Yahweh’s Divorce from the Goddess Asherah in the Garden of Eden

Hebrew Bible scholars have long recognized that the writer who penned the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and much other narrative in the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible (called the Pentateuch, or Torah) had a distinctly anti-Canaanite agenda, and that his anti-Canaanite polemic started in his Eden story. Focusing on this helps us to decipher the meaning of that story, as I have stressed in my new book, The Mythology of Eden, and in talks that I’ve given on the subject at scholarly conferences.

This author, known as the Yahwist (because he was the first author of the Hebrew Bible to use the name Yahweh for God), most clearly set out his anti-Canaanite views at the beginning of his version of the Ten Commandments, in Exodus 34:12-15, where Yahweh warns the Hebrews against associating with the Canaanites, intermarrying with them, and worshipping their deities; Yahweh also orders the Hebrews to tear down Canaanite altars, pillars, and asherahs (wooden poles (stylized trees) in sanctuaries that were the cult object of their goddess Asherah (in Hebrew pronounced ah-shei-RAH) and symbolized her). Against this background, the anti-Canaanite polemic in the Eden story becomes apparent, especially that against the goddess Asherah, who at the time was widely viewed by Israelites as Yahweh’s wife or consort. As official Israelite religion trended toward monotheism, the other local deities had to be eliminated (Asherah in particular), and Yahweh appropriated their powers and functions. Insofar as this process affected Asherah, I call this “Yahweh’s Divorce,” and the proceedings began in the Yahwist’s Eden story.

Before the rise of Israel, Asherah was the wife of El, the head god of the Canaanite pantheon. According to the archeological evidence, the people who became Israelites were mostly native Canaanites who settled in the hills of what is now the West Bank, while it seems that small but influential groups also migrated there from the south in the Midian (in and around the Araba Valley in Sinai). As the Bible itself testifies, that is where Yahweh veneration appears to have originated, and, in a process that in this respect resonates with the Moses story, the migrants introduced Yahweh to the native Canaanites who were becoming Israelites. Over time, El declined and merged into Yahweh. As part of that process, Yahweh inherited Asherah from El as his wife.

The Hebrew Bible refers to Asherah directly or indirectly some 40 times, always in negative terms (so she must have been a challenge). Most references are indirect, to the asherah poles that symbolized her, but a number of them clearly enough refer directly to the goddess Asherah (e.g., Judges 3:7; 1 Kings 15:13; 1 Kings 18:19; 2 Kings 21:7; 2 Kings 23:4-7; 2 Chron. 15:16). Evidently she was part of traditional official Israelite religion, for an asherah pole even stood in front of Solomon’s Temple for most of its existence, as well as in Yahweh’s sanctuary in Samaria. There is also much extra-biblical evidence of Asherah in Israel from the time of the judges right through monarchical times, including in paintings/drawings, pendants, plaques, pottery, (possibly) clay “pillar” figurines, cult stands, and in inscriptions. Several inscriptions specifically refer to “Yahweh and his Asherah [or asherah].” (It is not entirely certain whether the goddess herself or the asherah pole symbolizing her is being referenced here, but either way ultimately the goddess is meant, and she is being linked with Yahweh.)

The Yahwist and the other biblical writers could not accept the presence of this goddess as a deity in Israel, much less as the wife of Yahweh, who they specifically depicted in non-sexual terms. So they declared war on her, in part by mentioning her existence sparingly in the Bible, by referring to her and asherahs negatively when they did mention her, and by waging a polemic against her by allusions that would have been clear to the Yahwist’s audience. These tactics are apparent in the Eden story, from the kinds of symbols used and the trajectory of the narrative. These symbols include the garden sanctuary itself, the sacred trees, the serpent, and Eve, herself a goddess figure. In ancient Near Eastern myth and iconography, sacred trees, goddesses, and serpents often form a kind of “trinity,” because they have substantially overlapping and interchangeable symbolism and are often depicted together. Let’s examine each of these symbols briefly.

Fig. 6.7 Egyptian tree goddess

An Egyptian example of the common “trinity” of sacred tree-goddess-serpent also appearing in the Eden story. Here Nut as tree goddess nourishes the deceased and the deceased’s ba. The serpent is in its common guardian role, in an erect posture. From Nils Billing, Nut: The Goddess of Life in Text and Iconography, fig. F.3.

The Garden. Originally in the ancient Near East, the Goddess was associated with and had jurisdiction over vegetation and life, which she generated herself. People partook of the first crops (including fruit) as her bounty – indeed her body and her divinity – and set up her sanctuary with garden of crops for this purpose. Such a sacred garden sanctuary was “estate” over which she exercised jurisdiction. Examples include Siduri’s vineyard with a sacred tree in the Gilgamesh epic, Inanna’s garden precinct with sacred tree in Sumer, Calypso’s vineyard sanctuary in Homer’s Odyssey, and Hera’s Garden of the Hesperides. Garden sanctuaries of gods and kings evolved later, when religion became more patriarchal, sky gods came to dominate, and goddesses were substantially devalued. In the Eden story, Yahweh’s both creating the garden (i.e., life) and being in charge of it can be viewed as part of this process: There the Goddess (here Asherah) was eliminated from the garden sanctuary and from her functions there.

Sacred trees were thought to connect with the divine realms of both the netherworld and the heavens, and therefore were considered conduits for communicating with and experiencing the divine and themselves are charged with the divine force (thought of as “serpent power”; see below). In harmony with the seasons, trees embody the life energy and symbolize the generation, regeneration and renewal of life. Therefore, they are associated with the source of life, the Earth/Mother Goddess. Accordingly, sacred trees were venerated in Palestine in sacred sanctuaries known as “high places,” as means of accessing and experiencing divinity, principally the goddess Asherah. (Similarly, the divinity of the male deity was accessed through vertical stone pillars, e.g., the one set up by Jacob at Bethel.) In the Eden story, the two sacred trees of knowledge of good and evil and of life allude to this traditional role of sacred trees, but the meaning is turned upside down. In the story, Yahweh even creates the trees. In ordering Adam not to partake of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, by implication Yahweh was telling the audience not to venerate sacred trees in the traditional fashion. And in any event, the theretofore divine knowledge of good and evil that was acquired through eating the fruit is linked with Yahweh, not any goddess. And at the end of the story the tree of life is clearly designated as Yahweh’s, being guarded by his trademark symbols, the paired cherubim.

Serpents. In the ancient Near East, serpents had both positive and negative connotations, and in the Eden story the Yahwist played on each. In its positive aspect, the serpent represented the divine force itself, responsible for creation, life, and rebirth, as symbolized by its constant shedding of its skin. This and the fact that it lives within the earth (the netherworld) made for a natural association with the Mother Earth Goddess. As a result, the serpent was venerated as having divine powers and was used in rituals, including in marriage (to secure conception of children) and to maintain health. Serpents were also considered wise and sources of knowledge, and thus were used in divination. (The Hebrew noun for serpent (nāḥāš) connotes divination; the verb nāḥaš means to practice divination, and observe omens/signs.) Hence the serpent’s connection with transmission of the knowledge of good and evil in the Eden story. This “good” serpent was typically depicted in an upright or erect form, as in the case of the Egyptian erect cobra (in the illustration above), Moses’ bronze serpent on a pole, and the serpent on Asclepius’ staff (now the symbol of our medical profession).

But the serpent also was represented negatively as unrestrained divine power, which produces chaos, which is evil. Therefore, in creation myths the serpent/dragon represents the primordial chaos that must be overcome in order to establish the created cosmos (known as the “dragon fight” motif). This primordial chaos serpent is most often a serpent/dragon goddess (e.g., Tiamat in the Babylonian Enuma Elish) or her proxy (Typhon was the creation of Gaia). The serpent in this “evil” aspect is most often depicted horizontally. In the Eden story our author used this negative aspect, while parodying the traditional positive associations, which Yahweh appropriated. Thus, in the story, the serpent connoted chaos and symbolized the chaos in Eve’s heart as she deliberated. At the end of the story, Yahweh cursed the serpent and flattened its posture (compared with the upright/erect posture it had when talking with Eve). As a result, Yahweh was victorious over the serpent and chaos and, by implication the Goddess, in a mini version of the above-mentioned dragon fight motif.

The Goddess. As noted by numerous biblical scholars, the Goddess is also seen in the figure of Eve herself, the last figure in our trinity of tree-serpent-Goddess. In the Eden story she is given the epithet “the mother of all living,” an epithet like those given to various ancient near Eastern goddesses including Siduri, Ninti, and Mami in Mesopotamia and Asherah in Syria-Palestine. Eve’s actual name in Hebrew (ḥawwâ), besides meaning life (for which goddesses were traditionally responsible), is also likely wordplay on an old Canaanite word for serpent (ḥeva). The name of the goddess Tannit (the Phoenician version of Asherah) means “serpent lady,” and she had the epithet “Lady Ḥawat” (meaning “Lady of Life”), which is derived from the same Canaanite word as Eve’s name (ḥawwâ). At the end of the story, Eve is punished by having to give birth in pain, whereas goddesses in the ancient Near East gave birth painlessly. Further, in Genesis 4:1, Eve needs Yahweh’s help in order to become fertile and conceive, a reversal of the Goddess’ power and function. (Indeed, Eve is even created from Adam!) Adam’s only fault was “listening” to Eve in order to attain divine qualities. Here the Yahwist may be alluding to Goddess veneration, saying not to worship her. This seems to be one reason for the punishment of woman’s subjugation to man in Genesis 3:16.

As a result of these events, by the end of the story Yahweh is supreme and in control of all divine powers and functions formerly in the hands of the Goddess, and Canaanite religion in general has been discredited. Yahweh is in charge of the garden (formerly the Goddess’ province), from which chaos has been removed. Sacred tree veneration has been prohibited and discredited, while Yahweh appropriates and identifies himself with the Tree of Life (see also Hosea 14:8, where Yahweh claims, “I am like an evergreen cypress, from me comes your fruit.”). The serpent has been vanquished, flattened, and deprived of divine qualities, and thus is not worthy of veneration, and enmity has been established between snakes and humans. The Goddess has been discredited, rendered powerless, and is eliminated from the picture and sent into oblivion. Yahweh’s divorce from her has been made final, at least in the author’s mind. But in fact she persisted, and her equivalents in the psyche inevitably have persisted to this day, as they must.

Sources and Bibliography

Baring, Anne, and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. London: Penguin (1993).

Becking, Bob, Dijkstra, Meindert, et al. Only One God? Monotheism in Ancient Israel and the Veneration of the Goddess Asherah. London: Sheffield Academic Press (2001).

Billing, Nils. Nut: The Goddess of Life in Text and Iconography. Uppsala: Akademitryck (2002).

Dever, William. Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans (2005).

George, Arthur, and Elena George. The Mythology of Eden. Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books (2014).

Hadley, Judith. The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Keel, Othmar, and Christoph Uehlinger. God, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (1998).

Kikawada, Isacc. “Two Notes on Eve,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 91:33-37 (1972).

Olyan, Saul. Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel. Atlanta: Scholars Press (1988).

Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess. 3rd ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press (1990).

Wallace, Howard. The Eden Narrative. Atlanta: Scholars Press (1985).

© Arthur George 2014

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100 Responses to Yahweh’s Divorce from the Goddess Asherah in the Garden of Eden

  1. Anonymous says:

    And I read it off of the Religious Tolerance page…I enjoyed the blog immensely. Thank you for doing the research, and writing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bunny says:

    Mesopotamia is an ancient moniker, Syria Palestina is Roman, “Syria-Palestine” is modern. When discussing the ancient region it’s probably best to utilize Canaan, rather than slipping into modern terminolodies and becoming inadvertently political, although as you’re making broad swipes at the Jewish religion it’s possibly not inadvertent.

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    • Thanks for your comment. Actually, I do use the terms “Canaan” and “Canaanite” throughout my post as you suggest, except in one place where I used “Syria-Palestine” in a purely geographical sense to distinguish the region from Mesopotamia. The terms “Syria-Palestine” and “Syrio-Palestinian” are now widely used in academic circles on the ground that it is neutral as being simply geographical (and everyone knows perfectly well that we are not referring to the modern state of Palestine; it would not include all of the area in question). For example, many archaeologists active in the region utilize the term “Syrio-Palestinian Archaeology” as a neutral term in distinction from the more traditional term “Biblical Archaeology” in order to avoid more religiously/politically loaded connotations. For my part, I was just following what is becoming the academic norm and thus did not intend it as any political statement or religious “swipe” as you suggest.

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  3. Uzi Weingarten says:

    In the Hosea verse you mentioned there is another allusion. God says: ‘Ani aniti va-ashurenu’, which is a play on the goddesses Anat and Asherah. God is subsuming their roles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment. Yes, there is a rather famous debate over this interpretation of Hosea 14:9 (English 14:8). What you cite is the Masoretic Text, in which case this interpretation is less strong and in my view the usual translations are preferable; but this still leaves open the possibility of allusion to the goddesses through euphonic wordplay. As you may know, some scholars consider the MT corrupted here; thus, Wellhausen had proposed emending it to ani anato wa asherato, which would yield “I am his Anat and his Asherah.” This view has few adherents today, however. I don’t buy the emendation approach either, but consider wordplay possible. In that case, Hosea’s idea would be to portray Yahweh, a luxuriant tree, as a more effective source of life and fertility than an asherah or Asherah, meaning that Yahweh was appropriating her functions in this respect. I cover this issue in more detail on page 172 of my book, but I did not have space to deal with it in the blog post.

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  4. Gina says:

    Fascinating read!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Yahweh’s Divorce from the Goddess Asherah in the Garden of Eden | Mythology Matters « Wolf and Raven

  7. Parvatii says:

    I hope you’re not following the theory of Matriarchy here.

    I see some problems here, the connections between women and serpents, while I agree they are connected, the evidence presented is a stretch. Tiamat is not a serpent for example.

    “The Goddess” doesn’t make sense as ancient peoples were polytheistic.

    It is claimed that goddesses are devalued because patriarchy. (Gods worshiped, regardless of gender, waxes and wanes usually in time.) This is not exactly an accurate statement. Inanna (Ishtar) was never devalued in her entire history and retained popularity throughout all time periods and areas. Her myths present an independent woman who is not demonized for it. If you want a source on her popularity, here is an academic one: “Gods, demons, & symbols of ancient Mesopotamia” by Black and Green.

    The attacks on the Asherah cult were not a continuous affair in Hebrew history. Gideon in the book of Judges attacks the cult and Baal cult, but this act for a few generations anyway, seemed to be an isolated incident and Asherah worship continued to be popular. When Elijah (Under Arab) challenges the Baal cult, the Asherah cult was there and he never challenges them. Elijah did not accuse people of abandoning Yahweh, he accused people of dividing their attention between Baal and Yahweh.

    While strict Yahwehists such as Elijah considered Baal a dangerous threat to Yahweh, Asherah was considered more of a tolerable and inevitable female counterpart/aspect to the Yahweh cult for quite sometime. So, the cult had escaped the popular Anti-Baal and Pro-Yahweh uprising in Israel, for some time. Asherah survived the Assyrian invasion in Samaria, and it was not until the Yahweh reformer Joshiah decided that everyone should only worship Yahweh, that her temples and shrines were destroyed in the 7th century-ish. But people worshiped her in small encloves for a few years after his death. (“The Hebrew Goddess 3rd englarged edition” by R.Patai in the “Asherah” chapter.)

    It also needs to be said that the Canaanite tribes did have this El (Without Yahweh though.) vs Baal contest, because though El was the head of the pantheon, Baal increasingly became popular. Israelites just branched off of the Canaanites.

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    • Don’t worry, I’m not following any theory of Matriarchy. I agree that it is not well-founded, and actually I argue against it in my book. Unfortunately, in such a short blog post I don’t have space to explain in detail and make qualifications.

      Again, more evidence for the connection between women and serpents in the relevant culture complex is set out in my book. I also agree that Tiamat is not simply a serpent as that is ordinarily conceived. She is more like a dragon (for lack of a better term), which is why I characterized her combat with Marduk as an example of the “dragon fight” motif, the term used in the scholarly literature.

      I recognize the difficulties with the general term “the Goddess,” but it is not because the cultures were polytheistic. (I’m not aware that anyone is claiming Goddess monotheism.) Everyone at the time recognized other deities even when there was a predominant “Goddess.” The greater danger of misunderstanding is that, at least by the time when goddesses took on more defined characteristics, they differed somewhat from one another according to the culture and the functions assumed by other deities (you could say the same about “dying and rising gods”). Nevertheless, since there is somewhat of a core set of characteristics, academic mythologists are happy to use this term as a shorthand that conveys a certain understanding, and I don’t mind using it either, especially because the common characteristics in question have a common psychological source in the unconscious. See, e.g., Eric Neumann’s books The Origins and History of Consciousness, and The Great Mother.

      I agree that Inanna retained a good degree of stature and importance, but then I never said she didn’t in my post. This is simple polytheism. The earlier goddess Nammu, however, was another kettle of fish: she faded out. Male gods did usurp her functions, most particularly in creation myths. I did use and refer to the Black and Green dictionary in writing my book, also Gwendolyn Leick’s Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology, and the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. I also used the Patai book which you referenced.

      Again, in my post I don’t say that the attacks on Asherah were constant. In my book, I do note that, at least before the Babylonian exile, the attacks came and went, and that in fact an asherah stood before the temple in Jerusalem for about 2/3 of the time before the temple’s destruction.

      I agree that opposition to Baal was more fervent than that to Asherah, but in my post I never said anything to the contrary. Again, I go through this in my book. I also agree that El was fading and that Baal was becoming more popular, which is common knowledge. I say this in my book, and did not say anything to the contrary in my post.

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  8. Hugo Sanders says:

    This is amazing. It seems that Lug /Lugh from, ancient Britain and Ireland, took on exactly the same roles as Asherah with the tree, the snake, and, I also see a bird in the Egyptian illustration.

    Lug /Lugh/ Apollo is the personification of utter perfection, beauty and creativity. In early August his devotees go up into the hills, feast, perform plays and have competitions. The first, and therefore the strongest and best, sheaf of corn is offered to him (possibly the seed for next years crop?). In Autumn he is killed three times; Firstly, he is drowned in a sauna, stabbed by some shepherds, then strung up on the Tree of Life which has a bird sitting on the top and a snake lurking amongst its roots.# In the spring, he transforms into a bird. The bird slowly walks down the tree, alive but very frail. As the year moves on he gathers strength and dominates the land.

    In the Lug/ Lugh cycle, the mother takes on a vital role and appears to be a kind of dowager goddess; The Clan chief was traditionally born from a union between the Priestess of Lug/ Lugh and the existing chief. Current Archaeoligical theories point to Irish clan chiefs being killed three times and cast into bogs where their bodies have been preserved to this day.
    The sentiments of this pagan cycle embedded itself in the new religion of Christianity with great success. The symbol of the Madonna and Child was deeply revered in Medieval Britain. The Virgin Mary having almost as much importance as Christ. There is a historical reference to the August Lugh ceremony in the contemporary biography of St Samson an early Welsh priest. # (In Nordic Mythology there is a struggle between the bird and the snake with a mischievous squirrel sending inflammatory messages between them. This struggle causes sporadic damage to the Tree of Life).

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  9. JoAnn Malina says:

    Jahweh was the son of the Great Mother, whose power he usurped and whom he later eclipsed. So was Allah son of the Mother Allat, if Rushdie was not making it up in The Satanic Verses. It became anathema among the monotheists to even allude to her existence. And then along comes Mary 😉 The people will have their Goddess. And the Mary/Jesus iconography comes straight out of Egypt with Isis/Horus. So, what about the Mother of Jahweh in all this?

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  10. Tog says:

    Reblogged this on sideshowtog.

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  11. Pingback: Yahweh’s Divorce from the Goddess Asherah in the Garden of Eden | sideshowtog

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