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Asherah and Ashtoreth

Introduction

The two names Asherah and Ashtoreth appear very similar in English translations, but differ rather more in the Hebrew. This page discusses some of the issues surrounding these names.

Asherah in the Hebrew is ’ashêrâh (occasionally ’ashêyrâh), with consonantal text 'aleph-shin-resh-he.

Ashtoreth in the Hebrew is ‘ashtôreth (occasionally other slight variations), with consonantal text 'ayin-shin-tav-resh-tav.

The debate centres around several issues:

  1. Whether Asherah is the name of a goddess, a symbol thereof, or a sacred place such as a grove of trees.
  2. Whether both names are variations of the same underlying deity name.
  3. What relationship if any there is between these Old Testament names and other known deities from the surrounding nations.

Asherah texts

There are a number of basic categories seen in the Old Testament.
Where the word is singular, usually with the definite article, and it seems that a goddess is intended
Examples (with fairly literal translations of the text in each case):
  • 1 Kings 15:13 - "[Ma‘akah] had made a vile thing for the Asherah"
  • 1 Kings 18:19 - "prophets of the Asherah", put in parallel with "prophets of the Ba'al"
  • 2 Kings 21:7 - "a crafted image of the Asherah"
  • 2 Kings 23:4 - "[the things made] for the Ba'al and for the Asherah and for all the host of the heavens"
Where the word is singular, and where it appears to be a symbolic item representing a goddess that is intended
Examples:
  • Deuteronomy 16:21 - "Never set up for yourselves an Asherah of any wood beside an altar to Yahweh your God". This could also be rendered "Never plant for yourselves an Asherah of any tree beside an altar to Yahweh your God".
  • Judges 6:25 - "Break down your father's altar of the Ba'al and cut down the Asherah beside it"
Where the word is plural, and where it appears to be a goddess that is intended
Examples:
  • Judges 3:7 - "They served the Ba'alim and the Asheroth". Note here that the (typically) feminine plural ending is used for Asherah (the word itself is routinely feminine grammatically, but as seen below the plural ending is irregular in places). Some commentators feel that this is a scribal error for ‘ashtârôwth for reasons discussed below in the section on Ashtoreth.
Where the word is plural, and where it appears to be symbolic poles representing a goddess that are intended
Examples:
  • 2 Chronicles 19:3 - "Because [Jehosaphat] burned the Asheroth from the land". Note here that the (typically) feminine plural ending is used for Asherah - the remaining examples use the (typically) masculine plural form Asherim. The verb could indicate removal/eradication as well as actual burning by fire.
  • Exodus 34:13 - "and cut down their Asherim"
  • 1 Kings 14:23 - "high places and sacred stones and Asherim upon every lofty hill"
The last of these are the most numerous by a fair margin.

Some commentators believe that in fact all references are to the symbolic pole, not the goddess herself, though the above shows that this conclusion may be too hasty.

Hebrew words that are sufficiently similar to be plausible roots for the word are:

The word used within the Septuagint is alsos - initially a grove of trees, then via the idea of a sacred grove to a general name for a hallowed place (including for example battle-fields). This presumably underlies the AV translators choice of using "the grove" in almost all places for Asherah.

Non-Biblical use of the word Asherah is restricted to the older Semitic form ending -t (vocalised -th in Hebrew) rather than -h. For example we know of the Old Canaanite form Ashirat, Mesopotamian Ash-ra-tum, and the personal name Abdi-Ashirta.

Use of feminine qualifiers for Asherah and

Although the plural form of Asherah more commonly appears in the form normally associated with grammatically masculine words (ie Asherim rather than Asheroth), the verb and pronoun forms used with it confirm that the word is grammatically feminine. The following three examples illustrate this:
Judges 6:28 (singular)
"The Asherah that was beside [the altar of Ba'al] was cut down". Literally the last clause reads, and the 'asherah which was beside [the altar] she (feminine singular) was cut down. The verb 'was cut down' is in the Pual form, which is a passive stem, and is in the feminine gender, third person singular.
Exodus 34:10-13 (plural)
"I am going to drive out the Amorite... you are... to cut down their Asherim". Literally the last clause reads, and his (masculine singular) 'asherim you will cut them (feminine plural) down, veth-’ashêrâyv tikhrôthûn. Notice that the collective noun Amorite is treated as singular rather than plural as regards its own pronoun association.
Deuteronomy 12:3 (plural)
"The nations... you shall... burn their Asherim with fire". Literally the last clause reads, and their (masculine plural) 'asherim you will burn them (feminine plural) in the fire, va’ashêrêhem tisrephûn bâ’êsh.

Ashtoreth texts

Ashtoreth appears to be used in only two senses in the Old Testament - in the singular as a name for a specific goddess, and in the plural as a generic indicator for "female deities". An example of the first is: An example of the second is: The second of these mirrors a known Mesopotamian formula "the gods and the Ishtars" (ilani u ishtarat). This is why the Judges 3:7 extract referenced above is felt by some commentators to be a scribal error, either in origination or subsequent copying.

The name appears in a variety of closely-related forms over a very wide area - Mesopotamian Ishtar, Egyptian ‘astirati and Greek 'Astarte, for example. It is thought that the earliest Hebrew form would have mirrored this more closely as regards vowel sounds - ‘ashtareth or ‘ashtereth, for example - but the vowel pointing altered at a later date to remind the hearer of the word bôsheth (shame).

The name also appears in places names such as ‘ashtârôth, east of Jordan in Bashan. This appears in Egyptian records as ‘astiratu and is probably Tel ‘Ashtara, 21 miles east of the Sea of Galilee.

There have been some attempts to link various Hebrew words with Ashtoreth, for example ‘âshar (accumulate or be abundant, hence become rich) but these seem largely motivated retrospectively by the association of Ishtar with procreation and fertility. Given the regional prevalence of the form, it seems more probable it was simply absorbed into Hebrew as a name at an early stage.

Summary

The conclusions supported by the above, as regards the three questions originally raised, are:
  1. (Whether Asherah is the name of a goddess, a symbol thereof, or a sacred place such as a grove of trees). The Old Testament shows all of these uses, though distinguishing between the second and third cases is not always possible. In a majority of cases, the symbol or place appears to be in view, but a significant number of examples are most easily explained by taking the word to be a deity name.
  2. (Whether both names Asherah and Ashtoreth are variations of the same underlying deity name). This seems improbable given that the consonantal text differs considerably, and that examples of both names can be found in literature of the surrounding nations. The similarity is an apparent one caused by Anglicisation of the names rather than one that is intrinsic to the text.
  3. (What relationship if any there is between these Old Testament names and other known deities from the surrounding nations). Each of the names is attested in very similar form in non-Biblical literature. Hence it seems probable that they do indeed represent the Old Testament authors' rendering of the names into Hebrew. Both have undergone some transformation - Asherah has come to be used both of the goddess and of sacred places or objects linked with worship, and Ashtoreth seems to have had vowel sounds changed for theological motives.
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