The goddess Astarte, or as we know her in Hebrew as "Asherah", was the wife of 'il and the mother of Baal, the goddess of fertility in the Canaanite Pantheon. one of the signs of this goddess was a tree, probably a big one. The reason to discuss her today is because one of the students in the last Webinar asked me to explain about this goddess and for me a question by a student always brings me deeper into the text.
After Moses sculpted the two tablets for the second time, there is a passage that speaks about a covenant between G-d and the stubborn people of Israel as written in Exodus 34:10-14-
"וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי כֹּרֵת בְּרִית, נֶגֶד כָּל-עַמְּךָ אֶעֱשֶׂה נִפְלָאֹת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-נִבְרְאוּ בְכָל-הָאָרֶץ וּבְכָל-הַגּוֹיִם; וְרָאָה כָל-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בְקִרְבּוֹ אֶת-מַעֲשֵׂה יְהוָה, כִּי-נוֹרָא הוּא, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי, עֹשֶׂה עִמָּךְ. שְׁמָר-לְךָ--אֵת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי, מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם; הִנְנִי גֹרֵשׁ מִפָּנֶיךָ, אֶת-הָאֱמֹרִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי, וְהַחִתִּי וְהַפְּרִזִּי, וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי. הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, פֶּן-תִּכְרֹת בְּרִית לְיוֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה, בָּא עָלֶיהָ: פֶּן-יִהְיֶה לְמוֹקֵשׁ, בְּקִרְבֶּךָ. כִּי אֶת-מִזְבְּחֹתָם תִּתֹּצוּן, וְאֶת-מַצֵּבֹתָם תְּשַׁבֵּרוּן; וְאֶת-אֲשֵׁרָיו, תִּכְרֹתוּן. כִּי לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, לְאֵל אַחֵר: כִּי יְהוָה קַנָּא שְׁמוֹ, אֵל קַנָּא הוּא."
"Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in the entire world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you. Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God."
This jealous G-d wants his people to worship him, only him and nothing but him, as the truth should be told in a trial. Therefore, he cannot accept any ritual for other gods. G-d knows that some people believe in these gods as he said in the Ten Commandments. However, he wishes to be the one and the only one. The "Asherah" appears here as one of the gods that the people of Israel needs to avoid when they enter the Promised Land (see also Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:3, 16:21).
In the book of Judges there is an introduction to explains the circle of sin that is repeated all over the book. The first example of the circle of sin starts with the sins of the Israelites, who entered the Promised Land and were influenced as we can read the next passage:
"וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הָרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה, וַיִּשְׁכְּחוּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם; וַיַּעַבְדוּ אֶת-הַבְּעָלִים, וְאֶת-הָאֲשֵׁרוֹת. וַיִּחַר-אַף יְהוָה, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיִּמְכְּרֵם בְּיַד כּוּשַׁן רִשְׁעָתַיִם, מֶלֶךְ אֲרַם נַהֲרָיִם; וַיַּעַבְדוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-כּוּשַׁן רִשְׁעָתַיִם, שְׁמֹנֶה שָׁנִים. וַיִּזְעֲקוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יְהוָה, וַיָּקֶם יְהוָה מוֹשִׁיעַ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּשִׁיעֵם--אֵת עָתְנִיאֵל בֶּן-קְנַז, אֲחִי כָלֵב הַקָּטֹן מִמֶּנּוּ. וַתְּהִי עָלָיו רוּחַ-יְהוָה, וַיִּשְׁפֹּט אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה, וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה בְּיָדוֹ אֶת-כּוּשַׁן רִשְׁעָתַיִם מֶלֶךְ אֲרָם; וַתָּעָז יָדוֹ, עַל כּוּשַׁן רִשְׁעָתָיִם. וַתִּשְׁקֹט הָאָרֶץ, אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה; וַיָּמָת, עָתְנִיאֵל בֶּן-קְנַז"
"The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs. The anger of the Lord burned against Israel so that he sold them into the hands of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim,,to whom the Israelites were subject for eight years. But when they cried out to the Lord, he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, who saved them. The Spirit of the Lord came on him, so that he became Israel’s judge[b] and went to war. The Lord gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him. So the land had peace for forty years, until Othniel son of Kenaz died."(Judges 3:7-11)
One of the gods they worshiped was the mother and the son, the Astarte and Baal. These two gods were the main gods that the Israelites and their leaders were influenced by. At this point, G-d was willing to forgive the sins, to give another chance to his young people. But, after the circle of sin wasn't broken he didn't have a choice anymore. He needed to punish the people of Israel. First were the people of the Northern Kingdom, who were taken to exile by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E after they worshiped other gods, especially the mother and her son (see 1 Kings 16:33 or 2 Kings 17:10 for example). Also in the Judaic Kingdom the sins didn't stop. Without any doubt the worst sin in the relationship between G-d and his people was in the days of Manasseh, as written in 2 Kings 21:1-3,7-
"בֶּן-שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה, מְנַשֶּׁה בְמָלְכוֹ, וַחֲמִשִּׁים וְחָמֵשׁ שָׁנָה, מָלַךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָם; וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ, חֶפְצִי-בָהּ. וַיַּעַשׂ הָרַע, בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה--כְּתוֹעֲבֹת, הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר הוֹרִישׁ יְהוָה, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. וַיָּשָׁב, וַיִּבֶן אֶת-הַבָּמוֹת, אֲשֶׁר אִבַּד, חִזְקִיָּהוּ אָבִיו; וַיָּקֶם מִזְבְּחֹת לַבַּעַל, וַיַּעַשׂ אֲשֵׁרָה כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אַחְאָב מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ לְכָל-צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיַּעֲבֹד אֹתָם.... וַיָּשֶׂם, אֶת-פֶּסֶל הָאֲשֵׁרָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה--בַּבַּיִת, אֲשֶׁר אָמַר יְהוָה אֶל-דָּוִד וְאֶל-שְׁלֹמֹה בְנוֹ, בַּבַּיִת הַזֶּה וּבִירוּשָׁלִַם אֲשֶׁר בָּחַרְתִּי מִכֹּל שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אָשִׂים אֶת-שְׁמִי לְעוֹלָם"
"Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-five years. His mother’s name was Hephzibah. He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he also erected altars to Baal and made an Asherah pole, as Ahab king of Israel had done. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them…He took the carved Asherah pole he had made and put it in the temple, of which the Lord had said to David and to his son Solomon, “In this temple and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my Name forever".
To change the house that was built in the name of one G-d to a house of gods, especially the house of Astarte and Baal- this was a sin that couldn’t be repented so quickly. To put the image of Astarte in a place and in a religion where you can’t create images- this was unbearable.
However, the punishment of exile created a new covenant and some will say a new Judaism. In the next Newsletter we will discuss this. I also intend to write a blog about the inscriptions that were found in "kuntilat 'ajroud", where that Astarte and the name of The Lord appear together.
May G-d bless you all; don't forget to enjoy the Biblical Hebrew.