ASHER (Heb. אָשֵׁר). (1) Jacob's second son by Zilpah, Leah's handmaid (Gen. 30:12), and his eighth son (in the order of birth); eponymous ancestor of the tribe of Asher. (2) Tribe of Israel and its territory. The individual Asher was named by Leah who declared, "What fortune [Be-oshri]! Women will deem me fortunate [ishruni]" (30:13). It is thought, however, that the origin of the name is connected with the male counterpart of the goddess *Asherah. It is noteworthy that Zilpah's other son was also named after a heathen deity (see *Gad). Designating the eponym of the tribe as the son of a handmaid indicates a lesser standing for the tribe.
The Tribal Territory
According to Joshua (19:24–31), the tribe of Asher settled in northwest Canaan in the plain of Acre and in upper and lower west Galilee, as well as in the hinterland of Phoenician Tyre and Sidon, and in the westernmost part of the valley of Jezreel. The exact determination of the boundaries of Asher is complicated by two factors: (1) uncertainty as to the identification of several localities referred to in Joshua; and (2) the apparent confusion of two passages in that source, the one describing territorial limits, the other listing cities. In the course of time, the theoretical boundaries of Asher appear to have changed, a portion of its territory being annexed by the tribe of Zebulun, apparently shortly after Israel's successful war against Sisera (Judg. 4–5). The Zebulunites, having played a leading role in it, expanded westward. In the second half of the tenth century b.c.e. Solomon presented some of Asher's territory, "20 cities in the land of Galilee" (i Kings 9:11–13), to the king of Tyre in payment for the materials supplied by him for the Temple building operations. It seems that Solomon in compensation transferred Bealoth, a Naphtalite district, to Asher's territory (i Kings 4:16).
The History of the Tribe
Several genealogies of Asher are preserved in the Bible: Genesis 46:17; Numbers 26:44–46; i Chronicles 7:30–39. The last is the most detailed and much of it is found only in Chronicles. Noteworthy is the inclusion of the Egyptian name Harnepher as well as other foreign names. If historically reliable, the list indicates a "thorough mixture" (Japhet) of Israelite and non-Israelite elements. In addition, the list associates Asher with southern Mt. Ephraim as opposed to the western Galilee of the other biblical sources.
The people of Asher appear to be mentioned in an inscription of Seti i (c. 1291–1279) at the temple of Redeshiya and in an inscription in the temple of Rameses ii (1279–1212) at Abydos. In Seti's list Asher appears in a geographical sequence between Kedesh on the Orontes and Megiddo, which would agree with those biblical references that locate Asher
in the western Galilee. A satirical letter from the 13th century b.c.e. speaks of Qatsra-yadi ("I-am-Powerless," a seemingly fictitious mocking name), ruler of ysr or 'sr which may reflect Asher (Papyrus Anastasi 1:23,6, in: cos, 3, 13). The ruler's name is clearly West Semitic. According to Gauthier, the name of Asher is also mentioned in a hitherto unpublished papyrus of the Golénischeff collection. Biblical references to Asher describe the fertility of its land (Gen. 49:20) and its economic potentialities (Deut. 33:24–5; Judg. 5:17). These permitted the tribe to develop in comparative tranquility, but at the same time also deprived it of the impetus and incentive for national activity and political leadership. Apart from Reuben and Simeon, who were afflicted with interminable conflicts over the southern boundaries of Israel, Asher was the only tribe that produced no national spokesman and leader in the period of the Judges. Apparently, at the beginning of the second decade of David's reign, the territorial association of the tribe of Asher with the kingdom of David was a close one. It was incorporated into the administrative division of the monarchy, and cities of the levites were appointed in its territory (see: *History; *David; *Priests and Priesthood). The four cities of Asher that were given to the levites were Mishal, Abdon (apparently the correct reading, and not Ebron mentioned in the passage defining Asher's territory (Josh. 19:28)), Helkath, and Rehob (Josh. 21:30–31; the parallel list in i Chron. 6:60 has, it is true, Hukok instead of Helkath, but this would appear to be a scribal error).
A short while before the destruction of the kingdom of Ephraim, Asher's landholdings were included in the Assyrian satrapy of Megiddo. From time to time, however, the kings of Judah attempted to extend their rule over them, as over other parts of the kingdom of Israel (ii Chron. 30:10–12; cf. 34:6). After the return from the Babylonian exile, the Hasmoneans failed to incorporate Acre and the neighboring coastal plain within the confines of their kingdom. Most of the coast of Galilee was inhabited by a substantial non-Jewish population and was regarded, even from the halakhic point of view, as lying outside the limits of Israel.
In the Aggadah
The name Asher, meaning "praise," was chosen by Leah to indicate that all would praise her for the fact that, although already blessed with children, she was nevertheless unselfish enough to give her handmaid, Zilpah (Asher's mother) to Jacob (Mid. Hag. to Gen. 30:9); she also prophesied that in times to come, the sons of Asher would praise God for their fruitful possessions in Ereẓ Israel (Targ. Yer., Gen. 30:13). The soil of Asher's inheritance was so fertile that it sufficed to supply all Israel's needs (particularly olives; Sif. Deut. 355), even in a sabbatical year (Men. 85b). Asher himself was also blessed with riches. He never spent a night in an inn as he inherited lofty palaces throughout the world (Gen. R. 71:10). Such was the beauty of his daughters, that they all married high priests and kings (ibid.). When he informed his brothers of Reuben's sin against Bilhah, they reproached him (Sif. Deut. 355).
H. Gauthier, Dictionnaire des noms géographiques …, 1 (1925), 105; Alt, in: zaw, 45 (1927), 59–81; A.H. Gardiner, Ancient Egyptian Onomastica, 1 (1948), 191–3, no. 265; Mendenhall, in: jbl, 77 (1958), 52–66; Albright, in: jaos, 74 (1954), 227–31; em, 1 (1965), 777–86. add. bibliography: H.W. Fischer-Elfert, Die satirische Streitschrift des Papyrus Anastasi i (1986), 199–200; N. Na'aman, in: jsot, 49 (1991), 99–111; D. Edelman, in: abd, 1, 482–83; S. Japhet, i & ii Chronicles (1993), 185–86; G. Ahlström, The History of Ancient Palestine (1993), 278–79; S. Ahituv, Joshua (Heb., 1995), 311–15. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, index; I. Ḥasida, Isheiha-Tanakh (1964), 81.