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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 5)

    It could be argued, of course, that the Kuntillet Ajrud texts are anomalous. Perhaps this mention of Yahweh and his Asherah is a curio–some strange belief, held by some strange people, in some strange place, way out in the middle of nowhere. Yet the discovery of a similar ancient Israelite inscription renders this hypothesis most unlikely. In September of 1967 William Dever, then working on behalf of Hebrew-Union College, purchased a series of artifacts and one inscription from an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem (Dever 1970: 139; Lemaire 1977: 595; Lemaire 1984:42).

    Realizing their importance, Dever immediately tracked down the site from where they originated–or, more accurately, from where they had been recently plundered by grave robbers–and conducted a salvage excavation. The site was located 81/2 miles west of Hebron in the Arab village of Khirbet el-Qôm (Dever 1970:140; it has since been identified with Makkedah, mentioned in the Hebrew Bible; Hadley 1987: 50).

    One of the inscriptions that Dever found on the base wall of a tomb dates to between 750-700 BCE (see Dever 1970:165; Lemaire 1977:603; Lemaire 1984: 44). The French epigraphist André Lemaire translates a part of it as follows: Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh and by his asherah; from his enemies he saved him! (Lemaire 1984: 44; and see Lemaire 1977: 599; Dever 1999:10) 

    Ziony Zevit of the University of Judaism reads the same section as: May Uriyahu be blessed by Yahweh my guardian and by his Asherah. Save him.(1984: 39) 

William Dever rendered the inscription as follows: Blessed be Uriyahu to Yahweh, and from his enemies save him by his a/Asherah (1999:10; contra Dever 1970:159)13

    And Judith Hadley, in her comprehensive recent study The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess, translates: Blessed by Uriyahu by Yahweh for from his enemies by his (YHWH’s) asherah he (YHWH) has saved him (Hadley 2000:86) 

    To this point we have seen that two roughly contemporaneous inscriptions from two different ancient Israelite sites make the same, and heretofore unimaginable, claim. As Lemaire phrased it in 1984: “[We] must start with the fact that Yahweh had an asherah” (1984:44). This led him to pose the question: “Who or what was Yahweh’s Asherah?” And it is here where things begin to heat up.

    In the Hebrew Bible we find 40 references to Asherah. Most of these emanate from the Dtr. source, and let it be noted that none of these appear to be of the very positive variety. In her study Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel and the Old Testament, Tilde Binger noted that there is warrant for seeing an Asherah as, variously, “a wooden-aniconic-stela or column of some kind; a living tree; or a more regular statue”(1997:141). Johannes de Moor notes that in many instances it seems to refer to some sort of inanimate, albeit illicit, wooden object (1974:442). Deuteronomy 16: 21, for example, reads: You shall not set up a sacred post (i.e., Asherah) any kind of pole beside the altar of the Lord your God that you may make. (Also see 1 K 16:33;2K 21:7; 2 K23:6) 

    In this verse an Asherah seems to be a type of wood pole placed near an altar. This might explain why Asheroth in the Hebrew Bible are often cut down. In Judges 6:25, for example, Gideon is instructed to pull down, or destroy, the Asherah (also see Exod. 34:13; Deut. 7:5;2 K 18:4; Mic. 5:13).

    On the other hand, we also know of a goddess Athirat (See Hadley 2000:38-53; Day 1986: 387) who is the consort of the God El in the Ugaritic sources. (I Keret 197-199; ANET 145). In 1 Kings 18:19 of the Hebrew Bible we hear of the “400 prophets of Asherah,” suggesting that Asherah here is a deity, not a wood pole (also see 1K 15:13; 2 K 23:4 also see Binger 1997: 114).14 In light of these contradictory verses Ze’ev Meshel, the original excavator of Kuntillet Ajrud, titled his 1979 article in Biblical Archaeology Review “Did Yahweh have a Consort,” and thus set off a spirited and still unresolved debate.

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