Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Judith M. Hadley, The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess (University of Cambridge Oriental Publications, 57; Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Pp. xv + 262. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-521-66235-4. $ 65.


The publication of Hadley's 1989 dissertation on Asherah is a welcome contribution to the debate sparked by the Ugaritic texts and fanned into flames by the inscriptions from Khirbet el Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud. Its primary contribution is Hadley's careful and thorough analysis of the latter texts together with other archaeological evidence, epigraphic and artifactual. Since earlier versions of the chapters on Qom and Ajrud have been available for some time, the major value of this work for those without specialized interest will likely be found in its comprehensive scope and engagement with a broad range of scholarship, evidenced in a 25-page bibliography as well as Hadley's constant interchange with many of the works cited there. Thus the volume serves as a compendium of a half century of debate on the meaning and identity of Asherah/asherim. For Hadley, the central question in that debate is signaled by the title's allusion to R. Patai's 1967 work, The Hebrew Goddess. It is the cult of Asherah, as a Hebrew goddess, that drives her investigation.

Hadley begins (Chap. 1) with an introduction to the question, "What/who is asherah?" as posed by the biblical texts, followed by a history of scholarship represented by the ten dissertations and three broader studies that preceded her own. The base line, unfortunately, is closer to the date of the dissertation than the publication, with the result that C. Frevelís major work of 1995 is represented only by a summary of contents and no account is taken of T. Binger's 1991 dissertation, published in 1997. Chapter 2 treats the Ugaritic evidence for the goddess and considers questions of origins and etymology. Hadley endorses the view of Athiratís Amorite origins and role as consort of the chief deity (Amurru in the Babyonian texts, El at Ugarit), suggesting, however, that her status and role in relation to El and Baal were in flux at Ugarit. She finds birth and fertility associations in epithets from Ugarit and in an identification with Qudshu of the Egyptian relief depicting a naked goddess.

Chapter 3 treats the evidence of the HB, highlighting its complexity in pointing both to a "humanly made, carved wooden object" and to a goddess. Hadley proposes to explain this complexity by the thesis that "the term "asherah" [originally the cult object of the deity] [was] in the process of losing its identity with the goddess and becoming merely the wooden object" (p. 62). While she believes that Asherah was still worshipped as a goddess during the monarchy, she argues that "perhaps by the time of dtr, and certainly the Chronicler, the term had ceased to be used with any knowledge of the goddess whom it had originally represented, and from whom it received its name" (pp. 62-63). The bulk of the chapter is devoted to examining this thesis in the handful of passages that "may mention the goddess," unfortunately without reproducing the Hebrew text (although the Vulgate is cited in full for 1 Kgs 15:13).

The remainder of the book is devoted to the archaeological evidence, with detailed analysis of the inscription from el Qom (Chap. 4), the finds from Ajrud (Chap. 5), other related finds (Chap. 6), and female figurines (Chap. 7). Photographs and line drawings accompany the discussion, and detailed descriptions of sites and artifacts. Here Hadley's personal observations contribute a significant element, but, as in her treatment of the biblical texts, most of the discussion consists of reporting and weighing other scholars' views. Although Hadley rules some interpretations untenable (such as the view that asherah is simply an object), her tendency to qualify every judgment leaves unclear at times just where she comes down on an issue. Tentative formulation does not, however, obscure her views on the Ajrud Pithos. "The inscription probably refers to the wooden image of the goddess," she concludes, and "it is probable . . . that Asherah is represented on the pithos, but by her symbol of a tree, and not as a goddess" (p. 154). Hadley finds dual representation of Asherah as naked goddess and stylized tree on the Taanach cult stand, and suggests that the pillar figurines with exaggerated breasts "may be smaller copies of the asherah poles . . . in the temple of Jerusalem" and elsewhere (p. 205).

No sampling of Hadley's views can do justice to the full riches of this book, which is now an indispensable resource on a topic that will remain a subject of debate. Individual scholars will take issue with particular judgments, and some may get lost in the maze of arguments, but the work is filled with acute observations and suggestive proposals that invite further reflection and discussion.

Phyllis A. Bird, Evanston, IL 60202