One of the most important developments in recent study of Israelite religion has been the discovery of evidence for widespread goddess worship in archaeological contexts dating from the monarchic period, ie. the period covering much of the historical books of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (1000-600 BCE). This evidence, which includes a range of inscriptional and iconographic material, has led to a dramatic paradigm shift in scholarly views about the nature of Israelite religion and catalyzed a critical rereading of the biblical text. Israelite religion has come to be seen as a subset of Canaanite religion more broadly, with many beliefs and practices deriving from this cultural matrix (including belief in a polytheistic pantheon), while the traditions of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (OT/HB) are increasingly thought to reflect a late and ideologically tendentious perspective on Israel’s religious past.
As Latter-day Saints have a particular interest in understanding ancient Israelite belief in a divine feminine because of our own belief in Heavenly Mother, this two-part post aims to briefly 1) summarize the main pieces of archaeological evidence for goddess worship in monarchic Israel; and 2) discuss a few select references or allusions to female divinities in the traditions contained in the OT/HB.
Two separate pieces of archaeological evidence have been central to scholarly discussion about Israelite goddess worship. These are a number of inscriptions found in the Negev desert (Kuntillet ‘Ajrud) and Judah (Khirbet el-Qom) that mention Yahweh in association with a female deity referred to as “his asherah” and hundreds of small clay figurines recovered from excavations throughout central and southern Palestine that depict a female holding her breasts.
The first was something like a bombshell to biblical scholars when it became public knowledge in the 1970s and 80s, because the inscriptions explicitly associated Yahweh with a female partner. For long many biblical scholars had assumed that the biblical description of Yahweh as the only god (legitimately) worshiped in Israel was an accurate reflection of Iron Age historical realities and that Israelite religion had been unique and distinguished from Canaanite polytheistic beliefs and practices from pre-monarchical times. But now it seemed that Yahweh had been commonly understood in the monarchic period to have had a wife, not so different from the pantheons of other Canaanite and ancient Near Eastern cultures!
Subsequently over the past three decades the interpretation of the inscriptions has been much debated. Some have argued that the term “asherah” as used in the inscriptions cannot refer to the goddess known by that name in other West Semitic sources, since it appears with an attached pronominal suffix indicating Yahweh’s possession of the “asherah” (i.e. “his asherah”). Because proper names do not normally take suffixes in Hebrew, these scholars argue that “asherah” refers to a cult object of some kind (ie. an object relating to religious ritual). However, the main problem with this theory is that the genre of text/speech in which these inscriptions participate is the genre of blessings, which based on examples from elsewhere in the ancient Near East are always directed toward deities. Thus, “asherah” most likely refers to a deity. The solution to understanding the meaning of the term in this context is that some Ugaritic (West Semitic/Canaanite language related to Hebrew) evidence suggests that the term “asherah” could have a common noun nuance like “divine consort” or “wife” in addition to its proper noun usage. On this reading, the inscriptions would be translated something like, “I bless you to Yahweh and his consort.”
In addition to the inscriptions’ controversial association of Yahweh with a female partner, one inscription is particularly remarkable since it is accompanied by a picture depicting two figures arm in arm that are thought to be an illustration of Yahweh and “his asherah” (seen at the top of the page). These representations are totally alien to modern religious aesthetic sensibilities, as the deities are portrayed with a combination of bovine features and dwarf-god imagery that derives from the popular Egyptian protective deity named Bes. Presumably, this strange symbolism communicated something important about the deities’ natures and was perhaps a way of emphasizing their ontological difference from mortal worshippers.
The second piece of archaeological evidence is the so-called Pillar Figurines. While the figurines have accumulated slowly over the last century and therefore have not attracted the same kind of sudden attention as have the inscriptions, they have had a similar effect in changing scholarly views about the nature of ancient Israelite religion. These figurines have been found literally everywhere in Judah (hundreds in Jerusalem alone!) and predominantly in relation to domestic and household contexts, suggesting that they were used in localized family religious practices of some kind.
As with the inscriptions, there has been some scholarly resistance to recognizing these small statuettes as evidence for goddess worship. Some have suggested that because they lack explicit divine attributes (such as a divine headdress) that they are better taken as mortal females used in magical practices invoking a deity for healing or fertility. But this argument is problematic, since a variety of ancient iconographic evidence suggests that deities could be portrayed without explicit divine symbols and the partial nudity and stance of the figurines are hardly appropriate for mortal women. These figurines are consistently shown in the stance of holding/offering their breasts, a posture that strongly suggests that they represent a benevolent and matronly divine figure who nourishes.
To what divinity do these figurines correspond? Well, we lack any explicit inscriptional evidence that would identify this smiling and buxom female; no figurine has been discovered with an inscribed label. The OT/HB even seems to fail to mention the existence of these omnipresent clay female figurines (but compare the use of the word teraphim in Gen 31:34). However, I think the most plausible interpretation is that they represent the goddess Asherah, whom the biblical authors acknowledge to have been the most important female deity worshiped in ancient Israel (e.g. 2 Kgs 21:7; 23:4-7). Based on what we know about Asherah from comparative evidence, she seems to have been a motherly and domestic figure, a powerful goddess and wife of the high god. In addition, the Bible shows Asherah’s cult to have been particularly prominent in Jerusalem, precisely where so many of the figurines have been found.
From the available evidence, we would have to conclude that the worship of Asherah was widespread in ancient Israel, so widespread that it would not be presumptuous to say that her veneration was culturally normative, ie. it would have been difficult for anyone to imagine the divine world without her or even to get by in daily life without her assistance. Strange at it may seem, Asherah was crucial to the religious beliefs and practices of the world that eventually became famous for producing the monotheistic literature contained in the Bible. Finally, we should also note that Asherah may not have been the only goddess recognized in monarchic Israel. The picture of Yahweh’s “asherah” discussed above portrays a female divinity that substantially differs from the image of the full-breasted and motherly figure depicted by the figurines, implying that there may have been a younger asherah and an older Asherah simultaneously worshiped in the pantheon.
Part 2 about evidence for goddess worship in the OT/HB will be posted next Thursday.