This article was excerpted from eTeacherBiblical Blog
and was written by Bronwen Manning
For the average ancient man it was common to envision the godly entities of the heavens in pairs. These pairs normally consisted of a husband-wife ratio which essentially reflected the importance of the family unit in ancient times. For it was the help and patronage of the family and clan that protected and eased people’s daily hardship. One example of this husband-wife pair comes from the Syrian city of Ugarit (modern day Ras Shamra) where from the 14th century BCE onwards we have a rich deposit of religious literature that has revealed ancient worshippers outlook on the gods. These people worshipped a variety of gods, of whom the high god was called El and his consort was called Athirat.
A similar picture has been suggested in regards to the early religious life of the Israelites and Judahites. There exists some evidence from archaeology that many people also worshipped the god Yahweh with a female consort called Asherah. (See Kuntillet Ajrud and the Khirbet el-Qom Inscriptions). In fact it is not just extra-biblical evidence that can be cited in support of this older version of how the heavens were ordered, but the bible itself reveals a picture that seems to place Asherah in a legitimate position of worship early on in the religion of the nation. For example we are told that Asherah (generally believed to by a stylized tree or pole, possibly a date palm) was installed in the Temple of Jerusalem and in other sanctuaries around Judah at different times (2 Kings 18:4; 21:7).
Some have suggested that even the decorations used inside the Temple, the “cherubim, palmettes and calyxes” (1 Kings 6) helped to legitimize her position since she was worshipped in the form of a tree, and the decorations inside the Temple upheld the ancient motif of the Tree of Life flanked by two guards (like in the Garden of Eden story). This picture from Judah is likewise reflected in the northern kingdom of Israel. King Jehu who was a great religious conservative, destroyed the worship of Baal that had sprung up in Israel, but did not destroy the Asherah that was installed in his capital city of Samaria. This particular story seems to reveal that early religion in Israel was pro-Asherah and that such a position was in step with being a conservative follower of Yahweh.
However this idea did not retain its legitimacy as time moved on. Another idea began replacing it, an idea that Yahweh was alone in his dealings with human kind, and that he was almighty and none other existed besides him. This ideology that is found so eloquently expressed in the book of Deuteronomy, naturally takes an aggressive stance to anything else that may attempt to steal or share Yahweh’s glory. It is thus not surprising to see the high anti-Asherah rhetoric in the bible that stems from this increasingly developed theology of Yahweh.
It is in this vein of thinking that we see religious reforms carried out in the land of Judah under Hezekiah and Josiah (2 Kings 18 & 23). They removed and destroyed the symbol of Asherah wherever she was found in the country- and in so doing proved to be more radical and innovative in their approach to how the world and the heavens were ordered.
They broke tradition with the ancient religious beliefs that had been so normative in their area of the world and in the worship of Yahweh in its early stages, and they struck a new path that led to the monotheistic religion of today.