Word of the Day / Shemesh: Goddess Child of El and Asherah Shines On

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Hebrew is one of those annoying languages with grammatical genderization. That is – nouns have a gender, masculine or feminine. French is like that too, and there's no short-cut – people learning the language have to learn the sex of each noun one at a time.

But in the case of the Hebrew word for sun, SHE-mesh, you can’t go wrong - it is both masculine and feminine, though most people use the feminine. This is the case because for the ancient Hebrews, who had a pagan streak a cubit wide, the sun was a goddess.

In the Canaanite mythology Shemesh, or as she is usually called in extra-biblical texts - Shepesh, was the daughter of El and Asherah – yes, God had a wife, and was considered one of the main deities in the Canaanite pantheon. Her cultic center was in Beit Shemesh.

Naturally, the Bible isn’t very keen on the worship of Shemesh, which it condemns, proscribing death by stoning to those found worshiping the deity.

In some later biblical texts, written after the Babylonian Exile, Shemesh becomes grammatically masculine. This is probably because Babylon also had a sun deity with a very similar name - Shamash, but this deity was a god, not a goddess.

In Rabbinic Hebrew, that is the Hebrew we find in the Mishnah, Talmud and later texts, the word Shemesh was stamped out in order to rid Hebrew of idolatry. Instead of shemesh, when referring to the sun, the sages used the word kha-MA, the feminine version of the adjective kham, which means hot.

In modern Hebrew both words – shemesh and khama - fought it out at the beginning of the 20th century. But in the end the older shemesh won the battle and khama was relegated to the ornate speech of poetry.

Shemesh (the sun) - a rarity in Hebrew, for being both masculine and feminine - because of conflicting pagfan beliefs.Credit: APReuters
A statue of Asherah, commonly identified as wife or consort of the Ugaritic god El, or the the Sumerian god Anu.Credit: Wikimedia Commons