Sheger, Ashtoret and Ashtor – The Patron Gods of Transjordanian Shepherds
Deuteronomy 28 lays out a series of blessings the Israelites will receive if they keep God’s laws and curses if they do not. Three times in this section, the text makes use of an unusual phrase, unique to Deuteronomy: שְׁגַר אֲלָפֶיךָ וְעַשְׁתְּרוֹת צֹאנֶךָ, “the sheger of your herd and the ashtorot of your flock.” For example,
דברים כח:ד בָּרוּךְ פְּרִי בִטְנְךָ וּפְרִי אַדְמָתְךָ וּפְרִי בְהֶמְתֶּךָ שְׁגַר אֲלָפֶיךָ וְעַשְׁתְּרוֹת צֹאנֶךָ.
Deut 28:4 Blessed shall be the issue of your womb, the produce of your soil, and the offspring of your livestock, the shegar of your herd and the ashtorot of your flock.
From context, these terms clearly refer to offspring, i.e., calves and lambs/kids. This translation, at least of the former term sheger, is supported by the phrase in Exodus 13:12 וְכָל פֶּטֶר שֶׁגֶר בְּהֵמָה (“all the firstborn of your livestock”). But what is the origin of these unusual terms?
Ashtoret in the Bible
According to Kings, when Solomon gets older, he allows his foreign wives to turn his heart from YHWH to other gods:
מלכים א יא:ה וַיֵּלֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה אַחֲרֵי עַשְׁתֹּרֶת אֱלֹהֵי צִדֹנִים וְאַחֲרֵי מִלְכֹּם שִׁקֻּץ עַמֹּנִים.
1 Kgs 11:5 Solomon followed Ashtoret the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.
Although described as the patron goddess of the Sidonians, Ashtoret—known in Ugarit as Atharat and in Mesopotamia as Ishtar—was popular throughout the ancient Near East. We know from other verses that the Israelites worshipped her along with Baʿal:
שופטים ב:יג וַיַּעַזְבוּ אֶת יְ־הוָה וַיַּעַבְדוּ לַבַּעַל וְלָעַשְׁתָּרוֹת.
Judg 2:13 They forsook YHWH and worshiped Baʿal and the Ashtarot.
The Canaanite Pantheon
On one level, the pairing of Baʿal and the Ashtoret reflects West Semitic mythology, since Ashtoret is one of Baʿal’s sisters, the other being Anat, the virgin goddess of war. Baʿal, an epithet meaning “master,” reflects his position as the active head of the pantheon in the Iron Age; the nominal head of the pantheon was Baʿal’s father, El, the creator god, whose mate was Asherah (Athirat in Ugaritic).
Baʿal was the god of rain and thunder and ruled from Mount Zaphon (identified as Mt. Casius); thus, he is parallel to the Greek thunder god, Zeus, who ruled on Mount Olympus. Nevertheless, he had competitors for the throne, among whom was the god named Ashtor (Athtar in Ugaritic), a name that reflects the male counterpart to Ashtoret.
The pairing of a male and female god with almost the same name was not unusual in Semitic pantheons. For instance, the Enuma Elish (often called “The Babylonian Creation Epic”) speaks of Anšar and Kišar, a complementary pair of deities meaning the god of the heavens and the goddess of the earth.
Even closer are Laḫmu and Laḫamu, variations of the same name, meaning “hairy one” or “muddy one,” which likely implies they are gods of the same thing. In the same way, Ashtor and Ashtoret likely began as a pair. Over time, however, Ashtoret becomes Baʿal’s sister and partner, while Ashtor, his brother, becomes his rival.
Ashtor Fails to Take the Throne
The brief attempt of Ashtor to take Ba’al’s throne is recorded in what is now called the Baʿal Epic, a Ugaritic text from the 13th century B.C.E. that tells the story of Baʿal’s battles. In this part of the story, Baʿal has been killed—he is later brought back from the dead by his devoted sister Anat—so El and Athirat (=Asherah) discuss who should sit on Baʿal’s throne (KTU 1.6, lns. 53–65):
And Lady Athirat of the Sea answers: “So let us make Athtar (=Ashtor) the Strong king, let Athtar the strong be king.” Then Athtar the Strong ascends the summit of Zaphan, sits on the throne of the Mightiest Baʿal. His feet do not reach its footstool, his head does not reach its top. And Athtar the Strong speaks: “I cannot be king on the summit of Zaphan.” Athtar the Strong descends, descend from the throne of the Mightiest Baʿal, and rules over all the great earth.
The scene here is surprising. Ashtor is a relatively unknown deity, and scholars have attempted to understand why he was Asherah’s choice. It is unclear what Ashtor rules, unlike Baʿal’s other more famous rivals, Mot (“Death”) who rules over the underworld, and Yamm (“Sea”) who rules over the sea.
I suggest that Ashtor was the patron god of the pastureland. Thus, while Baʿal, the rain god, was particularly popular among farmers in the Levant, who were dependent upon rainfall for their crops to grow, Ashtor was popular among herders.
If so, it would seem that the scene of Ashtor attempting to take Baʿal’s place on the throne reflects the age-old struggle between shepherd and farmer already echoed in the story of Cain and Abel:
בראשית ד:ב …וַיְהִי הֶבֶל רֹעֵה צֹאן וְקַיִן הָיָה עֹבֵד אֲדָמָה.
Gen 4:2 …Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil.
In the Cain and Abel story, the farmer is the villain; while the Baʿal epic sides with Baʿal, presumably other societies preferred Ashtor. In fact, I suggest that one line of distinction may have been regional, where ecology played a part. Baʿal is the more popular god in the land of Canaan, the heavily agricultural Cisjordan sustained by seasonal rain, while Ashtor was more influential in the Transjordan, which was dominated by herding and perhaps sustained by a system of irrigation.
It is in this aspect of herding that Ashtoret the goddess of animal fertility is a natural consort.
Herding in the Transjordan
In Genesis, compared to most of the stories about the patriarchs where the shepherd is the protagonist. the patriarchs, wherever they live, are described as shepherds, but Jacob’s herds are emphasized especially in a tradition connected with the Transjordan:
בראשית לג:יז וְיַעֲקֹב נָסַע סֻכֹּתָה וַיִּבֶן לוֹ בָּיִת וּלְמִקְנֵהוּ עָשָׂה סֻכֹּת עַל כֵּן קָרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם סֻכּוֹת.
Gen 33:17 But Jacob journeyed on to Succoth, and built a house for himself and made stalls for his cattle; that is why the place was called Succoth.
The appropriateness of the Transjordan for herding is also a theme in the request of Reuben and Gad to remain there:
במדבר לב:א וּמִקְנֶה רַב הָיָה לִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן וְלִבְנֵי גָד עָצוּם מְאֹד וַיִּרְאוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ יַעְזֵר וְאֶת אֶרֶץ גִּלְעָד וְהִנֵּה הַמָּקוֹם מְקוֹם מִקְנֶה.
Num 32:1 The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers. They saw that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were a region for cattle,
This connection with grazing is also behind a number of place names in the area such as Paḥal (=Pella) in the Gilead, which is a term that means “stud ram” (Akk. pūḫallu), and Karnaim (Gen 14:5), which means “horns.” This latter city becomes the area’s administrative center when it is conquered by the Assyrians in the late 8th century (Qarnini).
Another city, Ashtarot near Karnaim (Gen 14:5), in the vicinity of Edrei (Deut 1:4), is described as having been the seat of the giant king of the Bashan, Og. In Amarna letter 256, dating to the 14th century, the city is referenced as being ruled by a King Ayyabu, the Akkadian version of the name Job. The name of this city is certainly connected to Ashtoret, and suggests the importance of this goddess to the Bashan area.
Ashtor and Moab
Moving further south in Transjordan, Job, who lives in the land of Uz, generally assumed to be in the Transjordan because of the connection with Edom (Lam 4:21), is described as wealthy in livestock:
איוב א:ג וַיְהִי מִקְנֵהוּ שִׁבְעַת אַלְפֵי צֹאן וּשְׁלֹשֶׁת אַלְפֵי גְמַלִּים וַחֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת צֶמֶד בָּקָר וַחֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת אֲתוֹנוֹת וַעֲבֻדָּה רַבָּה מְאֹד וַיְהִי הָאִישׁ הַהוּא גָּדוֹל מִכָּל בְּנֵי קֶדֶם.
Job 1:3 His possessions were seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred she-asses, and a very large household. That man was wealthier than anyone in the East.
Finally, the Bible describes Mesha, king of Moab (just north of Edom), as someone who raised sheep:
מלכים ב ג:ד וּמֵישַׁע מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב הָיָה נֹקֵד וְהֵשִׁיב לְמֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאָה אֶלֶף כָּרִים וּמֵאָה אֶלֶף אֵילִים צָמֶר.
2 Kgs 3:4 Now King Mesha of Moab was a sheep breeder magnate; and he used to pay as tribute to the king of Israel a hundred thousand lambs and the wool of a hundred thousand rams.
The connection of Mesha to sheep breeding is particularly intriguing when we look at the name of Mesha’s god in the Mesha inscription. In most cases he refers to Kemosh, the national god of Moab, but in one place he says the name differently. On Kemosh’s command, Mesha attacks the Israelite town of Nebo, takes captives and booty, and declares (ln. 17), לעשתר. כמש. החרמתה, “I made them ḥerem [ritually dedicated] to Ashtor-Kemosh.”
The name Ashtor-Kemosh is an example of syncretism, when one god is identified with another god in a single manifestation. In this case, the patron national god of Moab, Kemosh, is being identified with the cosmic god Ashtor, whom I have suggested was the West Semitic god of shepherds, an appropriate god for Mesha who was himself a shepherd (according to the Bible), and who lived in the Transjordanian pasture lands.
Large scale herding was the mainstay of the Transjordanian economy. It influenced the local terminology for the aristocracy. It may even be that the phrases like אֵילֵי מוֹאָב (“mighty men of Moab”) and אַלּוּפֵי אֱדוֹם (“clan leaders of Edom”) derive from terms related to herding, as א.י.ל can mean “ram” and א.ל.פ can mean “bull.” Similarly, when the prophet Amos (4:1) wishes to insult the wealthy women of the Shomron, he calls them פָּרוֹת הַבָּשָׁן (“cows of the Bashan”); this witticism is likely based in part on the Bashan (modern day Golan Heights) as a place for raising cattle.
The Ashtorot of Your Flocks
The evidence adduced above points to the likelihood that the Transjordan was known as a place where herding thrived, and that the people who lived there naturally had an affinity to the god of pastureland Ashtor and to the goddess of fertility and animal reproduction Ashtoret.
This is the pagan background of the biblical phrase “the ashtorot of your flocks.” In context, it is clear that the term refers to lambs, but now we understand why: Ashtor and Asthoret, as the patron deities of shepherds, particularly of fertility and reproduction, and thus, the demythologized term ashtorot in Deuteronomy became synonymous with offspring of small cattle. It is a linguistic vestige of a past religious culture.
Similarly, English speakers refer to most of the days of the week by their Teutonic names. No one gives thought or reverence when using “Woden’s day” (=Wednesday) or “Thor’s day” (=Thursday). As William F. Albright wrote:
Some of the names of pagan divinities have simply become secular Hebrew words with no pagan meaning; mythological expressions are used as poetic symbolism without indicating the slightest reverence for the original pagan deities.
The Goddess Sheger
The goddess Sheger is not mentioned frequently in ancient texts, but she does appear as in the Punic name עבדשגר, “Slave or Devotee of Sheger,” in some Ugaritic god lists, together with Athtor, Athtarat, and Eitham, as well as in a Ugaritic poem in honor of Athtarat/Ashtoret. Most significantly, the name appears together with the god, Ashtor (שגר ועשתר), in combination I, line 14 of the Deir Alla Balaam inscription. Indeed, Sheger is another name for Ashtoret. This is the very pairing we see in the expression about livestock fertility in the biblical phrase: שְׁגַר אֲלָפֶיךָ וְעַשְׁתְּרוֹת צֹאנֶךָ.
In the Bible, we distinguish between צאן ובקר, “sheep/goats and cattle.” In the use of the expression ashtarot tzonekha referring to “lambs” and “kids” and the parallel term sheger ʾalaphekha referring to the cattle, Deuteronomy has subtly introduced two new terms giving each a specific meaning for the offspring of the two types of ruminants raised by ancient Israelites.
Sheger and Geresh
We can add further examples of references to sheger as “offspring” when we understand that the obscure Hebrew term שׁגר (sheger) is a metathesis for גרשׁ (geresh). In other words, it is the same term but the order of sounds changed, a phenomenon well-attested in Hebrew. This meaning is clear from the parallelism in Moses’ blessing:
דברים לג:יד וּמִמֶּגֶד תְּבוּאֹת שָׁמֶשׁ
וּמִמֶּגֶד גֶּרֶשׁ יְרָחִים.
Deut 33:14 With the bounteous yield of the sun,
And the bounteous crop of the moons.
Here, the term geresh is parallel to tevuʾah, which shows that it has something to do with produce. I suggest that the first phrase refers to agricultural produce and the second to newborn animals. This is likely also the plain meaning of the Hebrew name Gershom/Gershon, i.e., “offspring”—the biblical explanation of “I was a stranger in a strange land” (Exod 2:22, 18:3) is a case of midrash shemot or inner biblical etymology (see ibn Ezra on Exod 18:3 [long commentary]).
This also explains why the area around a city is referred to in the Bible as its מִגְרַשׁ, since this is where people who lived in cities but owned livestock let them out to graze:
יהושע יד:ד …וְלֹא נָתְנוּ חֵלֶק לַלְוִיִּם בָּאָרֶץ כִּי אִם עָרִים לָשֶׁבֶת וּמִגְרְשֵׁיהֶם לְמִקְנֵיהֶם וּלְקִנְיָנָם.
Josh 14:4 …the Levites were assigned no share in the land, but only some towns to live in, with the pastures for their livestock and cattle.
Finally, I suggest that Sheger was the patron deity of the city generally identified as biblical Ramoth-gilead. In the Hellenistic Period, when Alexander the Great’s troops settled down and formed the Decapolis, they called this city in Gilead Gerasa (present day Jarash). This toponym is often explained as deriving from the Greek γεροντες, i.e. “elders” or “veterans.”
Nevertheless, in light of the above observation that Hebrew sheger is a metathesis of geresh, I suggest that the city Gerasa/Geresh is named for its patron goddess Sheger, similar to the other city in the Bashan named Ashtaroth. Indeed, the main temple that dominates the Hellenistic and Roman city is that of the Greek goddess Artemis (Roman: Diana), known as the “goddess of the beasts” (Πότνια θηρῶν). I assume that for the native pagan citizens and the conquering Greeks, Artemis was a likely manifestation of their patron Ashtoret /Sheger, offering another example of religious syncretism in changing times.
The evidence adduced above suggests that the origin for the unusual terms “the shegar of your herd and the ashtorot of your flock” in Deuteronomy is in West Semitic mythology. Nevertheless, Deuteronomy is clearly not interested in supporting the worship of this goddesses of animal fertility, Ashtoret/Sheger. Instead, the demythologized version of the name simply became synonymous with the hoped-for offspring from herd animals in poetic language.
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September 24, 2019
September 21, 2020
Prof. Aaron Demsky is Professor (emeritus) of Biblical History at The Israel and Golda Koschitsky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, Bar Ilan University. He is also the founder and director of The Project for the Study of Jewish Names. Demsky received the Bialik Prize (2014) for his book, Literacy in Ancient Israel.
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