Just before parsha Shoftim begins we read at the end of parsha Eikev, that the Lord instructs us to observe Holy festivals – concluding with the command to be joyous on Sukkot.
Deuteronomy 16 (NIV):
13Celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot) for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. 14Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. 15For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.
16Three times a year all your men must appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose: at the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks and the Festival of Tabernacles. No one should appear before the Lord empty-handed: 17Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you.
Then Shoftim begins by discussing the justice system:
Deuteronomy 16 (NIV):
18Appoint judges (Shoftim) and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. 19Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. 20Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.
(For my commentary on these verses, read here.)
AND then the Torah shifts to the prohibition of idol worship:
Deuteronomy 16 (NIV):
21Do not set up any wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build to the Lord your God, 22and do not erect a sacred stone, for these the Lord your God hates.
This concludes the chapter and shortly after beginning Ch. 17 the Torah returns to discussing the legal system and appointment of Kings. So my question is “Why did the Torah need to include the prohibition of wooden or stone idols in the middle of talking about setting up a just and civilized society?”
My hypothesis is that God knows He must constantly and consistently reinforce the new religious concept and societal model which was unique and uncomfortable for the Israelite people. The concept pertains Ethical Monotheism as well as an immaterial, omnipresent, omnipotent God (i.e. There is only One God who demands we act ethically, and God is not physical rather He is the source of everything – physical and non-physical.)
Now, Asherah means nothing to us in the 21st century… and nothing to people for the last couple thousand years. BUT, when Moses wrote this almost 3,500 years ago – Asherah was completely familiar to them. We have terms for characters today that I’m sure will be lost in a thousand years (if not just a few hundred). For instance, “Godzilla” is a term that needs no explanation to the vast majority of people today. When I say “Godzilla” it conjures up an image and idea that is fairly similar for everyone. But do you really think that in the year 3124 CE the term “Godzilla” will mean anything? I doubt it.
So what did Asherah mean?
Asherah was likely a name for the “Mother goddess” of ancient Sumer and Ugarit (where she was called her Ugaritic name “Aṯirat.”) She was considered the wife of their respective head gods (the Sumerian god Anu or the Ugaritic god El – same character just different names). Poles and other idolatrous objects were routinely utilized by the ancient near east people in order to connect with their gods and sway there judgement.
Understanding this, it makes total sense why after God tells Moses to give the people festivals (very similar to the pagan festivals they were familiar with, but different in meaning and worship – Basically, He Judaized the pagan festivals), and commands they have a righteous and just judicial system based on His laws…
God would command what next?
Don’t make anything to connect with Asherah. Why? Because God knows that it will be very easy for people to fall back into polytheistic thinking and practice. For polytheists, when they were not pleased with one god, they simply went to another god to get the “answer” they want. But now God is making it very clear “I am God alone.” Asherah was understood to be the female goddess and the counter part to the head male god (Anu or El). God is simply saying don’t turn to her (or any other god) if you don’t like My way.
So just like a child looking for permission or forgiveness, and he is displeased with his father’s ruling, then he will go to his mother in hopes she will show more grace and compassion… God knows the nature of polytheistic adults will do the same.
Hence, we are to celebrate festivals to the Lord, and set up a justice system based on His laws, and we are NOT allowed to turn towards anything else which may pervert our faith or judgements. God is Lord alone.