The Kuntillet Ajrud Inscriptions: The Lord’s Ashera? (Jeremiah 17)

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Illustration: Ancient ‘Yahweh And His Asherah’ Inscriptions At Kuntillet ‘Ajrud 

The Hebrew word Asherim (NIV “Asherah poles”) in Jeremiah 17:2 denotes either the Canaanite goddess named Asherah (the singular form of the word) or some object associated with pagan worship in Israel and Judah. Of the 40 occurrences of the term in the Old Testament, only four of them refer to the proper name given to the goddess; the remaining usages all signify something either constructed of wood or planted. We may assume that a wooden object – perhaps a tree or a pole – was used to symbolize the goddess in Canaanite religion. The passages that speak of Asherim being “made” may refer to wooden figurines of the goddess.

Early Bible translations (the Septuagint and the Vulgate), as well as an ancient commentary (the Jewish Mishnah), understood Asherim to refer to a group of trees. The translation “grove” in the KJV preserves the Septuagint and Vulgate understanding. This tradition, while possible in some cases, is probably incorrect, since the KJV of Jeremiah 17:2 speaks of “groves by the green trees”.

The Canaanite goddess Asherah is well attested in the texts from the ancient city of Ugarit, where she is portrayed as the consort, or partner, of El the mother of other gods. Jeremiah’s condemnation of idolatry in Judah, particularly of the type associated with the Asherim, is illuminated by a cacje of inscriptions found at a site called Kuntillet Ajrud, located 50 km south of Kadesh Barnea in the northern Sinai. Especially enlightening are three texts from this site that say, “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by His Asherah” and “to Yahweh of Teman and to His Asherah”. The Asherah cited at Kuntillet Ajrud may be the same wooden cultic object so frequently mentioned in the Bible. It is more likely, however, that the use of the term here provides firsthand evidence for an idolatrous merging of orthodox Yahwistic faith and is a reference not to an idol but to a goddess, a supposed consort of Yahweh. This is Canaanite paganism – precisely the type of idolatry and syncretism that Jeremiah was attempting to combat.


 

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