This is old hat as far as scholars go, but I’m glad it is getting wider distribution. TIME posted the follow article (snippet version):
Some scholars say early versions of the Bible featured Asherah, a powerful fertility goddess who may have been God’s wife.
Research by Francesca Stavrakopoulou, a senior lecturer in the department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter, unearthed clues to her identity, but good luck finding mention of her in the Bible. If Stavrakopoulou is right, heavy-handed male editors of the text all but removed her from the sacred book.
What remains of God’s purported other half are clues in ancient texts, amulets and figurines unearthed primarily in an ancient Canaanite coastal city, now in modern-day Syria. Inscriptions on pottery found in the Sinai desert also show Yahweh and Asherah were worshipped as a pair, and a passage in the Book of Kings mentions the goddess as being housed in the temple of Yahweh.
J. Edward Wright, president of The Arizona Center for Judaic Studies and The Albright Institute for Archaeological Research, backs Stavrakopoulou’s findings, saying several Hebrew inscriptions mention “Yahweh and his Asherah.” He adds Asherah was not entirely edited out of the Bible by its male editors.
Read on for the full article. There are some problematic things with article (for one, the ‘Bible’ did not yet exist at the time when Asherah would have (a) been included in the books referenced and (b) when the redactors would have removed her, so the title is misleading). Overall it is a decent public expression of the facts, and a lot of it is acceptable. But while TIME is just posting this now, the concept behind this article had been expressed years ago, perhaps best noted by “maximalist” William Dever (we minimalists sometimes give Bill a free pass) in *gasp* BAR (I know, sacrilege!) in 2008:
The small house shrine published here for the first time provides significant support for the contention that the Israelite God, Yahweh, did indeed have a consort. At least this was true in the minds of many ordinary ancient Israelites, in contrast to the priestly elite.1 In what I call folk religion, or “popular religion,” Yahweh’s consort is best identified as “Asherah,” the old Canaanite mother goddess.2
Some of the most powerful evidence for this contention is in the Bible itself. The fact that the Bible condemns the cult of Asherah (and other “pagan” deities) demonstrates that such cults existed and were perceived as a threat to Israelite monotheism. Based on the Biblical texts alone, we can conclude that many ancient Israelites, perhaps even the majority, worshiped Asherah, Astarte, the “Queen of Heaven” and perhaps other female deities. Their sanctuaries (ba¯môt, or “high places”), we are told, were “on every hill and under every green tree.” (The phrase recurs numerous times in Kings and the Prophets.)
Some of the clearest physical evidence for the existence of a cult of Asherah is the growing collection of small house shrines. The technical name is naos (plural, naoi), a Greek word that means “temple” or “inner sanctum.”
And the great scholar, the late G. W. Ahlström, in his book The History of Ancient Palestine (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1994) discusses the subject to some degree and earlier still, in 1963, in his book Aspects of Syncretism in Israelite Religion (C.W.K. Gleerup).
Also Mark S. Smith deals with this subject extensively in his many works on the origins of Biblical monotheism (The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002], The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts [Oxford: OUP, 2003], God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010]) and the contextual “religious” aspects of the ancient world.
Of course this list isn’t comprehensive, but it does express a very large gap in time between what scholarship discusses and when the public learns about it. This is a problem that hopefully the internet will continue to solve, though for those interested, above are reliable resources for the study of the subject matter.
Filed under: Ancient Israel, Ancient Near East, Archaeology, Belief, Hebrew Bible, Minimalism, Scholarship Tagged: | Asherah, Bible, Gosta Ahlström, israel, Mark S. Smith, monotheism, polytheism, William Dever, Yahweh