I found in Jeremiah 7:18 a reference to a goddess named the "queen of heaven." Who was she?
This goddess is also mentioned in Jeremiah 44:17-19, and 25. In our attempt to identify this pagan deity we should begin with the biblical references. In this particular case, the texts provide good, although limited, information.
First, the worship of this goddess was very popular in Judah and in the city of Jerusalem before its destruction in 586 B.C. It was practiced by the kings, the princes, and the people in general (Jer. 44:17).
Second, it appears that she was worshiped in private family shrines. The texts indicate that fathers, mothers, and children were involved in her cult (Jer. 7:18). Her worship was well accepted by the people.
Third, the worship act seems to have consisted of at least the burning of incense, pouring out of drink offerings, and bringing of cake offerings (Jer. 44:19). The significance of these acts is not stated, and it would appear that bloody sacrifices were not involved in her cult. These religious acts were probably performed on the roofs of the houses, suggesting the worship of an astral deity (that is to say, a deity associated with or representing the stars of heaven [Jer. 19:13]). This would suggest that the queen of heaven was an astral goddess.
The cakes bore the image of the goddess (Jer. 44:19), which perhaps means that the cakes were made in molds. Archaeologists have found what seem to be baking molds shaped like female fertility figures.
Fourth, the purpose for the worship of this goddess is stated implicitly by the people who went to Egypt after the fall of Jerusalem when they said to Jeremiah: "We will do everything that we have vowed, burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, as we did . . . in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no evil. But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven . . ., we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine" ( verses 17, 18, RSV).
This goddess was not only an astral power but was also believed to provide food and protection from war to those who worshiped her. She was essentially a fertility deity and a goddess of war. Rebellious Israelites worshiped her because they thought she provided what they needed. She was considered to be superior to the Lord.
With that biblical information in mind, one can look for a pagan deity in the ancient Near East who fits this description—an astral goddess of fertility and war. Unfortunately, scholars do not agree on the identification of this goddess.
One of the best proposed candidates is Ishtar, the Babylonian and Assyrian goddess of fertility. She was an astral deity identified with the planet Venus, the evening and morning star. She was considered the goddess of love, fertility, and war. She controlled the fertility of the land and gave victory in war to those who worshiped her. Ancient texts call her the "queen of heaven." Interestingly, the Hebrew word for "cakes" in Jeremiah is a Babylonian term used to designate a sweet cake that was also offered to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. It was baked with honey or figs.
Some scholars question that suggestion because there is no clear evidence for a strong religious influence of neo-Assyrian religious practices on Israel. Therefore, some suggest that the reference in Jeremiah is to the Canaanite goddess Ashtoreth/Astarte, the Canaanite equivalent of the Babylonian Ishtar. Ashtoreth/Astarte was also an astral deity in charge of the fertility of the land, a goddess of love and war. It would have certainly been easier for the Israelites to have been influenced by Canaanite religious practices than by those from Mesopotamia.
During the time of Jeremiah a religious syncretism had been incorporated into the religion of Israel that allowed for the worship of a foreign deity such as Ishtar or Ashtoreth in Judah and Jerusalem. Whether they called this goddess Ishtar or Ashtoreth is not important, because in both cases the purpose and probably the style of worship would have been the same or very similar.
This syncretism led to the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of the Israelites. Religious syncretism is always a threat to the purity of the worship of the true God.