Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Guest Blog by Caroline Tully

[The following is a letter Caroline Tully wrote to the Biblical Archeology Review, which published part of the letter. Caroline offered to share her entire letter with readers of this blog.]

Regarding Asherah
In his critical review of William Dever’s book "Did God Have a Wife?" (BAR 32:5. 2006), Shmuel Ahituv brings up some interesting points. However, I find myself questioning some of his conclusions as well as his analysis of what Dever is doing in his book. Firstly, Ahituv describes Dever as "grading" his colleagues for their studies in religion, archaeology, anthropology and feminist studies, but isn’t Dever simply setting the scene for his ideas by informing readers about the state of scholarship on the topic to date? Ahituv criticizes Dever’s "severing" of popular religion from theology and believes that Dever ought to be able to define ancient Israelites’ ideas about divinity. However, in archaeology, while it is easy to identify things like tools and to speculate about how they might have been used, it is much more difficult to identify a religious object and to say with absolute confidence what people who used it thought or believed because thought is invisible. Even if ancient Israelites had various concrete ideas about the nature of their God(s) [and Goddesses], without texts it is difficult to know for sure what it was they really thought. We can see the material remains and speculate from there, but we cannot see inside ancient people’s heads therefore Dever is right not to enter into theological speculation in this case.

Although there is a gap between the Ugaritic texts and the Bible, most scholars believe that the Ugaritic deity, Athirat, was equivalent to Asherah. Although ‘asherah in the Bible refers to a wooden pole or tree, this does not necessarily mean that this wooden object was separate to the deity Asherah. If it was a cult object, like a standing stone as Ahituv suggests, that does not mean that it did not represent a deity. On the contrary, according to Uzi Avner in an article in BAR 27:3, 2001, in ancient Israelite religion standing stones do represent deities, hence the ‘asherah may also represent a deity. Ahituv says that "…the Biblical ‘asherah was not a goddess at all, but a cult symbol, much like a standing stone." Fine, but I must ask, a cult symbol of what? What is its significance?

We know that the ‘asherah was wooden, pole- or trunk-like, it may even have been a tree. Both Avner and Ruth Hestrin (BAR Sep/Oct 1991) believe the goddess Asherah was represented by a tree, an example of which can be seen mounted on a lion’s back on the Kuntillet Ajrud pithos. The Biblical ‘asherah may have been aniconic or it may have had human, or partially human, form. The Biblical text mentions that women wove ‘batim’ - which Ahituv translates as houses or tents for the ‘asherah. He criticizes Dever’s modification of ‘batim’ to ‘badim’, meaning garments, cloth, textiles. However, are not tents - Ahituv’s suggestion - textiles also? If this object was woven, perhaps it was a decorative curtain or drape of some sort? Ahituv also complains that Asherah did not have a temple. I don’t think that we should necessarily expect her to have a temple at this time and place in history, although Ahituv himself cites 2 Kings 17:10-11 regarding ‘asherim placed at outdoor and hilltop cultic sites.

Ahituv also mentions that on the Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom inscriptions that Asherah is never mentioned alone but always in company with YHVH. Why should she be mentioned alone in these cases when in Ugarit, Mesopotamia and South Arabia she is always associated with the chief male deity? If she was wife of Yahweh it would not be unusual for her to appear alongside him. Nor is it definite that the Kuntillet Ajrud drawing represents the Egyptian dwarf god, Bes. In this drawing, while Dever maintains that the seated lady represents Asherah, Avner (BAR 27:3) questions the two ‘Bes’ figures and suggests that they in fact represent Yahweh and Asherah, the one on the right having been incorrectly reconstructed as a ‘male’. Also, even if the drawings were partially executed over the inscription, that does not mean that conceptually they had nothing to do with the inscription.

Ahituv also doubts that the "pillar figurines" represent a goddess, let alone Asherah. He suggests that they were votive offerings designed to ensure lactation in nursing mothers. I believe however, that there is a strong possibility that these figurines do represent Asherah and may even be domestic versions of the cultic ‘asherim. The pillar figurines have been associated with the cultic ‘asherim and hence with the goddess Asherah because of their pillar or trunk-bodies which look like they might be intended to represent trees - and of course the Biblical ‘asherah/Asherah was wooden. Examples of Egyptian "nurturing trees" which had a trunk as a lower body, human arms and breasts and sometimes heads, may have been iconographic precedents of ‘asherim and/or pillar figurines. Pillar figurines were probably painted so as to appear to be wearing a skirt, however, even if the figurine’s lower body was covered in a skirt, it could still represent a skirt over a tree trunk - recall that the ‘asherim may also have worn a cloth garment of some sort.

Pillar figurines are practically always found deliberately broken at the neck, some think this is evidence of religious reform, however there is another interpretation. Ahituv cites Ziony Zevit as saying that the pillar figurines were "prayers in clay" however Zevit also describes them as "envelopes" which contained wishes or requests and had to be ritually broken so as to "post" the request to its destination. In mythology Athirat/Asherah was an intercessor with El, supplicants sought her aid when approaching him. The breakages - if we go with Zevit’s idea of the figurines being envelopes - do not really contradict the idea of pillar figurines also representing a goddess who intercedes with a more remote male god, because if to break is to send, then the figurines are still fulfilling a mediating/communicating role. Pillar figurines could represent Asherah as a messenger and/or mediator, a more approachable divine figure - a bit like Mary in Christian belief. As for them being "lactation charms", not all pillar figurines had huge breasts, see the example on the cover of BAR (32:5) in which Ahituv’s article appears.

This is a fascinating topic with implications affecting Jews, Christians and Neo-Pagans, and deserves further study. It is not enough to keep on saying that the cultic ‘asherim were "cultic objects". Yes we know that, but cultic objects of what? If scholars object to the interpretation of the asherim as representations of the goddess Asherah, then they need to say what else they could be. Simply saying "a wooden pole or tree" is not enough. If it wasn’t some sort of symbol of the wife of Yahweh, then what was it?

Caroline Tully
Melbourne, Australia

[See also, "Review Raises More Questions,"
letter from Boris Bernstein, Estonian Academy of Art]

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