Religion in Ancient Israel


by Doug Ward

OXFORD, OHIO-According to the Bible, the nation of Israel was born when Yahweh rescued the descendants of Jacob (and others who chose to join them) from oppression in Egypt. He then led the Israelites to Mount Sinai, where he established a covenant with them. A key stipulation of the Sinai covenant specified that Israel owed exclusive allegiance to Yahweh and was to worship no other gods (Exod 20:1-2).


The biblical historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings record Israel's sporadic successes and frequent failures in trying to follow the covenant. The nation reached a peak under kings David and Solomon but then divided in half. The northern kingdom quickly fell into apostasy, adopting religious practices of the peoples around them, and was conquered by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BC. The southern kingdom of Judah, with capital at Jerusalem, fared better under godly kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, but it too strayed from Yahweh and eventually was conquered by Babylon in 586 BC.


Today some scholars (the so-called "minimalists") dispute the accuracy of the biblical accounts of Israel's early history. In a typical minimalist model, monotheism in Israel evolved slowly from polytheism. Then when exclusive worship of Yahweh was firmly established, say under Josiah in the late seventh century BC, Israel invented for itself the historical narrative that now appears in the Bible.


On the other hand, there are conservative scholars who defend the historicity of the biblical accounts. One prominent defender is Dr Richard S. Hess, the Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Denver Seminary. Hess maintains that the extrabibiblical evidence of the religious beliefs and practices of ancient Israel is consistent with what we find in the biblical presentation of Israel's history. On March 24, 2007, Hess assessed this evidence in a lecture at Miami University entitled, "What Did the Ancient Israelites Really Believe?"


Canaanite and Israelite Worship Sites

In his lecture Hess looked at archaeological evidence of Israelite religion, focusing on the period from 1200-650 BC. (There is general agreement, he said, that Israel practiced monotheism after 650.) He examined evidence from (1) cult centers and burial sites; (2) iconography; (3) epigraphy; and (4) onomastics.


Hess noted that the earliest mention of Israel outside of the Bible is on the victory stela of the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah from around 1210 BC. The stela claims that on a military campaign in Canaan, Merneptah defeated Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam, and Israel. By Merneptah's time, then, Israel must have been well established in Canaan. Since Yanoam is in what is now northern Jordan, a straight line connecting Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam goes through the Israelite hill country, where archaelogists have found the sites of several hundred villages dating from that period. It seems reasonable to suppose that at least some of them were Israelite villages.


Hess contrasted the archaeology of these villages with that of nearby Canaanite city states. As an example of one of the latter, he displayed a photgraph of the fortress temple at Shechem, which had walls about seventeen feet thick and two large towers flanking its entrance.1 This temple may have been the "house of Baal-berith" or "house of El-berith" mentioned in Judges 9:4,46. In one of the Amarna letters (fourteenth century BC) a Shechemite leader named Labaya, writing to an Egyptian Pharaoh, seems to describe his father as "my god," possibly suggesting that some kind of ancestor worship was also practiced at Shechem.2


On the other hand, the villages that appeared in the hill country in the thirteenth century BC consisted mainly of small houses. The houses are all about the same, suggesting a rather egalitarian society. Occasional standing stones, offering benches, and distinctive vessels have been found in these villages, but there is little evidence of the kind of special artifacts or architecture that accompany Canaanite religious centers like Shechem.


These examples suggest that overall, the culture of Israel was simpler than the surrounding Canaanite culture, with little evidence of religious centers. Hess went on to mention two possible exceptions, however. One is the "bull site" four miles east of Dothan, a town north of Shechem. This site is on top of a hill, with an oval-shaped open-air sanctuary ringed by stones, including one standing stone. A bronze bull figurine, about seven inches long and five inches high, has been found there. (The figurine resembles others that have been found at Hazor and Ugarit.) The site seems to have been a local worship location. It is not clear, though, whether it was built or used by Israelites.3


The other possible exception is at Mt. Ebal, the highest peak in Samaria. In an Israeli survey of the region in the 1980s, archaeologist Adam Zertal found just one installation from the period between 3000 and 586 BC. This site is near the mountain's third highest peak and is surrounded by two concentric walls. It is dated from the 1250-1150 BC period, based on pottery and two Egyptian scarabs found there. Excavations found two layers of ash containing 2800 animal bones, mainly from cattle and other herd animals and deer. The bones are burnt and have cut marks.4


Zertal believed that the ashes came from an altar at the site, an altar of uncut stones like the one Joshua built there when the Israelites arrived in Canaan (Deut 27:4-8; Joshua 8:30-35). He found what he thought was a ramp leading to the altar, a detail consistent with the instructions of Exod 20:26 that an altar not be approached by stairs. Hess observed that the single altar there could imply worship of a single deity. No figurines, votive offerings, or standing stones have been found there. This is a distinctive site, different from those built by Canaanites.


Hess then moved ahead to the Iron Age II period (1000-586 BC), during which there was a population shift in Israel from small villages to fortified towns that often had public worship centers. A leading example is Dan in northern Israel, where there was a prominent sanctuary, a state-sanctioned "high place." At Dan archaelogists have found a short flight of stairs leading to a large podium and an adjoining three-room sanctuary with a stone altar, an ash pit, and three iron shovels for ashes.5 A large altar horn, twenty inches high, has been found there, indicating that there could have been an altar on the platform. This site could have been the location where Jeroboam set up one of his golden calves (1 Kings 12;28-29).


At Arad in the south there was a fort on a hill. This fort contained a three-room sanctuary, at which "were found animal bones, a bronze image of a crouching lion, and an eighth-century ceramic offering stand."6 There was an altar at Arad made of uncut field stones (as in Exod 20:25), possibly indicating a distinctive aspect of Israelite worship, espcially if Zertal was correct about the presence of a similar altar at Mt Ebal,


Hess spent a few minutes discussing Israelite burial customs. He said that early in Israel's history, Israelite burials sometimes resembled those of surrounding cultures. But by the late eighth century BC, bench tombs had become the dominant method among the affluent in Judah, especially in Jerusalem. A body would initially be placed on the bench in the tomb. Then a year later, the bones would be placed with those of preceding ancestors. In that way, a deceased man was "gathered to his people" (Gen 25:8,17; 35:29; 49:33; Num 20:26; Deut 32:50; Judges 2:10; 2 Kings 22:20).


Examples of Iconography

Lots of art representing various deities has been found in the region of Canaan from the period before 1200 BC. Hess presented two examples. One was a statuette from Ugarit, a city north of Israel on the Mediterranean coast, that may represent the god Baal. The second was some Egyptian art found at Lachish (southwest of Jerusalem), a plaque on gold foil picturing a nude female holding two lotus-like plants and standing on the back of a horse. This plaque may represent the goddess Asherah or Astarte.7


Hess then explained how iconography changed in later centuries. In general, he said, we see a disappearance of anthropomorphic representations of deity and an increase in symbols used to represent deities. For example, trees and lions are connected with Asherah.


Hess looked in detail at one fascinating artifact, a tenth century BC "cult stand" from Taanach in the northern kingdom. The stand is made of terra cotta and has four panels. Hess mentioned that we do not know how it was used in worship. One possibility is that incense could have been burned on top of it.


On the first (bottom) panel of the stand, a nude female with raised arms is flanked by two lions. The second panel has two winged creatures with four legs and human faces standing on either side of an empty space. The third panel has two lions with a tree in between them, and beside the tree are two ibexes. On the fourth panel are two voluted columns with an animal between them-perhaps a calf or a horse-and a sun disk above the animal.


Hess believes that the first and third panels symbolize Asherah, while the second and fourth panels are connected with Yahweh. The second panel could represent two cherubim flanking the presence of Yahweh, a God who cannot be pictured, as at the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. If the animal on the fourth panel is a calf, it could represent one of the golden calves of Jeroboam in the northern kingdom. If the animal on the fourth panel is a horse, it could represent one of "the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun" that were placed at the entrance to the Jerusalem Temple (2 Kings 23:11).8


Hess mentioned another cult stand that was found at Taanach, a bit similar to the first one but not made as well. This second stand has alternating rows of lions and sphinxes/cherubim, along with a tree flanked by ibexes.9


Hess then discussed the archaeological finds from Kuntillet Ajrud in the northern Sinai dating from around 800 BC. This site may have been a caravansary, a place for travelers to stay overnight. Sherds of large storage jars have been found there with pictures on them. On one of these sherds a drawing depicts two figures with bovine faces and feet and feathered headdresses. To the right is a seated lyre player. The two figures may represent the Egyptian god Bes.10


Archaeologists have found hundreds of figurines in homes in the southern kingdom of Judah from the eighth and seventh centuries BC. These simple terra cotta figurines depict women from the breasts up. There is no writing on them to give any hint about what their purpose might have been. Some scholars have suggested that they represent goddesses, but Hess noted that it is unusual for figures of deities to be so cheaply made. About 450 simple figurines of horses with riders from that same period in Judah have also been found.


Hess observed that personal seals found from this period in Israel included fewer and fewer images as the Iron Age proceeded.


Ancient Inscriptions

A number of inscriptions contribute to our knowledge of the religions of Israel. Hess reviewed the evidence from the Mesha Stela (c 840 BC), which chronicles the exploits of King Mesha of Moab. The stela mentions Moabite victories over the northern kingdom of Israel and says that Mesha captured "the altar hearth of Yahweh" in a battle at Nebo. Yahweh is the only God mentioned in connection with Israel on the stela.11


At Deir Alla in the Jordan Valley, writing on a plastered wall from around 800 BC has been discovered. The writing mentions Balaam son of Beor, the famous seer from Num 22-24. The divine name El appears, along with supernatural beings called Shaddayin that form a divine council. This suggests the possibility that El Shaddai, a divine name found especially in the book of Genesis, could refer to God as Lord of the Shaddayin.


The discoveries at Kuntillet Ajrud include inscriptions along with the drawings mentioned above. Several deities are mentioned in these inscriptions, including Yahweh, Asherah, El, and Baal. We do not know who wrote the inscriptions, and in particular, whether some were written by non-Israelites.


The texts associate Baal and El with war and with theophanies. Yahweh is the deity mentioned most often, and he is referred to as Yahweh of the Teman and Yahweh of Samaria. Also, Yahweh and Asherah are mentioned together and invoked together in blessings.12 These inscriptions raise the possibility that the idolatry condemned by the Israelite prophets included syncretistic worship combining Yahweh and Asherah.


The controversial Jerusalem pomegranate is also believed to date from around 800 BC. If authentic, the small ivory pomegranate was probably once the head of a scepter. Its inscription is reconstructed as "belonging to the Temple of Yahweh, holy to the priests." If this reconstruction is correct, the pomegranate would be the only artifact we have from Solomon's Temple.13


Another notable inscription from this period comes from a Judean tomb at Khirbet el-Qom, a site eight miles west of Hebron that may be the biblical Makkedah (Josh 10:10, 16, 17, 21, 28, 29; 12:16; 15:41). In it a man named Abiyahu gives a prayer for his friend Uriyahu, asking Yahweh to deliver Uriyahu for the sake of Asherah.14


An eighth century BC seal carries the inscription, "Belonging to Miqneyahu, servant of Yahweh." Notice that the name "Miqneyahu" itself is a Yahwistic name; that is, it contains "yahu," a reference to Yahweh. Other seals from the era of the Israelite monarchy identify people with Yahwistic names as "the priest" and "priest of Dor." No deity other than Yahweh is mentioned on these seals.15


A celebratory inscription from about 700 BC has been found on the wall of a cave on the cliffs overlooking Ein Gedi, near the Dead Sea. The inscription blesses Yahweh (also called Adonai) and proclaims him as ruler.16 Additional cave wall inscriptions have been found at Khirbet Beit Lei, a burial cave five miles east of Lachish. They describe Yahweh's sovereignty over Jerusalem and ask for Yahweh's forgiveness.17


Summarizing the evidence from inscriptions, Hess observed that several deities are mentioned, including Asherah, Baal, El, and a group of Shaddayin. However, the name Yahweh is dominant and often the only deity named. Yahweh alone is associated with cult objects by the foreign king Mesha, and he alone is appealed to for blessing, forgiveness, and rulership.


Evidence from Israelite Names

Dr. Hess next discussed the insights available from data about Israelite personal names. (The technical term for the study of names is "onomastics.") He explained that archaeologists have found over 1700 personal names in Israelite seals and bullae. These names often have theophoric elements-i.e., they include the name of a deity. He illustrated with the names Hezekiah ("Yahweh is my strength" or "Yahweh is strong") and Josiah ("Yahweh is salvation"). Of the names we have found from this period of history, 46 per cent include Yahweh, another six per cent include El (a generic name for God), and only one per cent include the name of some other deity.


The main Israelite setting where the name of another deity appears is eighth century Samaria, where the name Baal (which can either mean "lord" or the name of a deity) appears on some ostraca (pottery fragments). This was the era when Hosea and Amos condemned the false religion and injustice of the northern kingdom, whose capital was at Samaria. But even in that setting, the name Yahweh is still the one that predominantly appears.


Hess also discussed the things that the many Israelite Yahwistic names say about Yahweh. He observed that the epithets of Yahweh in these names never make sexual or reproductive references, mention no consort of Yahweh, say nothing about individuals being harmed, and have almost no identification with architecture, cities, or sky phenomena. One name, Egelyahu ("calf of Yahweh"), involves an animal. This name could be identifying Yahweh with a calf, but it could also be saying that the person is dedicated to Yahweh like a sacrifice.


The qualities of mercy, love, joy and salvation are frequently connected with Yahweh in these names. In addition, Israelites ascribe to Yahweh the characteristics of other deities found in the personal names of other cultures. For example, the name Sheharya ("Yahweh is dawn") gives the God of Israel a quality that at Ugarit goes with a deity called Shahar (dawn).18


Before 1200 BC, a number of deities appear in names in Canaan-El, Baal, Asherah, and Hebat, for example-but there are no Yahweh examples. During the time of Israel's monarchy, surrounding nations used some theophoric names, but not nearly as often as the Israelites did. Also, names from other nations do not exhibit the complete dominance of one deity that we see in Israel. For instance, names from Ammon include 150 uses of El, nine of their chief god Milcom, three of Gad, three of Yahweh, two of Baal, and one use of the death god Mot. Clearly something special was happening in Israel. In Judah in the eighth and seventh centuries BC, the prevalence of Yahweh names reached a level that has no parallel among neighboring nations.



At the end of his lecture, Hess gave a summary of the evidence he had presented. He observed that the evidence suggests an ongoing contest between exclusive devotion to Yahweh, on one hand; and worship of Yahweh along with other deities, especially Asherah, on the other. Sometimes Yahweh appears as part of a pantheon, but overall the dominance of Yahweh is exceptional, going beyond what we see for the chief gods of nearby nations. Also notable are the lack of pictures of Yahweh and the distinctive confessional aspects of many inscriptions and personal names. The special roles and views of Yahweh that we see in Israel stand out from the customs of neighboring nations and their deities, Hess concluded. This overall picture is consistent with that conveyed by the biblical accounts of Israel's history.


1See Hess's book Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2007, pp. 132-133.

2Ibid., pp. 94-95.

3Ibid., p. 236.

4Ibid., pp. 216-221.

5Ibid., pp. 301-303.

6Ibid., p. 303.

7Ibid., p. 135.

8Ibid., pp. 321-324.

9Ibid., p. 324.

10Ibid., pp. 319-320.

11Ibid., p. 275.

12Ibid., pp. 283-289.

13Ibid., pp. 276-278.

14Ibid., p. 289.

15Ibid., pp. 271, 282.

16Ibid., pp. 278-279.

17Ibid., pp. 280-281.

18Ibid., p. 280.

Issue 34


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