Did God have a Consort? Yes.- Danny looking at a single matzevah in the Israel Museum where the second one was missing.

This is the question that keeps me up at night. Not simply did God have a wife?, but if God had a concort was it Asherah? What was Asherah’s place in ancient Israelite religion? Are the Judean pillar figurines depictions of Asherah? I do not have an answer, and no one seems to, but I am going to lay down the evidence in a couple pages, work through my thoughts, and move on. The issue of Asherah and the meaning of the figurines have many layers of complication and significant problems of interpretation.

A search of the word “Asherah” on Bible Hub reveals exactly fourty instances, with “Ashe’rah” at eighteen. One of the most significant passages is II Kings 22.6-7: “He brought out the [image of] Asherah from the House of [Yahweh] to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem, and burned it in the Kidron Valley; he beat it to dust and scattered its dust over the burial ground of the common people. He tore down the cubicles of the male prostitutes in the House of [Yahweh], at the place where the women wove coverings for Asherah” (JPS). From this it is fair to presume that an image of Asherah was in the temple, part of the original religion of the temple until Josiah decided to take it out. He burns the image and scatters it over a burial ground. What is the significance of the place that he scatters the ashes of the image? Secondly, it mentions cubicles of male prostitutes (for female customers?) and women weaving coverings for Asherah. There is a general sense that this area of the temple was dedicated to Asherah whose devotees may have been female. This is about all that can be said.

In my Bible Hub search, “Asherah” was often followed by “pole”. If Asherah can be linked to the pillar figurines, it is with these phrases. It suggests that the figurines were perched on top of the poles (maybe). Deuteronomy 16:21 is one of the best examples of this:

“Do not set up any wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build to [Yahweh] your God” (New International).

“You shall not plant any tree as a sacred pole beside the altar that you make for [Yahweh] your God” (New Oxford Annotated).

“You shall not set up a sacred post- any kind of pole beside the altar of [Yahweh] your God that you may make– or erect a stone pillar; for such [Yahweh] your God detests” (JPS).

The author of Deuteronomy is obviously unhappy with the fact that people are still setting up “sacred posts” next to altars to Yahweh. The fact that there is a problem with erecting these dedications to Asherah next to altars of Yahweh suggests that the two were associated together and is loose evidence for the consort of wife theory. What is also interesting is the physical nature of the “sacred posts,” what I imagine is the pillar figurine attached to a post and stuck into the ground. So how high would be post be if this is the case? Does lifting the figurine off of the ground add a layer of symbolism or meaning? And of course, can we assume that the figurines even represent Asherah? If we do, it adds a dimension to the idea that the bases of the pillar figurines represent a tree trunk, an idea that Dolansky rejects because there is no detail to make the base tree like (15). The other question is the mention of matzebot- a “stone pillar.” It is difficult to say what the matzebot mean, but if one like Jacob sets up in Genesis represents Yahweh, then when two are present, the second probably represents his partner. Or not.

The hole in the whole interpretation of the figurines being part of the “Asherah pole” is the connection between Asherah and the Judean figurines. One cannot say if the figurines are meant to represent Asherah or not. Hestrin compares the themes of the figurines to representations of Asherah in other contexts. She is interested most in the Lachish ewer that has an image of a tree with ibexes on either side with the inscription: “Mattan. An offering to my Lady ‘Elat” (4-5). Elat is the feminin of El, El being the equivelant to Yahweh, Elat must be El’s consort. The fact that the inscription is above a tree is good evidence that the tree is the representation of Elat. The same thing happens with the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud pithos where Asherah and Yahweh are invoked in a blessing written on the pithos, Hesterin believes that the tree with two ibexes represents Asherah, not the famous figures on the front (13). A third case Hestrin puts on the table is a decorated vessel found in the Fosse Temple at Lachish that depicts “instead of the usual sacred tree, a pubic triangle appears between the ibezes… this interchange of tree with pubic triangle proves, in my opinion, that the tree indeed symbolizes the fertility goddess, on the attributes of Asherah” (6). While I understand the problems with describing her as a fertility goddess, I think Hestrin has a good point and it is difficult to imagine an alternative.

How do the inscriptions and tree images that Hestrin describe translate to the clay figurines? I’m not sure that there is a solid connection. Hestrin defends the connection: “I believe that the pillar [of the figurines] represents the trunk of a tree– the Asherah– and that together with the large breasts it symbolizes the mother-goddess who gives life and nourishment” (13). If the figurines with their large breasts and the tree/pubic triangle images represent the same entity, the themes combined suggest fertility. Fertility was extremely important in ancient Israel where there was a real possibility of draught and children were important to maintain a household. Dolansky is not sold on the fertility interpretation making the point that in the Bible, it is Yahweh that grants fertility “of the earth; of the animals, [and] of humans” (21). While this is true, the Bible also condemns the figurines and yet we find them in the ground. While I agree with Dolansky that we cannot impose our own modern understandings of symbols onto the figurines, I can’t abandon the idea of fertility because I have no alternative and all Dolansky is willing to offer is: “According to the evidence of what this motif signifies in contemporary cultures, for the people of Judah in the 8th and 7th centuries, the icon of the female holding her breasts may have become simply an apotropaic symbol of divine protection” (22). Maybe.

A whole other layer to the mystery of the figurines is the question of the deliberately breaking the figurines or if they were broken accidentally, or naturally over time. “Because most of the figurines are broken, some have assumed that, being cult objects, they must have been deliberatley damaged in magical or religious rituals” (Dolansky, 9). After consulting Zevit and Meyers, Dolansky concludes that the figurines were not deliberately broken because “there is no real evidance for their deliberate mutilation” in the archeologial record and the “figurines were not buried after breakage like broken cult statues, indicating that they were no considered holy when discarded” (10). This raises the question again about why Josiah spread the ashes from the icons of Asherah that he took out of the temple over a grave yard. After the Babylonian exile, how were the figurines disposed of?

I thought that writing this blog would help me work out my own thoughts about the figurines and the place of Asherah in ancient Israelite religion but while researching and writing I have only become more frustrated. It bothers me that we find a lot of figurines, not only in Israel but around the Mediterranean like the Cycladic figurines carved of marble (much more serious dedication than clay). The figurines are a larger phenomenon than just Canaanite/Israelite. There is simply no solid evidence to connect the figurines with Asherah let alone any evidence for their purpose or use.

Dolansky, Shawna.  “Re-Figuring “Fertility” Figurines from Biblical Judea”

Hestrin, Ruth.  “Understanding Asherah– Exploring Semitic Iconography”  Biblical Archaeology Review, Sept/ Oct 1991.  50-59.  Print.