Did the ancient Israelites worship both Yahweh and a figured considered to be his wife, the fertility goddess Asherah? That’s the theory of theologian Francesca Stavrakopoulou. Discovery has a brief story.
H/T: Alex Knapp
The ancient Ugarits worshipped a pantheon of gods and their religion influenced a great many ancient Israelities, as scripture and archaeological findings confirm. There does seem to have been a tendency to worship both YHWH and some other gods and it seems that the ancient Israelites struggled with this until the YHWH only view eventually won out.
Religion continually develops.
It’s not surprising that archaeological evidence has been found, given that the Old Testament mentions the Hebrews being soundly rebuked by God for the practice, even as late as Jeremiah, Micah, and Isaiah. The article suggests that it was somehow a natural part of Hebrew worship that was somehow suppressed, but I don’t think you can believe both the Bible and that article. Rather, it appears that Asherah worship was part of the syncretism practiced by those who fell away and adopted Canaanite practices. Asherah was the consort of the Canaanite supreme god called El, sort of an equivalent to Zeus. It would not be surprising for a dissenting Jew who wanted to introduce Caananite worship practices to make Yahweh the equivalent of El and bring in Asherah.
I’m curious about the Canaanite supreme god El. The name “El” is one of the Hebrew names of God, so there must have been some conflation between El and YHWH.
El is not so much a name as a noun made into a name, the way that we distinguish between “god” and “God.” The root ‘l in several Semitic languages of the region means “divinity” or “god”, such that El or Eli means “the god” or just “God.” So, when the Israelites/Hebrews called their God El, it need not have been in reference to the Canaanite supreme deity. What is interesting is that the Israelites may have used the name ba’al (i.e. Baal), which means “lord” or “master,” to refer to God, but in time avoided it very carefully, no doubt because the title was too powerfully related to gods among the Canaanites that the Hebrews found especially objectionable.
I have to admit that I find this all rather tedious, especially insofar as none of it is news, nor should any of it be shocking to anyone who has actually read the Bible. The reason it has popped into anyone’s attention is the documentary in Europe. The scholarship is old, its claims well known. Moreover, the Bible itself, in its historical narrative from Exodus through the books of Kings and Chronicles already tells us that the people of Israel worshipped the gods of Canaan.
So, where’s the story?
If there is anything to this, the question becomes one of interpretation. That is, do we think it to be the case that the Israelites were originally polytheists, and that in time, through the work of a small band of prophets, a few kings, and decisively the priestly and scribal schools during the Exile and the restoration under Ezra and Nehemiah, the Jewish people were drawn into this old, minority-view monotheism, with the historical narratives reworked to present monotheism as original, and the Asheroth and Baalim as interlopers, the results of the fall of Israel into idolatry? Or, do we trust the narrative of the Scriptures and hold that the people of Israel originally believed in the one, true God, from whom they received the Law, but because of their hardness of heart, even from the time of receiving the Law, through the entry into Canaan, and then under both judges and kings, did not keep the covenant and so slid repeatedly into the false worship of their neighbors, rivals and enemies?
Ironically, the kind of evidence presented here justifies and warrants the second view at least as much as the first. Indeed, one might ask with justice whether the article should have the title, “Archeological Evidence Supports Biblical Testimony of Israel’s Fall into Idolatry”.
I’m not sure why this is news. William Dever found a number of inscriptions referring to “Yahweh and his Asherah” in the 1960’s on both pottery and wall inscriptions ranging from the 13th century BCE to the 8th century BCE (the time of King Hezekiah). And these inscriptions are not “lost”. Andre Lemaire did further work on these inscriptions in the 1970’s and 80’s. Scholarly opinion is pretty much settled that the Israelite popular religion included a consort for Yahweh, and the Hebrew Bible says as much when it refers to an Asherah pole in the temple (2 Kings 23). I was startled by the article, not because of its thesis but because it was 50 years late.
It’s news because, as the link points out, this academic released a report to the media. One more person trying to make money by shocking people with the unshocking. Somehow, I’m not shocked.
Try to be a little fair. The article says:
Information presented in Stavrakopoulou’s books, lectures and journal papers has become the basis of a three-part documentary series, now airing in Europe, where she discusses the Yahweh-Asherah connection.
I don’t read that as “[T]his academic released a report to the media.”
Would you criticize Simon Schama’s six-part BBC documentary The Power of Art as a money-making scheme? Or Diarmaid MacCulloch’s six part A History of Christianity? They are both well known academics, and they didn’t say anything exactly new.
I suspected this was old news, but as I’m no scholar of Hebrew history or Scripture, I posted the story without comment.
The article doesn’t say the theory is new. It says, “In 1967, Raphael Patai was the first historian to mention that the ancient Israelites worshiped both Yahweh and Asherah. The theory has gained new prominence due to the research of Francesca Stavrakopoulou . . . .”
The article doesn’t say any of the archeological findings are new, or that the inscriptions Stavrakopoulou cites were “lost.”
It is a very common tactic when people want something ignored to say, “This is old news!” It seems the reason Stavrakopoulou is getting attention is because the BBC is doing a series of documentaries on her work. There is no reason to think that she has not done original scholarship in this area and pulled together information in a new way worthy of attention.
There seem to be two main reactions to her work. (1) It’s preposterous. (2) What she is saying is already well established. It is difficult to harmonize those two.
It’s not difficult to harmonize, because both can be applied to her work based on how you characterize the facts. The fact is that the ancient Hebrews worshiped multiple gods at times. If you take that fact and view it in light of the history of the Hebrews as recorded in the OT, her work is well-established and obvious. But if you take that fact and characterize it as proof that the Hebrews did not have a monothestic religion and that the history of the Hebrews as recorded in the OT is complete rubbish, then it’s preposterous.
It is not so difficult for something to be, in one respect, well established and in another respect preposterous. The Biblical narrative asserts that the Israelites fell into idolatry and worshipped false gods, Asherah among them. Later archeological evidence shows that this is not just some Biblical fantasy. Thus far, well established. However, the specific interpretive spin might, or might not, be preposterous. We saw something similar when Boswell released Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, i.e. a phenomenon well known to scholars given an interpretation that has not generally been received.
However, I think what I and others object to here is not to Stavrakopoulou’s work itself (that would be another discussion) but to the sensationalist spin which the article gives. After all, as I suggested, imagine how different the article might seem if it presented the claim less sensationally, less designed to pander to contemporary gender politics in Christian and Jewish communities. What if it noted something like “New Documentary Gives New Spin on Biblical Witness of Ancient Hebrew Defection to the Gods of Canaan”?
In other words, that the ancient Israelites worshipped Asherah is a fact known by any reader of the Bible. What we think we are entitled to make of that fact is another question.
I certainly don’t want to marginalize or ignore her work. If people were more generally well-informed about the state of biblical studies, we would all be better off. I would probably be rather interested in watching the BBC documentary. The article I read made no mention of any previous inscriptions and quoted Stavrakopolou as implying some of the inscriptions had been “lost.” (Can’t find the article to link to at the moment).
Even with the article linked to, compare the title of Kyle’s article “God’s Wife Edited Out of the Bible — Almost” with a line from the article itself, “Asherah’s connection to Yahweh, according to Stavrakopoulou, is spelled out in both the Bible and an 8th century B.C. inscription.” There’s some dissonance between those two statements – almost edited out and spelled out are two rather different things.
I’m not sure what original contribution she will make. Since the inscriptions have been known and studied for more than 40 years, it is unlikely her contribution will be in the area of epigraphy. That leaves scholarly speculation on the nature of Israelite folk religion, a topic which has been dealt with for some time as well. Of course, as a PhD student myself, I sympathize with the challenge of “original research.” As I said, I’ll likely tune in or at least read her paper.
Thomas Cahill’s book “The Gift the Jews” provides what I thought was a wonderful and faith enhancing history of the development of Jewish understanding of God — one that would trouble both the fundamentalist and the theological liberal. He simply relates God’s conversation with the Jewish people, a conversation in which the Jews come to a better and better understanding of Him. Not a god of the Hebrews who is more powerful than other gods. Not a god who is restricted to a rock or river but a god who can move and therefore is universal. Not just a god who grants favors or harms, but a god who is good, who teaches ethics (a totally novel concept). And eventually a god who is God, the only God.
The Hebrews didn’t fully know God from the beginning anymore than one fully knows one’s spouse on the first date. It was a relationship that grew. I don’t find this threatening to orthodoxy but it probably is to fundamentalism.
I second Kurt’s endorsement of Cahill’s book “The Gift of the Jews” (along with his “Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus”). It is, to some degree, a scholarly reconstruction, but one that tries to get to the heart of the tradition.
I watched this episode, and the previous episode, which seemed mostly interested in downgrading David because in doing so it would destroy one argument of why Israel ought to exist.
The show is most definitely sensationalist (and political), and this became very clear at the end of the second episode, when the narrator began to gas on about Christian worship of Mary and how this may go right back to worship of “God’s Wife” Ashurah.
The British newspapers are waxing wittily about the lecturer’s argumentation. One has suggested that archaelogists of the future, putting together the pieces of the mostly-vanished 21st century, will argue that she herself was a latter day Greek colonialist fantasy, Greek names not being native to England, and women not having taught at her university according to the best 19th century evidence.
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