It is unfortunate that we are even having to have this conversation, but lately the belief that Yahweh, the God of the Bible, had a wife or consort, the goddess Asherah who shows up a few times in scripture, has been making the rounds in the internet, not as a possibility or a hypothesis but as a “known fact” dropped condescendingly in the laps of Christians by internet pseudo-intellectuals. I would like to examine the evidence behind this hypothesis and whether it actually holds water.
A basic rundown of the argument can be found here.
Asherah, as that article notes, was an ancient fertility goddess in this part of the world, known for being the consort of powerful deities in mythologies like that of the Sumerians. The reasons that supporters of this view give for pairing Yahweh with Asherah are as follows.
1. The Archeological Evidence
“The inscription is a petition for a blessing,” [Stavrakopoulou, scholar advancing this view] shares. “Crucially, the inscription asks for a blessing from ‘Yahweh and his Asherah.’ Here was evidence that presented Yahweh and Asherah as a divine pair. And now a handful of similar inscriptions have since been found, all of which help to strengthen the case that the God of the Bible once had a wife.”
The three inscriptions that have surfaced of this type include one which says “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah”, another which says “Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah”, and one which says just “Yahweh and his Asherah” paired with a picture of a mother cow feeding her calf. The first two are specific – Yahweh of Samaria and Yahweh of Teman. Teman is a particular city held by the Edomites, whose chief deity was Kaus, and their beliefs about YHWH are somewhat irrelevant to how the Hebrews worshiped him, but the fact that these inscriptions, detailing the YHWH at two different cities with their respective Asherahs. Now it is possible that the people who created these images viewed these as distinct deities with distinct consorts, but the language (the Asherah belonging to the YHWH at city X) is more supportive of the actual scholarly view on these things – the Asherah described is not the goddess, but a cultic object used for the worship of these deities at these locations. It was not at all uncommon for “Asherah” to refer to a pagan cultic object – of the 19 Biblical uses of the word, 12 of them are used in this sense. This also makes the cow/calf imagery makes more sense – perhaps the intended message was that one was nourished by the deity through their use of the deity’s Asherah.
However, this does indicate an Asherah-inspired sort of of cultishness surrounding certain manifestations of the worship of YHWH, but as the Asherah’s mentioned are explicitly for YHWH, not for the actual goddess Asherah, I don’t know that we can count it as evidence of Asherah being worshiped alongside YHWH as his bride.
The next point made by the article is this one:
Also significant, Stavrakopoulou believes, “is the Bible’s admission that the goddess Asherah was worshiped in Yahweh’s Temple in Jerusalem. In the Book of Kings, we’re told that a statue of Asherah was housed in the temple and that female temple personnel wove ritual textiles for her.”
The part being ignored is that the worship of Asherah was explicitly something introduced by certain political figures after monotheistic Judaism was already established and very much a thing well before that in the text. Taking part of the text as historically trustworthy and then disregarding the context as not trustworthy to arrive at your presupposed conclusion is sloppy scholarship. As one of my old articles demonstrated, there is value and some historical basis for understanding the facts regarding what the Kings did as coming from the ancient historical texts that the Old Testament references and being generally trustworthy. It seems strange to accept that Asherah was worshiped in the Temple because the text says that King Manasseh set up worship of Asherah in the Temple and then reject the idea that King Manasseh set it up. That is actually cherry picking.
So far no evidence has been provided that the Biblical explanation – the worship of Asherah was something introduced and retracted after the establishment of monotheistic First Temple Judaism. Instead, the “scholar” appears to be pointing towards things which could favor either view and declaring the issue settled. One would perhaps think that this was because they were saving their best arguments for last. If that was your hope, it is my deepest regret to be the one to inform you that the second page drops the level of “scholarship” down to straight up conspiracy theory level.
“Many English translations prefer to translate ‘Asherah’ as ‘Sacred Tree,'” Wright said. “This seems to be in part driven by a modern desire, clearly inspired by the Biblical narratives, to hide Asherah behind a veil once again.”
This criticism is founded in the idea that the Asherah objects set up were Asherah herself rather than wooden poles, which contradicts things we have just established. Also, it is simply not true. The vast majority of English translations keep the word Asherah in the Bible.
Everything else in the article is simply claims and accusations that the reason their view has so little evidence is our fault, rather than a flaw in their view. At the end of this article, any rational person who knew what they were referencing would walk away thinking the jury is out on the subject. But is it?
The claim in the article is that there is a hidden polytheism that was originally in the scriptures that was removed by later redactors. For the sake of argument, independent of what your view is as a reader, we will adopt a view of the authorship of the Old Testament that is more in line with secular scholarship, including the JEDP/Documentary Hypothesis, and see whether there is any grounding for this view in even the most liberal of scholarly opinions regarding Old Testament authorship.
Scholars have spent decades combing through scriptures identifying the different authors and where a redactor might have had influence, and the idea that these texts were polytheistic prior to a redactor is not only unsupported but contradicts what they have discovered. The sections which have been peeled apart and identified as the J source and the E source are both explicitly monotheistic, and predate the texts that the author of this article is using to argue for Asherah being an original part of scripture. If the scholars who have done this work on this topic are to be believed, J, the older of the two, came out of Aaronite Priests in Judah who were decidedly monotheistic, and this monotheism was foundational to the way J described things in his stories. Where was Asherah in J’s account of the Creation? Where was Asherah in J’s account of Noah’s Flood? The silence on these subjects from a Priest from the time period these people are claiming Asherah was YHWH’s wife is deafening, and the overarching power and oneness of God is integral to both stories.
As for the texts the “scholars” reference in 1 and 2 Kings? Secular scholarship has attributed those writings to the Deuteronomist, the originator of one of the clearest statements of monotheism in the Bible, the Shema:
“Hear O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one”
And they were probably written after the time the authors pinpoint as the dropping of Asherah as YHWH’s consort. Meaning that they are bad sources for this discussion altogether.
There is simply more evidence for the suggestion that, after monotheistic first temple Judaism was already established, certain periods saw rises and falls of poly/henotheism that differed from the core religion than there is from Asherah having originally been YHWH’s consort in scripture and being stripped out by a team of reptilians or whatever. Do not allow yourself to be fooled on this topic.