Hey, everybody! I will be offering a live online class addressing the Israelite goddess Asherah on Thursday, September 15, from 7–8:30 PM (mountain time). This class will discuss the textual and other material evidence for the early recognition and worship of Asherah as an Israelite goddess and the partner (or wife) of YHWH, the God of Israel. It will also discuss theories of the later marginalization, vilification, and alteration of their worship. There will be a 1-hour lecture over Zoom, followed by a 30-minute moderated Q&A session. I’m offering the class on a pay-what-you-can basis, with a minimum donation of $1. The link to register for the class is here. Everyone who signs up, whether they attend or not, will receive a link to a recording of the class. Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.
In the study of ancient Near Eastern religion, it’s widely recognized that deities which rule over other deities tend to assimilate the attributes and responsibilities of their subordinates. In early Israel Yhwh likely had a consort named Asherah, who was a mother goddess and fertility deity of some kind (the boundaries of these deities are blurry and overlap). By the end of the exile she seems to have been scrubbed clean from Judaism’s theological landscape, and Yhwh seems to have absorbed her attributes. There are a few different metaphorical references to Yhwh as a mother and even a midwife in exilic literature, for instance. This process likely began as far back as the monarchic period, though. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the asherim which were ostensibly taken from the temple and destroyed during Josiah’s reforms may have had no connection to Asherah by that time period, but rather may have been residual cultic representations of divine power over fertility and childbirth, now attributed to Yhwh.
Other ways this kind of assimilation seeps into Israelite literature is in Yhwh’s nature as both storm god and sun god. A fascinating article by Paul E. Dion (“YHWH as Storm-God and Sun-God: The Double Legacy of Egypt and Canaan as Reflected in Psalm 104,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 103.1 (1991): 43–71) points out elements of both storm-god imagery and sun-god imagery in Psalm 104. This psalm is famous for its relationship to the much older Hymn to Aten, but Dion argues there is a great deal of storm-god imagery as well. We know Yhwh was viewed as a storm deity very early in Israelite history. Yhwh is said to make the “clouds his chariot” (עבים רכובו – Ps 104:3) echoing Baal’s title as “Rider of the Clouds” (rkb ‘rpt – KTU 1.2 iv 8). Psalm 29 shares very close affinities with praise given to Baal for his storm-god status.
Later in Israelite history Yhwh seems to be associated with solar imagery. Hezekiah’s seals on a number of jar handles discovered in and around Jerusalem have a scarab with a sun disk or a bird with a sun disc. This is closely related to Egyptian iconography, which makes sense given his relationship with Egypt at the time. It goes back further than this, though. In the 10th century Taanach cult stand Yhwh appears to be represented as a horse below a sun disc (I discuss these issue here). The popularity of these two divine attributes goes back even further in the wider ancient Near East. In the Amarna letters the pharaoh is sometimes addressed as “My Sun” (EA 45, 49, 60, 61), but is also addressed at least once as “My Storm-God” (EA 52). At Ugarit the king as addressed as “the Sun” as well (KTU 2.81.19, 30). Mark Smith suggests Byblos and Tyre represent the points of contacts for the ideologies of Egypt and Iron Age Syria-Palestine (p. 72 here). It seems Yhwh’s assimilation of these roles is not just a result of his perceived kingship over the gods, but may also be part of a campaign to make sure Yhwh is represented with all the popular imagery.
In reading through scholarship on early Israelite religion, it seems to be taken for granted that the biblical account of Josiah’s reforms is accurate. From the priests to the high places to the polytheistic idolatry, there seems to be little thought given to the rhetorical nature of the biblical records. One of the papers I wrote for an archaeology class at Oxford dealt with the archaeological support for Josiah’s Reforms. It responded to the following essay question:
THE BIBLICAL ACCOUNT OF JOSIAH‘S REFORMS IN 2 KINGS 22–23 LISTS SEVERAL ELEMENTS OF FOLK RELIGION PREVALENT IN JUDAH AND ISRAEL IN THE PERIOD OF THE MONARCHY (C. 1000 TO 586 BCE). DISCUSS THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE FOR RELIGION IN THIS TIME AND CONSIDER HOW THIS EVIDENCE AFFECTS THE TRADITIONAL VIEW OF THE CENTRALISATION OF THE OFFICIAL CULT IN THE TEMPLE IN JERUSALEM.
A conclusion I reached is that the account in 2 Kings 22–23 is more rhetorical than historical. I try to approach questions of early Israelite religion, insofar as they bear on Josiah’s reforms, with that in mind, and I’d like to see more of that in scholarship. The paper can be found here. As always, I am looking for ways to improve my work. Any feedback is appreciated.