Korach—Rosh Chodesh Tammuz:
New Adonai vs. Old Asherah
By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
You shall not make for yourselves idols, nor shall you set up for yourselves an image or an Asherah, a sacred pillar; for I am the LORD your God. –Lev. 26:1
And Korach and his men rebelled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?" –Num. 16:3 (translation mine)
My name is Pirya, “Fruit of the God Yah.” I am thirteen years old. I have been living with Savta, my grandma, since my parents died in the Plague of the Firstborn—they were out in the street and were murdered in the panic and melee, Savta said.
I do not cry for them anymore; I was very little then, and it was a long time ago.
I wish I could just enjoy being thirteen: Savta says that I am starting to become a woman. She sighs and says that, had we reached our Promised Land by now—Moab, Midian, or Israel, she doesn’t care where—I would have had a great party, a coming-of-age feast. I could invite all of my friends. But this Great Sojourn in the Desert of Moses goes on and on, she says.
Savta mutters to herself, but I can hear her. “’It is God’s Will,’ says Rabbi Moses. I do not like this newfangled God. Not like the Old Days, with the Old Gods….”
“What were the Old Gods like, Savta?” I ask, because it is hot outside, and I can’t go to play with my girlfriends in the heat. Nothing to do but listen to Savta’s old stories.
“Ah, well, Peery—“ says Savta, looking about warily, though there is no one in the tent but the two of us, “they were mighty gods: gods of the earth, and of the sky—and when they—they—danced together, the rains poured down, and the crops grew! Ah me—I was younger, and prettier, and had a special job in the Holy Temple of Ishtar….”
“Did you make the offerings, Savvy?” I ask.
“Something like that,” she smiles, showing me a toothless grin, and she kisses me. Her eyes become dreamy and faraway. “Ah, I wore cloth-of-gold, and a tall headdress, and a veil, and danced before the—the—worshipful men, and put them in a—a—proper feeling of offering….Well, never mind. Where was I?”
“Tell me more about the Old Ways, and the Old Gods, My Sweetest Savta,” I beg, and pull at her sleeves.
“I will tell you more,” says Savta, “It is Rosh Chodesh Tammuz,” Savta declares, “The beginning of HIS month, of the god who lifts up the plants, who causes the flowers and grains to sprout. And, in the Old Faith, which rightly belongs to and is conducted by us women, we build Asherote, sacred branches about which we twine flowers, as thanks to the Goddess Asherah and her powers, which give the earth the power to grow, and the heavens the might to send down healing rain, even in this dryasdust desert. She is princess to Prince Tammuz, the Grower-of-All-Things.
“I would like to do that!” I cry, “and I know that my friends would, as well! Oh, Savta, could we?”
“I—“ a line a doubt crosses her brow, “I am not sure. It has been years since we Israelites worshiped Asherah, and joining it—her—with Tammuz, God of Spring, is a powerful charm. I am not sure whether a small girl should lead such a procession through this Camp of our new, Holy God. It could be—dangerous?”
“I am no mere girl!” I say, stamping my foot, until the dust devils swarm about it, there on the floor of our tent, “I am a Daughter of Israel, practicing an Ancient Rite of Our People!”
Savta grins, again. “O Little Pirya bat Deborah, you have the true fire of an Asherah-Priestess! You remind me of me, truly. No men’s God for you. Well. Go out, gather timbrels and drums, hand-cymbals and bells. And have your friends gather flowers to adorn poles for Asherote, and to welcome the fertility god, Tammuz, who brings forth both life and death!
I race out the back-flap of the tent, and dart like a finch from house to house, telling my friends of my plan. In less than an hour, I gather nearly twenty girlfriends, all eager to decorate Asherote-poles and welcome Asherah and her consort, Tammuz.
I hear from another grandmother—Mistress Gavriela, who lived once by Ashkelon, the Seaport, and knew sailors from different lands—that the goddess and god have many names: Ishtar, Isis, Ceres, Persephone; her consort was also Adonis, Frey, Bacchus, Dionysus, Pan…. All the names make my head spin. Never mind; it is time for our little Asherah-Parade. We are just about two-dozen little girls with musical instruments; what could be the harm? People are all sweating and depressed in the heat. This will surely cheer them up.
As we walk out onto the beaten-sand boulevard of the camp, with the Sanctuary before us, we hear how deathly quiet it is. Little Miriam—she is only five—gives a slight tap on her tambourine, and its sharp sound makes us all jump. Galya, her sister, tries to start singing, and I join in, but my mouth is all dry, and the words “For to GOD belong the earth and its fullness; the heavens, and all that are in them….” stick in my throat.
And then, we see them. Standing before the Sanctuary. Not Aaron and his sons, Elazar and Itamar, whom most of us know well, for their having led services, all these years. No: someone different: a tall, handsome man, with oiled hair, with two short, fat men—greasy-looking, and leering, ugly—next to him. Behind them, a great crowd of men, with censers, wearing an odd assortment of what is supposed to be priestly garb, I suppose.
The handsome man sees us, and beckoned: “Come here, pretty little girls! Come here, to your friend, High Priest Korach! I have sweets for you….”
And then, far down at the other end of the Sanctuary-Boulevard, we hear the voice of Rabbi Moses behind us, quavering, but still strong with authority: “You, girls! Separate yourselves from that evil Korach’s congregation, for the LORD will consume them in a moment!”
“Candy—yum! I will come to you, Sir Korach!” cries Galya suddenly, and she went to run towards them.
“And me! Wait, Sister!” calls Little Miriam, throwing down the timbrel, and chasing after. Korach laughed, as he scooped the girl up in his arms.
I see the sun cloud over—it is very sudden. Lightning flashes—On a clear day? I think—and thunder rolls.
“Never fear!” shouts the rebel Korach to his raggle-taggle band, “with these two pretty little hostages, what will the Great God Yah dare do to us? Lord God!” he shouts, as he shakes a fist at the gathering black clouds, “I demand that you leave those old fossils, Moses and Aaron, and select me, me, me! To be Your High Priest! I, and I alone! Select—“
But then, there within our sight, the ground begins to move—back-and-forth, back-and-forth—
My girls and I cannot help but stare—is he mad, to dare the anger of the Lord God? We are frozen with fear. Suddenly, I feel myself being snatched off my feet: I look up, and see the tired, wrinkled face and greying beard of General Joshua. “Don’t be afraid, Little Girl,” he says, huffing from his age, “I’m just saving you from falling down a deep, dark hole—look away, for God’s sake!”
I hug him, as tightly as I can. Three or four other girls are also clinging to the old soldier, like baby possums.
“Hold on, or follow us, Girls!” comes another voice. I look: it is Colonel Caleb ben Yefunneh. Captain Chur is there, too. As they carry us away, running as fast as they can, I hear an enormous, cracking noise; I turn around, and see the ground split open: Korach and his mob are gone.
Vanished into the ground, as the LORD GOD promised….
When the dust settled, the earth returns to its place—and the Korachites are vanished, swallowed up. But where are our friends, the little sisters? Nothing left but Miriam’s tambourine….