The Plan of Asherah

By: hawkgrrrl
January 22, 2013

Quite some time ago I read Kevin Barney’s excellent article he wrote for Dialogue:  “How to Worship Our Mother in Heaven Without Getting Excommunicated.”  One of his references was a book by archaeologist, William Dever, called “Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel” which I just finished reading.  The gist of the book is:

  • God was always part of a council of gods.
  • El was the oldest one on the council.  Yahweh and Baal were younger, possibly El’s sons.  There were also female gods in the council or pantheon.  Baal was prominent in Phoenicia, but Yahweh came to the fore in Israel.
  • Asherah was El’s consort and partner in the creation; she was God’s wife.  She is symbolized by a tree (often with female form on the top half) or a pole.
  • Asherah was widely worshiped in ancient Israel and Canaan, alongside El and later Yahweh.
  • Israelite religion was a subset of Canaanite religion.
  • Asherah is hiding in plain sight; her artifacts are ubiquitous in sites from ancient Canaan and Israel.  She was totally mainstream until she was eliminated by reformers after the Babylonian captivity (when Lehi left Jerusalem).

Dever is not alone in his view of the role of Asherah.  Many scholars agree, citing the archaeological evidence.  Asherah is also a play on the word “happiness” because her name sounded similar to the word “happy.”  From Genesis 30:13 we see Leah making a play on the word happiness in naming her son “Asher” (presumably after the Goddess Asherah):

13 And Leah said, Happy am I, for the daughters will call me blessed: and she called his name Asher.

Asherah is also associated with Lady Wisdom in Proverbs.  For example, Proverbs 3:13-18 contains a trifecta of Queen of Heaven imagery:  wisdom, tree of life, and “happy.”

13 ¶aHappy is the man that findeth bwisdom, and the man that getteth cunderstanding.

14 For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold.

15 She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.

16 Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand ariches and honour.

17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.

18 She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her.

From Kevin Barney’s article:

Even though “happiness” was not the true etymology of the name “Asherah,” Israelites doubtless understood the name to have that meaning. Therefore, there was a tendency to create word plays using “happiness” in situations associated with the Goddess. Sometimes “happiness” was substituted for her name to avoid mentioning Her at all. Therefore, passages in the Old Testament that refer to happiness should be read closely with these possibilities in mind, and, as Peterson* rightly notes, the same sensitivity in reading happiness passages should also be extended to our reading of the Book of Mormon text.

*Daniel Peterson’s article “Nephi and His Asherah.”  Because we don’t know the language of the Book of Mormon (reformed Egyptian), the argument that word plays on “happiness” and “Asherah” would exist in the Book of Mormon is questionable, but if so, they would be most credible in the Lehi / Nephi time period.  Given the timing of the Lehite exodus from Jerusalem, Lehi and Nephi would be familiar with Asherah worship and her symbols.  The association of trees with Asherah worship in the Book of Mormon is more plausible as it is not constrained by language.

In the Beginning . . . Mother of the Gods, Creatress of the Earth

Continuing on in Proverbs 3, we encounter this:

19 The Lord by wisdom hath afounded the earth; by bunderstanding hath he established the heavens.

Is she also alluded to in the creation story?  From the use of the plural form of “god” in the creation story and the reference to “male and female created he (they) them” (in god’s image), Dever’s conclusion is that Asherah was originally in the creation story and at least partly eliminated by reformers. 

One of Asherah’s names found in the Ba’al epic (a Canaanite text dating to pre-1200 BCE) is “She who treads on the sea.”  Does this refer to her role in incubating life in the sea during the creation?

Is this Asherah speaking to us from Proverbs 8?

22 The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his aworks of old.

23 I was set up from aeverlasting, from the bbeginning, or ever the earth was.

24 When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water.

25 Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth:

26 While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor athe highest part of the dust of the world.

27 When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a acompass upon the face of the depth:

28 When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep:

29 When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth:

30 Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him;

31 Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.

32 Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways.

33 Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not.

34 Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.

35 For whoso findeth me findeth alife, and shall obtain favour of the Lord.

36 But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love adeath.

Kevin Barney elaborates on the role of Asherah:

In Proverbs 8:30 quoted above, Lady Wisdom reports that She was present during the creation and assisted with it. In the NRSV, this passage reads: “then I was beside him, like a master worker.” The KJV mistranslates this verse as: “then I was by him, as one brought up with him” (meaning “like a child”). The key term in the Hebrew is ’amon, meaning a master craftsman, artificer, or architect. Thus, this passage portrays Wisdom as a skilled craftsman working beside Yahweh in creating the world. This concept fits readily into Mormon thought, since we understand the creation not as the work of a single deity, but rather as the collaborative effort of a small pantheon working together.

From Master Worker to Midwife

Perhaps because of her role in creation, worshippers (both men and women) in ancient Israel focused on her as a fertility symbol.  Or perhaps they just focused on the outward appearance – look, boobies! - while the Lord looketh on the heart.  In focusing on her biological and procreative characteristics, her role as scientist, co-creator, master worker and member of the council of the Gods was reduced to mainly a womb (a literal incubator of life) due to her biology.  However, her preservation in Proverbs as Lady Wisdom is an appropriate nod to her intelligence and contribution.

Asherah also became associated with healing and specifically the symbol of olive oil.  As she was symbolized by trees, particularly the Tree of Life, olives are another natural symbol (the Tree of Life was widely considered to be an olive tree).  Appropriately, her symbol (olive oil) is present whenever we anoint the sick with oil and give a healing blessing.

Which Mrs. God?

After that, worshippers began to confuse the gods’ characteristics.  Younger gods became more in favor than “retired” predecessor El.  Through syncretism, male deities took on some of the female deities’ characteristics.  Consorts like Astarte and Asherah were associated incorrectly with different partner gods through either syncretism, scribal error, key parties or match.com.

Further evidence includes, for example, an 8th century combination of iconography and inscriptions discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud in the northern Sinai desert where a storage jar shows three anthropomorphic figures and an inscription that refers to “Yahweh … and his Asherah”.  By this time, Yahweh’s role was becoming more prominent with El taking a back seat.  Apparently, mom was part of that usurpation.

Reformation – Yahweh Only

Finally, the Reformers radically pushed a “one God” dogma, obliterating (over the course of 200+ years) the other gods.  The focus was originally on monolatry (preferential worship of one God from the pantheon - arguably, Mormons are monolatrous), and ultimately monotheism (acknowledging the existence of only one God).  Asherah was ultimately a casualty of this movement.  They were so successful that most non-scholars are unaware that Judaism was originally polytheistic, although there is commentary about the God of the Old Testament (El) being harsher than the God of the New Testament (Jesus / Yahweh).

Restoration – God the Mother / Heavenly Parents

Many Christian sects have elevated the role of Mary, Mother of Jesus.  Catholicism refers to her as “co-redemptrix,” putting her on par with Jesus in her necessity to salvation.  Mormonism re-examined the role of “El” and its distinctness from the role of Jesus or “Yahweh.”  A Mormon belief in heavenly parents (not just a Heavenly Father) is fairly mainstream if not present in teaching manuals as referenced in the LDS hymn “O, My Father”:  “In the heavens, are parents single / no the thought makes reason stare / truth is reason, truth eternal / tells me I’ve a mother there.”  Additionally, the concept of a council of Gods is one we frequently discuss, although the implication is usually an all-male council.

When it comes to our Heavenly Mother, our current stance is that we don’t know much about her.  We don’t pray to her.  We don’t talk about her.  We don’t know why we don’t talk about her, but we know that we don’t.  When I casually mentioned her to my kids last year, my youngest son said, “Well, I never heard of her!”  Obviously, he’s not been singing along in Sacrament Meeting.  This silence adds pathos to many passages in Proverbs (1: 20-23 below):

20 ¶Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets:

21 She crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city she uttereth her words, saying,

22 How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their ascorning, and fools bhate cknowledge?

23 Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will apour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you.

Can we be loyal to both our heavenly parents, even while remaining mostly silent regarding one of them, to the point that our children don’t even know she exists?  I have long wondered why we have this prohibition.  There are many who find it very comforting and far more logical and relatable to have heavenly parents of both sexes, the TV show Two and a Half Men notwithstanding.  While there may be those who find any break from traditional Christianity unsettling, we’ve made plenty of breaks as a restoration church.  We’re already unsettling.

  • Do you think Asherah is the same being as God the Mother?
  • Do you think there are female Gods who sit on councils with male Gods?  Or are they just making ambrosia and nectar (or possibly homemade donuts) in the background?
  • Why don’t we talk about our Heavenly Mother?  Is it due to monolatry (Christ-centered worship)?  Is it that humans tend to misrepresent her, reducing her to her biological functions?  Is it because male leaders are uncomfortable with a goddess?  Is it so that other Christian sects won’t see us as polytheists?  Is her role largely over once creation is done?

Discuss.

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    13 Responses to The Plan of Asherah

    1. Hedgehog on January 22, 2013 at 3:13 AM

      Interesting.
      This article presents a related picture of Josiah’s temple reforms, and paints a totally different picture to the one we get in sunday school, seminary etc.
      http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=2&chapid=36
      Your questions:
      1. Certainly something to consider.
      2. They’d better be. Anyone wanting ambrosia, nectar, or donuts can get their own. I’m no good at that stuff.
      3. I certainly don’t like the way in which Mormonism has presented her in the past, so count me as siding with Lynette here:
      http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2007/11/07/why-i-don%E2%80%99t-want-to-believe-in-heavenly-mother/

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    2. hawkgrrrl on January 22, 2013 at 4:00 AM

      Thanks for the link. I love Lynette’s thoughts on this topic. I’m siding with her on this one.

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    3. Roger on January 22, 2013 at 1:10 PM

      Well, Hawk, I must say—

      As a reader who is closer to being on the outside looking in rather than a full-fledged follower of Zion’s Camp, this is when Mormons get to forfeit all umbrage at being characterized as cultists.

      Granted, what the world may say or construe is of little moment if we are talking revealed doctrine with salvific power. However, I don’t see any of that in this raving speculation about Asherah or Juno. Whatever Brigham Young was trying to establish with his Adam-God meandering a is not any more tangential to the gospel than I’m afraid this is.

      I really wish we had the gospel accounts of Mary, Martha and the Magdalena, along with the epistles of Priscilla–they would have spared us much of the misogyny of historical Christianity. But I feel that this stuff (I don’t know what else to call it) really does detract from the mission, message and sacrifice of Jesus and His triumph over death. I am one trying to work out my salvation with fear and trembling. I don’t know where or how to integrate this.

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    4. ji on January 22, 2013 at 5:16 PM

      “Can we be loyal to both our heavenly parents, even while remaining mostly silent regarding one of them”

      This is the wrong question. Even looking for the Father is looking beyond the mark. Read John, chapter 14, maybe verses 6-14 (really, please do!). In this life, we look to Jesus Christ, and only to Him. Jesus is sufficient for me.

      I agree with Roger (no. 3): “But I feel that this stuff (I don’t know what else to call it) really does detract from the mission, message and sacrifice of Jesus and His triumph over death.

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    5. Mormon Heretic on January 22, 2013 at 5:31 PM

      I have always enjoyed Dever’s work, and have heard this idea of a pantheon of gods. It really gives an interesting take on Genesis if Asherah was among the pantheon. I remember quoting Genesis confirming multiple gods, but that seems to be out of context with regards to the ancient Jews being polytheistic.

      I have often wondered if the Holy Ghost was female. I’d be fine with calling her Asherah, or some other female name. I like the idea of a heavenly family in the godhead–it sure makes sense in the “Families are forever” sense. But with Asherah being part of a pantheon of El, Yahweh, Baal, etc, it seems to be theological problematic in all the judeo-christian-islamic religions.

      I’ve been thinking about doing a post on the devil, but haven’t gotten around to it. One of the ideas behind polytheism is that the gods exhibited good and evil characteristics. With Judiasm embracing a monothestic god, then they needed a devil who was the father of evil. So, rather than a pantheon of gods, the devil became the sole representative of evil (with God being the sole representative of good.) So, Satan became monotheistic in a sense too.

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    6. hawkgrrrl on January 22, 2013 at 6:21 PM

      MoHer, this actually raises another point about the pantheon/council of gods as described by Dever. Baal has often been associated with Satan (Baal-zebub) by those Yahweh preferists. I’ve been to the site in Tunisia (anciently Carthage and before that Phoenicia) where the graves of children sacrificed to Baal were discovered earlier this century. In this scenario, Baal and Yahweh were both younger gods (brothers) on El’s council. Baal was preferred by one group of worshippers, Yahweh by another (war in heaven, but here on earth?). I couldn’t help but draw that parallel as I read Dever’s description of the archaeological findings.

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    7. Michael on January 22, 2013 at 10:39 PM

      1. I certainly think it is possible and have liked the idea since reading Peterson’s Nephi and His Ashera article.
      2. Yes. I grew up believing (as I think many Mormons did) that the council was basically a family council containing parents with physical bodies and the spirit children of those parents.
      It seems that our doctrine of “noble and great ones” could overlap with an ancient conception of a group of gods made up of El, his consort, and their childten.
      3. Heavenly parents are referenced in the Gospel Principles Sunday school manual, specifically in chapter 2. The references are far less direct than they were in the previous edition, but they’re still there.
      The conscious move to avoid discussion of a heavenly mother has always seemed sad to me, even when I was very young. I knew the reason given was that the subject was too sacred and that discussion of that doctrine isn’t essential. But, that always wrung hollow and I felt as though I missed a parent I never knew. I felt as though the reason was exactly because of criticism like Roger’s. If Gordon B. Hinckley was to lead the Church out of obscurity, it may have required putting away the things that make us peculiar, even if those things are beautiful. Male leaders may have been uncomfortable with a godless, but I don’t think that was the reason since a.) it’s not a new concept to Mormons and b.) leaders could easily put that goddess in a framework of being submissive to her husband.
      If the Church spoke openly about a goddess it would not only seem weird, it would focus discussion on sealings, on the future deification if Mormons, and on our continued belief in eternal polygamy and whether that means our doctrine claims there are multiple goddesses with the title Mother in Heaven.

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    8. MH on January 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM

      Very interesting Hawk. Do you know how many other gods are in the ancient pantheon?

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    9. Daniel on January 23, 2013 at 9:01 AM

      MH: This discussion seems tangentially related to one we had on the prophet Balaam on your personal blog.

      The Israelite pantheon at its greatest numbered about 70; one son of god for each of the nations of the earth in the table of nations.

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    10. Mormon Heretic on January 23, 2013 at 10:52 AM

      Daniel, I had forgotten about that conversation. In our comments, we definitely discussed the pantheon on Canaanite gods, and some may find the comments interesting. See http://www.mormonheretic.org/2009/10/04/balaam-prophet-wicked-one-both-neither/

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    11. Bonnie on January 24, 2013 at 11:44 AM

      This is a fascinating subject to me. Peterson’s and Barker’s articles opened a whole new world to me when I first read them, and since then I’ve expected that we’ll find Judaism (as well as all earlier iterations of the gospel) polytheistic as more scriptures are restored/revealed. In contrast to Lynnette, I find the doctrine of the divine mother one of the greatest opportunities for further revelation in our entire present experience.

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    12. Bonnie on January 24, 2013 at 11:45 AM

      Great post, BTW. This book is on my to-read list, so I appreciated another review.

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    13. FireTag on January 26, 2013 at 4:44 PM

      I’m not only a monotheist, but something of a full-scale pantheist. So I presume God inherently has the properties of maleness, femaleness, and probably the properties of a few other sexes only applicable to species like slime mold. (Hey, it is a BIG multiverse and God is commensurate with all its possibilities! :D )

      That said, I am intrigued by the notion of Asherah as a language for expressing God’s femaleness in a way that is a lot less awkward than the random pronoun juggling of “he” and “she” in existing scriptural translations.

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