Of kings, queens, and fetishes

In the book of Melachim (Kings), we are told the sad story of the descent of the Kingdom of David, from its original grandeur under righteous kings such as David and his son Shelomoh (Solomon), to the split during the reign of Shelomoh’s son Rechavam, when ten tribes of Israel seceded to form a new kingdom under the rule of the once righteous, turned wicked king Yeravam ben Nevat. Yeravam leads the Kingdom of Israel into idolatry, as do the subsequent kings of Judah, until the rule of Asa. We are told:

“Asa did what was upright in the eyes of Ha-Shem (the Almighty), like David his father (i.e. forefather). He caused the harlots to pass from the land and removed all the idols that his fathers had made. Even Maachah his mother, who made an abominable image (‘miphletzeth’ — מפלצת) for an asherah, he removed from her position of power. Asa cut down her abominable image and burned it [and cast its ashes] into the brook of Kidron.” (I Kings 15:11-13)

An asherah is a tree that was worshipped by idolatrous cults in ancient times. Maachah, Asa’s mother seems to have gone one step further, making a “miphletzeth” for her asherah. What is a miphletzeth? The translation here, “abominable image,” I took from the JPS Tanakh and appears to be the understanding of Radak. But miphletzeth is an extremely rare term in Tanach and its meaning is mysterious. In modern Hebrew, the word is used to mean “monster.”

Rashi, to explain the word miphletzeth, quotes the Talmud in Avodah Zarah (44A). The Talmudic sages viewed the word miphletzeth as a compound word based two Hebrew roots: פ-ל-א (P-L-A), meaning “wondrous,” and ל-צ (L-Tz), meaning “scoffing.” As such, they explained the above verse to mean that Maachah acted “exceedingly scoffingly” (מפליא ליצנותא) with her asherah. How so? The Talmud goes on to say that she fashioned (presumably carved) for her asherah a male genital appendage and would have relations with the idol daily.

How did the Talmudic sages know that this bizaare behavior is what is intended here? Was this purely an oral tradition or is there a more clear textual clue?

I wonder if this understanding is based on a perceived linguistic linkage between the פ-ל-צ root of ‘miphletzeth’ and the Latin “phallus” or Greek “phallos” (meaning the same); indeed in some traditions the letter tzadi (צ) is pronounced ‘s’ (‘sadi’) rather than ‘tz’ as in the Ashkenazic tradition. Some research (i.e. “googling”) has yielded that indeed wooden carvings of the phallus were used in cultic worship of deities such as Dionysus. This type of worship, known to the Talmudic sages, may have been a clue regarding the nature of Maachah’s worship here.

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