Did YHWH have a female consort? Assess the evidence from Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd.
The foundation of the Israelite nation and religion is defined by its relationship to one god, YHWH. The historical rise of the nation and the emergence of monotheism within the Canaanite territories of Hebrew settlement present a challenge in our understanding of what was meant by the religious beliefs of this early period.
The theology of David and the religious practices associated with him in Jerusalem were Judean. The relevance of the Tetragrammaton to David and his people are significant but the same cannot be said about the beliefs and practices of the northern state of Israel.
While politically the state extended its laws and customs to include the northern territories, established local customs of the times would have continued. While state religion followed monotheistic observances, personal piety would have carried on with henotheistic practices, or as the Egyptologist Erik Hornung defined it, “the One and the Many.” Others called it “internal religious pluralism,” which means that Israel’s religious practice was characterised for a long period by its acknowledgement of not only YHWH but also deities from the Canaanite pantheon, like El, Baal and Anat.
In Judges 3:31, an Israelite warrior is the son of a man, named after a Canaanite deity. It is stated that “Shamgar, son of Anath, who killed six hundred Philistines was a champion of Israel”.
While Jonathan, son of Saul (I Sam 14:1) has a Yahwistic name, Eshbaal, another son of Saul (I Chron 8:33; 9:39) carries Baal within his name. Similarly, Jonathan’s son Meribaal (I Chron 9:40) was given a Baalistic name.
Mayes argues that the anti-Baalistic attitude was a later introduction from the period of Elijah and Elisha, in the ninth century BCE.
BAAL and ANAT and ASTARTE
The most important figure of the Canaanite pantheon was Baal, meaning ‘lord’, whose personal name was Hadad. Baal is called ‘son of Dagan’, who was originally a god of fertility. Dagan was worshipped in the Euphrates Valley from the earliest times.
Baal is storm-god as well as king of heaven and earth. He is the equivalent of Greek Zeus and of Babylonian Marduk, both head of their pantheon.
Baal was associated with two goddesses, Anat and Astarte. Anat was not only Baal’s virgin sister, but also his consort. The legend goes that while Anat was in the form of a heifer, Baal raped her. The cow figure identified with Anat, who conceives and bears will appear in connection with Kuntillet ‘Ajrud.
EL and ASHERAH
The outstanding deity in the Canaanite religion is El, whose name appeared as chief component in such divine names as El-Elyon, El-olam, Elohim, El Shaddai. In the epics, El, who is also called ‘the Bull El’, appears as the father of mankind and as creator but seldom figures actively in mythology. The name El meant originally ‘the strong one’
or ‘the leader’, thus “the Bull” was an appropriate designation, strong enough to vanquish all rivals. El was not thought to communicate with gods or men except through visits or vision. El had a consort, called Asherah. In Ugaritic, she was called “Rabbatu ‘athiratu yammi”, which means either “The Lady Who Traverses the Sea” or “The Lady Who Treads on the Sea (Dragon)”. El was known as “Begetter of Creatures” and Asherah as “She Who Gives Birth” to the gods. Asherah appears 40 times in the Hebrew Bible, but we need to distinguish use of asherah as a feminine noun and asherim, a masculine plural noun.
The masculine plural (asherim) is translated into English as ‘sacred poles’. “They too built for themselves shrines, pillars and sacred poles on every hill and under every leafy tree.” (I Kings 14:23) This gives the impression that asherim were man-made cult objects. A number of references appear in the Old Testament (OT) where verbs are used in connection with them. The verbs “make”, in I Kings 14:15; 16:33, II Kings 17:16; 21:3, II Chron 33:3, “build” in I Kings 14:23 and “erect” in II Kings 17:10 only fit description for manufactured goods.
Elsewhere, it is ordered that the asherim be cut down. (Ex.34:13, Deut.7:5) This creates the impression that the asherim are living things, possibly trees. At Ugarit, Asherah as consort of El carries the epithet “Elat” but she is also called Ba‘alat. Anat is chief consort of Baal but occasionally Asherah and Astarte are mentioned as such, giving the impression that there is a form of interchange happening.
The association with trees is argued by Albright, citing the Hebrew translation of “Elat”, meaning terebinth or turpentine tree. In The Wisdom of Ben Sira the tree is described as: “Like a terebinth I spread out by branches, laden with honour and grace.”(24:16)
There are many references in the Hebrew Bible to Asherah as a feminine singular noun, with the plural form of Asheroth. Asherah as the Canaanite goddess appears in I Kings 15:13, II Kings 23:4 and II Chron 15:16.
In the Ugaritic Epic of Keret, Asherah is called “Asherah of the Sidonians, goddess of the Tirians. She was brought into the court worship of Israel by Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Tyre who brought with her the cult of the Tyrian Baal.  I Kings 18:19 relates how Elijah vanquished 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah who “dined off Jezebel’s table”. If Jezebel had prophets of Asherah, it would indicate her existence as a goddess.
In the Egyptian pantheon Hathor, the bovine-goddess is frequently encountered as a pillar in the Egyptian art form. Examples of these pillars are easily identified in Thebes at Deir el-Bahri at the funerary complex of the female king Hatshepsut and at the two rock-cut temples of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel, both well known New Kingdom sites. Hathor was linked with the Syrian goddess Qudshu, and with Anat and Astarte; Dever believes that Hathor was linked with Asherah as well.
There were many aspects of Hathor and she held many titles. She was not a benign god, (See Eye of Re, in which Hathor was to destroy humanity) she had to be pacified by music played on the sistrum. In her vengeful aspect she shared the leonine form of the goddess Sekhmet. Hathor means ‘House of Horus’. Since Egyptian kings were identified with Horus, Hathor was regarded as the divine mother of kings, who were the earthly representatives of Re. This connection appears inescapable between the attributes of Hathor and Asherah “who gives birth to the Gods.” (as above)
STRUGGLE FOR EXCLUSIVITY
For a long time after settlement in Canaan, Israel’s religious practice was characterised by its acknowledgement of El, Baal, Anat as well as YHWH. As demonstrated above, names that carry components of these Canaanite deities appear regularly in the Hebrew Bible.
By the pro-Judean Davidic period the exclusivity of YHWH was on the agenda and there was a tendency to relate the exclusivity of Yahwism to an earlier time.
During the Omride Dynasty’s reign, a conflict developed regarding the official cult of the kingdom, contributing to the downfall of the dynasty. The issue was not whether
Yahwism or Baalism would be practised to the exclusion of the other, but whether Baalism as well as Yahwism would be prominent in the official cult of the kingdom.
The political crises associated with the Assyrian invasion of Israel caused the Judean reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah culminating in the exclusive worship of YHWH.
Archaeological finds from the 9th-8th century BCE in North Sinai suggest that the site served as a religious centre during Israel’s monarchy. Inscriptions revealed the phrase “YHWH and his Asherah”. What was meant by this phrase and does it construe a relationship between YHWH and Asherah. Does the term Asherah refer to an object or to a goddess?
The excavation team of Ze’ev Meshel in 1975-76 uncovered an Israelite-Judean caravanserai and shrine at Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd, also known in Hebrew as Horvat Teiman.
Two of the pithoi unearthed present a Hebrew blessing formula written in Phoenician script, translated by some as “by Yahweh, our guardian, and by his Asherah.” This may give cause to think that “his Asherah” was a person. However, in Hebrew, personal names do not take a pronominal suffix, therefore, reference to his asherah would point to an object rather than a person.
This same inscription, on Pithos A, is translated by others as “Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah” and it is further justified by an additional reference to Yahweh of Teman, which appears written in ink on the plaster wall at the same site.
Three of the figures shown on pithos A attract several views by scholars on who they represent. One suggestion is that the two figures in the foreground are representations of the Egyptian dwarf god Bes, in ithyphallic mode, and that the seated lyre player behind them is none other than Asherah, being protected by them. The Bes figures’ relationship to Asherah is reminiscent of an 8th century BCE bronze bowl from the Nimrud palace, which depicts a goddess on a short-backed throne. This relic is claimed to be part of Assyrian booty taken from sites in Syria-Palestine. The lyre present in both scenes may point to the association with the cult of Canaan. Bes, an Egyptian dwarf deity, depicted with grotesque mask-like features and protruding tongue. He is often shown with the ears and mane of a lion. He is commonly portrayed with a plumed headdress and carrying musical instruments. Despite his visible ferocity, he was a beneficent deity who possessed an apotropaic function.
Uzi Avner, writing in the Biblical Archaeology Review believes that the portrayal of the two figures with a tail or genitals, thought to be Bes, are the results of inaccurate restoration that led scholars to identify the figures as two deities and to ignore the breasts on the shorter of the two figures. It is claimed by the author, that nothing in the painting itself indicates the presence of a tail or penis on this figure. If the incorrect restoration is removed, a male and female figure appears in a left-right order. Based on some pairs of masseboth, the ‘Ajrûd figures represent Yahweh and the goddess Asherah, the former wearing a bull mask and the latter that of a cow.
Another idea about the identity of this group is that the standing figures in the foreground represent male and female Egyptian deities and the lyre player is a temple musician. These comments are justified on the basis that a major goddess like Asherah would not be depicted in the service of a minor deity like Bes.
The lyre player wears a long dress which reaches her ankles, but her breasts are bare. Bare breasts appear on representations of Canaanite goddesses from the Middle and Late Bronze Age, and Dever considers this to be an indication of the presence of a Goddess in the lyre player. The stylized hair or wig recalls Astarte figurines, sphinxes with Phoenician style hairdo and the “Lady at the Window” representations (sacred prostitutes). This kind of hairstyle may also be an indicator for a Goddess. The chair the lyre player is sitting on may be a throne with the lion’s paw feet. A Late Bronze Age scene from Ugarit depicting an El-figure, who is seated on a low-back throne, is similar to that at ‘Ajrûd.
Other representations appear on Pithos A, one of which is a sacred tree flanked by two ibexes, considered to be a well-known design in Canaanite art, which may have been the model for the asherah pole. The sacred tree appears to rest on the back of a lion, which forms an association with goddesses, as we have seen in the case of Hathor/Qudsu, who was also seen as a lion. Another motive is the cow licking her suckling calf, a common image of fertility. Hathor/Qudsu, as already mentioned, was known as the cow goddess, who in Egypt is identified with Anat and Astarte, and probably with Asherah as well. Some scholars speculate that this might be an associated representation, for if Asherah was the consort of El, who was known as a Bull god, then it would be sensible to have her depicted as a cow goddess.
(a) Goddess or Cultic Object of Fertility
The nature of the drawings discussed, give every indication that we are dealing with fertility symbols. Anat, who was associated with Baal appeared in the form of a heifer, a cow-goddess, when Baal raped her and they procreated. The bull, associated with the high god El, symbolizing strength and fertility, and his counterpart Asherah, who through her manifestation as a cultic object, or sacred pole is connected to the cow-goddess of the Egyptian pantheon, Hathor. The Canaanite god El came to be identified with Yahweh, hence El’s consort Asherah was connected in one form or another to the concept of “the” chief god. Israel’s God, YHWH is also known as ‘the calf of Samaria’ (Hosea 8.6), therefore, the inscription on Pithos A, “Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah” could simply mean, as some scholars propose, YHWH and his consort. Although these inscriptions appear above or near the drawings, there is no evidence presented that the inscriptions relate to the drawings on the pithoi or the walls of the shrine.
As we have seen, the sacred tree also has close association with Asherah in the Hebrew Bible, whether as a cultic object or a goddess. It is possible that the tree or pillar/pole was an icon of the goddess.
While it is very difficult to define Asherah or asherah, we can conclude that she/it is female, and something divine that people worshipped. She is made of wood, and is a living tree that can be planted and cut down, or she is erected and made by human beings and she stands in the temple of the Lord.
If the Tree of Life symbolizes Asherah, the goddess or her cultic manifestations, then the concept is likely to have connections with a) the Garden of Eden, which contained a Tree of Life and b) the Menorah, the seven branch candlestick symbolizing Judaism. The seven candle holders and three joints where the branches meet the central column is said to represent the Tree of Life.
(b) Historical Developments
The strong Israelite, not Judean influence seems to connect Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd with the northern kingdom of Israel, which is evident in the reference to “Yahweh of Samaria”.
The site was dated to after the death of Jehoshaphat of Judah, around 850 BCE, when north Israelite influence over Judah was strong. The reign of Joash, king of Israel (ca. 801-786 BCE) who captured Amaziah king of Judah (II Kings 14:1-16=II Chron 25:1-24) may fit the sequence. The victory of Joash over Amaziah may have gained him direct access to the Red Sea, hence the construction of a shrine in the Sinai.
In the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, Israel’s attachment to YHWH alone in Jerusalem resulted in the exclusion of all other earlier deities. Yahweh’s Asherah was reduced to “the asherah”, which was a cult object to be destroyed.
The last case of royal worship of Asherah was in the time of Manasseh (ca.698-642), who places an idol of Asherah in the Temple, (II Kings 21:7) from where it was removed by Josiah (ca. 639-609) (II Kings 23:6).
Tanakh The Jewish Publication Society,
Philadelphia and Jerusalem (1985)
Albright, W.F., Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan. A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths Jordan Lectures 1965. London, (1968)
Avner, U., Sacred Stones in the Desert, in Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2001.
Emerton, J.A., Yahweh and His Asherah: The Goddess or Her Symbol in Vetus Testamentum XLIX, 3 Leiden (1999) 315-337.
Hadley, J., The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess Cambridge (2000)
Hornung, E., Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt, Darmstadt, (1971)
Dever, W.G., Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? New Evidence from Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd BASOR (1984) BASOR, 255 (1984)
Mayes, A.D., Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd and the History of Israelite Religion, in Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation ed. J.R. Bartlett (1997) 51-66.
Hayes J.H., A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, London, (1986)
Meshel, Z., “Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Freedman, D.N. New York (1992) 103-109.
Shaw I. &
Nicholson P. ed. Dictionary of Ancient Egypt London (1995)
Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem (1973)
Eye of Re at http://www.egyptianmyths.net/mythre.htm
The Wisdom of Ben Sira, at http://palimpsest.Iss.wisc.edu/~mfox/wislit/Sira-24.htm
 Hornung, E. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt (1971) p. 252.
 Mayes, A.D. Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and the History of Israelite Religion, in Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation ed. J.R. Bartlett (1997) p. 59.
 Ibid. on p. 60.
 Ibid. on p. 108.
 Ibid. on p. 109.
 Dever, W.G. Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? BASOR (1984) p.28.
 Albright, W.F. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (1968) p. 108.
 Dever, W.G. Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? BASOR (1984) p. 27.
 Albright, W.F. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (1968) p. 104.
 Ibid. on p. 105.
 Asherah, Encyclopedia Judaica Book 2. p. 704.
 Albright, W.F. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (1968) p. 105.
 Dever, W.G. Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? BASOR (1984) p.21.
 Ibid. on p.29.
 Albright, W.F. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (1968) p. 165.
 The Wisdom of Ben Sira, at http://palimpsest.Iss.wisc.edu/~mfox/wislit/Sira-24.htm
 Asherah, Encyclopedia Judaica Book 2, p.705
 Shaw I. & Nicholson P. ed. Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (1995) p. 238.
 Dever, W.G. Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? BASOR (1984) p.27
 Miller, J.M. and Hayes J.H., A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (1986) p.271-272.
 Ibid. on p.273.
Mayes, A.D.H. Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd and the History of Israelite Religion in Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation ed. Bartlett (1997) p. 65.
 Dever, W.G. Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? BASOR (1984) p.21-22.
 Emerton, J.A. Yahweh and His Asherah: The Goddess or Her Symbol in Vetus Testamentum XLIX,3 (1999) p. 315.
 Mayes, A. Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd and the History of Israelite Religion in Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation ed. J.R. Bartlett (1997) p. 62.
 Meshel, Z. “Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Freedman, D.N. (1992) p.107.
 Dever, W.G. Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? BASOR (1984) p.22.
 Ibid. on p. 24.
 Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, ed. Shaw I. & Nicholson P. (1995) p. 53.
 Avner, U. Sacred Stones in the Desert, in Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2001.
 Hadley, J. The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess (2000) p.137-144.
 Mayes, A, Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd and the History of Israelite Religion in Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation ed. J.R. Bartlett (1997) p.62.
 Dever, W.G. Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? BASOR (1984) p. 22-24.
 Ibid. on p. 27.
 Ibid. on p. 28.
 From Talmud Torah studies of the writer.
 Meshel, Z. “Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Freedman, D.N. (1992) p.108.
 Ibid. on p. 109.