According to the Hebrew Bible, the Tribe of Asher (Hebrew: אָשֵׁר, Modern Asher, Tiberian ʼĀšēr; “happy one”) was one of the Tribes of Israel.
The fortune of Asher is foreshadowed in the Blessing of Jacob, where it is said: “Asher, his food shall be rich, and he shall yield the dainties of a king” (Gen. xlix. 20, Hebr.). Until the settlement in Canaan, the tribe stood in honor. Of its lot in Egypt there is no record; but after the Exodus its men numbered 41,500 strong (Num. i. 41); and at the close of the desert march the census showed that it had reached 53,400 (Num. xxvi. 47). During the journeyings the tribe had its station between Dan and Naphtali, north of the Tabernacle (Num. ii. 25 et seq.). It also had its representative among the tribal chiefs sent to spy out the land of Canaan (Num. xiii. 13).
Relations to Other Tribes.
The blessing of Moses, delivered, according to tradition, at the close of the march, is put forward as partly predictive: “Blessed be Asher with descendants, and let him be pleasing to his brethren, and let his foot be dipped in oil” (Deut. xxxiii. 24, Hebr.). The material portion of this aspiration, like that of Jacob’s blessing, was in large measure fulfilled. The territory allotted to Asher (Josh. xix. 24-31) was the coast-land extending from Dor (Tanturah) on the south to Sidon on the north. It thus included, north of Mount Carmel, the territories of Accho, Achzib, Tyre, and Sidon. The coast-land west of the shoulder of Carmel, though assigned to Asher, was occupied by Manasseh (Josh. xvii. 11). The tribe was thus settled on the western slopes and valleys of Upper and Lower Galilee. and on the Phenician plain. Here was some of the most productive land in Palestine—pasture, wooded hills, and orchards—noted especially for the abundance and richness of its olive-oil. On account of its remoteness from the centers of national life, and its facility of communication with the Phenician markets, as well as the ease with which it could support itself, the tribe speedily became dissociated from the rest of Israel, so that it took no part against the Canaanites with Barak and Deborah (Judges v. 17). Yet it joined in the pursuit of the Midianites after the victory of Gideon (Judges vii. 23). It is also said (I Chron. xii. 36) that a great host of Asherites offered their support to David when he succeeded to the kingdom of Saul, and that some men of the tribe “humbled themselves” in the reformation of Hezekiah (II Chron. xxx. 11).
Asher is one of the most indistinct and elusive of the tribes of Israel. It is difficult to fix the boundaries of the tribe’s possessions; and it is not even certain that it inhabited any extensive continuous territory. There is, as mentioned above, no trace of its clansmen south of Carmel; and it is not clear in what sense this district was assigned to them. Possibly the tradition is based on some migration of Asherites northward through that region. Many of the towns allotted to them north of Carmel can not be identified. But those whose sites are known (among them Cabul, Achshaph, Helkath, Neiel) suggest by their location a distribution of settlements rather than a compact and well-defined tribal possession. Besides the Phenician coast cities (Accho, Tyre, Sidon), Beth-dagon further inland was probably never Asherite.
Asher appears to have had at no time a close connection with the body of Israel. It had more at stake than any other tribe in the common struggle with the northern Canaanites, and yet it held aloof. In the light of this outstanding fact, it is not easy to understand how it could have become so loyal at any later date as to send 40,000 men to join the standard of David (I Chron. xii. 36). The probability of such a statement is lessened by the fact that in the tabulation of the several contingents (verses 23-38) the largest quotas are said to have come from the tribes that were most remote from the centers of the life and activity of Israel. On the whole the conclusion is irresistible that Asher consisted of certain clans that were affiliated with portions of Israel, but were never incorporated into the body politic.
Name and Origin
Critical opinion is divided as to whether Asher was a name originally Israelitish, or whether it was adopted by certain of the outlying tribesmen from a Canaanitic source. What light does the story of the birth of Asher throw on the question? He was the full brother of Gad, and the names have the same meaning.
Gad is a Canaanitish god of fortune, and Asher is from a root meaning “prosperous,” happy,” whence the great Assyrian god Asshur. But how was this name Asher suggested? A clue is perhaps afforded in the fact pointed out by W. Max Müller (“Asien und Europa,” p. 236), that “Aseru” appears on Egyptian monuments as the name of a land and people in western Galilee in the fourteenth century B.C. It is conceivable that Israelitish settlers in that region adopted in this modified form the name of their new residence. Such a thing was not in itself impossible, since there is evidence that several of the tribes had territorial designations given to them after the Hebrew occupation of Canaan.
There is, however, still the possibility that this “Aseru” was itself the name of a Hebrew settlement existing from olden time in Palestine and kept up independently of the sojourn in Egypt which ended with the Exodus. In considering these possibilities a good deal must depend upon the analogy of the history of the other tribes and their current designations—a matter which is itself still very obscure.
A group named Aseru, living in a similar region to Asher in the 14th century BC, are mentioned in Egyptian monuments of the period. Identification with the tribe of Asher is plausible according to views that place the Exodus at the end of the Hyksos period but conflicts with views that date it to the 13th century.
The Asherite clan Heber
Still another hypothesis has been offered. Jastrow suggests (“J. B. L.” xi. 120) that the clan Heber of the tribe Asher (I Chron. vii. 31) represents the Chabiri of the El-Amarna tablets, and the brother-clan Malchiel, the Milkili, who figure in the same inscriptions. If this should be correct, the conclusion would be drawn that a formidable body of people was pressing upward from southern Palestine two hundred years before the Exodus, and that they finally settled in western Galilee; leaving perhaps a trace of their temporary settlement in the towns south of Carmel referred to above as being finally occupied by Manasseh. This hypothesis has to contend against the opinion, now somewhat widely held, that the Chabiri were the Hebrews themselves.