Asherah, the Wife of God

After exploring the relationship between masculine and feminine aspects of the divine in gnosticism I was surprised to learn that in some of the most ancient Israelite literature available, Yahweh may have had a wife. Her name was Asherah. While the scholarly community as a whole has been hesitant to state that Asherah was an independent entity, instead of some kind of votive offering, ritual or mediating principle, there are a number of researchers who accept that she was indeed just that. In either case, Asherah was certainly a Semitic deity worshiped in the Middle East and parts of north eastern Africa. She existed, but did she ever come to play the role of the “Queen of Heaven”?

Before the more widespread imposition of an austere, monotheistic Judaism, Yahwey seemed to have often been worshiped alongside other local deities, such as Baal and Asherah. Particularly in the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit (in present day Syria) Asherah and Yahwey were repeatedly presented together in what some scholars, such as Francesca Stavrakopoulou, suggest is a matrimonial relationship.

The practice of worshiping imported and quasi-local deities was disrupted in ancient Israelite societies after conflict with the Assyrians caused a backlash against foreign imports, particularly of a theological bent, and at some point before the 7th century BCE, references to Asherah becomes scarce.

With a dilettante’s eye, a brief glimpse of the literature does suggest that some groups probably worshiped Asherah as a consort of Yahwey, as it was a common practice in other Semitic religions at the time, though the question of how widespread this practice was, and its uniformity from one Israelite community to the other, is harder to ascertain.

What does seem clear is that the answer to the question: “Did God have a wife?” could be vitally important to the present socio-cultural milieu in which we find ourselves. We have the historical evidence to show how Christianity emerged as an extremely heterogeneous, “pagan” and politically contingent phenomena during the decline of the Roman Empire. Yet because of its greater age and the nature of the sources left behind, it is much harder to clearly delineate all of the contingencies in the origins of Judaism (though contingencies there must be, it being a historical phenomena). The authority provided by the sense of necessity surrounding this lack of knowledge about the historical past, combined with the current tensions in the area, still living ideas of birthright and religious, if not ethnic purity, make for a highly charged issue that could undermine present day claims and interests in the Middle East.

The debates surrounding Asherah, “God’s wife”, demonstrate just how far the past can reach into the present, especially when that past is shrouded in mystery, and aside from what or who was worshiped those thousands of years ago, attentive observers will  learn much more about our current society than is possible of those earlier epochs. Yet because, not despite, of this difficulty, it makes a careful consideration of what has been left behind all the more important.

For More Information:

Emerton, J.A. (Jul., 1999). “‘Yahweh and His Asherah’: The Goddess or Her Symbol?” In Vetus Testamentum Vol. 49, Fasc. 3, pp. 315-337.

Olyan, Saul. (1988). Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Hadley, Judith. (2000). The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Becking, Bob. (2001). Only one god?: monotheism in ancient Israel and the veneration of the goddess Asherah. London: Sheffield Academic Press.

Cornelius, Izak. (2004). The many faces of the goddess : the iconography of the Syro-Palestinian goddesses Anat, Astarte, Qedeshet, and Asherah, c. 1500-1000 BCE. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.