ASHER, a tribe of Israel, called after the son of Jacob and Zilpah, Leah's maid. The name is taken by the narrator of Gen. xxx. 12 seq. (J) to mean happy or propitious, possibly an allusion to the fertility of the tribe's territory (with which cf. Gen. xlix. 20, Deut. xxxiii. 24); on the other hand, like Gad, it may have been originally a divine title. The district held by this tribe bordered upon Naphtali, and lay to the north of Issachar and Zebulun, and to the south of Dan. But the boundaries are not definite and the references to its territory are obscure. Asher is blamed for taking no part in the fight against Sisera (Judg. v. 17), and although it shares with Zebulun and Naphtali in Gideon's defeat of the Midianites (Judg. vi. 35, vii. 23), the narrative in question is not the older of the two accounts of the event, and the incorporation of the name is probably due to a late redactor. Lying as it did in the closest proximity to Phoenicians and Aramaeans, its population must have been exceptionally mixed, and the description of the occupation of Palestine in Judg. i. 31 seq. shows that it contained a strong Canaanite element. In the Blessing of Moses it is bidden to defend itself - evidently against invasion (Deut. xxxiii. 25).
Even in the time of Seti I. and Rameses II. (latter half of 14th cent. B.C.) the district to the west of Galilee appears to have been known to the Egyptians as Aser(u), so that it is possible to infer either (a) that Asher was an Israelite tribe which, if it ever went down into Egypt, separated itself from its brethren in Egypt and migrated north, "an example which was probably followed by some of the other tribes as well" (Hommel, Ancient Hebrew Tradition, p. 228); or (b) it was a district which, if never closely bound to Israel, was at least regarded as part of the national kingdom, and treated as Israelite by the genealogical device of making it a "son" of Jacob. It is possible that some of its Israelite population had followed the example of Dan and moved from an earlier home in the south. Two of the clans of Asher, Heber and Malchiel, have been associated with Milk-ili and Habiri, the names of a hostile chief and people in the Amarna Tablets (Jastrow, Journal Bibl. Lit. xi. pp. 118 seq., xii. pp. 61 seq., Hommel), but it is scarcely probable that events of about 1400 B.C. should have survived only in this form. This applies also to the suggestion that the name Asher has been derived from a famous Abd-ashirta of the same period (Barton, ib. xv. p. 174). Some connexion with the goddess Ashir(t)a, however, is not unlikely.
See further H.W. Hogg, Ency. Bibl. col. 327 seq.; E. Meyer, Israeliten, pp. 540 sqq.
(S. A. C.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)