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If we think in terms of the broad ancient Near Eastern world, it’s clear there were many goddesses.  We know of that from Mesopotamia; we know of goddesses from Egypt.  And the biblical texts, themselves, attest to the existence and the worship of goddesses by Israelites. 

One very interesting text is Jer 44 and it refers to the Queen of Heaven.  It’s a very interesting text because the Queen of Heaven, the Queen of Heaven’s worshippers are actually allowed to defend their beliefs, to explain why it is that they worship the Queen of Heaven.  That’s very unusual within the biblical text.  Usually non-worshippers of Yahweh are not given the opportunity to express or to justify their beliefs in another deity and they worship another deity. 

Where particular controversy has tended to develop is around the question whether, in fact, there was a goddess Asherah who was worshipped in Israel, and whether Asherah was the wife or the consort of Yahweh, the God of Israel. 

That’s a very difficult question to answer.  One quite important text is a text that was discovered in the 1970s, in the wilderness, south of Israel, in a place called Kuntillet Ajrud.  The text talks about Yahweh and his Asherah; and the question is whether we have here, a divine couple. 

The difficulty is that, as you can hear even in the Hebrew, you can get a sense in English; it’s a little bit odd to talk about his Asherah.  It’s rather like talking about a couple that you know as David and his Susan.  It just doesn’t sound quite right and it could well be, that this Asherah, Yahweh’s Asherah, is in fact, a cult object.  It is something that was used in the worship in a temple.  We find that particularly in the Book of Deuteronomy.  There are references to the asherah; and the asherah there is a cultic object; perhaps it’s a living tree or a pole that was used in cultic worship.  It seems most likely, therefore, that Yahweh and his asherah was a reference to this cultic object. 

That still leaves open the possibility that that cultic object was a representation, was some form of image of the goddess; but that would be a difficult question to ascertain exactly if that was the case.  People often like to talk about Asherah being airbrushed out of the biblical text; and there are some biblical texts where that well may be the case, but the picture is often more complex.  There is also some text where Asherah has probably been airbrushed in to the picture.  So there are some very late texts in the Book of Judges, in the Book of Kings that talk about Asherah and Baal together.   Asherah here is now being associated with Baal who is, in the Old Testament, Yahweh’s bête noir; and Asherah, is therefore, being associated as something that is evil as is inappropriate for Israelites to worship.  So, we have a complicated picture of the Old Testament.  Asherah is both, perhaps airbrushed out, but also in certain places, also airbrushed in to the biblical text.

  • Nathan MacDonald

    Nathan MacDonald is university lecturer in Hebrew Bible at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of St. John’s College. He previously held positions at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the University of Göttingen in Germany. His publications include What Did the Ancient Israelite Eat? Diet in Biblical Times (Eerdmans, 2008), Not Bread Alone: The Meaning of Food in the Old Testament (Oxford University Press, 2008), and Deuteronomy and the Meaning of “Monotheism” (Mohr Siebeck, 2003).