The Biblical “Satanic Verses”: Uncovering the Bible’s Hidden Tolerance of the Cult of Asherah

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم

The Biblical “Satanic Verses”: Uncovering the Bible’s Hidden Tolerance of the Cult of Asherah

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“And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:33)

yaweh-asherah-on-cult-stand
Figure 1: This cult stand from 10th century BCE is thought by scholars to represent different deities, including Yahweh or Ba’al and Asherah, worshiped in the city of Taanach (in the modern-day West Bank in Palestine) (Source: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/asherah-and-the-asherim-goddess-or-cult-symbol/)[1]
           In a previous article, we had seen shocking evidence for hidden pagan imagery in the Bible, specifically in Jacob’s prayers for his sons in Genesis 49.[2] A comparison of specific words in the “prayer of Jacob” with similar terms used in the Ugaritic texts showed undeniable evidence of pagan mythology lurking within the supposedly harmless prayer of the famous patriarch. In this present article, we will see even more evidence of hidden pagan influences. As with the “prayer of Jacob”, the nefarious pagan influences will revolve around the Canaanite goddess “Asherah”.

The Cult of Asherah: Condemned, Tolerated, or Both?

            As mentioned in the previous article, Asherah was associated with fertility. She was often depicted as a woman with exaggerated female characteristics (e.g., breasts). As with deities like Ba’al or Anat, she was a member of the Canaanite pantheon, with El as the supreme deity.

Now, let us be clear from the get-go. In some passages in the Bible, there are obvious condemnations of the Asherah cult, just as all idolatry is condemned, and there are no verses specifically promoting Asherah worship. One example of condemnation is 1 Kings 15:13, where Asa is said to have removed his mother Maacah from the position of “queen mother” because she had made “an abominable image for Asherah”.[3] Another example is in 2 Kings 18:4, where Hezekiah destroys the idols of Asherah, as well as the bronze snake “Nehushtan” that had been erected by Moses.[4]

However, this is not surprising. As Professor John L. McLaughlin explains in his book The Ancient Near East: An Essential Guide, such condemnations of idolatrous practices and cults are common in the so-called “Deuteronomistic History”,[5] which includes books like 1 and 2 Kings. Nevertheless, McLaughlin also notes that this opposition was not “universally held”.[6] Rather, in some cases, there seems to be a shocking lack of opposition to Asherah’s cult, perhaps demonstrating tolerance for it.

Analyzing the Biblical accounts, McLaughlin observes that there seems to be:

“no opposition to [Asherah] among the early prophets: such strong Yahwists as Elijah and Elisha never speak against her or the object [the asherah pole]…”[7]

Indeed, in the famous story of Elijah’s challenge to the “prophets” of Ba’al and Asherah (1 Kings 18:19), Elijah has a duel with the prophets of Ba’al only. It appears that the prophets of Asherah did not take up the challenge. At the end of the challenge, with the prophets of Ba’al defeated, they are “slaughtered” (1 Kings 18:40-41). But what about the prophets of Asherah?

McLaughlin keenly observes that while the prophets of Ba’al are violently annihilated, the prophets of Asherah “are left untouched”.[8] There is no mention of any action taken against the followers of Asherah at all. In fact, after verses 19, they disappear from the scene completely and are never mentioned again. Even in the next chapter, all the attention is given to destroying the cult of Ba’al. Yahweh even promises to spare 7000 Israelites “who have not bowed to Ba’al” and have “not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18) but says nothing regarding Asherah. Why is so much attention paid to the cult of Ba’al, but not that of Asherah? Given the impressive number of the “prophets” of Asherah (400 compared to Ba’al’s 450), it would have been prudent to violently suppress both cults. As it stands, it appears that Asherah’s cult was given an unexpected reprieve and even tolerance.

Baal - Ugarit
Figure 2: A stele from ancient Ugarit depicting the storm god Ba’al, whose cult was very popular among the Israelites and was violently opposed by prophets like Elijah (Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e2/P1050759_Louvre_st%C3%A8le_du_Baal_au_foudre_rwk.JPG/200px-P1050759_Louvre_st%C3%A8le_du_Baal_au_foudre_rwk.JPG)

Another apparent example of the tolerance given to Asherah’s cult can be seen in the account of the reigns of Jehu & his son Jehoahaz. 2 Kings 10 describes how Jehu wiped out the cult of Ba’al from Israel (verse 28).[9] Yahweh praises Jehu for “carrying out what is right in my eyes” but he is rebuked for not turning “from the sins of Jeroboam” (2 Kings 10:29, 31). This sin was the failure to destroy the “golden calves” in Bethel and Dan that Jeroboam had set up during his reign (1 Kings 12:25–33). Once again, much attention is given towards opposing the cult of Ba’al and even the rival cults at Bethel and Dan, but nothing is said about the cult of Asherah. Despite the cult persisting and posing an obvious threat to the sole worship of the God of Abraham, it does not get the attention it deserves.

Apologists may argue that this is an “argument from silence”. In other words, just because there is no mention of the Asherah cult or any action taken against it, does not mean there was none. However, this argument does not work. After all, if the goal was to destroy all pagan cults that were competing with the worship of Yahweh, then why was there no mention of a strong effort against all the cults? Asherah’s cult was formidable. In the time of Elijah, it was just as strong as the cult of Ba’al and persisted into the reign of Jehoahaz.

According to 2 Kings 13:6, “the Asherah [or “sacred pole”] also remained in Samaria” during Jehoahaz’s reign. As McLaughlin explains, if the “Asherah” had “remained”, it means that “it had been there earlier during Jehu’s religious purge”.[10] In other words, while Jehu was praised for destroying the cult of Ba’al (and rebuked for failing to destroy the cults at Bethel and Dan), nothing was said regarding the cult of Asherah. We can see a pattern of indifference at best or tolerance at worst for the cult of Asherah.

More shockingly, McLaughlin notes the total absence of any condemnation of the Asherah cult even from the prophet Elisha. According to McLaughlin, this absence “suggests that both [Elisha] and Jehu considered the asherah pole acceptable”![11] Meanwhile, the invective and violent opposition against the worship of Ba’al was commonplace.

Finally, McLaughlin notes a similar silence from the “Eighth-century prophets” regarding the worship of Asherah among the Israelites. Neither Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, or Micah “voiced any opposition to Asherah and her symbol”,[12] despite the prevalence of her cult. In fact, McLaughlin observes that in the “entire prophetic corpus”, the word “Asherah” only appears 4 times (Isaiah 17:7-8, 27:9; Jeremiah 17:2; Micah 5:13). However, he clarifies that these references are from “shortly before the Babylonian exile or later” (i.e., these references are not from the 8th century). This would indicate that “some Israelites began to consider Asherah incompatible with Yahweh only at that later stage in the nation’s history”.[13]

A Recycled Canaanite Myth in the Bible

            There are many more examples of pagan mythology influencing the Biblical authors, though sometimes it is more a matter of recycling a story in a completely different context, whereas above, we saw how the worship of Asherah seemed to have been tolerated. In this section, we will briefly examine one example of pagan mythology that has been recycled in a different context. It is found in Isaiah 14:12–15. McLaughlin points to the obvious parallels between this passage and an Ugaritic myth about, of all pagan deities, Ba’al. Here is what the passage in Isaiah states (emphasis ours):

“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God. I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.”

Note the reference to the “Day Star, son of Dawn” and the “far reaches of the north”. According to the English Standard Version, the latter can also be rendered as “in the remote parts of Zaphon”.[14] Indeed, the Hebrew word used in verse 13 is “ṣāp̄ôn”.[15] While the word means “north” in both Hebrew and Ugaritic, in the latter it is derived from:

“Mount Zaphon” (Jebel el-Aqra), north of Ugarit and the highest mountain in Syria, which was considered the home of the storm god Ba’al.”[16]

Here, we begin to see the pagan imagery hidden in the text. As McLaughlin observes, the poem in Isaiah 14 is very similar to the myth of “Athtar”, a Canaanite deity associated with Venus. Another name for Venus is the “morning star”. We can compare this to the “Day Star, son of Dawn” in Isaiah 14:12. In the myth, Athtar sought to usurp Ba’al’s “throne on Mount Zaphon”. This can be compared to the “son of Dawn” thinking that he can “sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north/remote parts of Zaphon” in Isaiah 14:13. Another possible parallel is seen in verse 15, where the “son of Dawn” fails to fulfill his ambitious plans and is “brought down to Sheol”. This can be compared to the myth of Athtar since the deity attempted to usurp Ba’al’s throne while the latter was in the underworld. There are simply too many parallels for this to be a coincidence. There are even similarities between Ba’al and Yahweh, but that requires a separate discussion.

Conclusion

            The nefarious pagan influence on the Bible is undeniable. Whether it is the so-called “prayer of Jacob” using pagan epithets, the poem about the “Day Star” in Isaiah, or the unexplained indifference or tolerance accorded to the cult of Asherah in some Biblical passages, there is no doubt that pagan Ancient Near Eastern religions have had a major impact on the Bible. Why wouldn’t the Biblical prophets voice any opposition to the cult of Asherah if it was so prevalent in their times? Is the Biblical record even accurate? Does it represent the views of the authors but not necessarily the views of the prophets that God sent to the sinful Israelites? Did Elijah (peace be upon him) really oppose the cult of Ba’al but ignore, even tolerate, the cult of Asherah? According to the Qur’an, Elijah, also known as Elias, indeed criticized the Israelites for worshiping Ba’al (without mentioning other false deities like Asherah),[17] but unlike the Qur’an which doesn’t mention Asherah at all, the Bible mentions her cult in fleeting verses, but then becomes silent on it altogether, as if indifferent to it. Given the other examples of the hidden hand of paganism in the Bible, this is not surprising.

And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!


[1] For more on the cult stand, see Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), pp. 52–54.

[2] https://quranandbibleblog.com/2021/09/18/the-biblical-satanic-verses-genesis-49-and-the-prayer-of-jacob/

[3] The text states that Asa failed to remove “the high places” (1 Kings 15:14), which were apparently “unauthorized shrines of Jehovah” (https://biblehub.com/commentaries/pulpit/1_kings/15.htm). However, despite this failure, Asa is commended as his heart “was wholly true to the Lord all his days” (1 Kings 15:14).

[4] See Numbers 21:4–9. This idol was erected so that any person who was bit by a “serpent” could look upon it and “live”. It is perhaps not surprising that the Israelites eventually began worshiping it and making “offerings” to it (1 Kings 18:4), thereby requiring Hezekiah’s intervention.

[5] Regarding the “Deuteronomistic History”, Gary N. Knoppers and Jonathan S. Greer explain that it included the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings (https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195393361/obo-9780195393361-0028.xml). Though it was originally considered to be “a single literary work”, some scholars view it as the result of a three-stage compilation process, starting with the 7th century BCE and into the Babylonian exile and the Persian period (https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190261160.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780190261160-e-30).

[6] John L. McLaughlin, The Ancient Near East: An Essential Guide (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2012), p. 103.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] This is similar to Asa, who is commended for taking action against the various pagan cults, including the Asherah cult, but mildly rebuked for leaving the unauthorized “high places” to Yahweh (see note #2).

[10] McLaughlin, op. cit., p. 103.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p 104.

It should be borne in mind that this is only according to the present Biblical record which has reached us through centuries of writing and editing by anonymous people.

[14] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=isaiah+14%3A12-15&version=ESV#fen-ESV-17942a

[15] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h6828/esv/wlc/0-1/

[16] McLaughlin, op. cit., pp. 96–97.

[17] Surah As-Saffat, 37:123–127.

One thought on “The Biblical “Satanic Verses”: Uncovering the Bible’s Hidden Tolerance of the Cult of Asherah

  1. Pingback: The Biblical “Satanic Verses”: The “Wrath” of Chemosh – The Quran and Bible Blog

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