Miryam, the Bible & the Goddess Asherah
H. Abdul AlDahir
In the Biblical book Exodus, Miryam is a prophetess and the sister of Moses and Aaron. Her name, Miryam, is a Semitic name. The first syllable of her Hebrew name derives from the Hebrew word ‘mara’ and it means both bitter and rebellious. The word is identical in spelling and meaning in both Hebrew and Arabic. However, the Arabic word also means to walk, cross, traverse, pass, march etc.. The second syllable of Miryam’s name, Yam, means sea in Hebrew and Arabic. Another interpretation is the first syllable of Miryam’s name derives from the Akkadian words Marat/Martu meaning female. The same word is ‘mara’ in Arabic and means wife/woman. So, Miryam’s name means both walker of the sea or sea treader and Lady of the Sea. Sea Treader and Lady of the Sea are titles of the Ugarit goddess, Athirat, whose name in Hebrew is Asherah. Asherah was the wife of Baal, Yhwh and El. She shared the Jerusalem temple with her husband, Yhwh, where she was cared for by her female devotees or ‘qedeshet’. She was expelled from the temple by the Judean king Josiah and his high priest Hilkiah circa 630 BCE. In Israel and Ugarit, Athirat/Asherah was the wife of the god El and a sea goddess. According to Wikipedia:
“In the Ugaritic texts (before 1200 BCE) Athirat is almost always given her full title rbt ?a?rt ym, rabat ?A?irat yammi, ‘Lady Athirat of the Sea’ or as more fully translated ‘she who treads on the sea’ .”
According to Exodus 15:20, Miryam, whose name means ‘sea treader’, was a prophetess who celebrated the successful crossing of the Red Sea with one of the most ancient Biblical couplets:
“Sing to Yhwh, for he has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
According to Numbers 12, Miryam was demoted to a skin diseased outcast when she criticized Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. She was healed at the intervention of Aaron and returned to camp. She was buried in Kadesh which means holy. However, since she recited the above verses and she was dedicated to the goddess Asherah, the original couplet was addressed to Asherah and not Asherah’s husband, Yhwh.
William Dever, author of “Did God Have a Wife?”, asserts that Asherah is associated with the Egyptian goddess Hathor which is the form in which she was worshiped by the Judean/Kenite copper miners, who worshiped her at her temple in the Timna Valley. The Judean Asherah as Hathor was a goddess of snakes and copper like her husband, Yhwh who was associated with the copper snake or ‘nehushtan’. In the Canaanite/Ugarit version of this goddess, Asherah was the wife of the god El and the matriarch of the gods or 70 sons of El. There is no indication that she was associated with Hathor in Ugarit, so she was not a goddess of metals in either Ugarit or Israel. However, she was the treader of the seas, which is the source of Miryam’s name. So, the Miryam tale seems to be Ugartic or Israelite in origin, while her association with the Egyptian goddess Hathor and metals seems to be a product of the Egyptian dominated copper mines in the Timna valley where the Judeans/Kenites were enslaved to mine copper.
A good picture of Yhwh’s wife, Asherah, can be found at the link indicated.
Asherah was expelled from the temple she shared with her husband Yhwh by Josiah (2 K 23) so it may be Hilkiah who attacked the character of her prophetess and high priestess, Miryam. As the image confirms, she was a fertility goddess who was also associated with snakes. According to the Wiki article, she was adopted from the Semites into the Egyptian pantheon as Qetesh, which is the Egyptian form of the Hebrew word ‘qodesh’ which is translated into English as Kadesh. According to Num 20:1, Miryam (sea treader) was buried in Kadesh. The phrase should read that she was buried as a ‘qadesheh’ or holy one. The term qadesheh came to mean whore or temple prostitute and was forbidden in Deut 23:17. According to Wiki, the Egyptian form of Asherah or Qetesh, is associated with metals:
“She is associated with Anat, Astarte, and Asherah. She also has elements associated with the goddesses of Myceneae, the Minoans of Crete and certain Kassite goddesses of the metals trade in Tin, Copper and Bronze between Lothal and Dilmun.”
So, it seems there are 2 different tales of the exodus, one in which Asherah, as Yhwh’s wife, and her priestess/prophetess Miriam are credited with the drowning of Pharaoh while Moses, Yhwh’s prophet and priest, led the exodus. This is the exodus described in the Book of Exodus. The Judean tale is a rescue from the Egyptian dominated mines at Timna and Serabit Khadem where the Kenites/Judeans were enslaved. The rescue from the Egyptian dominated mines is mentioned in Deut 4:20:
20 But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.
These 2 escapes from pharaoh are rolled into one in the Torah texts. In these same texts, Miriam loses her status as a high priestess to the goddess Asherah and is afflicted with a skin disease which temporarily makes here unfit for her office. This scene was a product of the imagination of Josiah’s high priest, Hilkiah, who credited Moses alone for the exodus. The scene was manufactured after Josiah ejected Asherah from the temple. At that time the qedeshet or Asherah’s female temple devotees were also expelled and Miryam (sea treader), her high priestess and prophetess was demoted.