So, I just got around to watching episode two of Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s TV programme (Bible’s Buried Secrets). Her first basic argument this week was that the ancient Israelites were polytheistic, only really tending towards monotheism after the Babylonian captivity (during the 6th century BCE), and secondly that there was Goddess worship going on in Israel (this Goddess being Yahweh’s wife, Asherah).
I happen to agree with Francesca about the polytheism of Israel. However, when it comes to what the biblical authors believed, this becomes a different matter. Certainly, there is a theological development throughout the Hebrew Bible, yet I would maintain that the status accorded Yahweh in the texts places him in a different position to those of the other gods (whose existence is not flatly denied in the Hebrew Bible).
Regarding Goddess worship, Francesca points to a text in the Hebrew Bible which apparently links Yahweh and Asherah. In Deuteronomy 33 the author writes down the blessing which Moses gives to the children of Israel before his death:
ויאמר יהוה מסיני בא וזרח משעיר למו הופיע מהר פארן ואתה מרבבת קדש מימינו אשדת למו
And he said “Yahweh came from Sinai and he rose for him (i.e. Israel) from Seir; he shone from the mount of Paran and he came from [the midst of] myriads of holy ones, from his right hand [came] eshdat for him (or his eshdat).”
The contentious word in the passage is אשדת (eshdat) which only appears once in the Bible. Francesca notes that the word may have originally read אשרה (asherah), where the resh (ר) and the hé (ה) were misread as daleth (ד) and taw (ת). If this were the case the Hebrew would have read:
Yahweh came from Sinai and he rose for him from Seir; he shone from the mount of Paran and he came from myriads of holy ones, from his right hand [came] his Asherah (or, his Asherah from his right hand)
There are two things to note about this interpretation. Firstly, if למו is to be read as ‘his’ instead of ‘for him’, the ‘asherah becomes an object, since names with possessive suffixes are rarely attested in Hebrew. As with the inscriptions at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom, the language of ‘his asherah’ would indicate a cultic object rather than a goddess who was worshipped (especially since the Khirbet el-Qom inscription invokes ‘Yahweh and his asherah’ but ascribes the effective outcome of the invocation to Yahweh alone).
Secondly, a brief nod to the goddess Asherah here would serve no immediate function. The context of Deut. 32-33 concerns Yahweh’s dealings with Israel. Deut. 32.12 highlights the primacy of Yahweh for Israel and this is carried through in Deut. 33, in which Yahweh’s giving of a law (torah, v. 4) and covenant is central. Indeed, Deut. 33.3 mentions the words of Yahweh received by Israel, and vv. 4, 10 speak of Yahweh’s law and judgements.
Given the immediate context (Deut. 33.3-4) which deals with law, it has been proposed that we should read אשדת as אש דת (separating the words without altering the written text, which would have originally been written without spaces). The meaning of אש דת is ‘[a] fire of decree’ (rendered in modern translations as ‘a fiery law’). Indeed, this is the reading which the Masoretic text proposes in its qere (‘spoken’) reading; that is, although it is written אשדת, it is to be read as אש דת.
Noting Moses’ statement begins with Sinai (Deut. 33.2a), where Yahweh originally gave his decrees, and the vocabulary of ‘command’ (צוה) and ‘law’ (תורה) in Deut. 33.4a, the translation ‘from his right hand [went] his fiery law’ (or, a fiery law for him) is far more probable.
EDIT: As Michael Makovi pointed out in the comments section, דת is a Persian word that seems to have been picked up in the Babylonian exile and so “it cannot be the word the Torah intends.” To which I suggest that although I am willing to concede the midrashic reading אש דת is probably incorrect (though I have read some people claim that this is the earliest attestation to the word דת), I am not willing to see Asherah in this passage, for reasons I mentioned above (principally the primacy of Yahweh and the Deuteronomic invective against her).