The Pre-biblical Origins of the Baals and the Asherim as Egyptian Pillar Gods and Goddesses Fused to Semitic Deities in Late Bronze Age Times (1560-1200 BCE).
28 June 2004
Revisions through 08 December 2007
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Day's comprehensive article on Asherah is highly reccomended, he covers the various conflicting scholarly understandings :
"Asherah appears in the OT both as the name of a Canaanite goddess and her wooden cult-symbol. She is known in the Ugaritic texts under the name Athirat ( `atrt ) where she functions as the consort of the chief god, El, and mother of the gods. Prior to the discovery of the Ugaritic texts some scholars denied that Asherah was the name of a goddess while others wrongly equated her with Astarte (Ashtoreth). Since Yahweh is equated with El in the OT, it is understandable that in syncretistic circles Yahweh also appropriated Asherah as his consort." (pp.483-487. Vol. 1. John Day. "Asherah." David Noel Freedman. Editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York. Doubleday. 1992)
"The view here adumbrated, namely that Asherah in the OT is the name both of a goddess and her wooden cult symbol, is the most widely held view, and seems clear enough from the evidence." (p. 486. Day)
Scholars are divided as to whether the wooden cult item is a pole, pillar or tree. Some verses suggest a tree, others a man-made object of hewn wood :
"The LXX and Vulgate rendered Asherah by "grove," which accounts for the translation in the King James Version. The Mishnah similarly understood the Asherim to be living trees that were worshipped...It is quite clear, however, from a number of OT references that the Asherim were man-made objects; verbs used in connection with them include "make" (`asa, 1 Kings 14:15; 16:33; 2 Kings 17:16; 21:3, 7; 2 Chron 33:3), "build" (bana, 1 Kings 14:23) and "erect" (nasab, 2 Kings 17:10), which are inappropriate for living trees. It should also be noted that Jeremiah 17:2 speaks of "their Asherim beside every luxuriant tree," which would be odd if the Asherim were living trees. The view that they were always living trees is today held by A. Lemaire (1977:604-7), but some claim more moderately that the Asherim were sometimes living trees. Deuteronomy 16:21 might suggest this, often rendered as it is "You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beide the altar of the Lord your God, which you shall make." However, the word `es can mean "wood" as well as "tree" and since all other references to the Asherah in the OT indicate it is a man-made object, including various references elsewhere in the Deuteronomic corpus, it is more natural to suppose that this is the meaning of `es here." (p. 486. Day)
I note a reference to a Pillar of Baal, (Baal meaning "Lord"), if the Asherah is a wooden pillar, then perhaps the Asherah was a type of Baalat or "Lady" ? We are told Israel worshipped the Baals and Asherim.
2 Kings 10:26-27 RSV
"So when they put them to the sword, the guard and the officers cast them out and went into the inner room of the house of Baal and they brought out the pillar that was in the house of Baal, and burned it. And they demolished the pillar of Baal, and demolished the house of Baal, and made it a latrine to this day."
One of the titles of the Egyptian goddess Hathor was Baalat and she is frequently encountered as a pillar in Egyptian art forms. At Serabit el Khadim in the southern Sinai she appears as a pillar with arms and hands. Is it possible that the Late Bronze Age Canaanites came to assimilate an Egyptian pillar-goddess, Hathor, to their goddesses as Asherah ? I note that "t" is sometimes rendered as "s", as in Tyre and Sur, and Athirat as Asherah (cf. above, Day's comment) did Hathor become Hashor, then Asherah ? Hathor was a "type" of Queen of Heaven, she was a sky-goddess who gave birth to the Sun each day as a Golden Calf, she being rendered in a bovine form. I am indebted to John D. Croft (post number 39899 at The Ancient Bible History List), who suggested that Athirat, wife of El, if the Semitic feminine "t" ending is removed, bears a similar form to Hathor (Athira [-t]). He may have a point ! A number of scholars have suggested that Athirat became biblical Asherah, but this is disputed by others. A problem noted by some scholars is that Hathor is actually two words, Hat---and---Hor, "house [of] Horus," thus it would not have been pronounced HATH---or, accomodating it to Athirat (my thanks to Richard Abbott and Djetuti of the ABH List for this reminder). We simply don't know how the Semitic ear would have "heard" and pronounced a foreign word.
Ugarit was a trading partner of Egypt, it was destroyed ca. 1175 BCE by the Sea Peoples, and a sword was found in its ruins bearing the cartouche of Pharaoh Merneptah who reigned ca. 1212-1202 BCE. This suggests that the gods of Ugarit may have assimilated Egyptian concepts.
Ugaritic myths mention that the father of the gods, El, had a wife called Athirat which means "she who treads upon the sea." In one myth, she propositions Baal for sex, he reports the situation to El, who tells him "to humble her" by having intercourse ! So, apparently Athirat could be portrayed on occassion as promiscuous.
Hathor was honored in Egypt as the goddess of sex and love. Scholars have found various Semitic sex-goddess figurines in Syria, Phoenicia and Canaan that are nude or partially nude, wearing Hathor-like coiffures (hair styles), and have suggested Hathor was being assimilated to these goddesses.
Pharaoh Ramesses II named one of his daughters Anat and a temple to Anat's honor has been found in Egypt. A stela also found in Egypt shows several Egyptians adoring Anat, who is shown seated on an Egyptian-like throne, brandishing a war-mace and shield and wearing an Egyptian crown resembing that worn by the Egyptian god of the dead, Osiris (Egyptian wsr, meaning "mighty, powerful").
Perhaps Anat in the Semitic mind came to associated with Osiris, thus the reason she waers his distinctive headress with its two feathers ? In the Ugartic myths Anat slays the god Mot after searching for the dead Baal "as a cow seeks after its calf," having learned from Mot hismself that he has killed her lover. After kiling Mot, Anat chops him up and sows his body like seed into the earth, then El the supreme god has a vision, a rain cloud appears, and the drought accompanying Baal's death is over. He declares that Baal lives again (apparently in the form a rain cloud, said clouds being called "Haddad's bull-calves"). So Baal was a dying and resurrected god. Apparently Anat's killing of Mot who personfies "death" caused the release of Baal from the underworld ? Thus, the Asiatics or Semites might have conceived Anat to be a type of savior goddess rather like Osiris, who was killed and resurrected back to life through the efforts of his lover and wife, Isis, who found his body in a hewn pillar in the palace of the Phoenician king of Byblos. So, perhaps Anat wears Osiris' crown because she, like he, was involved in a resurrection of the dead ? In Egyptian myth Osiris is the god who determines who will be resurrected to life or sent to the Lake of Fire and eternal destruction.
The fact that El, also called Bull-El, the father of the gods and his wife Athirat, the mother of the gods, had children like Baal and Anat who could assume bovine forms and mate with each other suggests that El and his wife must have also had the same power to assume bovine forms. Egyptian myths called Pharaoh "mighty bull" and "golden calf", of note is that bronze bull statuettes or figurines covered in gold leaf have been found in Phoenician temples and may be Baal as the bull who mounted Anat the heifer. These golden bovines recall the golden calf Israel worshipped for some scholars.
Osiris was represented by the Djed/Tet pillar which sometimes is portrayed with bands of color, I note a drawing of a Hathor pillar also showing similar bands of color. One Osirisian Djed/Tet pillar shows daperies hanging from it. A Greek legend mentions a pillar in the palace of the king of Byblos that had Osiris' body in it, released by Isis his wife. She instructed the Phoenicians of that city to worship the pillar and to wrap linens about it. Perhaps this recalls the images of the Tet pillar in Egypt wrapped in linens ? The Bible tells us that Phoenician craftsmen from Tyre built Solomon's Temple, did they also introduce the sacred pillar of their god and goddess, Baal and Baalat ? Some Phoenician kings at Byblos bore Yahweh appearing names like Yehi-milk "Yehi is king" and Yehaw-milk son of Yehr-bal, who adores "the Lady of Byblos" wo made him king (cf. pp.215, 220. "Yehimilk of Byblos." & "Yehawmil of Byblos." James B. Pritchard. Editor. The Ancient Near East, an Anthology of Texs and Pictures. Princeton University Press. 1958). In the southern Sinai at the Hathor shrine was found a sphinx with Egyptian and Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions. The Egyptian revealed the votive was for Hathor, but the Proto-Sinaitic dedicated the statue to Baalat, which was recognized as a title of Hathor from Byblos. So, if I am correct in assuming that some Phoenicians were Yahweh worhippers and honored an Egyptian pillar-goddess, Hathor as Baalat, then it wouldn't be so unusual to find Phoenician craftsmen placing an Asherah/Hathor "pillar" in the temple they were building for Solomon, he did have a Phoenician wife from Sidon and he worshipped the Sidonian Ashtoreth (1 Ki 11:5, 33; 2 Ki 23:13).
The Egyptian god Seth is frequently portrayed in Ramesside Egyptian art forms as wearing a helmet/crown and dress resembling that of the Semitic warrior god Reshep, the god of fire, burnings and plague. Another Canaanite god called Mekal, and found at Beth-Shean, is dressed in Reshep's garb and is shown on an Egyptian style throne, on a stele, adored by Egyptians.
So, the Late Bronze Age, ca. 1560-1200 BCE, when Egypt ruled Canaan, Phoenicia and Syria, apparently witnessed a "cross-fertilization or assimilation" of Semitic and Egyptian deities; Egypt portrayed some her gods in Asiatic costume, and honored Asiatic goddesses like Anat, and Baal whilst the Asiatics portrayed their gods and goddess at times in Egyptian costumes and crowns (Baal wearing Pharaoh's white crown).
Most probably, the pillar gods of Egypt, Osiris and Hathor, are behind the pillars worshipped by the Canaanites and later by Israel when she began marrying Canaanite women (Judges 3:5-7), these mothers teaching their Israelite "sons" the worship of their Baals and Asheroth.
In Egyptian myth, the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, the deceased Pharaoh claimed to be a Golden Calf, born at sunrise of the heavenly cow, Hathor or Nut, and he rides the solar bark or boat which crosses the sky each day. The sun at Sun-rise was portrayed as a calf emerging between two trees in Egyptian art and hymns. To the degree that Israel is portrayed in the Bible as living 430 years in Egypt, it should not be wondered at that she would worship the rising sun as the Golden Calf. Of interest here, is that in the Bible, it is Yahweh-Elohim who is honored as "rising" each day from mounts Sinai, Paran and Seir and leading his peoples eastward to the Promised Land (the sun rising each day in the east). I understand that Yahweh is the Golden Calf, and that Egyptian solar imagery has been assimilated to him. Jeroboam, in my estimation, correctly understood that the two Golden Calves he set up for Israel to worship at Dan and Bethel were Yahweh in his bovine manifestation, just as Baal could take on a bovine form. Hathor pillars sometimes accompany statues of various Egyptian dignitaries in funerary art. Hathor pillars also adorn various Egyptian temples; to the degree that the sky was envisioned as resting on four pillars, could these Hathor pillars have been alternately seen as the four legs of the sky-cow-goddess ? Thus Hathor pillars may represent a sky-form of the goddess, which hold up the roofs of the Egyptian temples, said ceilings being possibly seen as the heavens or starry underbelly of a bovine Hathor or Nut (another cow-sky-goddess) ? One bas-relief has Pharoah presenting an offering before a small Hathor Pillar, looking rather more like a pole affixed to a dais (scroll down to the bottom of the preceeding url). Hathor also appears in Egyptian art as a Tree-goddess who provides nourishment in the form of cakes and drink to the righteous dead. So a wooden pillar, alternately a tree, would be appropriate -interchangeable- symbols of the heavenly-sky-goddess who was called Baalat "Lady" by the Semites of Byblos in Phoenicia.
Hathor was also a fierce war-like "protectoress" of her devotees. She was at times portrayed as a Solar Cat that kills the mythical Apep serpent which seeks to destroy the Sun-god at surise and the righteous dead who travel with him in his solar bark or boat. At other times she takes on another feline form, that of Sakhmet, the fierce lioness who attacks Egypt's enemies. She is also the "Eye of Re" that destroys an irreverent mankind. Of note here is that Asherah appears to be a protectress of her devotees in a Judaean tomb inscription.
"Curiously, at about the same time as the discoveries at Kuntillet `Ajrud, another site, Khirbet el-Qom, near Hebron, also yielded a text which seemingly refer's to Yahweh's Asherah :
Uriyahu the rich wrote it.
Blessed be Uriayahu by Yahweh.
For from his enemies by his Asherah he has saved him.
and by his Asherah
(pp. 484-485. Day. "Asherah.")
At Kunitllet el Ajrud, a Late Iron II (9th-8th century BCE) caravansari in the Negev, was found a grafiiti drawing on a potsherd of Yahweh of Samaria with his arm interlocked with a female who is described as "his Asherah." Accomanying the loving couple is a cow licking its calf, recalling Anat the heifer who searched after her lover Baal "as a cow seeks its calf." If Baalat was equated with Hathor by the Semites, might Baal's pillar represent him as a Semitic reinterpretation of the Egyptian god, wsr, Greek Osiris, as the Djed Pillar which is sometimes adorned with linen draperies in Egyptian art ? In Egyptian mths Osiris is tricked by his adversary Seth into getting into a casket at a party, which is then sealed and thrown into the Nile. It floats to Byblos where it becomes part of a growing tree, which is in turn cut down and made into a pillar of the local king's palace. Isis learns of the casket's whereabouts and obtains Osiris' body and instructs the natives to worship the pillar as a god, that is, as Osiris. They do, and a part of the ceremonies is winding linens about the pillar, dressing it, as the Egyptians too dressed in linens the Osirian Djed Pillar. I note that the bible portrays women making weavings for the Asherah, perhaps this reflects Egyptian and Phoenician motifs ? Hathor was also the goddess of love and sensuous sexuality. Her male and females devotees at times danced, sang and played music for her invarious stages of undress or nudity. Of interest is that various Asiatic goddesses like Qudushu, are portrayed nude and wearing a Hathor-like coiffure or hairstyle, perhaps a syncretic blending of Hathor as a goddess of love and sexulaity with the Semitic Asherah? Votive vulvas and phalli have been found at Hathor temples dedicated by women and men beseeching her for her procreative powers.
2 Kings 23:7 RSV
"And he broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes which were in the house of the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah."
Apparently the woven hangings were some kind of votive cloths in the Asherah's honor. I note that Hathor was honored with votive textiles in the form of shirts and flat rectangular cloths which frequently bore both painted or embroidered images of Hathor being adored by the supplicant seeking her favor. As a goddess of love and sexual reproduction, she was sought for fertility by women and by men, and also for protection and sustenance in the underworld. Other items dedicated to her were grape clusters (symbolic of wine), votive phalli (penises) in wood for male supplicants as well as vulvas of cowrie form for female supplicants. To the degree Hathor the sky-cow-goddess gave birth to the sun each day as the Golden Calf, and was honored as a pillar goddess, and was called Baalat "Lady," and had textile votives, could she have been assimilated to Asherah by Iron II times? That is to say, during the New Kingdom period, ca. 1560-1200 BCE, Egyptian pillar gods and goddesses like Osiris and Hathor, came to be fused with Canaanite gods and goddesses, and these syncretic forms of worship are being recalled in the Bible's Iron II texts (ca. the 9th-6th century BCE)?
Pinch on Hathor:
"A number of New Kingdom drawings and paintings on linen, described by Hall and Currelly as votive cloths (in Naville 1913.15-16,30), were found in the vicinty of the 11th Dynasty temple at Deir el-Bahri." (p. 102. "Textiles" ff. 102-134. Geraldine Pinch. Votive Offerings to Hathor. Cambridge, England. Ashmolean Museum, Griffith Institute, Oxford. 1993)
Pinch also mentions votive cloths for Hathor at Gebel Zeit in the desert east of the Nile, and at Timna in the southern Arabah. Some of the Timna textiles had beads sewn on them, a feature found on some votives found in Egypt. Some votives were described as possessing a "looped fringe on top" with the remains of a cord passing through the loops, could these cloths have been intended as "hangings" to be hung in the presence of the goddess (cf. Pinch, pp. 116-117) ? Pinch also mentions scenes on some cloths showing Hathor as a cow emerging from a shrine which in turn is is portrayed as partially draped in a great cloth, so large cloth draperies may have also been a part of the cult (cf. p.120. Pinch). Pinch also counters earlier suggestions that votive textiles were primarily funerary- while acknowledging some could be, she also forcefully argues that the votive textiles found at Gebel Zeit show they were NOT funerary, not being found in graves but at the Hathor shrine itself (cf. pp. 128-129).
Some cloths show Hathor as a woman with a sundisc atop her head between a pair of horns, other cloths show a calf accompanying her (she being in bovine form), still others show her in bovine form licking a person as a cow licks its calf.
One scene shows a male priest playing a harp in her honor, another, a scene of girls dancing with "considerable abandon" with hand cymbals, in her honor (pp. 124-125. Pinch). Still another scene shows a female harpist under a vine arbor of grapes playing while a naked man dances to the music in honor of Hathor, his gentials prominently portrayed.
Grapes are common votives (asociated with wine), and drunkeness was encouraged at festivals in her honor. A myth had it that she had been sent from heaven to destroy mankind on the orders of the sun-god Re, who was upset that mankind despised him and was in a state of rebellion to his authority. She killed thousands, alarmed at the carnage Re had thousands of gallons of beer dyed red to resemble blood, which she greedily drank, became drunk, and in a stupor ended her annihilation of mankind. I note that when Israel honored the Golden Calf it was with song, dance, nudity, and drunkeness according to some Jewish and Christian traditions- all of this is an aspect of Hathor Cult, and she had two shrines in area that Israel traversed in the Wilderness, the southern Sinai at Serabit el Khadim and at Timna in the southern Arabah. Perhaps there is a relationship here between Egyptian Golden Calf worship, Hathor the Tree-Cow-Pillar goddess and pillar gods like Baal and his Asherah ?
Pinch on textile votives for Hathor; could these textile votives recall the biblical statement that women made "weavings" for the Asherah ? :
"Fine linen with looped fringe at top and one long fringe." (p. 108. item 3)
"Fine linen with 1 looped fringe at top threaded with cord, and one long side fringe" (p. 111. item 9)
Ugarit and Byblos traded with Egypt for several centuries so Egyptian pillar gods, Osiris and Hathor could have been assimilated to Semitic gods and goddess. As noted earlier, in some myths Hathor the sky-cow-goddess gave birth to the Sun as a Golden Calf at sunrise. I have argued that the Golden Calf worshipped by Israel under Jeroboam may be honoring Yahweh as the Golden Calf. This motif, I have speculated is a fusion of Syrian, Phoenician, Canaanite and Egyptian beliefs portraying their gods and goddesses in bovine imagery. Baal is sometimes portayed as able to take on the form of a bull and mounting his sister Anat, who takes on the form of heifer, they mate and a bull-calf is born (the Semitic myths call storm clouds Hadad's calves). Pinch mentions a scene where Pharoah Horemhab is shown bing suckled by the Hathor cow, only in this instance the text declares that cow-goddess is ANAT, the fierce warrior goddess of Canaan who asumed a cow form to have sex with her lover Baal.
I thus understand that the Phoenician Baal's lover Anat came to be called Asherah by Late Iron II times and their wooden images or pillars (?) are Late Bronze Age fusions of Egyptian pillar gods with Semitic gods and goddesses. At Kuntillet el-Ajrud an Iron II Caravansari, ws found a broken pithos with a grafitie drawing of Yahweh of Samaria with his Asherah. Some scholars have suggested the feats and persona of Baal have been ascribed to Yahweh, perhaps Baal's sexual prowess has also been transferred to Yahweh along with Baal's paramour, Anat, and another of his conquests, Ashirta, wife of the supreme god, El?
Day on a remarkable inscription equating Qdsh with `strt and 'nt (Qudushu-Ashirat-Anat) as aspects of each other :
"Asherah is sometimes called Qdsh in the Ugaritic texts. Qdsh is also attested as the name of a goddess in Egypt, where she appears on reliefs and amulets of the New Kingdom...especially the Ramesside period, and is characteristically represented nude, wearing a Hathor wig, standing on a lion, holding snakes in one hand and flowers in the other...her erotic aspect is emphasized. Most remarkable is the representation on a Theban relief at Winchester Collge in England (now missing) where the goddess is called qdsh-`strt-`nt, thus indicating a fusion of Qdsh (Athirat) with the two other important Canaanite goddesses, Astarte and Anath. Figurines and plaques of the Qdsh type are attested in Syria and Palestine from the period ca. 1700-1200 BC, which we may confidently regard as depictions of the goddess Athirat. It is noteworthy that the depictions of Athirat/Qdsh make her role as a fertility goddess abundantly clear. This aspect of her nature is played down in the Ugaritic texts, but emerges again in the OT, where she is constantly associated with Baal and is clearly connected with sacred prostitution in 2 Kings 23:7." (p.484. Vol. 1. Day. "Asherah.")
Update 08 December 2007:
Perhaps Asherah is a Hebrew rendering of Ishara? Black and Green on Ishara:
"Ishara was a goddess who seems to have been more closely connected with the Semitic tradition than the Sumerian. Her worship may have spread into southern Mesopotamia from the Middle Euphrates region. She seems to have been associated with Dagan, possibly as his wife in one tradition. As a goddess of love, she is equated with Ishtar (Inana); in other guises she is associated with war and with extispicy (see divination), or else appears to be a mother goddess. An explanation of a ritual describes her as mother of the Sebittu or Seven (gods). Earlier her associated animal was the basmu snake (see snakes), replaced from late Kassite times by the scorpion. Astronomically Ishara is the constellation Scorpius.
An important goddess of the same name was worshipped in south-east Anatolia and northern Syria, within the Hurrian pantheon. She was associated with the underworld."
(p. 110. "Ishara." Jeremy Black & Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin, Texas. University of Texas Press, in conjunction with the British Museum, London, England. 1992)
Leick on Ishara or Eshara:
"Mesopotamian goddess of unknown origin. No etymology for her name has been found.
Ishara first appears in the pre-Sargonic texts from Ebla and then as a goddess of love in Old Akkadian potency-incantations (Biggs). During the Ur III period she had a temple in Drehem and from the Old Babylonian time onwards, there were sanctuaries in Sippar, Larsa and Harbidum. In Mari she seems to have been very popular and many women were called after her, but she is well attested in personal names in Babylonia generally up to the late Kassite period. Her main epithet was belet rame, 'Lady of Love, which was also applied to Ishtar. In the Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet II, col. v.28) it says: 'For Ishara the bed is made' and in Atra-hasis (see Flood-myths) (I 301-304) she is called upon to bless the couple on the honeymoon.
Her astrological embodiment is the constellation Scorpio and she is called the mother of the Sebittu (the Seven Stars) (Seux, 343). Ishara was well known in Syria from the third millennium B.C. (Ebla). She became a great goddess of the Hurrian population. She was worshipped with Teshub and Simegi at Alakh, and also at Ugarit, Emar and Chagar Bazar. While she was considered to belong to the entourage of Ishtar, she was invoked to heal the sick (Lebrun)."
(pp. 94-95. "Ishara/Eshara." Gwendolyn Leick. A Dictionary of Ancient Eastern Mythology. London. Routledge. 1991)
The Late Bronze Age witnessed Canaan falling under a 400 year Egyptian domination, and Canaanite gods and goddesses are encountered with Egyptian features. The Canaanite gods and goddesses also had temples erected to their honor in Egypt. I don't think it is too far fetched here to suggest that Egyptian pillar gods and goddesses associated with votive textiles came to assimilated to Canaanite forms of worship. I would suggest that the biblical pillar of Baal is an aspect the Djed/Tet pillar of Osiris and Hathor's pillar came to associated with Anat, and that the various Late Bronze Age goddesses of love and sex had become in Iron II times subsumed under the name of Asherah. Osiris was lord of the dead and Hathor was emplored by all the dead, as she admits them into the underworld and provides them sustenance in the form of food and drink as a tree goddess (She is depicted as a fig tree with arms pouring out drink and with a platter of fig cakes for the righteous dead). So the Asherah's association with trees, pillars, and poles, and her consort Baal as a pillar god are probably Egyptian in origin.
Alternately, Asherah may be recalling Ishara, a goddess of love, associated with Syria? Abraham and family were identified as being of Haran of Syria and Joshua tells Israel to put aside the gods their fathers (Terah and Nahor) worshipped beyond the river (Euphrates). Thus Ishara as a "Syrian" goddess of love might have been brought down to Canaan via Abraham's descendants to be worshipped in the Temple of Solomon?