I argue in The Covenant that the perspective of a mortal overlord offers an all-encompassing paradigm for solving the question of the origin of monotheism.
Among other things, it brings us to realize that Abraham was the father, but not the genitor of Isaac. Indeed, when one poses Abraham’s Lord as a powerful ruler (instead of a divine entity), it becomes very clear from the scriptures, that this Lord is physically – rather than spiritually – visiting Sarah in the tent (Ge 18:9) to impregnate her (Ge 21:1).
As such, it is the Lord, rather than Abraham, who fathers Isaac. Abraham nevertheless raises Isaac as his own son, because he is the son of the promise (perhaps this peculiar situation accounts for why Jewish identity has always been transmitted matrilineally).
It is also a well known fact that ancient Israelites were celebrating the cult of the ancestors. Being the seed of the new dynasty and the purveyor of the land, the Lord of the Covenant (i.e. “Baal Berith” in Hebrew) would have been deified and worshipped by his descendants.
I explain how the tetragramaton YHWH (i.e. Yahweh) was later obtained through the creation of a compounded deity that integrated the masculine and feminine attributes of Baal Berith and Asherah, which also explains why Elohim is a plural meaning “gods”.
In The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, Mark S. Smith, a prominent scholar on ancient Israel, offers evidence that the Ugaritic pantheon is not only organized, but functions as a royal family household, where El/Baal and his consort, Asherah, occupy the first and highest level of the hierarchy. Back then, I didn’t think much of Asherah. I just thought of her as the Mother Goddess of the Canaanites, often associated with the Babylonian Ishtar (Astarte, Innana) the Queen of Heaven and goddess of fertility. Asherah is one of the main goddesses of ancient Israel. She appears after the 15th century BCE and was initially regarded as the consort of Baal, and later that of Yahweh. Of course, when one understands that Yahweh is just a new name for Baal Berith, this is no surprise.
From Sarah to Asherah
I only recently came to consider that Asherah might actually be no other than Sarah, Abraham’s half sister and concubine, elevated to the rank of deity. We must turn to etymology and the invention of the alphabet to understand how Sarah might have become known as the goddess Asherah.
Scholars believe that the alphabet was invented at Serabit el-Khadim, in the mines of turquoise by Canaanites workers that would use multiple pictograms, each representing a consonant, to write words.
Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, led an archaeological expedition to Serabit in 1905. He discovered a sphinx with strange hieroglyphs. It was later found that these were not all Egyptian hieroglyphs. Some of these symbols proved to be the first letters of an alphabet that would be referred to as Proto-Sinaitic. This sphinx, like a mini Rosetta stone, spelled out a simple inscription in both Egyptian and Canaanite texts:
Egyptian: “Beloved Hathor, mistress of turquoise”
Canaanite: “Beloved Baalat”
The Egyptian goddess Hathor (Bat) is the Egyptian goddess of fertility that is often represented as a cow. Baalat (or Baalah) is the feminine of Baal, which means consort, princess or goddess. The Serabit sphinx offers evidence that this alphabet was born out of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The meanings of the pictograms were key to the Canaanites as they served as an important mnemonic tool. For instance, the letter aleph is the ’alp, the word for “ox” or “bull”; the letter bêt is the beit or “house”; the letter ‘ayin, “eye”, etc.
The very word “alphabet” comes from “aleph-beit”, the first two letters, which eventually became “alpha-beta” in Greek. This Proto-Sinaitic alphabet predated Modern Hebrew by more than a thousand years. The number and names of the letters have been somewhat preserved, but their associated pictograms have evolved.
Meanwhile in Egypt, the falcon pictogram () was commonly used to represent Horus, the god of the Kings. This symbol would often precede the name of Pharaoh, much like the Akkadian dingir () would precede the name of a Babylonian god to indicate his divine status.
We also know that the god Baal (which simply means “lord”), was often depicted as a bull (think of the Golden Calf). In fact, this is where the word “bull” comes from (baal, bel, bul).
Ten years ago, in Quiproquo sur Dieu, I suggested that the title “aluf” (אלוף), usually translated as “chief” or “duke” in English, and given to the descendants of Ishmael in Genesis 36, might have very well derived from the pictogram of a bull’s head (). Indeed, many scholars associate the title “aluf” with the letter “א”, aleph (אלף), in Hebrew, which also derives from an ox’s head. It is also noteworthy that, to this day, the letter aleph remains associated with the divine and that the title Aluf still refers to the highest-ranking officials of the Israelite army.
Given the close ties between Canaan, Egypt and Babylonia, it is reasonable to believe that Canaanites would have used the pictogram of a bull as a symbol for their god-king. This is why I had suggested that perhaps the names of the descendants of Ishmael had been preceded by the pictogram of a bull’s head, which would have eventually been interpreted mistakenly as “aluf”, instead of “baal”, thereby confusing the letter with the function that this pictogram was supposed to represent.
As I started thinking more about Asherah, I came to realize that the name of this goddess might simply be the name of Sarah preceded by the kingship pictogram , much like the hieroglyph representing the goddess Hathor was .
Indeed, as the mother of Isaac and stepmother of Ishmael, Sarah (שרה or ), could have very well been referred to as “baalat” () or “baalah (), the feminine version of baal that signifies princess or consort. We can therefore speculate that Sarah’s full name could have been written “” or more simply “” using the bull-head for signaling royal kingship.
However, through the adoption of the alphabet, the bull-head pictogram would have permanently been associated with the letter aleph. It is therefore probably by mistakenly interpreting “” as “’A’ Sarah”, instead of “Baalah Sarah”, that we would have ended up with the name Asherah (אשרה).
Remnants of the cult of Asherah can be found in the Old Testament, where she is often depicted as a pole or the tree of life. Perhaps the Israelites were trying to picture Sarah as both their earthly and holy mother.
Note: In Hebrew, “s” and “sh” are both represented by the consonant shin “ש”. Also there was no vowels or spaces between letters in Proto-Sinaitic as well as in ancient Hebrew. The etymological match is perfect.
In addition to considering the deification of Abraham’s Lord when trying to resolve the question of the origin of monotheism, we are now also invited to consider the deification of his consort Sarah.
I explain in my book how the tetragramaton was likely obtained by removing the proscribed term baal from the expression Baal Yah and Baalah in Hebrew. However, I had never envisioned the possibility that Sarah could have been deified along with Abraham’s Lord. In addition, I never anticipated I would one day find textual evidence supporting the idea that the title Aluf could have originated from a confusion between the letter aleph and the kingship pictogram for Baal, something I only speculated about a decade ago. It appears that Asherah offers evidence for both of these ideas.
It could all be coincidence, if it wasn’t for we now find that the divine couple formed by Baal and Asherah perfectly matches the earthly couple formed by Abraham’s Lord and Sarah. We can now better appreciate how Mark S. Smith properly described this particular feature of the Ugaritic pantheon without even realizing that the priests were not just mirroring any royal family, but that they had actually deified Israel’s very founding couple for posterity.
 Smith, Mark S. 2001. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism : Israel’s polytheistic background and the Ugaritic texts. New York: Oxford University Press.