh of Samaria,” in the Phoenician-style writing, in the cosmopolitan style and motifs of the decorative and pictorial artwork, in the pottery types, and in the onomastic conventions (names ending in -yau, and not -yahu). The site, occupied for only a few years, was likely inhabited by a small group of priests dispatched from the N kingdom of Israel with an officer at their head. They were sustained by the various sacrifices and tithes that were sent as provisions primarily from Judah; in return, they rendered their cultic services to travelers. [ABD, s.v. "KUNTILLET AJRUD"]
The inscription at Khirbet el-Qom reads thus [ABD, s.v "Asherah"]:
Uriyahu the rich wrote it.
Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh.
For from his enemies by his Asherah he has saved him.
2. The interpretation of the data.
This is highly controversial (but will end up being irrelevant to our 'implications thereof' comments) and still in wide dispute. Some things seem relatively clear:
1. The references are not direct references to the goddess Asherah, but to a cult object related to her and called by the same name:
"Syro-Palestinian Inscriptions. At Kuntillet >Ajrud, in NE Sinai, inscriptions have been found referring to ‘Yahweh and his Asherah.’ One pithos contains the inscription brkt. <tkm. lyhwh. sûmrn. wl<sûrth, “I have blessed you by Yahweh šmrn and his Asherah.” The word šmrn could be rendered “our guardian,” but the translation “of Samaria” is more likely (cf. lyhwh tmn wl<sûrth “by Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah,” which also appears at Kuntillet >Ajrud). Scholars disagree as to the meaning of “his Asherah,” whether it refers to the goddess Asherah, her cult symbol, or a word meaning cella or chapel. It seems most likely to mean the cult-symbol, a wooden pole or suchlike, related to the goddess Asherah. Indirectly, therefore, the allusions probably do imply that Asherah was Yahweh’s consort. That it is the goddess Asherah herself who is denoted by ‘his Asherah’ is syntactically inappropriate, since personal names are not found with a pronominal suffix in biblical Heb. The meaning ‘cella’ or ‘chapel’ may also be excluded, since this is not attested elsewhere in Heb, unlike some other Semitic languages." [ABD, s.v. "asherah"]
2. The grammar of these inscriptions force asherah to be an object and not a proper name. Freedman (who actually disagrees and wants the anomaly to stand!) gives the basic rule:
"The technical question here is this: Can a proper noun be determined? According to the authorities on biblical grammar and the formalities of Biblical Hebrew, the answer is no. The initial “A” in the word cannot be capitalized, and the word must therefore be a common noun. In other words, asherah can’t be Asherah. It has to be something else. There are several candidates: One is a wooden pole; another is a sacred grove; and a third is a holy place at which you can invoke the deity, or pronounce a blessing. " ["Yahweh of Samaria and His Asherah", by David Noel Freedman, Biblical Archaeologist (vol 50).]
3. However, many writers assume this indirect reference to be 'as good as' a direct reference (why, they never say…), and hence ascribe 'consort-status' to Asherah. (cf. the ABD quote above). But it should be noted that there is still quite a leap from 'yahweh and his asherah' to 'yahweh and his CONSORT asherah':
"Indeed, as Olyan and many other scholars agree, the blessing by Yahweh Shomron or Yahweh Teman “and his asherah” must mean the cult symbol rather than the goddess Asherah because in Hebrew proper names do not take pronomial suffixes. Nevertheless the cult symbol represents the goddess, and I cannot rule out what Olyan affirms: that her cult symbol may have been associated with some early forms of Yahwism, whether popular or official. The key question is whether or not Asherah could be thought of as Yahweh’s consort." [Biblical Archaeologist: Volume 53, (Durham, NC: American Schools of Oriental Research) 1996.; book review of Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel, by Saul M. Olyan, reviewed by M. Pierce Matheney]
4. Tigay has pointed out that the dual-reference to Yahweh and a cult object might have NO implications as to polytheism:
"In studying the inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud, Ze'ev Meshel and others have held that in the blessings "by YHWH of Samaria/Teman and His/its asherah," the term asherah refers to the cultic object of that name and not to the goddess Asherah. The plausibility of this interpretation, I believe, is enhanced by a practice of late Second Temple times in which YHWH and a personified cult object are addressed in the same breath. According to Tanaaitic sources, the alter [sic] was addressed on the seventh day of Sukkoth: "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)…Rabbi Eliezer b. Jacob's version of the address apparently raised eyebrows in Talmudic times much as the Kuntillet Ajrud blessings have in modern times. The Babylonian Talmud asks whether it doesn't violate the prohibition on "joining the name of the Lord with something else" -- that is, treating something else as divine alongside the Lord -- thus violating the rabbinic understanding of Exod. 22:19b ("save for the Lord alone"). It answers that the meaning is simply "To Yah we give thanks and to you, O Altar, we give praise!" (b. Suk. 45b)...Whether or not the Talmudic explanation represents exactly what the address meant, the address itself shows that people who were unquestionably monotheistic did not hesitate to address YHWH and a personified cult object in a way which seems to give comparable status to each. This is similar to what is done in the blessings from Kuntillet Ajrud, according to the view that the asherah is a personified cult object and not a goddess. The parallel thus lends plausibility to this view." ["A SECOND TEMPLE PARALLEL TO THE BLESSINGS FROM KUNTILLET AJRUD", by Jeffrey H. Tigay at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jwst/second.htm]
5. For me personally (given I have not studied these carefully), there is a huge uncertainty about these interpretations raised by two aspects of the el-Qom inscription. If we cite the inscription IN FULL, two nuances appear that raise doubts about the 'goddess' for me:
Uriyahu the rich wrote it.
Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh.
For from his enemies by his Asherah he has saved him.
and by his Asherah
(1) this translation from ABD has Yahweh saving Uriyahu from his enemies "BY" the asherah. This is an odd construction for expressing consort-status, and would suggest some type of instrumentality function, of some generic "power" (of asherah). This doesn't seem much like a reference to consort-hood.
(2) the human Oniyahu is said to have done something (?witnessed the document) and this deed was done "and by his asherah"--the human has an 'asherah' which is somehow involved in a task with him. This makes the preceding reference to Yahweh's asherah even more ambiguous. This latter usage might be encouraging for consort-status (Oniyahu's consort?), but less encouraging for identification with the goddess (Oniyahu is probably not peered-up-with the goddess).
But, again, the interpretation of this data is highly complex and highly controversial, but will not impact significantly the next section on implications…
3. The implications of this data.
At first glance, all this data does is confirm the biblical accounts. The Hebrew bible consistently portrays the seemingly ceaseless struggle between the true 'servants of Yahweh' (e.g., Moses and the biblical prophets) and the majority of Israelites--kings, court prophets, Israelite elite, common folk and even large groups of priests--who mixed paganism with true Mosaic religion. The Bible presents monotheism and polytheism as existing side by side in the nation Israel, with God constantly trying (generally unsuccessfully) to call the people away from worthless idols.
The Hebrew bible never hides this inconsistency within Israel from the reader. With this the case in the narrative of the Bible itself, we would fully expect to find inscriptions of a paganized system and syncretistic nature.
"It is in the period of the divided monarchy that the Asherah cult flourished both in Israel and Judah, though its existence before is documented by the command in Ex 34:13, the prohibition of Deut 16:21, and the incident at the threshold of Gideon’s life of service to God, Jud 6:25ff. Rehoboam’s career marks the beginning of this in Judah (I Kgs 14:23). In the north the cult received its greatest momentum from the incentive of Jezebel who was responsible for the presence of “four hundred prophets of Asherah” (I Kgs 18:19). Even a reform-minded king such as Asa (I Kgs 15:13) or later Hezekiah (II Kgs 18:4) was unable to liquidate the movement. It was knocked down, but not knocked out. There was an almost inevitable resurrection even in the wake of reform. Compare son Manasseh’s policy (II Kgs 21:7, even to the point of placing the image in the temple) on the heels of father Hezekiah’s reform (II Kgs 18:4). Apostasy and idolatry just behind revival! What one generation attempts to get rid of a subsequent generation may trot back in, however reprehensible it may be. All too frequently this has been the pattern in the human race. [TWOT, s.v. asherah]
"Asherah poles. One common feature of Canaanite worship and of syncretized Israelite worship on “high places” and in city shrines is the erection of Asherah poles (Judg 3:7; 1 Kings 14:15; 15:13; 2 Kings 13:6). There is some uncertainty about whether these were simply wooden poles erected to symbolize trees, perhaps containing a carved image of the fertility goddess, or part of a sacred grove. The reference in 2 Kings 17:10, which refers to Asherah poles beside “every spreading tree,” seems to indicate that these were poles erected for cultic purposes rather than planted trees. As the consort of El, Asherah was clearly a popular goddess (see 2 Kings 18:19), and her worship is mentioned in Ugaritic texts (1600–1200 b.c.). Her prominent appearance in the biblical narrative indicates that her cult was a major rival to Yahweh worship (see the prohibition in Ex 34:13; Deut 16:21). This explains the number of examples in which Asherah poles are erected and venerated, the strong condemnations of this practice and the depictions of these poles being cut down and burned (Judg 6:25–30; 2 Kings 23:4–7). [BBC, at Deut 12.3]
"We are thus led to the inevitable conclusion that between the foreign pagan practices and the pure monotheism of Yahwism there existed a cult that may be called pagan Yahwism or perhaps more accurately, Yahwistic paganism. Of course in the background was the central monotheistic cult practiced in the Jerusalem Temple by its priests and preached by the Biblical prophets. And some of the kings of Judah--especially Hezekiah and Josiah--made efforts to centralize the monotheistic cult in Jerusalem. But looking at the archaeological evidence, we must conclude that they were less than 100 percent successful. Indeed, until the Babylonian destruction of Judah and the end of the Israelite monarchy in 586 B.C.E., pagan Yahwism was common even in Jerusalem, to say nothing of the rest of Judah." [Ephraim Stern, "Pagan Yahwism: The Folk Religion of Ancient Israel", Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2001, vol 27, no. 3, p.28.]
The nation Israel could have produced such syncretistic records in almost any period of its existence. During the very Exodus, they worshipped a golden calf. When Moses was giving the people the great monotheistic law of the Great God, the people were still sacrificing to goal idols (Lev 17.7). The book of Judges is filled with Israel's idolatry--including with Astoreth (e.g.,2.13, 3.7, 6.25). Idolatry and syncretism was rampant--but, importantly, always condemned in the Scripture:
"Several passages in the historical books indicate that images continued to be made in Israel long after Moses’ time (Jgs. 3:19; 8:27; 17:3–6; 2 K. 21:7). These instances do not mean that idolatry had a legitimacy in early Yahwism. The period of the judges was one of blatant lawlessness, and much that cannot be considered normative for Israelite faith and practice occurred then. Solomon’s lapse into idolatry (1 K. 11:4–8) was clearly denounced (vv 9–13). The syncretistic religion of Manasseh cited in 2 K. 21:7 is depicted by the historian as contrary to the spirit of Israelite faith (vv 6–9). Even the bronze serpent that Moses fashioned in the wilderness (Nu. 21:9) became an object of worship (2 K. 18:4). In his reform Josiah removed both the high place at Topheth (2 K. 23:10) and the “horses … dedicated to the sun” that had been installed in the temple (v 11)…The syncretistic expressions of religion that run like a thread through the early history of Israel were ultimately given legitimacy by Jeroboam I, king of the northern kingdom of Israel. The division of the nation into the northern and southern kingdoms posed a serious theological crisis for the northern kingdom. The geopolitical rift brought to the fore the question of access to the cultic center at Jerusalem. Jeroboam understood that if he was to bring stability to his fledgling kingdom, he could allow nothing that would foster the loyalties to the Davidic dynasty that were so deeply ingrained in the minds of the people (1 K. 12:26f). The temple had been built by Solomon the son of David, and Jerusalem was rich with Davidic traditions. Clearly, a new form of religious expression distinct from any association with David would have to be instituted. This was done in a revival of the cult of the golden calf (1 K. 12:28)…The 8th cent b.c. witnessed a resurgence of Israel and Judah. Economic prosperity, unparalleled in their history except for the golden age of David and Solomon, fostered a growing class of wealthy, influential people whose loyalty to the covenant stipulations of Yahweh was at best questionable. The erosion of the strong core of covenant obligation marked the 8th cent and led to the dissolution of the nation. One of the most obvious violations of the covenant standards was the popular religion of the day, a strange syncretism of Yahwism and the symbols and mind-set of pagan idolatry…The situation in the northern kingdom seems to have been particularly dismal. Rites associated with the fertility cults of Canaan were practiced at a number of shrines in Israel (Hos. 4:11–19; Mic. 1:7) and may even have been widespread…The internal sickness affected the southern kingdom of Judah as well, although probably to a lesser degree. Isaiah presents a picture of Judahite syncretism that is remarkably similar to that of Israel (2:8; 57:4–10)." [ISBE, s.v. "idolatry"]
So, why should we be surprised to find this "documented-by-the-bible" paganism, now documented by archaeology? We shouldn't, obviously…
In other words, the revelation of God (as Mosaic monotheism) existed side-by-side with 'stubborn polytheism' among the Israelites. There was no "gradual progression" from polytheism to monotheism. In fact, the story of the bible from Moses to the Babylonian exile is one of degeneration, not 'evolution'--the nation got 'worse', and developed increasing amounts of idolatry, polytheism, and syncretism. For a theorist to assert the contrary (i.e., the position you mentioned of 'from polytheism to monotheism') requires them to explain away many things, including early prohibitions against these aberrations, such as Ex 34:13 and Deut 16:21:
But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim 14 —for you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God— (Ex 34.13f)
You shall not plant for yourself an Asherah of any kind of tree beside the altar of the Lord your God, which you shall make for yourself. 22 “Neither shall you set up for yourself a sacred pillar which the Lord your God hates. (Deut 16.21f)
The standard way of 'explaining away' such verses is to assert (without even semi-compelling evidence today, btw) that they are 'later polemic insertions' by later scribes, in their (later) battle to unseat polytheism. These late monotheists needed some ammunition against the polytheists (in their view) and hence invented these texts to give the appearance of ancient authority to their position. Such a reconstruction is quite unnecessary--given the biblical portrayal of an 'inconsistent Israelite populace'--and is based on questionable (today) source-criticism theories, and labor under the extra evidence requirements of all 'conspiracy and fraud' theories.
[But note that the polytheistic 'majority' doesn't show up after the Exile. The Exile was specifically designed to purge the nation of Judah of its polytheism, and it went a very long way towards doing that. Monotheism did not 'develop' at that point, but only became the majority belief of the returning Jews. Of course, syncretistic elements can still be found during this and later periods (cf. Hengel's documentation of "Hellenism" and studies by others on Jewish magic), but they are much more 'subdued', less vocal, and less pervasive. The pre-Exilic polytheistic/syncretistic majority became a post-Exilic minority after the Exile.]
So, even if the folks of Kuntillet Arjud believed Yahweh had a pagan goddess as a consort (and for that matter, in that same issue of BAR, Uzi Avner argues they that also drew a picture of Yahweh (!!!) and Asherah, with Yahweh portrayed with male genitals!)--quite an unbiblical pair of concepts--this would tell us very, very little that we didn't already know from the bible. But whatever historical positions it implies, that Israelite polytheism 'evolved' into monotheism is not one of them…
I hope this helps, friend…
May 20, 2002