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D'varim/Deuteronomy 16:21 You shall not plant for yourself an asherah of any tree near the altar of Adonai your G-d
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The word , simply transcribed in our translation above, is a feminine noun that comes from the root , "to go straight on, to pronounce happy or blessed". We are used to seeing the root in such passages as , "How blessed is the man that does not walk in the counsel of the wicked" (Psalm 1:1). However, the noun in our text has two distinct translation traditions. One is taken by the older translations, such as the King James, where the verse would be translated, "Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees near unto the altar of the L-RD thy G-d". This follows the tradition of theSeptuagint where the word is used, meaning a grove. We do know that it was common to plant trees at entrance to shrines and high places as a marker - the shrine by the seven oak trees - so that people could find them. The other, more recent, tradition takes Asherah as being the name of a Caananite fertility goddess1 and so translates "Do not set up any wooden Asherah pole beside the altar" (NIV) or "You shall not plant any tree as a sacred pole beside the altar" (NRSV). In either case, the Israelites were told to destroy them when then entered the Land: "You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim" (Shemot 34:13, ESV); they were connected with pagan worship and idolatry, either as markers or idols.
Although the rabbis later hardened this stricture to prohibiting even a wooden building on the Temple mount (see Sifrei 145, also referenced in b. Tamid 28b), it is clear that not all trees were inherently idolatrous or forbidden within the sanctuary ofHaShem. For example, when Joshua recorded the covenant between the people of Israel and the L-rd at the end of his life, "He took a great stone and set it up at the foot of the oak in the sacred precinct of the L-RD" (Joshua 24:26, ESV). David uses the image of a tree in the sanctuary to describe himself: "But I am like a thriving olive tree in G-d's house; I trust in the faithfulness of G-d forever and ever" (Psalm 52:10, ESV). If this is correct, then the problem is not with a tree, groves of trees or decorated poles themselves; there must be something about their appearance or customary use in this context that attracts the Torah's disapprobation.
RabbiHirsch explains that "an asherah was a tree which was supposed to be under the special protection of a god or goddess whose presence and influence could be obtained by tending and making it thrive and showing it honour", while Jeffrey Tigay adds that they were prohibited because "they were associated with Canaanite deities and might eventually have led the Israelites to blur the distinctions between the Israelite and the Canaanite religion." The Sforno points out that "an asherah, which is used to beautify palaces, is nonetheless abhorrent if used in a holy place because it is customarily used for idolatrous services." All three commentators seem to be agreed that trees, or idols made from trees, were objects of idolatry among the peoples that the Israelites are called to dispossess and purge from the Land. More, Tigay suggests that their presence - even if not worshipped - would be a confusing symbol that could cause a blurring of the very clear demarcation line that the L-rd had drawn between the pagan practices of the Canaanites and the worship of HaShem, the One True G-d.
Some draw the same point from the use of contemporary media and, in particular, rock music within a Christian culture today. They claim that this blurs the line between the world and the Body of Messiah, that using the same musical style as that found in pubs, nightclubs and worse, sends a hopelessly mixed message both to the world and to new believers: namely, that no change in attitudes, habits and lifestyles is really required when a person comes to faith in Messiah. By such reasoning, churches that hold outreach events in pubs and clubs, or ministries that accept sponsorship from nightclubs, would be seen as stepping over the line and compromising the gospel that they are trying to share. Talking of the sin of Judah, the prophet says, "their children remember their altars and their Asherim, beside every green tree and on the high hills, on the mountains in the open country" (Jeremiah 17:2-3, ESV) and this text would be cited as showing the need to have a clear separation in a believer's life between their former lives "in the world" and their new existence in Messiah: "Get away from unbelievers. Separate yourselves from them. Have nothing to do with anything unclean. Then I will welcome you" (2 Corinthians 6:17, GWT) or "I heard another voice from heaven saying, 'Come out of Babylon, my people, so that you do not participate in her sins and suffer from any of her plagues'" (Revelation 18:4, GWT).
In a more general sense, however, the text does seem to make a very clear call not to mix idolatry with the worship of G-d. Bringing a symbol, pattern or practice of another (by definition, false) religion into our lives as believers is clearly forbidden. Yeshua covered the same issue when He said, "No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other" (Luke 16:13, ESV). The eastern religions seem to offer a particular challenge to believers in our multi-cultural societies. Martial arts are all based in pagan religions, even if now apparently sanitised; even if the martial art itself is not overtly religious, then the obsession with training and fitness easily takes a believer away from spending time with the L-rd, Bible studies and social activities within the Body, often offering direct clashes between classes, competitions and the time when believers meet for worship. Even activities such as relaxation classes often include thinly veneered components of yoga and other meditative techniques which open up the mind to unhealthy spiritual forces. The recent interest in the folk-customs of past years, such as wassailing or morris dancing, is another area where believers cannot go.
We must be very careful what we actually incorporate into our private and public worship. Images and pictures can become a snare for some; smells and sounds for others. Anything that either takes our eyes away from the L-rd Himself or becomes a substitute for Him in some way must be removed. We are called to be a holy people, set apart for G-d, distinct in our manners, custom, dress and speech; not quaint or archaic, for that would bring the L-rd into disrepute, neither overly solemn and legalistic, but wholesome, polite and kind - loving others as Yeshua Himself loved us. This requires dedication and effort, often a measure of sacrifice and commitment - are you determined not to bring an asherah into the house of the L-rd?
1 - Also known as 'Ishtah', whose name has been anglicised as 'Easter'.
Further Study: 1 Kings 14:15; Romans 6:16; Ephesians 1:3-4
Application: Did you make a clear break with your old life when you became a believer? Are there any areas where you are now compromised before the L-rd? Take stock of your habits, friends and activities to see if anything is holding you back from being the person G-d has called you to be.
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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