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Official Religion and Popular Religion in Pre-Exilic Ancient Israel

Presented at the twenty-third annual
Rabbi Louis Feinberg Memorial Lecture in Jewish Studies, Department of Judaic Studies,
University of Cincinnati, May 11, 2000
(Continued from page 4)

Archaeology, Yahweh and Asherah

    Now that we have some theoretical grounding, we are ready to return to the question of religiosity in ancient Israel. Kaufmann’s sporadic references to “popular religion” lead one to infer that what he had in mind was the religion of the demographic majority, the religion of the masses (1972:122, 123, 132, 146, 223). As for “official religion,” Kaufmann was only a bit more forthcoming. In one instance he labels it “the dominant national religion” (1951:193). As such, he seems to vaguely acknowledge the relation between official religion and power, which we discussed above.

    Kaufmann’s method for learning about the beliefs and policies of this dominant national religion is also of interest. He assumed—but never bothered to prove—that the Hebrew Bible preserves the opinions of ancient Israel’s official religion. Accordingly, to learn about dominant pre-exilic religious beliefs he simply consulted the Book of Jeremiah, Samuel or Exodus and took its words to reflect the prerogatives of those in positions of power.10 It is this equation between text and power that I shall interrogate momentarily.

    Regrettably, Kaufmann did not live to see the major archaeological discoveries of the past few decades. These, as we are about to see, render his understanding of both popular and official religion, and a host of other things, very problematic.

    Perhaps the most widely discussed and controversial find in the history of Israelite archaeology is the Kuntillet Ajrud inscription. The tel where it was discovered was excavated in three seasons between October 1975 and May 1976 by the Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Meshel (1976:120). In its time, as it is today, this site was an awesomely remote place (Meshel and Meyers 1976:8-9). Kuntillet Ajrud is located roughly 50 miles south of Kadesh-Barnea in the northern Sinai and 55 miles northwest of Eilat. The site most likely functioned as “a desert way-station” (Meshel 1979:24; Weinfeld 1980:283), “caravan stop” (Beck 1982:61) or some other overnight destination for desert travelers. It is assumed that the site was operative somewhere between the 9th-7th centuries BCE and this means that it was active during the time of the Divided Monarchies of Judah and Israel (ca. 930-722 B.C.E.). It is precisely this period that is often thought to be the setting for a good deal of what we find in the Dtr. source and some of the literary prophets.11

    Among the many objects discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud were two large, albeit splintered, pithoi or storage jars. Once restored it was clear that each pithos contained drawings in red and black ink accompanied by religious inscriptions written in Hebrew. One of these jars features a very peculiar scene, which will be discussed below. As for the Hebrew inscriptions themselves, scholars have translated them with reasonable consistency. It is the interpretations of these translations that have ignited controversy. Pithos A seems to be a dedicatory inscription and reads, in part: 

I bless you by Yahweh, our guardian, and by his Asherah (Naveh 1979: 28; and see Dever 1984: 21) 

    This is Joseph Naveh’s translation. William Dever originally rendered it somewhat differently as:

I bless you by Yahweh Shomron and by his Asherah (Dever 1982: 37; also see Day 1986:391; Hadley 2000:121) 

    The difference between Naveh and Dever hinges on the translation of the form Shomron (See Day 1986:391). For some, like Dever, it connotes the Hebrew toponym Shomron (i.e., “Samaria”; also see Gilula 1979:130). Others see the triliteral šmr, (connoting the act of keeping, watching or preserving; BDB) as a verbal noun with a possessive suffix; thus, “Yahweh our guardian.” More important is the fact that both scholars agree on the translation “by his [Yahweh’s] Asherah.”

    A second pithos at Kuntillet Ajrud reveals a nearly identical formulation. The relevant lines read:

Amaryau says: Say to my lord X: I bless you by Yahweh [our guardian],12 and by his Asherah (Naveh 1979: 28; also see Meshel; 1979:31 Chase 1982; Dever 1984:21)

    Epigraphical difficulties aside, it is widely accepted that we again encounter the beguiling reference to Yahweh and his Asherah. Without entering into the numerous philological debates surrounding the inscription, it may be said with impunity that the formula is remarkable. For as we are about to see, there just happens to be a well-known ancient Near Eastern goddess who goes by this very name.

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