From the Hebrew Bible itself, it is clear that Canaanite polytheism persisted among the Israelites throughout nearly all the Biblical period; this is attested to by the golden calf, by the constant re-appearances of Baal, by the lamentations and exhortations of the prophets, etc. What recent scholarship has brought to the fore, however, is that the female Canaanite goddess Asherah was also an important part of the polytheism of the Israelites and their world.
In addition to more rigorous readings of the Hebrew Bible by historians and translators, modern archaeological scholarship has done much to fill in the picture of Asherah’s importance in Biblical Palestine. Her connection with the Shekinah and the Shekinah’s persistence over a long time in Judaism have also been developed by historians like Raphael Patai, notably with his seminal study The Hebrew Goddess (1967).
In the Hebrew Bible, there are those multiple references to Baal and to other pagan gods – is Asherah among them? Mystère.
On her own, Asherah is actually referenced some 40 times in the Hebrew Bible in the pluralized form Asherim, but her presence has been covered over by editorial slights of pen.
There are references to Asherah in the First Book of Kings, Chapter 11, where Solomon indulges in idolatry and builds worship sites for her – in this text she is invoked as the goddess Ashtoreth of the Zidonians (a rival Canaanite group). Indeed he built altars for multiple gods and goddesses; Solomon, it appears, was working overtime to indulge his very multiple foreign wives and concubines.
But the term Asherim could refer both to Asherah herself (as with Elohim and El) and to eponymous objects associated with her cult, in particular to shrines under trees known as Asherah Trees and wooden figures known as Asherah Poles. The trick of the interpreters and translators of the Hebrew Bible has been to systematically render Asherim as “wooden poles” or “wooden groves” or simply as the anonymous “groves.”
The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible (3rd and 2nd centuries BC) into Greek religiously follows this practice and this trick was perpetuated both by St. Jerome in his Latin translation and by the authors of the King James Bible.
For example, in the Hebrew Bible, in Judges 3:7 we have a reference to Baal and Asherah; in the New King James Bible (1982), the Hebrew text is translated as
So the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD. They forgot the LORD their God, and served the Baals and Asherahs.
While in the classic King James version, we have
And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and forgat the LORD their God, and served Baalim and the groves.
The Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible follows the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome and it too renders “Asherim” as “groves” in this verse and elsewhere.
In 1 Kings, worship of Asherah was encouraged in the court of King Ahab by his queen Jezebel which led the prophet Elijah to rail against the presence of prophets of Baal and Asherah at the court: the New King James translation of 1 Kings 18:19 reads
Now therefore, send and gather all Israel to me [Elijah ] on Mount Carmel, the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.
Again, note that this is a new translation; the original King James reads
Now therefore send, and gather to me [Elijah] all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table.
For a picture of Jezebel, Ahab and Elijah getting together, click HERE
Asherah was even present in the Temple in Jerusalem – statues of her were erected there during the time of King Manasseh (2 Kings 21:7) but then smashed during the reign of his grandson, the reformer King Josiah (2 Kings 23:14). This outbreak of iconoclasm is given in the New King James Bible as
He [Josiah] also tore down the quarters of the male shrine prostitutes that were in the temple of the LORD, the quarters where women did weaving for Asherah.
Which can be contrasted with the King James text
And he brake down the houses of the sodomites, that were by the house of the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the grove.
Here too it is only modern translations of the Hebrew text that bring Asherah out into the open.
Josiah’s reform did not long survive his reign, as the following four kings “did what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh” (2 Kings 23:32, 37; 24:9, 19). It is not clear just what those evils were – but they must have been pretty bad to earn a reference in the Bible.
Monotheism was thus slow to become dominant among the population. Right up to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the Babylonian Captivity, we have Biblical references to idolatry among the Israelites and, in particular, to the worship of Asherah. Indeed, one of Asherah’s titles was Queen of Heaven and this is how she is referred to in Jeremaiah 7:18 when the prophet is lamenting the Israelites’ continuing idolatry in the period just before the destruction of the Temple:
The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.
After the exile in Babylon was brought to an end by the pro-Israelite Persian King Cyrus the Great, the construction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem began and was completed in 515 BC; it is at this time that monotheism built around Yahweh finally becomes firmly established as the official version of Judaism. So by the time of the Septuagint two centuries later, “Asherim” is systematically translated into Greek as “groves.” For official Judaism and its male-based monotheism, it was important to redact references to El/Yahweh’s consort Asherah, the Queen of Heaven.
But while the female principle of Asherah might have been expunged from the Judaism of the Hellenized diaspora and from “high temple” Judaism in Jerusalem itself, popular religion in the countryside of Biblical Palestine was another thing entirely. As heiress to Asherah, the Shekinah emerged in the religious practices of the Aramaic speaking Jews of the region – the world of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. The Shekinah first figures in the Targums, Aramaic writings from the Biblical Palestine, and she appears in the Talmud as well as in the Kaballah. As Yahweh became more distant from the material world, more modern in transcendence, it is this Shekinah who assured the link between Yahweh and that same material world and thereby provided the link between the Jewish world in the Palestine of the time of Christ and the Christian Holy Spirit.
Then too, following the suppression of Asherah in official Judaism, from Hellenic and Mediterranean sources there came the feminine principle Wisdom/Sophia which infiltrated Proverbs and Isaiah and which is the center piece of the Wisdom of Solomon (aka the Book of Wisdom ), written in Greek in the 1st century BC. Early Christians confirmed the link between Wisdom/Sophia and the Holy Spirit in writings referring to the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, in identifying the Seven Pillars of Wisdom with the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, etc.
A third influence on the Christian Holy Spirit would most likely have come from the Essenes who insisted on the role of the Holy Spirit as dweller in the hearts of men and women; this aspect of the Holy Spirit is shared by the Shekinah whose name literally means “indweller”.
However, while the term Shekinah and the term Holy Spirit became interchangeable in the Aramaic and the Hebrew Talmudic writings, the Shekinah as such did not even make the transition from the folk Judaism of the Holy Land to the Greek speaking Gentile world, only the form Holy Spirit did.
The Gospels and the Epistles were all written in Greek. Their mission facilitated by the Pax Romana, the Greek speaking teams under Roman citizen Paul of Tarsus “hijacked” Christianity and delivered it to activist converts of the Greek speaking world at the end of the Hellenistic Era. After the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, the Christians were a small group in Jerusalem clustered around St James – the apostle referred to as the “the brother of Jesus” by Protestant scholars and as “James the Lesser” by Catholic scholars. Things moved quickly. In the period from the Crucifixion to the completion of the Epistles and Gospels, Christianity was taken from the Aramaic speaking Jewish population of Judea where it had begun and turned over to the Greek speaking population of the Mediterranean.
With the First Jewish War (66-73 AD) and the destruction of the Temple (70 AD), the early Gentile Christians of the Roman Empire would have had every political reason to separate their young movement from its Jewish roots. There was also the theological motivation of securing control over the interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures and prophecies.
In fact, in making the break from the Jewish world, the first thing the new Christians did was to eliminate the Semitic practices of dietary laws and male circumcision. In contrast, when the 3rd Abrahamic religion, Islam, rose among a Semitic people some 500 years later, both practices continued to be enforced.
As related in the post “Joshua and Jesus” on this blog site, the Aramaic/Hebrew name of Jesus is Yeshua, which is transliterated directly into English as Joshua but which becomes Jesus after being passed through the Greek language filter. Indeed, had the Gospels been written in Aramaic, the language of the Targums and the language of Yeshua and his disciples, we would have a much better sense today of what the Christian Savior actually said, taught and did – and why. In particular, the conflict between the Jews of the countryside and the Pharisees of the Temple in Jerusalem would have been more substantiated. At the nativity. it would have been “Messaiah Adonai” in the language the shepherds spoke rather than the “Christ the Lord” of the Greek version, the Aramaic being much better at capturing the spirit of the Hebrew scriptures. As it is, the one time Jesus speaks in Aramaic comes as He is dying on the cross and cries out:
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
In an Aramaic New Testament, the feminine noun “Shekinah” would likely have been used instead of “Holy Spirit”; in contrast the noun “spirit” is neuter in Greek and masculine in Latin. Severed, however, from its roots, the theology of the Holy Spirit took on a life of its own in the hands of rationalist intellectuals of the Graeco-Roman world. Affaire à suivre.