St. Asher?

The UK baby name website Nameberry just put out a list of the top twenty baby names from 2020 (so far). Obviously this is totally non-official, being a list of the most popular names used for babies of their website patrons! But it’s interesting, so let’s check it out.

The number 1 Nameberry boy’s name is Asher.

Asher is a traditional Jewish name. He was one of Jacob’s sons, his eighthborn. His mom was Leah’s handmaid Zilpah (or Zilpha, in Greek-influenced versions). He grew up to be the ancestor of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

The Bible tells us Leah named him “Asher” because she was happy to beat out Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah’s son count, so the name means “happy.” But the actual Hebrew also means “blessed.” (Much as the Greek “makarios” means both “happy” and “blessed.”)

So let’s look at what is actually said in Genesis 30:13 —

And Leah said:

“Be ‘asseri ki ‘isseruni banowt.”
(“I am happy, because the daughters” (ie, the women) “will call me blessed.”)

So she called his name ‘Asher.

Interesting, huh? Who else do we know who was called “blessed among women” (Lk. 1:42) by Elizabeth, and who then replied that “Henceforth, all the generations will call me blessed”? The same woman who also called herself a “handmaid” in that poem. Yup, Mary says that she sees herself in both Zilpah and Leah, although there are also Biblical typologies of Mary with Rachel and Bilhah. (And pretty much every other Biblical matriarch, for that matter.)

Asher’s older full brother, Gad, had a name that means “lucky,” because Leah says she was feeling lucky to beat Rachel and Bilhah’s son count (Gen. 30:11).

In Jewish tradition, Asher is portrayed as having been a good guy and a peacemaker between his brothers. The people of Asher were prosperous and wise, and they had the most sons. The women of the tribe were remembered as exceptionally beautiful, and much courted by Jewish leaders and priests.

One of their ancestresses, Asher’s daughter or stepdaughter Serah (also spelled Serach), is noted by name twice in the Bible. There are interesting traditions about her kindly nature and good relationship with her dad Asher and her grandfather Jacob. On Jacob’s deathbed, he is said to have blessed her along with his sons and with his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh. The traditional wording of this blessing was “May you live forever and never die,” and so she is supposed to have been taken up to Heaven like Elijah and Enoch. Serach is also supposed to have remained on earth until the time of Moses, and have been the only one who remembered where to find Joseph’s tomb with his bones. After being taken into Heaven, Serach occasionally returned to earth to help rabbis with their studies. When one later rabbi wondered about the crossing of the Red Sea, she poked her head in the window and told him about her memories of the event.

(But shyeah, Catholics are totally nutso and pagan in their ideas about Mary. Yup.)

The tribe of Asher ultimately were taken into captivity and not returned, and became of the “lost” Ten Tribes. However, some members of each tribe did remain in Judah. For example, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, the prophetess in Luke 2:36, is identified by Luke as a member of the tribe of Asher.

In Gen. 49:20, Jacob prophetically blesses Asher among the rest of his sons on his deathbed, saying, “From Asher shall be rich bread, and he shall yield royal delicacies.”

In Deut. 33:24, Moses blesses this tribe, saying, “Asher, most blessed of sons: let him be favored by his brothers, and let him dip his foot in oil.” The Jewish interpretation is sometimes rendered as “most blessed with sons,” ie, with descendants. “Foot dipped in oil” refers to the tribe’s lands assigned to them in Israel, which would be good for olive orchards and olive oil.

The controversial part is that the Asher and Gad tribes had their land in the areas that would become Phoenician and Gentile territory (in Galilee), and they might have been related to pagan groups too. There’s a Phoenician god of luck named Gad, and the god of the city of Assur was named Assur, which is really close to Asher. (Assyria is really “Assur.”) And the Egyptians mentioned people called “Asaru.” So people kinda wonder what that tribe was doing.

(The name of the Phoenician goddess Asherah or Athirah, btw, is from a different word stem — the word “to walk, to stride.”)

As a patriarch of one of the Twelve Tribes, Asher is a saint. So it’s totally normal and appropriate to name a baby after him. You will find his name spelled “Aser” in Greek and Latin sources.

In the Latin/Roman Rite, the traditional feast day of St. Asher is February 5. This is also the feast of Ss. Abraham and Sarah, St. Melchizadek, St. Lot, Ss. Isaac and Rebecca, St. Jacob, Ss. Leah and Rachel, and all the other patriarchs of the Twelve Tribes.

On the Eastern side of things, the second Sunday before Christmas is called “the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of Christ,” when all the patriarchs and matriarchs get celebrated. But they also have various saints’ days for individual Old Testament saints.

In the US, Asher has always been a Jewish name, but it seems to have been growing in popularity as a Christian name over the last five years. (In 2018, it was #47 in boys’ names.) In this unhappy time, one can see why people would want a name that means “happy” or “blessed.” It also sounds a lot like other popular names, such as Ash, Ashley, and Aislinn.

(But bear in mind the obvious mispronunciation of all Ash- names.)

1 Comment

Filed under Saint Names, Saint Stories

One response to “St. Asher?

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds

    Many thanks for this!

    What, if I may ask, is/are your source(s) for 5 February as Feast of so many and varied Old Testament Saints?

    Do you happen to know this article, re. (among other things) the Feasts of Sts. Abraham and Lot?:

    https://web.archive.org/web/20150504115613/http://www.christusrex.org/www1/ofm/mad/articles/SallerLot.html#Sallb26

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