A New Analysis of YHWH’s asherah

Courtesy of Z. Radovan

Over the years the inscriptions found at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (KA) and Khirbet el-Qom (KQom) that mention an asherah in association with the god YHWH have attracted a staggering amount of discussion, and when considered as a whole what is most striking about this scholarly discourse is the degree to which it has been marked by persistent and wide divergence over the meaning of consonantal ʾšrth = אשרתה. While the prospect that the term may constitute evidence that a female deity was worshiped alongside YHWH in ancient Israel-Judah has been generally acknowledged, the question of whether it refers directly to a goddess has been hotly disputed, with not a few arguing that an object of some kind rather than a deity is in view.[1]

As a result, until now no one scholarly analysis has been able to catalyze anything approaching a consensus on the subject of YHWH’s asherah; instead interpretations have proliferated and alternative theories proposed, so that today several competing approaches to understanding ʾšrth exist, each one viewing the evidence significantly different from the others. Surveying this fragmented and disjointed scholarly landscape, it is difficult not to be reminded of the proverbial elephant in a dark room, where many individuals examining the same object identify it differently because of the particular kinds of data they take into account.

At this juncture it may be helpful to step back and freshly examine the issue without loyalty to any preexisting theory. Simply running in one of the tracks that has gone before is not likely to break the current interpretive impasse. What we need is a new approach that seeks to incorporate a greater range of data and evaluates prior theories both with regard to their insights and methodological deficiencies.

Furthermore, it would seem that the time is ripe for such an analysis. With the publication of the final excavation report of KA, we are now in a much better position to make informed judgments about the inscriptions found there and their relationship to the immediate epigraphic, iconographic, and material context. The readings at least of the inscriptions that mention YHWH and ʾšrth are for the most part well understood and epigraphically confirmed (Aḥituv, Eshel, and Meshel 2012: 73-142), while interpretations of the historical background and function of the site have coalesced around a minimum consensus that it originated as a royal Israelite outpost on the ‘Ghazza Road’ trade route and that at least part of the complex included dedicated cultic space (Zevit 2001: 370-381; Schmidt 2002: 96, 98-99; 2016: 217-219; Frevel 2008: 39-40; Na’aman and Lissovsky 2008: 186–203; Mastin 2011: 69-85; Na’aman 2011: 300-302; 2015; Mandell 2012: 131-162; Meshel 2012: 65-69; Blum 2013; Finkelstein 2015; Ornan 2016). At the same time, our ability to situate the inscriptions and other cultural phenomena from ancient Israel-Judah within the broader landscape of the eastern Mediterranean/Levant has developed considerably over the last several decades. Reconstructions of Israelite-Judahite religion have gradually become more rigorous in their application of historical methodology, which in practice has meant less bibliocentrism and more dependence on what can be readily identified as primary sources of information, while various disciplines and fields of study on regions and cultures geographically and temporally proximate to Israel-Judah have made independent progress, allowing for more refined cross-cultural comparative analysis.

The following paper aims to take advantage of this state of affairs by reexamining inscriptional ʾšrth in order to critically assess previous scholarship on the issue and advance an interpretation that is not only methodologically defensible, i.e. less problematic than current alternatives, but historically more plausible given our present knowledge of the cultural context of ancient Israel-Judah. I will begin by laying out my reading of the relevant inscriptions and then move to a consideration of the divine status of Hebrew ʾšrth as a necessary preliminary to the interpretive process of elucidating the meaning of the term. As we will see, if it can be established that ʾšrth refers to a divine entity, then this will have important implications for the possible range of semantic nuances that we may consider attributing to it. From here, we will then survey the three main interpretations of ʾšrth operative in current scholarship that assume the word/expression denotes a female deity. By carefully examining each of these proposals, we will be able to eliminate some readings of ʾšrth as historically doubtful and build on others as a means of proposing the hypothesis that the term asherah was a common noun used in monarchic era Israel-Judah to designate the female partner of YHWH.



The Inscriptions


brkt. ʾtkm.

lyhwh. šmrn. wlʾšrth.[2]


“I bless you to YHWH of Samaria and to his asherah


brktk ly

hwh tmn

wlʾšrth. yb

rk. wyšmrk

wywy ʿm. ʾdn



“I bless you to YHWH of Teman and to his asherah. May he bless and protect you and may he continue with my lord”


]lyhwh htmn. wlʾšrth.  

]kl ʾšr. yšʾl. [mʾš?]. ḥnn hʾ wʾm pth wntn lh yhw klbbh.[4]


“to YHWH of Teman and to his asherah[…] all that he asks (from YHWH?), he is generous, and if he entreats, then YHWH will give to him according to his wishes”[5]


[y]ʾrk. ymm. wyśbʿw[…] ytnw. l[y]hwh[.] tymn. wlʾšrth[

]. hyṭb. yhwh. hty[mn…]y. hyṭb. ym[m[6]


“he will lengthen their days and they will be filled and they will give to YHWH of Teman and his asherah[…] do good, YHWH of Teman[ …] make their days good”


brkt ʾryhw lyhwh

wmṣryh lʾs̆rth hwšʿ lh




.            [wlʾšrth][7]


“Blessed be Uriyahu to YHWH and to his asherah, save him from his enemies…. to Abiyahu…. and to his asherah…. and to his asherah[8]



The Divine Status of YHWH’s Asherah

When approaching the conundrum of ʾšrth, the first question we face is methodological: How do we go about interpreting a word in inscriptions whose meaning is uncertain and that appears in an expression for which no precise parallel exists elsewhere in Hebrew? Understandably enough, the standard approach has been to accept a straightforward analysis of ʾšrth as the feminine noun ʾšrt with an attached pronominal suffix –h and then to establish the term’s meaning from the vantage point of the known lexical-semantic values of asherah in other NWS texts. Because asherah is clearly attested as the proper name of a major Levantine goddess, a heterodox cult object in the Bible, and a shrine or cult place, each meaning is typically considered in turn and assessed as to which is most amenable to the inscriptional and religio-historical context with arguments advanced in favor of one or the other.

However, this philologically centered either/or approach is unsatisfactory insofar as it treats the process of interpreting inscriptional ʾšrth in a rather mechanistic fashion, as if it were merely a matter of weighing and choosing among several well-defined possibilities. By focusing chiefly on asherah as proper name and asherah as cult object/shrine the analysis fails to observe that the interpretive options are not only highly incommensurate to one another (divine/non-divine), stem from divergent ideological and cultural contexts (ancient inscription/traditional religious text), and may provide an incomplete picture of the semantic range of the term asherah as it was used during the Iron Age of ancient Israel-Judah, but the process of elimination that this approach entails invariably results in a distortion of the underlying evidence, so that some data is ignored or suppressed while other aspects are foregrounded and treated as decisive. For example, the interpretation of ʾšrt as a reference to the goddess Asherah can account for evidence that the inscription has in view a female deity paired with YHWH as an object of blessing but at the same time is unable to decisively explain the significance of the attached pronominal suffix, while the interpretation of ʾšrt as a cult object/shrine belonging to YHWH resolves the pronominal suffix and yet downplays evidence that the blessing is directed toward a deity.

Methodologically, it would seem wise therefore to try to separate the issue of determining the divine status of ʾšrth from clarifying the precise meaning of the expression/term. Different and largely independent evidence bears on each question, requiring that the indications ʾšrth is a deity be given full consideration without feeling the need to prejudge the issue by fitting the term into a particular lexical-semantic slot. If it can be decided that ʾšrt refers to a deity on independent grounds, then this will provide a more reliable basis from which to theorize and speculate about its possible meaning.

With these prefatory remarks in mind, we can begin by pointing out that the argument in favor of interpreting ʾšrth as a deity is in fact functional in nature and has fairly little to do with the lexical-semantic value of the term asherah as used in other NWS texts. The argument combines a number of factors both internal and external to the inscriptions, which can be listed in the order of their importance:


1) In the context of the inscriptions ʾšrth is invoked parallel with YHWH as an independent object of blessing. The parallelism is marked syntactically by the l- attached to both YHWH and ʾšrth and by the coordinating w- that separates them.[9] Regardless of the presence of a possible suffix on ʾšrt, the syntax of the blessing implies that YHWH and ʾšrth are corresponding divine entities (Dever 1984: 30; Müller 1992: 28; Frevel 1995: 20-21; Köckert 1998: 165; Miller 2000: 36; Zevit 2001: 404; Irsigler 2011: 142; Mandell 2012: 140).


2) In comparable blessings from the broader region only deities are named as objects of the formula brk l-: e.g. brktk lyhwh “I bless you to YHWH” (Arad); whbrktk lqws “I bless you to Qws” (Ḥorvat Uza); brktk lbʿl ṣpn wlkl ʾl tḥpnḥs “I bless you to Baal Zaphon and to all the gods of Tachpanchas” (Saqqara); brktky lptḥ “I bless you to Ptah” (Hermopolis); brktk lyhh wlḥnb “I bless you to YHWH and to Khnum” (Elephantine) (Margalit 1990: 276; Müller 1992: 28; Pardee 1995: 302; 2005: 282; Frevel 1995: 20-21; Tropper 2001: 101; Zevit 2001: 404; Rösel 2003: 107-121; Leuenberger 2008: 121 n. 35).


3) As a number of scholars have opined, inscription 3.1 on pithos A is linked to an illustration of what appears to be YHWH and his consort (Gilula 1979: 129-37; Margalit 1990: 274-78; Coogan 1987: 119; 2010: ; Schmidt 1995: 96-102; 2002: 107-108; Zevit 2001: 381-89; McCarter 2003a: 171; Mandell 2012: 136-137; cf. Uehlinger 1997: 142-46; 2016; Hadley 2000: 136-44; Beck 2012; Ornan 2016: 20; Schmidt 2016). Although many following Beck’s initial study of the iconography of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud have rejected any direct correlation of text and imagery, R. Thomas has recently offered a reassessment of the pithos imagery that supports identifying the Bes-like figures with YHWH and his female partner (2016).


4) The immediate archaeological context of the inscriptions at KA was evidently polytheistic. The divine name Baal is attested in at least two separate inscriptions, and El and “Name of El” are mentioned in a mythological context in a plaster wall inscription from the bench room (4.2; 4.4.1; cf. Dijkstra 2001: 24; Zevit 2001: 374, 404, 437; Mastin 2011: 81-82; Aḥituv, Eshel, and Meshel 2012: 133; Mandell 2012: 138; Levine 2014a: 39; Schmidt 2016: 90-94).


5) There is growing evidence for the worship of female deities in Iron Age Israel-Judah, including widespread use of pillar figurines, cultic dualism in the form of standing stones, and other pictorial imagery, such as an incised image of a god and goddess pair recovered from eighth-century Jerusalem (Kletter 1996; 2002; Uehlinger 1997; Köckert 1998; Keel and Uehlinger 1998; Johnston 2003; Dever 2005; 2014; Albertz 2008; Gilmour 2009; 2015; Bloch-Smith 2014; 2016; Römer 2015; L. Levine 2016; cf. Darby 2014; Stavrakopoulou 2016).


6) The lexeme asherah is often associated with female divinity in ancient Syria-Palestine, including in the Hebrew Bible (Day 1986: 385-408; 2002: 42-48; Wyatt 1999: 99-105; Merlo 2009a: 975-80).


In line with these various considerations, scholarly acceptance that asherah refers to a deity in the context of the inscriptions is much broader and more widely held than ideas about what ʾšrth means in particular or how the name should be analyzed. As we will see later, some scholars take ʾšrth to be the proper name Asherah with an attached suffix, others that the –h is integral to the spelling of the name, and still others that the construction refers to a common noun asherah meaning “goddess” or “consort.”

The main alternatives to interpreting ʾšrth as a deity is to assume that it refers to a cult object or shrine connected to YHWH. This line of thinking takes its point of departure from the fact that the h- on ʾšrth is most easily analyzed as a pronominal suffix with YHWH as the antecedent and therefore as a declined substantive ʾšrt must represent a common noun rather than a proper name. According to the syntactic context, ʾšrt cannot refer to the goddess Asherah, but must signify something else.

The cognate to inscriptional ʾšrt is frequently attested in the HB as a wooden cult object connected to heterodox Israelite worship, namely the asherah (e.g. Ex 34:13; Deut 7:5; 12:3; 16:21). So for those who see the application of a suffix as militating against a reference to Asherah, the general tendency has been to resolve the problem of inscriptional asherah by recourse to known Hebrew usage. The asherah is a wooden cult object of some kind; as a common noun this would explain why it is marked as a possession belonging to YHWH. The cult object theory has been advanced in various forms since the beginning of research on the inscriptions and was recently featured as the preferred interpretation of the final publication of the inscriptions from KA (Aḥituv, Eshel, and Meshel 2012).[10] Based on one’s interpretation of the biblical evidence and reconstruction of the historical context, proponents of the theory diverge into those who see the cult object as a representation of the goddess Asherah, either non-anthropomorphic or anthropomorphic (Emerton 1982: 18; 1999: 335; Maier 1986: 169-73; Olyan 1988: 31-32; Ackerman 1992: 62-66; Hadley 1994: 244-48; 2000: 105; Mayes 1997: 63-65; Jeremias and Hartenstein 1999: 115; Day 2002: 52-61; Sommer 2009: 45-46; Walls 2016: 275; cf. McCarter 1987; North 1989), and those who regard it as a non-anthropomorphic symbol connected to YHWH that need not have represented a female deity (Lemaire 1984: 42-51; Tigay 1986: 26-29; Koch 1988: 99-100; Wiggins 1993: 181; Keel and Uehlinger 1998: 228-232; Hadley 2000: 83; Smith 2002: 118-133; 2011; Mastin 2004: 326-351; Roberts and Roberts 2006; Aḥituv 2008: 221-24).

Starting from the same interpretive position that ʾšrt is not the proper name of the goddess Asherah, some have more recently proposed that it means “shrine” or “sanctuary,” based on comparative epigraphic data that this was the word’s basic meaning in Phoenician, Aramaic, and Philistian of the first millennium (Cross 2009; Sass 2014; Puech 2015).

Yet both of these approaches to interpreting inscriptional asherah are open to critique on methodological and substantive grounds. First, by focusing on particular lexical-semantic values as a means of resolving the difficulty of the pronominal suffix the analysis pays insufficient attention to what should be the primary context for determining the meaning of ʾšrth: the inscriptions themselves, and outside of that, the cultural and rhetorical-linguistic world from which the inscriptions emerged. As was shown above, that context suggests rather unambiguously that ʾšrth is a deity. Several factors converge on this point, the most important being that asherah is treated on a par with YHWH and functions as a divine object of blessing.

Second, even if we were to accept the argument that the presence of the suffix militates against understanding ʾšrth as the proper name of the goddess Asherah, this grammatical feature cannot be used to exclude interpreting ʾšrt as a reference to a deity. Syntactically speaking, the pronominal suffix is strictly neutral on the question of the divine status of asherah. It tells us only that in mind of the speaker the entity asherah is sufficiently indeterminate, i.e. non-unique, to require it being specified for the linguistic-communicative context.

Third, because the suffix does not by itself preclude interpreting ʾšrth as a deity, the main argument that the theory relies on to make the claim that the asherah is a non-divine entity is a lexical-semantic one: the asherah cult object meaning is attested in Hebrew and in a general way seems to fit the cultic setting. But this lexical-semantic argument is fundamentally inadequate for substantiating such a claim. Throughout modern research of the ancient Near East new or unknown deities are not primarily identified on this basis, i.e. whether their name conforms to some previously known divine nomenclature, but rather by their function and whether they are treated as divine by those who regarded them as such.[11] In other words, we know a deity when we meet one because of the particular context in which it occurs, not because it bears a certain name. In addition, it is well known that the names and designations used for deities in many ancient Near Eastern cultures were highly variable in function and origin, embracing proper names, common noun titles, and nominal forms that otherwise denote non-divine objects or abstract concepts (cf. Rahmouni 2008). So it is questionable to assume that just because a nominal form refers to a non-divine object in one context that it must do the same in another.

Fourth, the preserved canon of Hebrew scripture and the epigraphic use of asherah in other Canaanite languages are not necessarily a reliable lexical-semantic base from which to determine what range of meanings obtained for the term in the context of ancient Israel-Judah (Coogan 1987: 119; Xella 2001: 72-74; Sass 2014). On the one hand, while we cannot reject out of hand that the biblical understanding of asherah as cult icon is somehow related to the asherah of the inscriptions, neither can we automatically assume their equivalence. The HB is on the whole a much later document that took shape in an ideological and cultural context far removed from the world of the inscriptions, namely, a rigorous monotheizing and aniconic form of Judaism that came to prominence during the Second Temple period (Schmid 2003; Edelman 2009; Niehr 2010a; Kratz 2015; Römer 2015). Virtually all references to the asherah cult object occur in Dtr or Dtr-related literature, where it is portrayed as an illicit cult item and something that YHWH requires to be destroyed, whereas references to proper deities are few and far between.[12] It is thus doubtful whether the biblical understanding of asherah as essentially a material cult object preceded the construction of this literature and had always belonged to the cultic vocabulary of Israel-Judah and was rather an innovation peculiar to the Dtr authors, reflecting their agenda to rhetorically delegitimize cult statuary (cf. Binger 1997: 138-41; Sass 2014).

Furthermore, the cult object understanding of asherah is not the only meaning of the term preserved in the Bible. As we will see later, there are actually several different senses attested, including asherah as the regular name of a goddess (e.g. 1 Kgs 15:13; 18:19; 2 Kgs 21:7), asherah as a class of female divinities (Jdgs 3:7), and asherah as an illicit cult object (e.g. Ex 34:13; Dt 7:5; 12:3; 16:21). As a consequence, even if we were to agree that biblical Hebrew could serve as a guide for interpreting inscriptional asherah, one would still have to explain why the cult object understanding of asherah fits the context better than other attested meanings.

On the other hand, the attestation of the lexeme ʾšrt in related Canaanite languages of the first millennium is only of limited use. Because Asherah was no longer used as a divine name for a major goddess in Phoenicia and was superseded by Astarte in Phoenician-Punic culture this does not mean that the same would have been the case in the central highlands of Israel-Judah (Schmidt 2016: 96; cf. Smith 2002: 130-131; 2011: 216; Aḥituv, Eshel, and Meshel 2012: 131). As is well known, the various national cultures in the southern Levant of the first millennium show a tendency to differentiate the names of their patron deities, each adopting local or regional divine nomenclature. In other words, Canaanite religion was characterized by diversity as well as broad diachronic and synchronic stability. Gods very similar to second millennium El and Asherah continued to be worshiped throughout the first millennium, sometimes under different names (e.g. YHWH).

Not only would it have been possible for an Israelite-Judahite cult of Asherah to have survived outside of Phoenicia, we cannot assume that ʾšrt in the sense of “shrine” or “cult place” was general to NWS during the first millennium. While it seems clear that this meaning was current in Phoenician, Philistian, and Aramaic (so Sass 2014: 51-52), in the preserved literature of the HB ʾšrh consistently refers to a divinity or cult icon but never a shrine or sanctuary (Römer 2016: 385-386). In addition, it is possible that ʾšr(t) in the sense of “place, shrine” and ʾšrt as divinity were not pronounced the same. Whereas the noun ʾšr was pronounced with a short a vowel after the second radical or was vowelless (ʾašar/ʾašrat), the name ʾšrt was vocalized with a short i vowel (ʾaširat).[13] Sass’s suggestion that the interpretation of ʾšrt as shrine may find support in Hebrew personal names in which ʾšr functions as a theophoric falters on the basis that the epithet likely means “Fortune” and is etymologically unrelated to the divine name Asherah.[14]

Fifth, an additional consideration thought to support the view that asherah is a non-divine entity is that all the continuations of the blessings in praise and prayer invoke only a singular masculine subject (3.6; 3.9; 4.1.1; KQom). For example, inscription 3.6 on Pithos B includes a prayer after the initial blessing in 3ms, “May he bless and protect you and may he continue with my lord.” The KQom inscription similarly ends with a prayer: “and from his enemies deliver (הושע) him!” with “deliver” in 2ms. From this many have concluded that only YHWH is envisioned acting on behalf of the party who is blessed, rather than YHWH and asherah together (e.g. Tigay 1987: 190; Emerton 1999: 320-21; Heide 2002: 112; Aḥituv, Eshel, and Meshel 2012: 132; Puech 2015: 13). For example, Aḥituv, Eshel, and Meshel state, “The asherah is not incorporated into the blessings and prayers. The manner of use of the word אשרה in these formulas does not support the notion that it refers to a goddess” (2012: 132). However, because YHWH is a major focus of the discourse surrounding the blessings proper it does not follow that the asherah is non-divine or negate evidence that the term functions as a separate deity next to YHWH. If it were the case that the authors of the inscriptions thought only of YHWH as a source of blessing, then there would have been no need to mention the asherah with the w- and l- formulation.

In order to explain this aspect of the inscriptions, it is worth keeping in mind that only male divine names appear in the other display and dedicatory inscriptions found at KA and KQom, for example, YHWH, El, and Baal.[15] In KA inscription 1.2 a dedication invokes the blessing of YHWH alone, without any mention of an asherah. Further, YHWH is the theophoric of choice in personal names at KA and KQom: out of ten theophoric names at KA at least nine feature yw and at KQom out of five theophoric names all five feature yhw (Heide 2002; Aḥituv, Eshel, and Meshel 2012: 128). These epigraphic discoveries align with the fact that personal names found throughout late Iron Age Israel-Judah have tended as a rule to contain only male theophoric elements, with forms of YHWH being the most common (Albertz 2012: 339-67). Very few personal names have been discovered that invoke a female deity, even though we can be confident that goddesses were commonly recognized based on iconographic and textual data.[16]

The focus on YHWH in praise and prayers in inscriptions therefore falls into a larger cultural pattern of spotlighting male deities, and particularly YHWH, in public expressions of worship (e.g. van der Toorn 2002: 233). Considered from a socio-cultural perspective, this tendency is not at all surprising, since ancient Israelite-Judahite culture was patriarchal in the sense that women were typically subordinate to men in the public arena and particularly their husbands.[17] Assuming a homology between the divine and human world, it would make sense for YHWH to be treated as the dominant authority and active partner in a male-female pair, that is, the one more than likely to be invoked and celebrated in public cult as the power that answered prayer and bestowed blessing on individuals in the community. Further illustration of the patriarchal conceptions underlying the focus on YHWH is reflected in other aspects of the inscriptions. The texts all follow a formula of placing YHWH as the initial object of blessing, with the geographical specification attached to him if there is one, and then the asherah linked to him through a masculine pronominal suffix, the implication being that YHWH is primary and his asherah secondary. In addition, as R. Thomas (2016) has discussed, the image of YHWH and his consort on Pithos A itself portrays YHWH in preeminent position, staggered in front of his female partner and significantly taller and provided with a larger crown.

So if patriarchy helps clarify the prominence of YHWH in the inscriptions, why the abrupt shift from a male-female dualism to a masculine singular subject? Among those who accept that asherah refers to a deity various explanations have been offered (cf. Müller 1992: 32; Frevel 1995: 20-21; Renz 1995b: 91-92; Zevit 2001: 397; Xella 2001: 73; Schmid 2003: 24-25, n. 50; Jericke 2010: 170; Irsigler 2011: 143-45; Naʾaman 2011: 303-304; Levine 2014b: 178, 182; Schmidt 2016: 94-95). Müller proposed that the blessing for general prosperity directed to YHWH and his asherah in inscription 3.6 should be functionally distinguished from the succeeding prayer for guidance and protection, which he sees as relevant only to a single personal god, namely YHWH (1992: 32). But it is difficult to see how the content of the invocations is all that different (e.g. brkty/ybrk in 3.6), and in any case this explanation fails to reckon with the broader pattern of invocations of YHWH and his asherah followed by verbal content in the masculine singular. Others have assumed that the singular continuations demonstrate the subordination of the asherah to YHWH (Schmid 2003: 24-25, n. 50; Köckert 2005: 11; Jericke 2010: 170; Irsigler 2011: 143-45; Römer 2015: 166). But while the subordination of asherah to YHWH is certainly reflected in the phraseology of the inscriptions, this begs the question of why reference to the goddess disappears altogether.

Perhaps a step closer to the right track is Xella’s explanation that “from the point of view of the history of religions, and from that specific to the Semitic tradition, it is quite normal that the main source (but not only!) of charisma is the male god and that from him thus emanates formally the power of blessing” (2001: 73). Because the blessings are directed to YHWH and his asherah on an equal plane, we may even go further and infer that the masc. sing. continuations have in view YHWH and his asherah acting together as a compound entity, with the agency of the asherah having been subsumed into the male god’s agency (cf. Köckert 1998: 166; Frevel 1995: 20-21; Schmid 2003: 24-25; Levine 2014b: 178; Schmidt 2016: 95). In her treatment of the inscription at KQom, Hadley noted, “As Yahweh (and) his asherah can be regarded as a compound subject, a plural verb is not necessary (cf. especially Kuntillet Ajrud). There are several instances in the Old Testament where a compound subject takes a singular verb (cf. e.g. Prov. xxvii 9 and xxix 15)” (2000: 96).

Furthermore, as recognized by Frevel (1995: 21), we have a fairly close parallel to the phraseology invoking YHWH and his asherah and then YHWH alone in Punic and Late Punic dedicatory inscriptions, which sometimes begin by invoking Baal Hammon and Tinnit together and then conclude with a formula in the masc. sing., “To the Lord Baal Hammon and to our Lady Tinnit the Face of Baal… because he heard his voice, he blessed him” (KAI 102).[18] With regard to the ending formula, Emerton has expressed doubt that the reading “he blessed him” is correct, since the orthography of 3ms forms of the verb brk “to bless” is often indistinguishable from the plural (1999: 320-21). But according to Robert Kerr, the singular number of the verbs in the formula is shown by the Punic dedication in Greek script from El-Hofra (KAI 175; σαμω κουλω βαραχω) “that can only render ‘he heard his voice, he blessed him’ [and] is supported by the same formula translated into Greek in KAI 176; this is also supported by some vocalized neo-Punic spellings” (personal communication, Dec. 28, 2013). Thus in the space of a single inscription the divine object of dedication shifts from speaking about two separate male and female deities to an emphasis on the masculine principle only, as though the latter were corresponding to or inclusive of the former. Interestingly, Kerr’s explanation for the shift to the masculine singular is that Tinnit “when mentioned in such texts is invariably denoted as the /fanḗ bâl/ or literally ‘the face of Bal’ and not as a [completely] independent entity. Tinnit is thus an aspect of “Bal (H)Ammon.”

From this comparative context, it is fairly easy to see how “YHWH and his asherah” functions as an integral unit. On the assumption that ʾšrth consists of ʾšrt + –h masculine suffix, the asherah is linked directly to her male partner as an entity subordinate to him, comparable to the linkage of Tinnit to Baal through the epithet “Face of Baal.” By associating the asherah to YHWH in this manner, not only is YHWH’s agency and authority over the asherah emphasized, but the two are portrayed as closely interrelated, making independent female agency susceptible to being expressed as integral to YHWH. If this interpretation is correct, then it would mean that when an individual blessed another person to “YHWH and his asherah” and then continued with prayers in the masculine singular it was not a case that the agency of the female deity was seen as non-existent or ineffectual, but rather that she was implicitly assumed to have a contributory role in the matter and regarded as somehow inseparable from YHWH.

The last criticism of the cult object theory is that it assumes a blessing by a deity’s cult object, as distinct from the deity, was conceivable in an ancient Near Eastern context. That is to say, according to this view, asherah was understood to be essentially the name of a cult emblem, whether it belonged to Asherah or YHWH. But as has been repeatedly pointed out by others, this approach to understanding the meaning of asherah is problematic on religio-historical grounds. In the ancient Near East the deity and cult icon were inextricably related: the icon was deity and treated as such (Olyan 1988: 31; Ackerman 1992: 65; Frevel 1995: 899-904; Stolz 1996: 122; Köckert 1998; Xella 2001: 74; Schmid 2003: 23-24; Parker 2006: 87-88; Merlo 2009a: 979; Levine 2014b: 182-84; Römer 2015: 166).[19] Although divinity was not necessarily coterminous to its cultic manifestation, since if an icon was destroyed or stolen the deity generally continued to function as an agent outside of or in addition to its material embodiment, under normal conditions the icon was the “effective locus of cultic presence on earth…. as the only god within reach, people tended to identity the statue-deity symbiosis as their god and to treat it accordingly with care and petitions even if they theoretically envisioned the god as far more than the image” (2013: 367). Pongratz-Leisten and Sonik have helpfully distinguished between “divinity as primary agent and all of the various media distributing its agency (its indexes or indices…) as secondary agents” and then noted the common human tendency to conflate “the referent and its (re)presentation, of the source of power or agency (the divine) on the one hand with the thing mediating its presence (the material index) on the other” (2015: 20-21). Thus, in the context of worship and lived religion it would have been inappropriate and even nonsensical for an ancient Israelite-Judahite to speak about a cult image of a deity or “secondary agent” as something entirely distinct from the deity.

Proponents of the cult object theory have cited multiple parallels to the notion of blessing by a cultic object or sanctuary in order to validate their reading of the inscriptions (Lemaire 1977: 608; Tigay 1986: 28-29; 1990: 218; Emerton 1999: 333; Smith 2002: 120; Cross 2009: 23; Sommer 2009; Aḥituv, Eshel, and Meshel 2012: 132; Aḥituv 2014: 35-36; Sass 2014: 58-60). These include the Babylonian epistolary salutation, “may Uruk and Eanna bless my lord” (ABL 274; 268); a Phoenician inscription from Byblos recording a dedication to “our Lord and the Image [sml] of Baal” (KAI 12); memorial inscriptions from Hatra directed to various deities as well as smytʾ “standards” (KAI 251; 256); examples of individuals swearing by a temple or cult paraphernalia from Elephantine (AP 44/TAD B 7.3) and in biblical (Amos 8:14), early Christian (Matt 23:16-22), and rabbinic sources. However, closer inspection casts doubt on the interpretations attributed to this material. The first blessing by “Uruk and Eanna” has a peculiar history tied to southern Babylon, where temples and cities were sometimes treated as divine subjects or agents. Arnold has argued that the epistolary salutation was a “gubernatorial formula employed only by the governors of Uruk during the seventh century B. C.” (1992: 384).[20] On the other hand, blessings in greeting formulae from Mesopotamia and throughout the ANE were typically directed to anthropomorphic deities. For example, in Neo-Assyria this included Nabu and Marduk (i.e. son and father), but also husband and wife pairs, such as Aššur and Mullissu or Sin and Nikkal (Salonen 1967; Parpola 1983: 439-42; Luukko 2012: 113-14).

With regard to the dedication to the “Image [sml] of Baal” (KAI 12) from Roman period Byblos, the immediate context reads lʾdnn wlsml bʿl ybrk wyww “to our lord and to the Image of Baal, may they bless him and keep him alive,”[21] which coordinates “our lord” with the “Image of Baal” and suggests that the latter is an epithet of a female deity who was companion to the former, i.e. Baal. As many have noted, the epithet is similar to the epithets “Name of Baal” and “Face of Baal” borne by Astarte and Tinnit elsewhere in Phoenicia (KAI II: 17; Teixidor 1977: 48; Xella 1994: 206; Lipiński 1995: 82; Müller 2003: 127-29), all of which designate a goddess as the extension or representative of, i.e. intercessor with, her male counterpart (Seow 1999: 608-09). The noun sml is also occasionally associated with female divinity in late biblical literature (Dohmen 1984; Koch 1988: 111). The syntactical construction of the dedication therefore parallels other NWS inscriptions that express a relationship between a husband and wife pair by marking male authority over the female. The formula l + male deity w + l + female deity + genitive of possession followed by a statement of blessing ybrk wyww is strikingly similar to l + male deity w + l + female deity + genitive suffix with statement of blessing ybrk. wyšmrk in inscription 3.6 from KA.

The smytʾ mentioned in memorial inscriptions from Hatra are now widely understood to refer to a variety of cultic standards that developed in Syria and Mesopotamia during the Roman period (Kaizer 2000: 245; Dirven 2005).[22] The standards consisted of poles with depictions of deities, astrological symbols, local emblems, and/or streamers that hung down from the side. Dirven explains that they were likely set up in sanctuaries along with cult statues, had a divine status as a portable symbol of locally recognized deities, enjoyed offerings, and were used in religious processions (2005: 128-31). Their appearance in memorial inscriptions along with other deities of the central Hatra cult in the stereotyped formula “remembered be PN for good before our Lord, and our Lady, and the Son of our Lord, Allat and all the standards” is therefore not extraordinary or surprising. The smytʾ are linked to the preceding deities through the coordinating w- and stand on the same divine level. In her comparative study of the genre of memorial or dedicatory inscriptions from this period, Gudme has shown that the object of invocation in the remembrance formula was always deities to whom the dedicatee could look for bestowing blessings of prosperity and long life (2013: 91-134). Not only is this cultic phenomena far removed from KA and KQom in both space and time, the Hatra inscriptions do not support the assumption that blessings were sometimes requested of non-divine cult objects.

The interpretation of the oath text mentioning a temple at Elephantine (AP 44/TAD B 7.3) is similarly problematic. The full context of the oath reads mw[mʾh zy] mnḥm… ymʾ lms̆lm… by[hw ʾlh]ʾ bmsgdʾ wbʿntyhw “Oath of Menahem… that he swore to Meshullam… by [YHW the god] in the place of worship and by Anat-YHW.”[23] Αlthough the preposition b- attached to msgdʾ could be interpreted grammatically as “in” or “by,” several factors show that in this context its significance is locational, including 1) the absence of a coordinating w- before bmsgdʾ, which suggests that the msgdʾ performs a function in the oath different from ʿntyhw; 2) extensive comparative evidence that oaths were often rendered in relation to cultic settings (van der Toorn 1995: 2051; Chaniotis 2009: 128; Sandowicz 2012: 93-94; Sommerstein and Torrance 2014: 132-138; Hurowitz 2015: 389-418); and 3) comparison with AP 6/TAD B 2.2 that speaks of an oath made byhw ʾlhʾ byb, “by YHW the god in Yeb” (line 4). The inclusion of this locational information thus served to specify that the oath was made to a particular manifestation of YHW, highlighting the local and communal character of oath taking.

Furthermore, the proposed emendation of ʾas̆mat to asherah in the phrase “those who swear by the ʾas̆mat of Samaria” (Amos 8:14) is unnecessary (contra Tigay 1986: 26, n. 31; van der Toorn 1996: 322; Dever 2005: 215; Sass 2014: 63-64, n. 82). The Hebrew is comprehensible as it stands, referring to a local Israelite deity worshipped at Samaria by the disparaging epithet “Guilt of Samaria” (Porten 1968: 175-76; Hadley 2000: 77; Day 2002: 66). The use of Samaria as a geographical specification most closely parallels the well-known epithets “YHWH of Samaria” (KA) and “Calf of Samaria” (Hosea 8:5-6), both of which refer to YHWH as the main city god. The name ʾas̆mat perhaps also plays on the masculine divine epithet Ashima/Ashim meaning “Name” well attested among neighboring Aramaean cultures, including the Jews of Elephantine, and alleged to have been a foreign deity imported into Israel in 2 Kgs 17:30 (van der Toorn 1992: 86; Avigad and Sass 1997: 485-486; Cogan 1999: 105-106; Becking 2003: 24-25; Merlo 2009b: 986-87; Radine 2010: 67-69; Rohrmoser 2014: 141-44; Niehr 2014: 169-170; cf. Barstad 1984: 157-181; Maraqten 1996: 26-27).[24] Although it seems clear that the divine name Ashima originated from Aramaean cultures to the north, there is little reason to suspect that the deity who bore the epithet in Israel was actually foreign per Deuteronomistic cult propaganda (McLaughlin 2001: 105-106). The divine epithet “name” had a long history in Canaanite religion, being used to describe both male and female major deities,[25] and the broader context of Amos 8:14 shows that “Guilt/Name of Samaria” likely refers to a local manifestation of YHWH, whether calf-icon or anthropomorphic statue (Wolff 1977: 323; Olyan 1991: 121-49; Paul 1991: 270; Schart 1998: 125; Cogan 1999: 105-106; Carroll R. 2000: 180; Chung 2010: 118, n. 43; Glenny 2013: 145), which means that it provides further witness to the convention of directing oaths to deities.

The remaining references to a practice of swearing by a temple and/or non-divine cult paraphernalia appear only in very late sources. This includes Matt 23:16-22 and miscellaneous rabbinic traditions about swearing by the temple and altar, which are so far removed from eighth century KA and reflect the peculiar interests and zeitgeist of the theological discourses in which they appear that they can hardly be considered relevant (Zevit 2001: 404, n. 114). Because in these cases the temple or altar function as a stand-in for the holiness of the one God, it seems reasonable to suppose that the practices underlying the textual descriptions originated as a development or aniconic variation of earlier customs of swearing by a deity’s cultic manifestation, as seen in the oath from Elephantine (cf. van der Toorn 1997a: 229-248).

In sum, that inscriptional ʾšrth refers to a female partner of YHWH is the most plausible interpretation of its function in the context of the blessings. The fact that it is treated by the authors/speakers as though it were a deity must be given priority to other grammatical and semantic considerations, such as how ʾšrth should be analyzed or what specific nuance it may have.


The Meaning of ʾšrth

When it comes to the question of what ʾšrth exactly means and the identity of the deity referred to by it, the evidence is more ambiguous and uncertain. The proposals that have been offered to date fall into three categories. First, ʾšrth is the name of the goddess Asherah with an attached pronominal suffix. Second, ʾšrth refers to the goddess Asherah but with a different linguistic form; the he is integral to the spelling of the name. Third, ʾšrth reflects asherah with an attached suffix and refers to a deity distinct from Asherah. The term has the semantic valence of a common noun, such as “goddess” or “consort.”




How to decide among these alternatives? The first has been the most popular among scholars who accept that ʾšrth refers to a goddess.[26] The reasoning among many who hold to this interpretation is as straightforward as it is transparent: a) Asherah is attested as a divine name in biblical and extra-biblical sources; b) archaeological evidence for goddess worship in ancient Israel-Judah is sufficiently clear; therefore, c) inscriptional ʾšrth should be translated “his Asherah.” However, the major difficulty with this line of interpretation is that it fails to explain the presence of the suffix and its implication for understanding the meaning of asherah. What would it mean to say that the goddess Asherah is YHWH’s Asherah? As has been repeatedly observed, this approach would seem to make vacuous any notion of proper names.

One possible way of getting around this grammatical difficulty is to beg the question of whether divine names functioned as regular proper names in Israel-Judah and to argue that while the attachment of a suffix to a divine name is unprecedented in terms of known Hebrew usage it may nevertheless have been possible in the cultural world of the inscriptions (e.g. Freedman 1987: 241-49; Müller 1992: 15-51; Uehlinger 1997: 140-142; van der Toorn 2002: 232). The rationale underlying the standard objection to interpreting inscriptional asherah as the name of a goddess is that divine names had the grammatical determinacy of proper nouns and as such entailed the same functions and uses. For example, Emerton has argued that “the use of a suffix with a personal name is not in accordance with Hebrew idiom as far as we know it, and it is unwise to interpret the newly-found inscriptions in such a way unless there is no satisfactory alternative” (1982: 14-15), implying that the divine name Asherah is a personal name, just as David, Abraham, or Ruth. Yet is this assumption correct? Do we know that divine names were proper names in the sense that they were used to designate conceptually unique entities?

Coming from our modern Western context, it is difficult to imagine a religious worldview in which deities are not conceptualized as unique supernatural characters whose identities could be called to mind through simple first names. We naturally expect deities to be comprehended as defined anthropomorphic personalities that transcend the mundane world, and so tend to be drawn to such representations when we encounter them in ANE literature. As a consequence, mythological, mytho-historical, and devotional texts have until recently played a disproportionate role in influencing how modern scholars understand the way these cultures conceptualized divinity (Porter 2009a). Because these texts portray deities as cosmic individuals who can be singularly located in space and time and whose names are used as though they refer to coherent unitary identities, we assume that they were always imagined as such, that their supernatural anthropomorphism was a defining aspect of their identity.

However, when the total range of literary evidence is taken into account, we see that the tendency to think of deities in abstract and supernatural terms only tells a part of the story of how divinity was conceptualized. Over the last century archaeologists have unearthed texts dealing with cult and religious worship from throughout the Near East and diverse eras and as a result it has become increasingly clear that in regular practice divine personhood was treated as materially-expressed, metaphysically complex, and multiform (Porter 2009: 153-94; Hundley 2013: 363-371). As Sommer has observed, ancient Near Eastern deities were fundamentally unlike human beings in that they were conceptualized as having multiple bodies that were simultaneously coexistent. Because deities could inhere in material icons of various sorts, their identity was fluid and fragmented (2009: 12-37). Their presence could be extended and spread over multiple instantiations through an icon-deity symbiosis, causing the divine person to be differentiated and pluriform rather than strictly unitary. Individual gods and goddesses could be replicated, theoretically endlessly if the necessary rituals were performed, and each physical manifestation could legitimately be understood as belonging to the category elohim, ilu, or DINGER. Paradoxical as it may seem, a simple first name was not always sufficient to identify a particular deity.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of this manner of conceptualizing divinity in an Israelite-Judahite context is found in the inscriptions from KA where YHWH is named both “YHWH of Samaria” and “YHWH of Teman.” Although some have equivocated over what these designations mean (e.g. Emerton 1982; Allen 2015), I think there can be little doubt that they represent two distinct deities tied to two separate localities: a form of YHWH worshipped in the region of Samaria and another worshipped in the area of Teman-Edom (cf. Stolz 1996: 121; Dijkstra 2001: 39; Schmid 2003: 25-28; Renz 2009: 309-11; Hutton 2010: 177-210; Jericke 2010: 170; Smith 2012: 205-50; 2016: 91-95).[27] Other inscriptional and biblical evidence similarly shows that YHWH had multiple local manifestations. An inscription from Khirbet Bet Lei links YHWH to Jerusalem (cf. Naveh 2001: 197-98; Aḥituv 2008; Leuenberger 2014; Mandell and Smoak 2016) and in the HB he is not only “the god of Jerusalem” (2 Chron 32:19; Ezra 7:19; cf. Amos 1:2; Joel 4:16 [Eng 3:16]), but we have mention of “YHWH in Hebron” (2 Sam 15:7) and “YHWH in Zion” (Ps 99:2), which reflect the localizing formula DN b-GN attested elsewhere in NWS.[28] Amos 8:14 speaks of people swearing by the Guilt/Ashima of Samaria, the god of Dan, and the Strength[29] of Beersheba, which are probably best understood as local iterations of the god YHWH (Wolff 1977: 323; Olyan 1991: 121-49; Schart 1998: 125; Cogan 1999: 105-106). Furthermore, all the above local forms contrast with the cosmic form of the deity attested in biblical texts and inscriptions as YHWH ṣěbāʾôt, an epithet that links YHWH to the sky as supreme commander of the heavenly armies (Choi 2004: 17-28; cf. Mettinger 1999: 920-924).

The implications of this data is that like their Near Eastern counterparts Israelite-Judahite deities had objective realities distinct from and in addition to their more individualized personalities. Defying modern grammatical categories, deities could straddle the realms of proper and common nouns. For abstract mythological purposes, one could, and, indeed, had to speak of YHWH as a singular cosmic entity that transcended the mundane world and manifested his power over it: “who is like you among the gods, O YHWH” (Ex 15:11). For purposes of cult, however, where the material and tactile facilitated worship, it was necessary to distinguish which particular form of YHWH one was dealing with, resulting in the specifying epithets seen above.

Thus from a strictly materialist perspective we would have to conclude that the grammatical argument that ʾšrth cannot refer to the goddess Asherah because of the attached pronominal suffix lacks cogency and is based on questionable assumptions. When we set aside the specific issue of whether divine names could carry pronominal suffixes and limit ourselves to an analysis of how deities were conceptualized and their personal names functioned in religious worship, then it becomes clear that Israelite-Judahite deities were not exclusively understood in the category of proper nouns, but were sometimes treated as non-unique entities whose identification required further specification beyond their first names.[30] To be sure, understanding divinity as pluriform and quasi-indeterminate does not necessitate the assumption that inscriptional asherah is the name of a goddess. We have not demonstrated that pronominal suffixes were a viable means of determining divine names or that “his Asherah” is the most plausible reading of consonantal šrth in the context of ancient Israel-Judah. But the evidence described above would at least allow one to make a theoretical argument in support of such an interpretation. Because YHWH at KA could be treated as quasi-indeterminate, something in need of further definition in the context of cult, then it would logically follow that the same would have applied to his consort. If this is the case, then it is possible that a possessive suffix attached to asherah is performing a specifying function comparable to the geographical names attached to YHWH. Just as the latter are used to specify exactly which form of YHWH is the object of blessing, the possessive suffix may have been intended to specify a particular cult manifestation of the goddess via her association to a geographically specified YHWH. We will return to the question of whether this interpretation of ʾšrth is satisfactory shortly.

In addition to the textual witness that Israelite-Judahite deities were pluriform and quasi-indeterminate, the other major line of evidence that has been advanced in support of interpreting inscriptional asherah as the name of a goddess is the use of divine names elsewhere in the ANE in bound constructions syntactically parallel to YHWH and his asherah. P. Xella has collected and discussed examples from Ebla and Ugarit where female deities are linked to male deities through a pronominal suffix as background for interpreting the inscriptions from KA and KQom (1995: 599–610; 2001: 74-75). The examples from Ebla include “Kura and his Barama”; “Rashap of Adani and his Adamma”; and “Rashap of Duneb … and his Adamma,” the latter two featuring geographical specifications parallel to YHWH of Samaria/Teman. At Ugarit Anat is linked to the deity Gatharu in the forms “Gatharu … and his Anat” (KTU 1.43.13) and possibly “Anat of Gatharu” (KTU 1.108.6).[31] Significantly, Xella notes that at both Ebla and Ugarit the invocations appear in ritual contexts and likely refer to the cult statues of these deities (Xella 1995: 610; 2001: 74-75; also Loretz 1992: 99-101).

Closer in time and space to ancient Israel-Judah are the bound forms Anat-Bethel in Neo-Assyrian texts listing oath deities (Parpola and Watanabe 1988: 24-27, 28-58), Ashtar-Kemosh in the Mesha stela (KAI 181), and Anat-YHW, Anat-Bethel, Ashim-Bethel, and Herem-Bethel from the archives of Elephantine. Taken together with the evidence from KA, the above constructions are indicative of a broader West Semitic cultic convention of divine possession, where one deity, generally female or otherwise subordinate, was seen as belonging or inseparably linked to another deity (cf. Smith 2001: 72-74; Zevit 2001: 403; Schmidt 2002: 104-107; Renz 2009: 322; Levine 2014: 180-181; Römer 2016: 390-391).

The divine names Anat-YHW and Anat-Bethel from Elephantine deserve closer examination, since they are attested in the context of a Judean diaspora community and have generally been considered to reflect a continuation of goddess worship from Israel-Judah (cf. AP; Vincent 1937; Kraeling 1953; Day 1986; 2002; van der Toorn 1992; 1998; Niehr 1995; 2010; Stolz 1996; Weippert 1997; Knauf 2002; Berlejung 2012; Römer 2015; Kratz 2015). Anat-YHW is mentioned once as the divine object of an oath (AP 44/TAD B 7.3), and Anat-Bethel, presumably a variant name of the same goddess, is described as a recipient of donations for the Judean temple at Elephantine along with YHW and Ashim-Bethel (AP 22/TAD C 3.15). There has been extensive debate over the meaning and origin of Anat-YHW/Bethel. Some have questioned whether the figure represents an independent deity and is not rather a cultic symbol or hypostasis of YHW, because of the predominance of YHW as the primary deity invoked in documents and personal names from the Judean colony (e.g. Winter 1983: 508; Silverman 1985: 223-31; McCarter 1987: 147; Olyan 1987: 170; Koch 1988: 110; Maier 1992: 226; Stoebe 1995; Albright 2006: 174; Pfeiffer 2011: 965; Grabbe 2013: 127-28). But we have already seen that references to male deities tend to far outnumber those of female deities in the epigraphic record of Israel-Judah, so the disparity between invocations of YHW and Anat-YHW/Bethel in the preserved texts from Elephantine is not really surprising (Kottsieper 2013: 303).

Furthermore, the divine status of Anat-YHW/Bethel is indicated by several interrelated pieces of evidence. First, the tradition-history of the divine name Anat-Bethel in Assyrian texts points to a female consort of Bethel, which is further underscored by the interchange of YHW with Bethel in the compound name Anat-YHW (van der Toorn 1992: 81; Röllig 1999: 174; Rohrmoser 2014: 134-41; Granerød 2016: 255-56). Second, Anat-YHW is invoked as a distinct deity in the oath discussed above (AP 44/TAD B 7.3), where she is separated from YHW by the w- and b- formulation. Third, Anat-Bethel is included along with YHW and Ashim-Bethel in the list of temple-fund donations (AP 22/TAD C 3.15). If YHW is identified with Bethel, then the structure of the names Anat-Bethel (Anat of Bethel) and Ashim-Bethel (Ashim of Bethel) imply that together they function as a divine triad of father, mother, and son, the quantity of silver dedicated to Anat-Bethel reflecting her marginally subordinate status with respect to YHW and seniority over the junior figure of Ashim-Bethel: YHW receives 126 shekels, Anat-Bethel 120 shekels, and Ashim-Bethel 70 shekels (Kraeling 1953: 88-90; Grelot 1972: 365; Dupont-Sommer 1978: 765; Müller 1980: 129; Röllig 1999: 174; Becking 2003: 218-219; 2011: 41; Knauf 2002: 184-85; Berlejung 2012: 205-207; Kottsieper 2013: 303; Kratz 2015: 142; Römer 2015: 230-31; Cornell 2016: 305). Fourth, Anat was possibly used as an epithet for the consort of Bethel among the Aramaean community in Upper Egypt. In Papyrus Amherst 63 Marah (“Lady”), the queen consort of Mar/Bethel, is once called Anat (Col. VII. 9).[32]

Lastly, the letter from Yedoniah to Bagohi, Persian governor of Judah, which seeks permission to rebuild the temple of YHW, reports that when the first temple was destroyed multiple ʿmwdyʾ “pillars” were demolished: wʿmwdyʾ zy ʾbnʾ zy hww tmh tbrw “and the pillars of stone which were there they smashed” (AP 30; TAD A 4.7). Some scholars have proposed that these pillars were sacred standing stones, which would necessarily imply the existence of a small pantheon of deities (Athas 2005: 315; Becking 2005: 46-47; 2011: 413-14), whereas others have understood the pillars to be an architectural feature of the temple (Rohrmoser 2014: 157-58; Granerød 2016: 109-112; Cornell 2016: 303-305). In my view, several considerations argue in favor of the first option. First, in the context of Yedoniah’s description of the razing of the temple the “pillars” are closely identified with the temple itself, being the first item mentioned after reporting that the Egyptians destroyed the ʾgwr, “they entered that temple and destroyed it to the ground, and the pillars of stone that were there they smashed.” Second, the “pillars” in the temple are rhetorically marked as something distinct from the subsequent listing of architectural items and cult paraphernalia by the use of the conjunction ʾp “also.” Through this separation, the emphasis is placed on the destruction of the temple and its “pillars,” whereas the subsequent list functions as a more detailed addendum that adds insult to injury.

Third, the verb tbr that describes the destruction of the “pillars” is cognate with Hebrew šbr “to break, smash in pieces,” which is closely associated with the destruction of cult icons in the HB, whether statues or standing stones (Knipping 2004: 373). Excluding references to the destruction of the asherah, out of 30 passages in the HB that describe violent action directed against cult icons[33] the verb šbr is used 14 times, and out of 13 passages that describe specifically the destruction of standing stones the verb šbr is used 9 times.[34] Fourth, the noun mṣbh corresponds semantically with ʿmwd “pillar,” i.e. something stationed or standing, and the use of ʿmwd in the sense of mṣbh may be reflected in the HB: “the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before YHWH” (2 Kgs 23:3; see also 2 Kgs 11:14).[35] Fifth, a number of texts from Elephantine demonstrate that YHW was believed to reside in his temple at Elephantine, implying that the deity had a material icon by which he was made visible and present (Kraeling 1953: 85; Niehr 2003: 194; Becking 2005: 38-39; Rohrmoser 2014: 186-98). As an immigrant community living on the fringes of the Persian Empire with relatively little wealth compared to a temple maintained by a state bureaucracy, the use of simple standing stones would seem ideal as a form of cult statuary.[36] Because standing stones enacted the presence of deity and therefore would have been a focus of cult, we would expect for them to receive some sort of mention in the letter to Bagohi, even if the genre of the text is pragmatic and non-theological. Cornell’s recent suggestion (2016: 301-302) that Yedoniah intentionally omitted reference to cult statuary because a letter to the Persian governor was an inappropriate venue for articulating communal lament or theologizing is unpersuasive. Ancient Near Eastern peoples were clearly capable of admitting to cult despoliation in the genre of lament, and we have little reason to think they could not do so in more secular genres as well. Reports of cult despoliation in the HB occur in historiographical narratives that are relatively factual and materialistic in orientation (e.g. 2 Kgs 14:13-14; 25:13-17).

With regard to the origin of Anat-YHW, scholars have diverged over when and how this concept developed. Over the last century socio-religious explanations have tended to fall into one of three categories. Some have viewed the pairing of Anat with YHWH as a product of religious syncretism with Aramaean culture in Upper Egypt, by which a non-native deity was incorporated into local Judean cult (cf. Kraeling 1953; Porten 1968; Tigay 1986; Modrzejewski 1995; Hamilton 1995; Lindenberger 2001; Smith 2002; Joisten-Pruschke 2008). By contrast, others have suggested that Anat was more or less native to Israelite-Judahite polytheism and that the worship of Anat-YHW/Bethel by Judeans at Elephantine represents a continuation of earlier nonconformist or non-biblical cult (e.g. AP; Vincent 1937; Porten 1969; Grelot 1972; Dupont-Sommer 1978; De Vaux 1997; Weippert 1997; Day 2002; Barker 2007; Renz 2009; Berlejung 2012; Anderson 2015; Kratz 2015; Römer 2015). In recent years a growing number have adopted the theory that the Judeans of Elephantine had a cultural background in Israel after its fall to Assyria, where according to the Bible a syncretism of Aramaean and Yahwistic cult had occurred (Niehr 1990; 1995; 2014; van der Toorn 1992; Ahlström 1994; Albertz 2003; Rosenberg 2004; Blenkinsopp 2009; Sommer 2009; Frevel 2016).

However, none of these hypotheses are convincing. First, the theory of local syncretism is highly inadequate as a conceptual category for describing the veneration of Anat-YHW at Elephantine, since it presupposes the biblical perspective that there was some earlier more pristine version of Israelite-Judahite religion from which the Judeans at Elephantine had departed.[37] As van der Toorn has observed, the documents from Elephantine reveal a “Jewish minority group that is otherwise keen to preserve its native religious culture” (1992: 83), so it hardly seems credible that they would have adopted an entirely new goddess as a result of local influence. Kratz has identified the religious culture at Elephantine as a “standard manifestation [of Judaism] not only in the Israelite-Samarian region but also in Judah itself,” whereas the biblical Judaism that developed in Jerusalem during the Persian and Hellenistic periods was the exception to the rule (2015: 143). Anderson has similarly written, “Since there is no evidence that the Jewish community at Elephantine knew the Torah, and through it the notion that the worship of Yahweh excludes other gods, it is more legitimate to view the Yahwism of Elephantine as traditional Israelite religion that predated the instauration of strict monotheism” (2015: 33).

On the other hand, the notion that Anat-YHW/Bethel represents a continuation of Israelite-Judahite worship of the goddess Anat is undermined by the fact that we lack evidence that Anat ever functioned as a consort of YHWH (Cooper 1981: 400-402; van der Toorn 1992: 81-83; Frevel 1995: 449; Smith 2002: 101-103). While the divine name Anat appears in a few personal names and toponyms in the HB, this usage is sporadic and of uncertain significance, perhaps hearkening back to an earlier second millennium cultural strata (e.g. Renz 2009: 298-300; Römer 2015: 86).[38] Attempts to find evidence for a cult of Anat by emending various biblical texts or to see her standing behind the Queen of Heaven in Jer. 7 and 44 have not generally been accepted (cf. Olyan 1987: 169-70; Koch 1988: 107-109; van der Toorn 1992: 81-83; P. Day 1999: 36-43; Day 2002: 147; Smith 2002: 135-36; Knauf 2003: 45; Frevel 1995: 301; 2003: 50-54; Becking 2003: 221-224; Rohrmoser 2014: 137-39; Römer 2015: 170-71). On the whole, we lack positive indication that Anat was worshipped as a major goddess in Iron II Israel-Judah, whereas all available data from the HB and inscriptions is that Asherah was chief goddess and that YHWH was paired with a goddess designated “his asherah.” Furthermore, this explanation of the origin of Anat-YHW/Bethel fails to reckon with the strong Aramaean character of the goddess and the associated figure of Ashim-Bethel. As others have noted, Anat-YHW appears to be patterned off Anat-Bethel, and the whole constellation of Bethel, Anat-Bethel, and Ashim-Bethel has roots in Aramaean cultures in north Syria far from the native homeland of the Judean colony (Porten 1969: 118-20; van der Toorn 1992: 83-85; Niehr 2014: 153; Rohrmoser 2014: 127-29). The worship of Anat-YHW/Bethel at Elephantine therefore is unlikely to be a direct carry-over from earlier Israelite-Judahite tradition.

The last theory of syncretism while still in Israel/Samaria attempts to mediate between the above two positions by recognizing on the one hand that Anat-Bethel was originally an Aramaean deity and on the other that Elephantine goddess worship more than likely should be traced back to monarchic Israel-Judah. Yet pushing the syncretism with Aramaean religion back to a period when the ancestors of the Elephantine Judeans were still living in Samaria is speculative and problematic as well. First of all, the ethnic background of the colony is clearly Judaean rather than strictly Aramaean or Israelite/Samarian. They refer to themselves as Judaeans, bear Yahwistic names, center their cult around the temple of YHW in Elephantine, maintain close ties with Judaean religious authorities, and hold to distinctive Judaean practices, such as Passover and Shabbat (Porten 1968: 105-150, 173-176; Dion 2002; Becking 2003; 2011; Lemaire 2011; Granerød 2016). Recent research suggests that the origin of the colony should be traced back to the Saite period (664-525 BCE), corresponding to the resurgence of Egypt as a major power in the eastern Mediterranean, when Judah was under its influence and there was conflict between the 26th Dynasty and the kingdom of Kush.[39] The Judean character of the colony was also probably shaped by multiple migration waves from the homeland and within Egypt over a long period. Nothing from the Elephantine archives indicates that the Judean identity of the garrison had been adopted over some earlier or more basic north Syrian or Israelite identity. Although they could self-identify as both Judeans and Aramaeans, van der Toorn has persuasively argued that the Aramaean aspect of their identity related to their place of origin in the larger Persian imperial system: “They were Syrians [i.e. Aramaeans] since they came from the satrapy of Beyond-the-River, i.e., Syria; they were Jews on account of their more narrow regional and religious identity” (2016: 147; cf. Johnson 1999; Botta 2009: 53-54; Kratz 2011: 422).

Furthermore, the thesis that the group had a northern background from the region of Samaria is primarily dependent on biblical texts insinuating that Israelites in Samaria had mixed their cultic traditions with those of foreigners imported by Assyrians, adopting Aramaean deities such as Ashima and Bethel into their distinct form of Yahwism (e.g. 2 Kgs 17: 28-41; Jer 48:13). However, while it is conceivable that Aramaean influence may have been felt more strongly in the region of Samaria as a result of Assyrian hegemony and population transfer, closer analysis suggests that the biblical depiction of foreign syncretism in Israel/Samaria is polemical in nature and of doubtful historical value (Würthwein 1984: 397-403; van Seters 2000: 220-21; Fritz 2003: 356-57; Knoppers 2013: 65-70; Kartveit 2014; Heckl 2014: 370; Römer 2015: 177-79; Hjelm 2016: 114-22). Archaeological evidence shows that there was strong continuity in the material culture of Samaria and the surrounding highlands during the eighth-seventh centuries and that the number of foreign transplants was not very high: “Whatever exiles from foreign states were forcibly imported into the Samaria highlands, most seem to have been absorbed into the local population” (Knoppers 2004: 171). In addition, proper names found on bulla, coins, and papyri from the Persian period indicate that the mass of people living in the province were Yahwistic-Israelite (Knoppers 2006: 275-278; Pummer 2010: 12-16). No personal names with the Aramaean theophorics Bethel or Ashima are known (Zsengeller 1996: 188-189; Gropp 2001; Cross 2006: 75–90). The Deuteronomistic authors thus seem to be engaging in a kind of ideological warfare and identity building project by portraying the inhabitants of former Israel as fundamentally impure and compromised by foreign influences.

In view of the Aramaean-like character of the divine names Anat-YHW/Bethel, Bethel, and Ashim-Bethel, the most likely explanation for their use by Judeans at Elephantine is that the names were adopted by the colony in the course of its acculturation to the Aramaean milieu of Upper Egypt but at the same time this adoption was not viewed internally to the community as a significant departure from earlier Judahite tradition or that the identity of the deities standing behind the names had altered in any essential sense (cf. Silverman 1973: 377-78; Knauf 2002: 184-85; Liverani 2005: 219-220).[40] The phenomenon of cultures translating their deities to new cultural contexts is well known. At sites of strong intercultural contact divine names were often interchanged or updated in order to create links between different cultures (Smith 2010; Becking 2017). Because goddess worship was native to Jewish Elephantine’s parent culture, it seems more sensible to assume that Anat-YHW as a communally recognized figure derives ultimately from Judahite tradition, while her name is simply a locally acceptable way of referring to the consort of the pantheon head, which goddess was probably known by another name in Judah.

In light of the above, the fact that the Judeans at Elephantine refer to their main goddess with a bound construction seems relevant to understanding inscriptional YHWH and his asherah (e.g. Weippert 1997: 15-16, n. 58; Müller 1992: 30-31; Frevel 1995: 21, n. 48; Renz 2009: 322; Granerød 2016: 250-51). As with other aspects of their cult, this practice may reflect continuity with Iron Age Israelite-Judahite religion and provide support for interpreting ʾšrt as the name of a goddess. Admittedly, too much weight cannot be placed on this evidence, since as we mentioned above Anat-Bethel is a name with a prior Aramaean history and Anat-YHW was probably constructed on analogy with Anat-Bethel. However, if Elephantine Judeans were the ones responsible for the interchange of YHW with Bethel in Anat-YHW, as I think must have been the case, then it suggests that these sorts of bound constructions were familiar to them and not an innovation peculiar to Elephantine.

Further indication that the polytheism of Judean Elephantine was related to Israelite-Judahite tradition is reflected in the text that mentions Anat-YHW (AP 44/TAD B 7.3), which I have reconstructed to read “by [YHW] the [god] in the place of worship and by Anat-YHW.” The text is unfortunately worn away near the beginning of the line and the second letter is only partially preserved. Cowley read a yod and restored YHW (AP: 148), whereas Porten favored a ḥet and restored Herem (1968: 317).[41] However, orthographically the letter shares more similarities with the initial yod seen in lines 2 (ימא) and 8 (יהב), and while the vertical tail is somewhat anomalous, it seems too short and thin to be a ḥet based on other examples in the text (lines 1, 7-9). In addition, contextual considerations lend support to reading YHW over Herem. First, the only other instance in which Herem is invoked outside personal names is found in compound form, “Herem-Bethel the god” (AP 7/TAD B 7.2), which indicates that like Anat-YHW, Anat-Bethel, and Ashim-Bethel this was the full cultic name of the deity. As Anat-YHW appears in compound form in the oath, so we would expect the same of Herem-Bethel. However, according to Porten’s reconstruction the gap between the first letter of the name and the final aleph of אלהא would have been insufficient to allow for the full name (1968: 317). Second, the only deity in the Elephantine documents attested with a geographical specification is YHW: AP 6/TAD B 2.2 speaks of an oath made byhw ʾlhʾ byb, “by YHW the god in Yeb” and TAD B 3.12 invokes yhw ʾlhʾ škn yb brtʾ “YHW the god who dwells in Yeb the fortress.” AP 44/TAD B 7.3 thus seems to parallel these other instances by localizing YHW to his sanctuary in Elephantine.

If this reading is correct, then the syntactical arrangement of the invocation of deities in the oath is redolent of the manner of invoking YHWH and his asherah at KA. As at ‘Ajrud, the primary deity in view is mentioned first: YHW/YHWH. After this is attached localizing information that specifies the manifestation of the deity: “in the worship place”/Teman and Samaria. In final position is the goddess, who is linked to her husband through a bound construction: Anat-YHW/his asherah.

So far our investigation has focused on two lines of evidence that would possibly allow for interpreting YHWH’s asherah in the inscriptions from KA and KQom as the personal name of the goddess. On the one hand, deities in the world of ancient Israel-Judah did not have the same determinate status as human beings and in certain settings required extra specification to be identified. On this view, the suffix attached to asherah could be interpreted as a means of specifying the precise cultic manifestation of the goddess. On the other hand, female deities were sometimes linked to male deities through bound constructions marking possession. These constructions include either a construct chain where the female is directly related to the male (female DN-of-male DN) or an extended conjunctive form that marks possession through an attached suffix (male DN + female DN + 3rd masc. sg. suffix).

We have already mentioned that a number of scholars have found one or both of these lines of evidence sufficient grounds for concluding that YHWH’s asherah is no less than the goddess Asherah. And indeed, if we assumed that Anat in the compound name Anat-YHW were the proper name of a goddess, then the links between Elephantine and Israelite-Judahite religion described above would appear to make that conclusion even more attractive. From the perspective of linguistic function, the constructions “Anat of YHW” and “YHWH and his asherah” are syntactically analogous. They are simply different modes in the genitive for expressing the same possessive relationship: YHWH’s asherah is the asherah of YHWH. Hence, Anat in Anat-YHW could be used to claim that YHWH’s asherah refers to the goddess Asherah.

Nevertheless, in the final analysis the theoretical argument that a proper name such as Asherah could carry a pronominal suffix is beset by a number of problems. First, although from a materialist perspective deities in the ancient Near East typically had properties of both common and proper nouns, they were nevertheless treated in practice as quasi-distinct persons, i.e. unitary entities. For example, within the immediate context of worship at local cult centers such as Samaria, Teman, and Jerusalem YHWH was not regarded primarily as a member of a class of deities but as the YHWH relevant to the worshipping community. Consequently, we would not expect the discourse surrounding divine names to completely upend conventional norms of the spoken language for distinguishing common vs. proper nouns (cf. Wiggins 1993: 188; Tropper 2001: 100; Smith 2002: 119-20; Irsigler 2011: 142-43). As a matter of linguistic function, the lexeme asherah cannot simultaneously inhabit both determined and indeterminate categories. If ʾšrth is correctly interpreted as the substantive asherah with an attached pronominal suffix it cannot refer to the goddess Asherah. By definition the suffix distinguishes this asherah from every other asherah: this asherah is YHWH’s asherah.

Second, as Zevit has noted, to specify a deity by linking it to a geographical location is not the same thing as specifying a deity by linking it to another deity through an attached pronominal suffix (2001: 402-403). The first distinguishes a deity by extending its name, as it were, so YHWH of Samaria and YHWH of Teman become unique entities in their own right, whereas the second implies that the divine designation falls within an inherently indeterminate category. The asherah of YHWH in the inscriptions thus seems to be marked as indeterminate in a way that YHWH is not.

Third, the evidence of KQom militates against interpreting the suffix on asherah as a syntactical pointer whose purpose is limited to specifying the exact cultic manifestation of the goddess. In this version of the blessing formulae YHWH appears without a geographical epithet attached to his name while the construction ʾšrth is unchanged. As YHWH is apparently being invoked here in his more mythological, cosmic form, the retention of the suffix on asherah shows that it was not unessential to conveying its intended semantic nuance.

Fourth, it is not clear that the examples of bound constructions that have been cited to demonstrate the linguistic feasibility of linking personal names of deities should be interpreted as such. Anat, Athtar, and Ashim are indeed found in bound constructions with other known deities, making the existence of a West Semitic theology of divine possession difficult to deny. But do we know that these are proper names in the sense that they designate particular divine identities? A number of scholars have theorized that because the name Anat is linked with a number of different deities and found in some contexts only in the bound form this suggests that the name has been generalized to a common noun of some kind and is not a reference to a specific deity (cf. van der Toorn 1998: 88; Dijkstra 2001b: 122; Becking 2003: 224; P. Day 1999: 41; Granerød 2016: 256). B. Levine has proposed that the same may be the case with the bound forms from Ebla as well (2014b: 181). We will return to this issue below.

Finally, the theory that inscriptional asherah refers to the goddess Asherah relies on the assumption that there was no other Asherah in the pantheons of ancient Israel-Judah and that YHWH had taken the place of El in the cult. Yet traces of YHWH’s second tier status under El can still be found in biblical and non-biblical literary traditions (cf. Herrmann 1991; Barker 1992; Schmidt 1995: 86-87; Lang 1995: 838-40; Smith 2001: 142-148; Römer 2015: 78-82, 127-128; Ben-Dov 2016), and Thomas has argued that during the late Iron Age when the inscriptions at KA were written the representation of YHWH in cultic iconography as a calf and Bes-like Horus figure suggests he was conceptualized as a younger warrior deity and son of a primary mother goddess (2016: 145, 174-76). On this view, YHWH’s asherah may have been distinguished from the Asherah connected to Baal (i.e. El), with YHWH as the foremost deity among the astral host mentioned in 2 Kgs 23:4.


ʾšrth= Asherata/Ashirta

The second approach to interpreting ʾšrth has grown in popularity in recent years, in part because it avoids the problem of the suffix altogether.[42] By reading the he as an element of the name, whether as a secondary feminization (Zevit 1984: 39-47; 2001: 363-366), a final frozen -a vowel (Hess 1996: 209-219; 2007: 289), or secondary lengthening of a case vowel (Tropper 2001: 81-86; Naʾaman and Lissovsky 2008: 186-208; Naʾaman 2012: 305), these scholars obtain the divine name Asherata or Ashirta, which functions in the blessings as an independent deity parallel with YHWH. Yet despite the simplicity of this solution and the detailed philological arguments that have been brought to bear in each case, understanding ʾšrth as an archaic spelling of Asherah seems the least satisfactory of the various approaches that have been offered to explicate its form and meaning.

Zevit has proposed the novel idea that ʾšrth is a dialectical variant of the name Asherah and that the -h on the name reflects a process of “secondary feminization” that occurred in Hebrew early in the first millennium (1984: 39-47; 2001: 363-366). According to Zevit, when the old feminine marker on nouns shifted from –at to –ah, on some nouns the new feminine marker was attached to the old. In support of this hypothesis, he argues that 1) the -h in ʾšrth in the inscription from KQom lacks a clear grammatical antecedent, which suggests that it does not function as the morpheme of a 3ms pronominal suffix; 2) in epigraphic Hebrew of the eighth century -h was commonly used as a mater lectionis for a long –ā vowel; and 3) a number of Hebrew nouns, toponyms, and personal names apparently preserve evidence of this secondary feminization.

However, this analysis of ʾšrth is unconvincing for several reasons.[43] First, I already noted earlier that the KQom inscription presents no real challenge to reading YHWH as the intended antecedent of the suffix on asherah. The line reads well as a simple breakup of a stereotyped phrase, so that mṣryh “from his enemies” is connected with the following imperative “save him” and the w- on mṣryh proleptically coordinates YHWH with ʾšrth: “Blessed be Uriyahu to YHWH and to his asherah, save him from his enemies….” The isolated reference to ʾšrth below and to the left of the hand symbol is also preposed with a coordinating w-, implying that it presumes an earlier invocation of YHWH. Second, that he could serve as a mater lectionis for a long vowel is no argument in favor of interpreting it as the feminine ending –ah, since he clearly functioned as a mater lectionis for long (or perhaps -ahu) during this period as well (Gogel 1998: 59-60). Third, the existence of secondary feminization as a linguistic phenomenon in Hebrew has not been demonstrated and the alleged examples cited by Zevit admit of more plausible explanations. For example, the ָתָה nominal ending is peculiar to poetry and Joüon and Muraoka have suggested that it performs a rhythmic function and in some cases seems to have been chosen to “avoid the contact of two stressed syllables” (2008: 259). Earlier Tsevat observed in his study of the Psalms that “whenever the word meaning ‘salvation’ is preceded by a ל + a substantive or a pronominal suffix, it appears in the simple form יְשועה, whereas whenever it precedes them, it assumes the longer form יְשועתה; this latter form is reserved solely for these cases. The same situation prevails with regard to עזרה and עזרתה, showing that this is not accidental” (1955: 21).

Fourth, the spontaneous addition of a feminine ending is implausible from a linguistic perspective. At this stage of Hebrew the tendency was to lose final vowels, not gain them (Garr 2004: 61-63; Hasselbach 2011; 2013: 33-34; Gzella 2011: 438; 2013: 856). A basic principle of historical philology is that exceptional morphological features tend to reflect inheritance rather than addition/expansion. Finally, Zevit provides no evidence for the existence of dialectical variation in the use of a final long vowel and we will see below that all known forms of Canaanite asherah can be explained on the assumption they derive from a single basic form.

Hess has observed that in LB Canaanite syllabic documents the divine name Asherah is consistently spelled with a final short vowel after the feminine -at suffix, sometimes u or i but most frequently a, e.g. Abdi-a-ši-ir-ta (1996: 209-219; 2007a: 289). Because the –a vowel does not appear to function as a regular case vowel, he assumes that the name was vocalized Asherata and had become something of a fixed form. The later occurrences of the divine name Asherah at KA and KQom may thus be analyzed as reflecting this older spelling with the he in ʾšrth representing an –a vowel. However, this hypothesis is problematic on several counts.[44] First, not only is the allegedly frozen form Asherata not otherwise attested in NWS, but even in the Amarna evidence cited by Hess the use of a final –a vowel is not consistent per his theory of regional spelling conventions. Variant spellings occur in letters from the same location (e.g. EA 60 and 61) and sometimes final a, u, or i vowels fluctuate in one and the same letter (e.g. EA 92; 137; 138).[45]

Second, the spelling of the name Asherah in the Late Bronze Age is not a reliable guide for determining how it was articulated much later in Hebrew during the late Iron Age. Although Hess notes that a final short -a vowel seems to be preserved on some feminine singular endings in Shishak’s list of Canaanite toponyms from the tenth century (1996: 217), around this period Hebrew and other languages in NWS were in the process of losing short final unstressed vowels. The –atu/a/i ending became -at and eventually -at became –ā for Hebrew, Aramaic, and other NWS dialects (Garr 2004: 93-94; Gzella 2013: 857).[46] Since asherah is a nominal pattern with an easily identifiable feminine ending, we should assume on principle that it experienced the same phonological development as other feminine nouns. Divine names were not a privileged category or somehow immune from general phonological change, as shown by the spelling of Asherah in the Bible.

Moreover, all known forms of asherah attested in NWS of the first millennium can be explained within this framework of final vowel loss. The term asherah at KA can be assumed to have been vocalized with a final –at, since the building complex seems to have been built and used by Israelites and some evidence suggests that northern Hebrew retained final –at in the feminine singular (Garr 1985: 59-60, 93-94; Gogel 1998: 188 n. 232; Na’aman and Lissovsky 2008: 199-200, n. 9; Gzella 2013: 857). Assuming that this is correct and the -h represented a suffix morpheme, ʾšrth would have been pronounced ʾašerātō or even ʾašerātahu (Gogel 1998: 60-61 n. 95). The inscription lʾšrt from Ekron preserves a spelling of ʾšrt with a final –at, thus ʾašerat or ʾašrat. In a number of respects the language used for inscriptions at Ekron is close to Phoenician and northern Hebrew, so the preservation of the feminine -at ending is explicable (cf. Gitin, Dothan, and Naveh 1997: 8-15; Davis, Maier, and Hitchcock 2015). At KQom ʾšrth also likely stems from an underlying ʾašerāt. However, despite having the same orthography as KA, because the inscription was written in Judah it is conceivable that asherah was pronounced with a final –ā rather than -at. As Rollston has observed, the conversion of final –ā to –at is the “standard development that occurs when a tertia he noun has a pronominal suffix” (2007: 99). When a pronominal suffix is added, ʾašerah > ʾašerat > ʾašerātō. Lastly, the ʾašerah of the Bible presents the –ā feminine ending of southern Hebrew, the end result of the loss of case vowels and final –at in the absolute.

Coming from a very different angle, Tropper has postulated that the final he in the divine name YHWH reflects a spelling of the old absolutive case –a, a case vowel he takes to have been common to early West Semitic proper names and preserved sporadically in Hebrew/Canaanite of the first millennium. Because the name YHWH appears to preserve this case, he proposes that the he on ʾšrth at KA and KQom should be analyzed the same way, the he representing the case vowel -a which has been secondarily lengthened (2001: 100-102). However, this proposal for an archaic spelling of Asherah is no more compelling than the others. First, while Tropper has plausibly reconstructed a final –a vowel on the long form of the name YHWH, the origin and significance of this vowel remains uncertain. As the vowel stands, it is not a case marker but an integral part of the articulation of the name. In addition, the notion of an absolutive case has been challenged in recent years (Weninger 2011; Hasselbach 2013), and Waltisberg has questioned whether final –a vowels should always be considered on the same level syntactically or etymologically (2014: 769).

Second, we have no clear evidence for the retention and lengthening of an old –a case vowel on other divine names in first millennium Canaanite. Tropper’s use of dwdh in the Mesha inscription as an example of this phenomenon is problematic, since scholars are generally skeptical that a cult of the god Dwd ever existed in the southern Levant (Olyan 1991; Barstad 1999). The phrase “drk of Beersheba” in Amos 8:14 requires no emendation. I mentioned earlier that the name in context is likely an epithet of a local form of YHWH (e.g. Cogan 1999: 105-106). If drk is correctly connected to Ugaritic/Hebrew drk “to be strong, vigorous,” the name would mean “the Strength of Beersheba” (cf. Barstad 1984: 195; Blenkinsopp 2003: 161; Levine 2014b: 179). Further, the syntax of the phrase ʾrʾl dwdh, undoubtedly a construct relation, is more plausibly explained if we assume the first component (ʾrʾl) is a reference to a deity or cult statue, since it is brought before Kemosh in his temple, and the last component (dwdh) a noun serving to describe the first. In such a syntactic context, the use of a pronominal suffix on a genitive would be in keeping with conventional Hebrew usage.

Third, even if we could be confident that the final –a vowel on the name YHWH is a reflex of an archaic case ending, e.g. the old accusative, we have little reason to suspect that this vowel would have been retained and subsequently lengthened on the divine name Asherah as well, the phonological situation of the feminine singular ending distinguishing it from YHWH. Because of the general loss of final short vowels that occurred in NWS discussed above, the final vowel on Asherata should have been reduced, leaving Asherat.

Beyond these linguistic considerations, the interpretation of the he on ʾšrth as a suffix morpheme is preferable on contextual grounds. Because ʾšrth is associated with both “YHWH of Samaria” and “YHWH of Teman” in the blessings from KA, the discourse context would seem to necessitate distinguishing one asherah from the other. It hardly makes sense to speak of two local forms of YHWH and only one goddess Asherata shared between them! In addition, we have already noted the comparative data for the widespread cultic convention of divine possession in West Semitic. Female deities were often marked as belonging to their male partners. So the formulation YHWH’s asherah is comprehensible within this religio-historical environment.



The third proposal that asherah in the inscriptions has the semantic valence of a common noun has received less attention in the scholarly literature, since it is more hypothetical and lacks direct confirmation from other NWS inscriptions.[47] This approach to resolving the problem of YHWH’s asherah recognizes that the term likely refers a female deity, but goes further than the first alternative by positing a common noun meaning distinct from the proper name Asherah. On this view, asherah was originally a regular divine name of a particular goddess that has been generalized (Pardee 1995: 302; 2002: 122-23; 2005: 282-83; Levine 2014a: 39; 2014b: 180-82) or was fundamentally a common noun that could be used as a proper name or a generic title depending on the context (Margalit 1990; Binger 1997: 145-148; Wyatt 1999: 103-104). In either case, inscriptional asherah is thought to mean something like “consort” or “asherah goddess.”

Although the different variants of this approach are not equally persuasive or have relied on problematic evidence/argumentation, the general line of interpretation of postulating a common noun sense to asherah is appealing as a solution to the problem of ʾšrth. After all, this understanding of asherah fits the semantic-syntactic context, which methodologically speaking should be the primary criteria for determining the usage and implication of a word in an unfamiliar linguistic setting. We have already seen earlier that asherah cannot have reference to the proper name Asherah because of the attached pronominal suffix, but must refer to a common noun of some kind, an asherah differentiated from all other asherahs. Not surprisingly, Hebrew epigraphists have often felt constrained to gloss inscriptional ʾšrth as “his consort” (Gogel 1998: 60; cf. DNWSI 1:129; McCarter 1987: 147; 2003a: 171, n. 3).

As mentioned above, there are two possible explanations for how asherah came to have a common noun meaning in the inscriptions at KA and KQom, the first that the divine name Asherah itself originated as a common noun and that this usage continued into the first millennium in Hebrew, and second that Asherah had semantically developed into a generic title in the context of Israel-Judah.

The first option is at least theoretically plausible. Many divine names in West Semitic appear to have originated as common nouns or had a common noun valence, so it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the same might be the case with Asherah. For example, El, Baal, Elat, Rahmay are common nouns used as if they were proper names in Ugaritic: El= (the) God, Baal= (the) Lord, Elat= (the) Goddess, Raḥmay= (the) Womb. Asherah is also invoked parallel to common noun originating epithets, such as Elat and Raḥmay (KTU 1.14 IV 34-39; 1.3 V 36-37; 1.15 III 25-26; 1.23.13, 28). In addition, the plural ʾašērōt is used in the HB to designate a class of female divinities associated with various Baal deities (Jdgs 3:7), the same as ʿaštārōṯ (Jdgs 2:13; 10:6; 1 Sam 7:4; 12:10); hāʾašērâ with the article functions as a companion term to habaʿal (1 Kgs 16:31-33; 18:19; 2 Kgs 17:16; 21:3, 7; 23:4-6), suggesting that a common noun implication was perceived for both. That the term asherah had a generic/titular function would also shed light on how it came to be applied to multiple goddesses geographically and chronologically separated from one another (Binger 1997: 146-47).

So what would asherah have meant if it were originally a common noun? Margalit (1990) has proposed that asherah is a long forgotten NWS noun derived from the root ʾṯr, “to follow,” and denotes “wife, consort.” In support of this derivation, he notes that the noun aṯt “wife” is invoked parallel to aṯrt in ks . qdš ltphnh . aṯt . krpn ltʿn . aṯrt “a holy cup a wife may not see, a goblet even an aṯrt may not see” (KTU 1.3 I 13-15), and once in a letter aṯrt possibly bears an attached pronominal suffix, laṯrty “for my asherah” (KTU 2.31:42). Further, he correlates this proposed etymology with the drawing on pithos A from KA depicting YHWH and “his asherah” standing behind him and argues that understanding asherah as “one who follows,” i.e. wife, is illuminated by the biblical metaphor “to follow/go after” as an expression of marital fidelity.

However, as ingenious as this interpretation may be, it meets with a number of challenges. First, the meaning of asherah as “wife, consort” is not clearly attested anywhere in Semitic. From the earliest of times asherah seems to have been consistently used as a proper name, including in Akkadian and Ugaritic, with anomalous usages showing up only later in Hebrew (Day 1986: 385-408; Wiggins 1993: 132-64, 175, 192; Hadley 2000: 38-83). It is difficult to believe that the term could have originated as a common noun and yet leave no clear attestation of this usage preserved in Semitic more generally. Second, the analysis of asherah as a fem. active participle from the root ʾṯr is unlikely. The name Asherah is never found in a compound phrase as with other participial forms used as divine epithets (e.g. bny bnwt, qnyt ʾilm), and it is doubtful that the verbal notion of “following” in itself would be sufficient to contain the concept of wifehood. Margalit neglects to notice that the verb ʾṯr “to follow” is never associated with wives or consorts in Ugaritic (DUL: 126). With regard to a participial explication of aṯrt, Rahmouni has commented, “the process by which such a participle, originally allegedly used as a compound noun in a divine epithet, eventually became a divine name in its own right, still awaits clear precedent,” and further, if the name Asherah were formed from a participle we would expect it to be vocalized in Hebrew “in accordance with that of the active participle of action verbs, namely * ʾōšeret or possibly ʾōšərā, for neither of which is there any evidence” (2008: 283).

Third, the mention of aṯrt parallel to aṯt “woman, wife” in KTU 1.3 I 13-15 need not be understood as synonymous parallelism. As argued by Park, “It would be better to understand the second clause in an emphatic sense, ‘a sacred cup woman may not see || a goblet even Athirat may not see’” (2010: 532). Fourth, the alleged use of aṯrt with a pronominal suffix in KTU 2.31:42 appears in a broken context and it is unclear whether the y is actually a suffix or rather the beginning of another word. Several scholars have reconstructed an original aṯrtym with no word divider (Heide 2002: 110-11 n. 2). The inscription is simply too fragmentary to use as a basis for positing a common noun meaning to aṯrt in Ugaritic. Finally, while the language hālak ʾaḥarê “to go after” in Hebrew is closely linked to the conceptual domain of marital fidelity/amorous relations, the expression has no discernible relation to the root ʾšr “to follow,” and it is methodologically dubious to try to explicate the imagery of pithos A on the basis of a presumed etymology (Keel and Uehlinger 1998: 219, n. 50). The concept of a wife “following after” her husband could have existed and even lay somewhere in the background of the portrayal of YHWH and his asherah on the KA pithos and yet have no relation to the etymology of asherah.

Binger (1997: 146-47) has similarly suggested that asherah was originally a secular name-title, whose common noun status would have allowed it to apply to many different goddesses. She speculates that the title was generally used to designate female counterparts of high gods such as El, Baal, and YHWH. But unfortunately Binger fails to provide any direct support for this original common noun meaning or to explain why asherah in the extant texts is used consistently as the proper name of a goddess. Furthermore, it is conceivable that the divine name Asherah had a quasi-titular function in the Late Bronze-Iron Age southern Levant and yet was not in fact understood as a regular common noun that could be declined with a suffix. We will see below that the same may be the case with the divine name Astarte during the first millennium BCE.

In sum, we lack evidence to substantiate the notion that asherah originated as a common noun. All extant material suggests it was used as a divine name throughout the greater part of its millennia long history. Although aṯrt is sometimes used parallel with other common noun originating epithets in Ugaritic, these epithets are nevertheless treated as proper name designations, so their relevance to understanding the meaning and origin of asherah is moot.

The only remaining alternative is to assume that the name Asherah had semantically developed into a common noun as an innovation peculiar to Israel-Judah or the central southern Levant. Levine (2014b: 181) has proposed that asherah may have been generalized into a synonym for ʾilt “goddess,” comparable to the development of Ishtar in Akkadian into a general term for “goddess” (e.g. ištaru, ištartu, etc.), and Pardee has similarly assumed that the term asherah as found in the inscriptions from KA and KQom represents the end product of a long process of semantic evolution whereby the word came to have the common noun meaning “consort” (1995: 302; 2002: 122-23; 2005: 282-83).

As I mentioned above, the only place that we find anomalous usages of the term asherah in NWS is in the Hebrew Bible, which needs to be taken into account when considering its possible meaning at KA and KQom. First, the plural ʾašērōt appears in Jdgs 3:7 as a designation for a class of female deities worshipped in association with various Baals (Cooper 1981: 347). The usage suggests that for the biblical authors the term had a generic valence of some kind. Although some have supposed ʾašērōt here to be a scribal mistake for ʿaštārōṯ, since the latter are associated with the Baals elsewhere (Jdgs 2:13; 10:6; 1 Sam 7:3, 4; 12:10) and the reading ʿaštārōṯ is reflected in the Syriac and Vulgate, the earliest versional evidence in the LXX supports the MT reading. Day has correctly noted that ʾašērōt is the lectio difficilior and it is much “easier to understand how ‘the Asheroth’ could have become corrupted here to ‘the Ashtaroth’ than the other way around” (Day 2002: 45; also Merlo 2009c: 1101). The Israelite Asherah is also closely linked to Baal later in the Dtr narrative (Jdgs 6:25-26; 1 Kgs 16:31-32; 2 Kgs 17:16; 21:3-7; 23:5-6), so the appearance of the divine pair at the beginning of the narrative is explicable at a thematic level. By referencing the Baals and Asherahs (native Israelite) instead of the Baals and Astartes (nonnative or coastal Phoenician), the Dtr author is apparently endeavoring to link the former to the latter and stigmatize both of them as foreign and non-Israelite (cf. Olyan 1988: 10, n. 28; Anthonioz 2014).

Second, Larocca-Pitts has observed that the term ʾašērîm in the Bible appears to refer to female cult statuary and not the statuary of Asherah in particular (2001: 191). The biblical authors enjoin or record the destruction of the ʾašērîm of multiple Canaanite deities (e.g. Deut 7:5; 12:3), including Phoenician Astarte in Jerusalem (2 Kgs 23:14). If this understanding is correct, then it suggests that the term ʾašerah had developed a common noun valence that allowed it to be generalized to other female divinities. That is to say, the biblical condemnation of ʾašērîm presupposes a semantic evolution from Asherah as proper name > to asherah as common noun for multiple goddesses, and then > to asherah as term for female cult statuary.

Third, the generic quality of the term asherah is also suggested by the consistent attachment of the article to it when used by the biblical authors to designate the goddess Asherah (1 Kgs 15:13; 18:19; 2 Kgs 21:7; 23:4). Asherah is used as if it were a common noun title comparable to Baal and in need of further specification: hāʾašērâ “the asherah” implies that she is a particular member of a larger class of ʾašērōt.

In sum, a hitherto unattested common noun meaning peculiar to the region of Israel-Judah seems the most workable of the current alternatives for interpreting the phrase ʾšrth. We already mentioned above that semantic development of a divine name is plausible in a comparative context (e.g. Ishtar). From the little we know, divine names in the ancient Near East seem to have had extraordinarily complicated histories. Not only do many divine names appear to have originated as common nouns, but their meaning could change and evolve over time, depending on the historical and cultural circumstances.

As a point of comparison, we can briefly consider the names of two other Levantine goddesses, whose semantic content may have developed from the Late Bronze to the Late Iron Age or at least reflect divergent interpretations among particular cultures. Both Astarte and Anat appear in second millennium sources from Ugarit as youthful, second-tier warrior goddesses. As members of the household of El, they are conjugally unattached to any males and non-reproductive in character (Walls 1992; Handy 1994: 102-105, 108; P. Day 1999: 36-38; Wyatt 1999: 110-112; Smith 2001: 54-66; 2014; Cornelius 2004: 92-94; Pardee 2007; Schmitt 2013: 217).[48] Anat is regularly referred to by the epithet btlt, indicating her status as a young female who has not born children (cf. Smith 1994: 8-9, n. 20; Rahmouni 2008: 134-41). Scattered evidence suggests that the profiles of Astarte and Anat as young, independent, warrior-like goddesses may have persisted on into the first millennium BCE in some quarters.[49]

Yet by the 9-7th centuries the divine names Astarte and Anat seem to have been used to designate substantially different types of deities in respectively Phoenician and Aramaean contexts. In Phoenicia Astarte has become a first-tier primary goddess, functioning as wife and mother at sites where Asherah had once been preeminent (Hadley 2000: 41-42; Rahmouni 2008: 69-71). At Tyre, Sidon, and elsewhere she is regularly given the epithet rbt “Mistress”, reflecting her status as chief female in the pantheon and mother of the divine royal heir (cf. Gordon 1988: 127-132; Smith 2002: 129; 2006: 100-101; 2009: 404-406; Marsman 2003: 357-70; Wyatt 2010: 75-76).[50] At Sidon she is linked to the Baal of Sidon and the youthful Eshmun in a triadic combination, the epithet “Name of Baal” identifying her as the consort of Baal (Schmitt 2013: 217).[51] Although the epithet “Name of Baal” certainly indicates a degree of continuity with the Astarte of Ugaritic literature, because this Phoenician Astarte is so far removed from Late Bronze Ugarit it would be methodologically unwise to simply equate the two goddesses. The strong martial connotation of the epithet is no longer in evidence and it now seems to function as a Sidonian equivalent to the Punic epithet “Face of Baal” used for Tinnit, pointing to her role as a mediator with her husband (cf. Seow 1999: 322-325; Müller 2003: 127-29; Garbati 2013: 531-32). Theophoric personal names suggest she was conceptualized as a benevolent figure (Benz 1972: 386-87; Smith 2002: 129; Abousamra and Lemaire 2013: 153-157), and Schmitt has noted that “in the first millennium glyptic repertoire from Phoenicia the motif of the armed goddess is completely absent” (2013: 217).[52] Astarte’s change in status is further indicated by her identification/overlap with several other mother-type goddesses in the larger Mediterranean world, including Tinnit, Baalat of Byblos, the goddess of Tas Silg, Isis, Hera, Uni/Juno, Kybele.[53] In Philo’s Phoenician history Astarte is remembered as the wife of Kronos and Zeus and mother of various deities (Attridge and Oden 1981: 51, 53, 55).

On the other hand, in Aramaean cultural contexts Anat has become a regular name of the wife of the primary high god. In Essarhaddon’s treaty with Baal of Tyre Anat is paired with Bethel in the form Anat-Bethel. Because Bethel was an Aramaean form of the high god El, Anat-Bethel likely refers to the goddess serving as his first-tier wife (van der Toorn 1992: 83-85; Röllig 1999: 174; Niehr 2014: 153). Similarly, Anat appears in Upper Egypt paired with YHW/Bethel in contexts that are strongly indicative of her domestic wifely status. As was mentioned above, the goddess is found in a familial triad connected to YHW’s temple at Elephantine where YHW is implied to be father, Anat-Bethel his wife, and Ashim-Bethel their son. In Papyrus Amherst 63 Marah (“Lady”), the queen consort of Mar/Bethel, is once called Anat (Col. VII. 9). From her portrayal in the text, she is clearly a mother-type goddess: 1) a frequent refrain is that she reared, suckled, and nourished the people as her children (I.19; II.14-III.6; III.14-17); 2) just as Bethel is called Bull and Father, she is the divine Cow (II.19-20; IVB.15; XIII.5-7); and 3) she is a goddess of sacred marriage: lying in the “waters of fertility” she brings forth fruit to her husband (II.8-11; cf. V.9; VIII.13; IX.7; XVI.7-19).

At the very least, this data suggests that the divine names Astarte and Anat had developed in Phoenician and Aramaean cultural contexts so that they no longer had reference to the deities who bore those names in the second millennium. As the mythological profiles of these deities evolved, the names were given new semantic content or associated with different connotations. Instead of the youthful, independent, martial goddesses we meet at Ugarit, Astarte and Anat had become permanently wedded, motherly in character, and primary in their respective pantheons.

In fact, it is conceivable that Astarte and Anat were understood as something more like name-titles than proper names. The name Astarte was applied to many different local goddesses during the Persian and Hellenistic periods and often is found in apposition to other divine names or accompanied by descriptive epithets, suggesting it had a semantic nuance amenable to further definition.[54] The multiplication of Astarte deities especially in the late period explains why the authors of the Dtr history treat Astarte as a generic title for non-Israelite goddesses paired with local Baals in neighboring cultures, including Aram, Sidon, Moab, Ammon, and Philistine (Jdgs 2:13; 10:6; 1 Sam 7:3-4; 12:10). In the case of Anat, the name occurs in Papyrus Amherst 63 in a triadic combination along with Mar (“Lord”) and Nebo (Steiner and Nims 2017: 24), presumably their son along the pattern of Nabu being the son of Bel-Marduk in Mesopotamia, and then again in a similar triadic combination at Elephantine with YHW, Anat-Bethel, and their son Ashim-Bethel. That Anat was a title with connotations of motherhood and divine primacy would help explain why it was so easily adopted by Elephantine Judaeans as a designation for their chief goddess.

Alternatively, the name Anat may have originated in NWS as a generic designation for a female sexual partner/wife, the usage among Aramaeans preserving this earlier common noun nuance. A plausible etymology of Anat is that it is related to ʿn “furrow,” a root attested in Ugaritic and Hebrew.[55] The conceptualization of women as the fertile ground in which seed is planted was widespread in the ancient Near East (Stol 2000: 1-2), and an understanding of Anat as denoting “the female furrow” would explain how it came to be applied to deities as dissimilar as Anat of Ugarit and Aramaean Anat-Bethel and could also be declined with a pronominal suffix. Significantly, the divine name Anat appears in early Canaanite toponyms preserved in the Bible along with Baal (“Lord”) and Baalat (“Lady”), further reinforcing the impression that it is a descriptive epithet, perhaps denoting the same goddess as Baalat (cf. Zevit 2001: 603).




Through examining the various proposals that have been made for elucidating ʾšrth from KA and KQom we have been able to establish that it most likely has reference to a common noun denoting YHWH’s female partner: “his asherah.” This understanding of the phrase not only does no violence to the evidence that inscriptional asherah is a female deity paired with YHWH, but it also harmonizes best with the lexical-syntactic evidence that asherah is declined with a pronominal suffix with YHWH as the antecedent.

While we currently lack information to clarify the precise meaning of asherah in the inscriptions, the identification of the term as a common noun has important religio-historical implications and may point us toward a possible answer. We have already seen above that because asherah in the inscriptions is declined with a pronominal suffix, it cannot refer to the goddess Asherah. This asherah is by definition distinguished from all other asherahs, including perhaps especially the goddess whose proper name was Asherah. The Bible suggests that Israelite Asherah was worshipped together with Baal (i.e. El) until the end of the monarchy (e.g. 2 Kgs 23:4). So combining the inscriptional and biblical data it seems reasonable to infer that in ancient Israel-Judah there were two goddesses concurrently designated asherah, the goddess named Asherah in the sense of a proper name (the Asherah) and the goddess that appears in our inscriptions as YHWH’s asherah. We mentioned earlier that some evidence indicates that during the Late Iron Age YHWH was still conceptualized as a second-tier warrior deity under El and Asherah. If this was the case, then it is possible that the common noun meaning of asherah was developed to distinguish YHWH’s female partner from the Asherah associated with El.

At any rate, whatever the relationship of YHWH’s asherah to Asherah, what seems indisputable is that the worship of this goddess was a general feature of Israelite-Judahite religion, as it is attested not only for YHWH cult in the south at Teman-Edom, but also for Samaria and Judah. The distribution of the forms of YHWH invoked in the inscriptions suggest a broad cultural sphere where YHWH was believed to be wedded. Furthermore, YHWH’s asherah appears to have been at home in public national cult as well as personal family religion. The Samaria and Teman mentioned in the blessings are clearly regional cult centers associated with state polities, where particular manifestations of YHWH and his asherah were linked to established territorial boundaries, whereas the YHWH and asherah at KQom are expressed in the context of aspirations for the well being of an individual after death. The stereotyped nature of the blessings and KA’s links with Israelite officialdom reflect the traditional, prevailing, and authorized character of this polytheistic faith. Finally, YHWH and his asherah were likely represented with icons or cult statues at the abovementioned sites. YHWH of Samaria and his asherah are treated in the blessings as conceptually distinct from YHWH of Teman and his asherah, and it is difficult to imagine how this distinction could have been maintained unless they were physically embodied in their respective sanctuaries.



[1] For history of scholarship, see Hadley 2000: 11-37; Wyse-Rhodes 2014: 71-90.

[2] Inscription 3.1, Aḥituv, Eshel, and Meshel 2012: 87-91. Cf. Renz 1995a: 61; Zevit 2001: 390-392; Dobbs-Allsopp et al. 2005: 289-292; Naʾaman 2011: 302.

[3] Inscription 3.6, Aḥituv, Eshel, and Meshel 2012: 95-97. Cf. Renz 1995a: 62; Zevit 2001: 394-397; Dobbs-Allsopp et al. 2005: 293-294; Naʾaman 2011: 303.

[4] Inscription 3.9, Aḥituv, Eshel, and Meshel 2012: 98-100. Cf. Renz 1995a: 64; Zevit 2001: 398-400; Dobbs-Allsopp et al. 2005: 295-297; Naʾaman 2011: 306; Blum 2013: 44-47.

[5] Aḥituv, Eshel, and Meshel read kl ʾs̆r. ys̆ʾl. mʾs̆. ḥnn hʾ “all that he requests from a man, that man will give him generously.” But from the photos it is difficult to make out what follows ys̆ʾl. (cf. McCarter 2003b: 172, n. 3), and ḥnn hʾ means “he is gracious,” not “he will give” (Naʾaman 2011: 307). Also, the sense of the line yielded by this reading is unsatisfactory. First, based on the mythopoetic focus and cultic function of the inscriptions at KA, it seems doubtful that an Israelite receiving something from an unspecified gracious man would be the subject of this short verse. Second, line 2 shows evidence of parallelism with the occurrence of “ask”//“entreat” and “gracious”//“give.” Because the adjective “gracious” is prominently associated with YHWH in the Bible (e.g. Ex. 34:5; Ps. 116:5), a more plausible reading is that ḥnn hʾ “he is gracious” refers to YHWH as the one who responds to requests.

[6] Inscription 4.1.1, Aḥituv, Eshel, and Meshel 2012: 105-107. Cf. Renz 1995a: 58; Zevit 2001: 373-374; Dobbs-Allsopp et al. 2005: 285-286; Naʾaman 2011: 308-09.

[7] Inscription from KQom, cf. Renz 1995a: 207-210; Zevit 2001: 359-70; Dobbs-Allsopp et al. 2005: 408-414; Aḥituv 2008: 220-224.

[8] I assume that the placement of mṣryh after the coordinating waw and before lʾs̆rth is a poetic breakup of a stereotyped phrase and therefore that asherah functions as a second object in the blessing formula. Cf. Hadley 2000: 96-100; Naveh 2001: 194-97; Aḥituv 2008: 221-224; Renz 2009: 22-25; Schniedewind 2013: 113; Puech 2015: 6-12.

[9] On the significance of the preposition l- before a divine name, cf. Pardee 1976: 223; Renz 1995: 30; Jenni 2000: 77; Parker 2006: 89-90.

[10] The cult object interpretation was first proposed by Lemaire 1977: 595-608 with reference to Khirbet el-Qom and soon thereafter was applied to the inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud.

[11] E.g. Porter 2009a; Kaizer 2013.

[12] See Deut 7:5; 12:3; 16:21; Jdgs 3:7; 6:25, 26, 28, 30; 1 Kgs 14:15, 23; 15:13; 16:33; 18:19; 2 Kgs 13:6; 17:10, 16; 18:4; 21:3, 7; 23:4, 6, 7, 14, 15. Outside of the Dtr narrative, asherah occurs in Ex 34:13, a chapter commonly viewed as having strong Dtr connections, in some late literary/redactional (Dtr?) strata in prophetic narrative (Isa 17:8; 27:9; Jer 17:2; Mic 5:3), and in the synchronistic references in Chronicles.

[13] For the spelling of Asherah, see Hess 1995: 211-213.

[14] In Middle Kingdom Egyptian the sibilant of the NWS name element ʾšr is written with a š and not an s, which argues against the view that it is derived from PS ʾṯr (Albright 1954: 229-230, n. 51; Janzen 1965: 216). Further, in Ugaritic the form išryt “happiness” is distinguished from aṯrt “Asherah” (cf. Frevel 1995: 162, n. 447; DUL3: 115, 125).

[15] For inscriptions found at or related to KQom, see Dever 1969-70; Renz 1995a: 199-217; Aḥituv 2008: 220-233.

[16] On the lack of correspondence between theophorics in personal names and the full gamut of deities worshiped in particular Levantine cultures, see Pardee 1988: 119-51; Hadley 2000: 79-80; Smith 2002: 4-5.

[17] For perspectives on Israel-Judah as a “patriarchal” society, cf. Meyers 2006; 2014; Knight 2011: 132; Lemos 2015; Brenner-Idan 2015: 64-66; Boer 2015: 81-109.

[18] See also KAI 104; 105; 175; Constantine N42; Tirekbine N1. The singular emphasis on Baal in Punic dedications has been noted by Garbati 2013: 530; Amadasi Guzzo and López 2012-13: 176 n. 80.

[19] For discussion on the relationship between deities and their cult images, cf. Jacobson 1987: 15-32; Berlejung 1998; Hurowitz 2003; Collins 2005: 33-35; Dick 2005: 51-58; Porter 2009a; Schaudig 2012; Hundley 2013: 277-81; Doak 2015: 22-27; Pongratz-Leisten and Sonik 2015: 3-69; Sonik 2015.

[20] Temples or parts thereof were also treated as divine throughout Mesopotamia for virtually all periods (Porter 2009b; Hundley 2013: 76; Sass 2014: 59-60; Hruša 2015: 63). However, as far as I can tell, they were not used in blessings of greeting formulae. Porten has also suggested that non-anthropomorphic items such as these became divine through “a transfer of divinity to them from the inherently numinous god that owned them and with whom they were in frequent intimate contact” (2009b: 191).

[21] The verbs in the blessing could be analyzed as 3mp or 3ms. Donner and Röllig translate the blessing in the plural (KAI II:16) but Krahmalkov in the singular (2000: 179).

[22] Cf. the alternative proposal by Kaizer that that the word smyʾ in some instances may mean “the Red One” as a reference to Nergal (2007: 42-43).

[23] I follow Porten’s reconstruction of the missing text except restore YHW rather than Herem (1968: 317), as I explain later below.

[24] If the god Ashim at Elephantine is correctly linked to Ashima in the Levant, then it certainly designated a masculine deity. The predicative elements associated with Ashim in PNs are all masculine, e.g. ʾšmzbd “Ashim has given,” ʾšmrm “Ashim is exalted,” ʾšmšzb “Ashim has saved.” Cf. Rohrmoser 2014: 141-44.

[25] The masculine epithet “Name of El” is attested at Ugarit (KTU 1.22 I 6-7) as well as 8th century KA (4.2). “Name” is also possibly used as a masculine theophoric in Canaanite PNs (Albertz 2012: 289, n. 105; Hess 2007b: 126). Astarte is called “Name of Baal” at Ugarit and later at Phoenician Sidon (Huffmon 1999: 610-12; Seow 1999: 322-25). Cf. the seal with the PN btʾšm “daughter of Ashim” (Avigad and Sass 1997: 486).

[26] Ackroyd 1983; Ahlström 1984; Dever 1984; 2005; Freedman 1987; Coogan 1987; 2010; Müller 1992; Braulik 1992; Merlo 1994; 1998; 2009a; Loretz 1992; Frevel 1995; 2016; Xella 1995; 2001; Renz 1995b; 2009; Uehlinger 1997; Weippert 1997; 2010; Brenner-Idan 1997; Rainey 1998; Köckert 1998; 2005; van der Toorn 2002; Schmidt 2002; 2016; Soggin 2002; Ackerman 2003; 2006; Rollston 2007; 2010; Leuenberger 2008; Becking 2008; Jericke 2010; Berlejung 2011; 2012; Noll 2012; Mandell 2012; Schniedewind 2013; Römer 2013; 2015; Katz 2015; Anderson 2015.

[27] For the identification of Teman with the core territory of the Edomite state, see Edelman 1995: 10-11; Knauf 1992: 347-48; MacDonald 2000: 192-93.

[28] Cf. McCarter 1987: 140-141; Niehr 2003: 194; Sommer 2009: 38-39; Smith 2012: 214-215; Hutton 2012: 183-187; Hutzli 2013: 180-181. Allen has expressed skepticism that geographical names in the construction DN b-GN are integral to the identity of the deities so construed because they never appear in embedded god-lists or contrast two deities of the same first name (2015: 297-308). However, this etic criterion for detecting divine individuation is too narrow and simplistic to be useful, because not only are god-lists somewhat rare in extant West Semitic inscriptions, but from an emic perspective deities associated with contrasting GNs could be regarded as both separate/distinct and overlapping. While Allen is correct that many of the known cases of DN-b-GN do not function precisely as full names in the same manner as Ishtar of Ninevah or Ishtar of Arbela, his analysis overlooks that divine nomenclature was generally more fluid depending on the rhetorical and discourse situation and that a deity did not always or consistently have to be specified by a geographical name if its identity was already clear from the communicative context. In fact, most of the occurrences of geographical names in the formula DN-b-GN seem to modify the name of a deity or at least localize its manifestation, including Ps 65:2; 99:2; 1 Sam 5:5; 2 Sam 15:7; KAI 14:16; 17:2; 81:1; 181:13; 225:1-2; 226:1; Lapethos 6; WSS 876:2; TAD A 4.7: 6; 4.8:7; B 2.2: 4; 3.3:2; 3.5:2; 3.10:2; 3.11:2, etc. Also, the interchange of expressions such as mlk ʿṯtrt “Mlk of ʿAṯtrt,” mlk bʿṯtrt “Mlk in ʿAṯtrt,” and mlk… yṯb bʿṯtrt “Mlk… who resides in ʿAṯtrt” at Ugarit and yhw ʾlhʾ byb “YHW the god in Yeb,” yhw ʾlhʾ (zy) byb brtʾ “YHW the god in Yeb the fortress,” and yhw ʾlhʾ škn yb brtʾ “YHW the god who dwells at Yeb the fortress” at Elephantine point to the similarity in function between DN-of-GN, DN-škn/yšb -GN, and DN-b-GN.

[29] Cf. Barstad 1984: 195; Blenkinsopp 2003: 161; Levine 2014b: 179.

[30] In the past the grammatical model that has been used to describe this phenomena is “double determination,” but this seems to reflect a modern conceptual framework that understands divinity to be essentially a determinate category.

[31] Pardee (1995: 301-303) has proposed reading the –h as an adverbial/locative morpheme, but he provides no clear parallel for this usage in a context similar to KTU 1.43.13. The fact that “his Anat” has an immediate antecedent in Gatharu and elsewhere Anat is associated with the same deity lends support to understanding the –h as a suffix. Cf. Smith 2001: 72-74; Xella 2001: 74-75; Schmidt 2002: 104-107; Heide 2002: 110-11 n. 2; Levine 2014: 180.

[32] For the text, see Steiner and Nims 2017: 24. For the background to Papyrus Amherst 63, cf. Vleeming and Wesselius 1985: 7, 43-46; Steiner 1995; 2003: 309-310; Kottsieper 1997; 2009.

[33] Gen 35:4; Ex 23:24; 32:20; 34:13; Num 33:52; Deut 7:5, 25; 12:3; 2 Kgs 10:26, 27; 11:18; 18:4; 19:18; 23:4, 14; 2 Chron 14:2; 23:17; 31:1; 34:4, 7; Isa 21:9; 37:19; Jer 43:13; 51: 47-52; Ezek 6:6; 30:13; Hos 10:2; Micah 1:7; 5:12; Nahum 1:14.

[34] Ex 23:24; 34:13; Deut 7:5; 12:3; 2 Kgs 18:4; 23:14; 2 Chron 14:2; 31:1; Jer 43:13

[35] Cornell provides a few examples from Rabbinic literature where the term ʿmwd seems to refer to a cult icon (2016: 301, n. 45).

[36] See Hundley 2013: 358. On the possibility that standing stones were used in the cult at Elephantine, see Porten 1968: 120; Mettinger 1995: 131; Niehr 1997: 79-80; van der Toorn 1997b: 7; Rohrmoser 2014: 186-98. Cf. Knauf 2002: 185; Granerød 2016: 112; Cornell 2016.

[37] On the problematic use of “syncretism” as a heuristic concept in the comparative study of religion, see Shaw and Stewart 2005; for Israelite-Judahite religion, see Albertz 2008: 90.

[38] The only probable reference to a goddess Anat is in the name Anammelek in 2 Kgs 17:31, which reflects an assimilation of Anat-Melek “Anat of Melek” (cf. Gese 1970: 110, 157; Weinfeld 1972: 149; Millard 1999: 34). She is alleged to have been a goddess of the Sepharvites and presumably the companion of Adrammelek. The latter is likely a corruption of Addir-Melek or Melek-Addir, parallel to Phoenician Baal Addir, lord of the tophet.

[39] Cf. Redford 1992: 441-445, 462-463; Knauf 2002: 183-84; Maier 2002: 242; Dion 2002: 243; Porten 2003: 451-70; Kahn 2007: 507-516; Botta 2009: 12-16; Rohrmoser 2014: 80-81; Fitzpatrick-McKinley 2016. According to von Pilgrim 1999: 143, the temple of YHW was founded in the sixth century during the 26th dynasty, which lends support to the assumption that Judeans had already been living in Elephantine for a space of time. On foreign mercenary communities establishing native cult and worship places, see Fitzpatrick-McKinley 2016.

[40] For the cosmopolitan nature of Elephantine and the tendency of foreign mercenaries to assimilate aspects of Egyptian culture, see Botta 2014: 369-71; Fitzpatrick-McKinley 2016. When the Judeans of Elephantine adopted Aramaic as their spoken language is more difficult to determine, because it is unclear how long they had resided in Egypt before we encounter their writings in the 5th century (cf. Botta 2009: 14-16; Granerød 2016: 189; van der Toorn 2016). Assimilation of the divine nomenclature in Upper Egypt would also explain why it is only haphazard and not fully carried through: Bethel and Ashim appear rather infrequently in the Judean onomasticon and Anat-YHW apparently could also be designated Anat-Bethel.

[41] P. Grelot rejected both of these restorations and followed the earlier suggestion that the line continues the patronymic with br X… (1972: 95). But this reading can be excluded based on 1) the presence of a conjunctive w- before Anat-YHW, which shows that another divine name was listed in the gap; 2) the preservation of a final aleph after the break, which fits well with a restoration of the epithet אלהא; and 3) the parallel oath in AP 6/TAD B 2.2 that suggests a divine name should fall before the geographic localization.

[42] Cf. Angerstorfer 1982; Zevit 1984; 2001; O’Connor 1987; Conrad 1988; Hess 1996; 2007a; Tropper 2001; Parker 2006; Naʾaman and Lissovsky 2008; Naʾaman 2012; Gilmour 2015; Anderson 2015.

[43] Cf. Koch 1988: 99; Müller 1992: 31-32; Wiggins 1993: 170-171; Merlo 1994: 32; Renz 1995b: 92; Gogel 1998: 60-61 n. 95; Emerton 1999: 316 n. 2; Hadley 2000: 98; Day 2002: 52; Tropper 2001: 101; Schmidt 2002: 104-105; 2010; Smith 2004: 188; Rollston 2007: 99.

[44] Cf. Wiggins 1993: 170-71; Binger 1997: 105; Merlo 1998: 28-30; Emerton 1999: 315-316, n. 1, 2; Zevit 2001: 404-405; Day 2002: 52.

[45] The significance of the final a vowel is unclear. Possible explanations include that it was scribal orthographic convention, an ending used for proper names regardless of case, reflex of the old accusative ending from Proto-Semitic, or the oblique case of a diptotic declension.

[46] On the loss of case vowels in Semitic languages, see Hasselbach 2011; 2013: 27-36.

[47] Cf. Meshel 1979; Engle 1979; Pope 1980; Margalit 1990; Halpern 2009; Pardee 1995; 2002; 2005; Stolz 1996; Binger 1997; Wyatt 1999; Rüterswörden 2009; Levine 2014a; 2014b. Others have proposed something similar, see Weinfeld 1984: 121-22; Miller 1986: 246; 2000: 35-37; McCarter 1987: 149; Lindenberger 2003: 133-34; Irsigler 2011: 143.

[48] Similar to Ishtar in Mesopotamia, Astarte and Anat in Ugaritic myth are symbols of potential sexuality rather than its realization through motherhood.

[49] The martial profile of Astarte possibly had greater longevity in Egypt (Wyatt 1999: 111; Schmitt 2013: 217; cf. Tazawa 2014). Anat was identified with Athena on Cyprus and presumably lies behind the reference to Athena in Philo of Byblos (P. Day 1999: 39).

[50] On the basis of Ugaritic evidence, Rahmouni understands rbt as an honorary title that could be applied to many different goddesses, including ʾAṯiratu and Šapšu (2008: 281-82). But the distribution of the epithet in other Levantine pantheons argues against this, since it seems to be used only with reference to the primary goddess of particular divine households, e.g. Astarte, Tinnit, Isis, etc. (DNWSI: 1049). In addition, a number of scholars believe that the sun goddess Šapšu is closely related to ʾAṯiratu and perhaps even an avatar-hypostasis.

[51] Eshmun is never explicitly designated the son of Baal and Astarte, but his identification as קדש שר “holy prince” (KAI 14:17; 15; 16) and interpretatio graeca as Apollo underlines his youthful second-tier character.

[52] For Phoenician Astarte’s ambiguous iconography, see Bloch-Smith 2014.

[53] Cf. Lipiński 1995: 132-54; Bordreuil 1998; Bonnet 1991; 2010: 81-85; Müller 2003; Amadasi Guzzo 2010; Abousamra and Lemaire 2013: 156-57; Zernecke 2013.

[54] E.g. Isis-Astarte (KAI 48); Tinnit-Astarte (KAI 285); Astarte-Hor (KAI 294); Astarte-Eryx (CIS I 135.1); Astarte-Kition (KAI 37); Astarte-Malta (Bloch-Smith 2014: 181); Astarte-Paphos (RES 921.3-4); Astarte of the Mighty Heavens (KAI 14); Aphrodite Urania (Herodotus 1:105); Astarte Megiste (Philo

[55] Cf. Deem 1978: 25-30; Walls 1992: 114-15; DUL: 169; Smith and Pitard 2009: 149-50.

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