Those who are willing to read through the lengthy prophet Jeremiah will come across a phrase which is not mentioned elsewhere—the queen of heaven (cf. Jeremiah 7:18; 44:17-19, 25). Although the Queen of Heaven is mentioned in Catholic writings, it is used there as a reference to Mary, mother of Jesus. Catholics do not wish to equate their usage of “Queen of Heaven” with the book of Jeremiah. However, one cannot miss the subtle irony that the phrase queen of heaven in Jeremiah is a clear reference to idolatry, which is the very same charge leveled against Catholicism and their veneration of Mary.
However, our interest in the queen of heaven is not related to Catholicism. Rather, we want to explore the usage in Scripture. Yet, there is not much known about the queen of heaven from Scripture. Since Jeremiah is the only biblical record of the existence of this queen of heaven, we are left trying to fill in the details. Thus, there have been several major interpretations of the queen of heaven.
The Queen of Heaven as the Mesopotamian Goddess Ishtar
Ishtar was the principle deity in the Mesopotamian religious sphere. She was worshipped by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and featured very prominent in the cities of Nineveh, Uruk, and Arbela. She is typically depicted in the ancient literature as a of goddess of love and sexuality, but also of warfare. The Mesopotamian legend, Epic of Gilamesh records the hero Gilgamesh demeaning Ishtar for the mistreatment of her lovers.
One of the common phrases used to describe Ishtar is “the queen of heaven and earth.” This phrase has caused many to identify Ishtar with the queen of heaven in Jeremiah 7:18 (cf. 44:17-19, 25).
Further evidence for identifying Ishtar with the queen of heaven in Jeremiah could be found in the way Israel worships her. Jeremiah 44:17 records Israel giving offerings and drink offerings to the queen of heaven, and Jeremiah 7:18 (cf. 44:19) indicates Israel made some sort of cakes on her behalf. The word for cakes in Hebrew is related to the Akkadian term for cakes (kamānu). These cakes were frequently used as offerings to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. Because of the use of this Akkadian word in Jeremiah, it is often assumed the cakes in Jeremiah would be similar, made with a sexualized image of Ishtar.
The Queen of Heaven as the Goddess Astarte
Astarte is a Canaanite goddess who was a consort of Baal, the well-known Canaanite storm and fertility god. Astarte is referred to in the Bible as Ashtoreth. The biblical name Ashtoreth is possibly an intentional mockery of the name Astarte by changing the vowel pointings of the name so that it sounds like the Hebrew word for shame (bosheth).
Astarte is commonly referred to as “the mistress of heaven,” and some scholars note that because she is the only deity in the Canaanite sphere that is frequently associated with the heavens during that first millennium BC, she should be recognized as the queen of heaven in Jeremiah.
This view also aligns with the significant push in recent decades to highlight Canaanite influence rather over Assyrian influence on Israel. However, although it is likely Canaanite influence did exist, there was at least some Assyrian influence in Judah. For example, Ahaz imported the Assyrian model of the altar (2 Kings 16:10), and it is likely there were other Assyrian influences as well.
The Queen of Heaven as the Goddess Anat
Although not as common, some scholars have argued that the queen of heaven should be associated with Anat, a goddess attested in Ugaritic mythological texts. Anat was worshipped by the Amorites, and also apparently in Egypt (at least during the 19th Dynasty).
Epithets for Anat included, “Lady,” “Mistress of Royalty,” and “Mistress of the Highest Heavens.” Although a possible candidate for the title of queen of heaven in Jeremiah, Anat’s popularity seemed to significantly decline in the 1st millennium (during the time of Jeremiah).
The Queen of Heaven as an Mix of Gods
Part of the difficulties in studying the goddesses of the ANE is that there is significant overlap and likely influence. Many scholars see a connection between Ishtar and Astarte, for example, as their names correspond to each other in Ugaritic deity lists which are translated into Akkadian. Similarly, others have argued that Anat was assimilated with other goddesses, like Astarte or Atargatis (a Syrian goddess).
It was not uncommon for cultures to assimilate other gods. For example, the Roman god, Jupiter is linked with the Greek god, Zeus. Although the Roman god, Jupiter, has an intrinsic link with Zeus, they are not the same god—there are differences in how the gods are depicted. Yet, they are undeniably related. This is an example of amalgamation—a culture incorporates a foreign god and makes certain changes to fit their own way of doing things.
Perhaps the same is the case for the queen of heaven in Jeremiah. Evidence for this might be found in the term “Ashtaroth.”
A handful of times Scripture uses the plural “the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (cf. Judg 2:13; 1 Sam 7:4). Both words, Baal and Asthoreth appear in their plural form in these cases. Many have pointed out the Akkadian parallel phrase which was used generically, “gods and goddesses.” However, given the propensity of Scripture to use the singular for Baal and Ashtoreth, it is still possible the plurals are used in these instances to indicate local manifestations of of the Baal and Astarte cults. This could mean different variations of the cultic worship of Baal and Astarte.
So, who was the queen of heaven in Jeremiah? The short answer is we can’t be sure. These are the four major interpretive options that are given. If I was forced to choose, given what I know about human nature, I would guess the queen of heaven was some sort of amalgamation of goddess worship.
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