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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 6)

    Lemaire rejected the notion that Asherah in the Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions is a goddess/consort (1984:46 also see Day 1986:392). For him this Asherah is a wooden object (1984: 46), or a sacred tree, or group of trees in a grove (1984:50: North 1989: 137). Lemaire writes: “Il s’agit donc probablement d’un objet et non d’une divinité quelconque ‘Asherah’” (1977:607). Ruth Hestrin also sees the Asherah as “an object or cult symbol” though unlike Lemaire she explicitly connects it with the Goddess (Hestrin 1991:57; Hestrin 1987: 221, 223).15 J.A. Emerton shares this assessment, but still sees the pole as representative of the goddess (1982:18). To Emerton, this proves that Asherah’s cult objects were “associated with some forms of the cult of Yahweh”(1982:18). In conclusion to a detailed study, John Day writes: “Asherah was the name both of an important Canaanite Goddess and of the wooden cult object that symbolized her” (1986:408).

    William Dever has taken a more forceful position. In a recent article in the journal Eretz-Israel he avers: “I would insist that the ‘asherah’ as a tree-like object–a ‘mere symbol’-would have been meaningless unless it mediated to those in the ancient cult the existence, presence and power of an actual deity, the old Canaanite Mother Goddess Asherah” (1999:11). Similarly Binger writes: “the cultic representation . . .was identical to the goddess in the minds of her worshipers.” (1997:141) For Dever, the inscriptions prove that “in Israel Yahweh could be closely identified with the cult of Asherah, and in some circles the goddess was actually personified as his consort” (1984:31). Following Binger, Dever went as so far as to charge that “theological sensitivities” were at play and that scholars were “somewhat ill at ease with the notion of Yahweh having a consort” (1999, 12; and see Binger 1997:109). For these reasons they have suppressed a fairly obvious reading.

    Supporting this interpretation was David Noel Freedman who concludes “worship of a goddess, consort of Yahweh, was deeply rooted in both Israel and Judah in pre-exilic times, in spite of vigorous prophetic protests and strenuous efforts by reforming kings” (1987:249). Similarly, Rainer Albertz remarks: “The popularity of the worship of a goddess alongside Yahweh throughout the whole pre-exilic period can hardly be overestimated” (1994:86; also see Gilula 1978-1979: 135).

    To buttress his argument Dever pointed to the drawing that accompanies the inscription on pithos A discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud. (1982:38). Claiming that the inscription referring to Yahweh and his Asherah must be seen in relation to this drawing, Dever speculated that the women holding the lyre is the consort of Yahweh while the two figures on the left are dual representations of the ithyphallic dwarf-god, Bes (1982:39; contra Day 1986: 393; Emerton 1982: 10; also see Meshel 1976:123).

    Mordechai Gilula, argued that “there is no escaping the conclusion that what we have in front of us is a picture of ‘Yahweh of Samaria,’ in the form of a calf, and his consort Asherah” (Gilula 1978-1979: 136: also see King 1983: 13; McCarter 1987; 146-147). For Gilula the two seated figures on the left are taken as the divine couple. (As for the male genitalia on the center figure, which he associated with Asherah, Gilula noted that it was drawn in at a later date; 1978-1979: 129). In contrast to this view, Beck argues, “Since the inscription was added after both figures were already drawn, it is doubtful whether there is any meaningful relationship between it and the figures” (Beck 1982:46; and see North 1989: 124).

    In light of Dever’s insistence that Asherah is a fertility goddess, it should be mentioned that archaeologists working in Israel have discovered literally thousands of terra cotta fertility figurines dating from the pre-exilic period. They are almost exclusively female and often found in contexts suggesting that they were personal items (Dever 1990: 157-159). Their enlarged breasts, exaggerated pubic triangles and expanded stomachs indicating pregnancy may point to widespread worship of the “mother goddess,” Asherah (Fontaine 1999: 68; Holland 1977: Pritchard 1967; Hestrin 1991:57; Lemaire 1984:46; but contra Tadmor 1982.).

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