Who Is Asherah in the Bible?

Illustration of Gideon swinging an axe at an Asherah pole
Gideon swings an axe at an Asherah pole.

Peter Dennis / Getty Images

In the Bible, Asherah is both the Hebrew name of a pagan fertility goddess and the wooden cult object dedicated to her. Nearly all instances of “Asherah” in the Bible refer to a sacred pole constructed by human hands and erected in honor of the fertility goddess. Scripture also references carved images of Asherah (1 Kings 15:13; 2 Kings 21:7).

Who Is Asherah in the Bible?

  • The term “Asherah” appears 40 times in the Old Testament, with 33 of these occurrences referring to the sacred Asherah poles used in pagan and heretical Israelite worship.
  • Only seven instances of “Asherah” are references to the goddess herself.
  • Asherah (or Ashtoreth), the Canaanite fertility goddess, was the mother of Baal—the supreme Canaanite god of fertility, sun, and storm.
  • Worship of Asherah in biblical times was widespread throughout Syria, Phoenicia, and Canaan.

Asherah in the Canaanite Pantheon

The goddess Asherah was the Canaanite deity of fertility. Her name means “she who enriches.”  Asherah was mistranslated as “grove” in the King James Version of the Bible. In Ugaritic literature, she was called “Lady Asherah of the Sea.”

The Old Testament writers do not give a detailed description of Asherah or an Asherah pole nor of the origin of the worship of Asherah. Likewise, these writers do not always make a clear distinction between references to the goddess Asherah and the objects dedicated to her for worship. Based on the study of artwork and drawings from the ancient Near East, biblical scholars suggest that some images of “plain and carved poles, staffs, a cross, a double ax, a tree, a tree stump, a headdress for a priest, and several wooden images” could be illustrations representing the goddess Asherah.

According to ancient mythology, Asherah was the wife of El, who mothered 70 gods, including Baal, the most famous. Baal, the chief of the Canaanite pantheon, was the god of storm and “bringer of rain.” He was recognized as the sustainer of the fertility of crops, animals, and people.

Asherah poles were erected at sacred sites and alongside altars throughout the land of Canaan “on every high hill and under every green tree” (1 Kings 14:23, ESV). In ancient times these altars were typically built under green trees. The city of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast was home to the best cedars of Lebanon and seemed to have been an important center for the worship of Asherah.

Asherah worship was deeply sensual, involving illicit sex and ritual prostitution. It was closely associated with the worship of Baal: “The Israelites did evil in the LORD’s sight. They forgot about the LORD their God, and they served the images of Baal and the Asherah poles” (Judges 3:7, NLT). At times, to appease Baal and Asherah, human sacrifices were made. These sacrifices usually consisted of the firstborn child of the person making the sacrifice (see Jeremiah 19:5).

Asherah and the Israelites

From Israel’s inception, God commanded His people not to worship idols or any other false gods (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7). The Hebrews were not to intermarry with pagan nations and were to avoid anything that might be seen as pagan worship (Leviticus 20:23; 2 Kings 17:15; Ezekiel 11:12).

Before Israel entered and took possession of the promised land, God warned them not to worship Canaan’s gods (Deuteronomy 6:14-15). Asherah veneration was explicitly forbidden in the Jewish law: “You must never set up a wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build for the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 16:21, NLT).

Judges 6:26 describes the destruction of an Asherah pole by using it to fuel the fire of a sacrificial offering to the Lord: “Then build an altar to the LORD your God here on this hilltop sanctuary, laying the stones carefully. Sacrifice the bull as a burnt offering on the altar, using as fuel the wood of the Asherah pole you cut down.” (NLT)

When Asa reigned in Judah, “He banished the male and female shrine prostitutes from the land and got rid of all the idols his ancestors had made. He even deposed his grandmother Maacah from her position as queen mother because she had made an obscene Asherah pole. He cut down her obscene pole and burned it in the Kidron Valley” (1 Kings 15:12–13, NLT; see also 2 Chronicles 15:16).

The Jews had been commanded by the Lord to tear down and completely destroy all the high places and sacred sites throughout the territory. But Israel disobeyed God and worshipped idols anyway, even bringing Asherah worship into the Temple in Jerusalem.

Ahab introduced his wife Jezebel’s pagan gods into Jewish worship by importing 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah (1 Kings 18:1–46). A famous Asherah pole stood in Samaria in the days of King Jehoahaz (2 Kings 13:6).

Manasseh, King of Judah, followed the “despicable practices” of the pagan nations. He rebuilt the high places and set up altars for Baal and an Asherah pole. He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced sorcery and divination, and “even made a carved image of Asherah and set it up in the Temple” (2 Kings 21:7, NLT).

During the reign of Josiah, the priest Hilkiah purged the images of Asherah from the Temple (2 Kings 23:6). One of the primary reasons Israel fell to the Assyrians was because of God’s anger over their worship of Asherah and Baal (2 Kings 17:5–23).

Archaeological Discoveries

Since the 1920s, archaeologists have uncovered more than 850 terracotta female figurines throughout Israel and Judah dating to the eighth and seventh century BC. They portray a woman clutching her exaggerated breasts as if offering them to a nursing child. Archaeologists argue that these statues depict the goddess Asherah.

Asherah illustration, 13th century BC Israel Museum
Asherah 13th century BC Israel Museum.

Sigal Lea Raveh via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-1970s, a large pottery storage jar known as a “pithos” was found at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the northeast part of the Sinai Peninsula. The painting on the jar depicts a pole with thin branches in the shape of a stylized tree. Archaeologists speculate that it is an image of an Asherah pole.

Relevant Bible Verses

God chose Israel to be “his own special treasure” and ordered the destruction of pagan altars and the cutting down of Asherah poles:

Deuteronomy 7:5–6
“This is what you must do. You must break down their pagan altars and shatter their sacred pillars. Cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols. For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” (NLT)

The Lord warns the people of Israel, portending the consequences of their idolatry:

1 Kings 14:15
Then the LORD will shake Israel like a reed whipped about in a stream. He will uproot the people of Israel from this good land that he gave their ancestors and will scatter them beyond the Euphrates River, for they have angered the LORD with the Asherah poles they have set up for worship. (NLT)

The main reason Israel was exiled was because of her sins of idolatry:

2 Kings 17:16
They rejected all the commands of the LORD their God and made two calves from metal. They set up an Asherah pole and worshiped Baal and all the forces of heaven. (NLT)

Judah was punished for the sin of idol worship:

Jeremiah 17:1–4
“The sin of Judah is inscribed with an iron chisel—engraved with a diamond point on their stony hearts and on the corners of their altars. Even their children go to worship at their pagan altars and Asherah poles, beneath every green tree and on every high hill. So I will hand over my holy mountain—along with all your wealth and treasures and your pagan shrines—as plunder to your enemies, for sin runs rampant in your land. The wonderful possession I have reserved for you will slip from your hands. I will tell your enemies to take you as captives to a foreign land. For my anger blazes like a fire that will burn forever.” (NLT)

Sources

  • All the People in the Bible: An A–Z Guide to the Saints, Scoundrels, and Other Characters in Scripture (p. 47).
  • Asherah, Asherim or Asherah. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 125).
  • Asherah. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (Third Edition, p. 61).
  • High Places. Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (Vol. 6, pp. 678–679).
  • Asherah. The Lexham Bible Dictionary.
  • The Cult of Asherah (p. 152).
  • Did God Have a Wife? (p. 179–184).
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Fairchild, Mary. "Who Is Asherah in the Bible?" Learn Religions, Nov. 28, 2022, learnreligions.com/asherah-in-the-bible-6824125. Fairchild, Mary. (2022, November 28). Who Is Asherah in the Bible? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/asherah-in-the-bible-6824125 Fairchild, Mary. "Who Is Asherah in the Bible?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/asherah-in-the-bible-6824125 (accessed February 8, 2023).