Upon reading Deuteronomy this week, I noticed two related words separated by a mere four chapters: “Asherah” and “Asherim”:
“You shall tear down their altars and dash
in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire.” (Deut 12:3)
“You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah
beside the altar of the LORD your God that you shall make.” (Deut 16:21)
I was curious as to the definitions of these words. What was an Asherim? What is an Asherah? Why were the Israelites forbidden from planting a tree next to the altar of the Protagonist? What is to be obliterated by fire? One of these key questions remained a “what”, while the other became a “who”.
Starting with Asherah, I discovered that she was the most influential female deity worshiped in Canaan, Syria and Phoenicia (Questions.org) and was called a variety of names. She was considered the consort or wife of the supreme God though archaeological evidence has paired her with both Ba’al and El—also known as Elohim or Yahweh (Britannica). Mother goddess Asherah ruled over the moon, fertility, and all living things (Jewish Women’s Archive). All living things, eh? That sounds like the Protagonist has a rival or even an equal. The worship of Asherah continued in Canaan, even after the Protagonist’s decree against her, as noted in Judges 2:13:
“They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth [Asherah].”
I paused in my research and thought for a moment. Worshipping Ba’al is strictly forbidden by the Protagonist but He insists the Israelites worship Him. He is technically married to Asherah who is a powerful goddess that could rival Him—wouldn’t it make sense to worship Asherah as well? Apparently not, as the cult worship of Asherah started to die out after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem around 586 B.C.E., bringing about a stricter monotheism (Discovery News).
A possible reason to eliminate Asherah from this male-dominated society was to remove the Israelites from the cultural connotations associated with worshipping her. Asherah of Deuteronomy had evolved from an amalgam of other goddesses from the surrounding areas. One example was Hathor, or Balaat, Egyptian goddess of sex and love who was represented by a pillar or a tree. One method of worshipping Hathor involved a drunken orgy at the end of the year (Esoteric). This was a form of worship which had already been punished by the Protagonist in Exodus 32 as the Israelites worshipped Ba’al. Mesopotamian Ishara was another; she was the goddess of love and divination, which we all know was also already forbidden by the Protagonist in Leviticus 19. Asherah became associated with these condemned practices, in essence condemning her worshippers in the eyes of the Protagonist.
To address the “Asherim,” I did not have to research much further. Due to the fact that Asherah was associated with trees to represent fertility, her followers planted groves of trees or erected wooden pillars near her temple or altar. These sacred poles were near the Israelite “high places” as well as altars dedicated to Ba’al (Yahweh and Asherah). The Protagonist had already banned Ba’al, so to continue with the equal but seemingly pagan worship of Asherah would be to spit in His face against His commandments. The easiest way to destroy wood and therefore destroy the holiness of Asherah would be by holocaust; Asherah was set afire and drifted away on the winds of time like ash.