Saturday, March 19, 2011

When the God of the Hebrews was Married

Over the past few decades, several inscriptions have been unearthed in Israel that invoke the blessing of "Yahweh and his Asherah," a phrase that implies a divine couple. "Asherah" is the Canaanite version of the mother goddess worshipped elsewhere as Ishtar or Astarte. She appears often in the Old Testament as part of the paganism the prophets were fighting, and they were always telling the people to "cut down their Asherah poles."
And the LORD will strike Israel, so that it will be like a reed swaying in the water. He will uproot Israel from this good land that he gave to their ancestors and scatter them beyond the Euphrates River, because they aroused the LORD’s anger by making Asherah poles. (I Kings 14:15)
These poles were representations of the divine tree that often symbolizes Asherah/Astarte in Middle Eastern art.

There are a few hints, though, that worship of Asherah had long been part of the Israelite religion. Deuteronomy 16:21 commands:
Do not set up any wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build to the LORD your God.
II Kings 21 tells us that Manasseh installed an Asherah pole in the Temple in Jerusalem. If you hold (as I do) to the interpretation that Hebrew monotheism was a development of a later period, around the time of the Babylonian Captivity, it follows that the practices the Bible's authors denounced as innovations were actually the old Hebrew way. If so, in the time of David and Solomon Yahweh must usually have been depicted with a divine wife.

(Image is a Babylonian depiction of Ishtar and the Queen of the Night, ca. 1600 BC.)

No comments: