🔼The name Ashtoreth in the Bible
Ashtoreth (that's singular; Ashtaroth is plural) is the Hebrew name of a female fertility goddess, which was worshipped from Egypt to Mesopotamia, and by various and often related names. Sometimes these names were phonetic adaptations of originals, grafted on existing verbal stems, which already meant something. Because of this, these adopted names reflected meanings that may not have been the same as the original, and the associated deities might evolve separately into different personalities. Examples of these (semi-)same and similarly named fertility goddesses are Astarte, Attart, Athor, Ishtar and possibly Isis.
On other occasions, the new names were translations or interpretations of the original, which resulted in whole other names but with similar meanings. Examples of this kind are Aphrodite, Juno, Diana and Venus.
It's ultimately unclear which name is the oldest, and which original idea was expressed in the worship of this deity, but she's often connected with stars, or specifically the evening star or Venus. The similar-sounding names seem to have a common root that has to do with blessedness, and its link to this goddess' celestial attributes gave us the word star (or vice versa).
And that firmly links our name to that of Esther, the Jewish girl who became queen of Persia. Esther's uncle and protector was named Mordecai, which is an obvious reference to the name Marduk , which belonged to an important male Babylonian deity. The story of Esther, therefore, is also a Hebrew commentary on Babylonian theology, suggesting that even the Babylonian gods (or rather, their priests and theocratic structure) favored the Jewish take on things.
The singular name Ashtoreth occurs a mere three times in the Bible. In 1 Kings 11:5 we are told that in his later years, the proverbially wise king Solomon followed Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians. When Jeroboam rebelled against Solomon on account of the latter building the mysterious Millo (1 Kings 11:27), the prophet Ahijah informed Jeroboam that the united kingdom of Israel would breach as a result of the worship of, among others, Ashtoreth (1 Kings 11:33). The shrines that Solomon built for Ashtoreth would not be demolished until the reforms of king Josiah, almost four centuries later (2 Kings 23:13). The "Queen of Heaven" as mentioned by Jeremiah is probably Ishtar, the Assyrian version of Ashtoreth (Jeremiah 7:18, 44:17-19, 25).
Our name in plural occurs a few more times, first in Judges 2:13, but see our article on Ashtaroth for the details. Our name in plural also belonged to a city in Bashan (Deuteronomy 1:4).
🔼Etymology of the name Ashtoreth
The name Ashtoreth appears to be grafted on a Semitic root that has to do with blessing or being blessed, but which doesn't appear as such in the Hebrew Bible. This root may not even have existed at all in Hebrew, and the name Ashtoreth could rather be a phonetic transliteration grafted on available Hebrew roots. The question is: which roots are that?
Our name in plural, עשתרות (ashtarot), is used four times not as a name but as a regular word. It happens only in Deuteronomy and only in the phrase עשתרות צאנך (ashtarot so'nek), in which the second part means "your flock," particularly a flock of small animals such as sheep (but note that sheep-products - wool, milk, meat, even horns - formed the foundation of social life). The first time this phrase occurs is in Deuteronomy 7:13, where Moses reiterates the words spoken to him by YHWH on the mountain. It comes right after the famous Mezuzah-text of Deuteronomy 6:4 and directly following God's command to tear down pagan shrines, specifically those of Asherah (Deuteronomy 7:5; and this name is not related to Ashtoreth, by the way).
It seems pretty safe to conclude that the original name where the Hebrew name Ashtoreth was drawn from, was either shoehorned into an already existing word meaning fertility, or else the existing name Ashtoreth was used as a word meaning fertility without actually referring to a pagan practice. In much the same way, we still speak of "the stars in the sky" without consciously referring to Astarte, Queen of Heaven, where the phrase came from. And we merrily celebrate Easter without paying homage to the goddess Ishtar (although eggs and bunnies are pagan symbols of vernal fertility and certainly not Biblical symbols of the resurrection). And half the world celebrates Christmas without actually linking it to Christ (but rather to Father Frost, the winter solstice and scary forest spirits; Jesus the Nazarene was born during the time of year when shepherds had their flocks out, either in spring or autumn and certainly not in dead winter).
How a Hebrew audience would have understood the name Ashtoreth and the word ashtarot is hard to guess, but an intuitive link to the verb עשת ('ashat) doesn't seem that far fetched:
The second part of our name and word could be construed to have to do with the plural word תרת (torot; Jeremiah 44:23), meaning laws, instructions or in this case: customs. It's the plural of the familiar word תורה (tora):
The name Ashtoreth is probably a phonetic rendering of something that meant something else in another language, but the way it was transliterated into Hebrew, it looks like it is a compressed version of עשת תרת ('ashat torot), meaning something like Cohesiveness. We're guessing that the phrase עשתרות צאנך (ashtarot so'nek) does not relay the fertility of a herd of sheep, but rather their propensity to stay together as one group. When two or more herds meet, the herds with the weaker cohesion will be assimilated by the one with greater cohesion. It's that same עשתרות צאנך (ashtarot so'nek) that let the Jews and the Jewish culture survive for 2,000 years while various other famous peoples, from the Scythians to the Medes, are gone for good. When YHWH speaks of עשתרות צאנך (ashtarot so'nek), He's probably not speaking about someone's life stock.