Archaeological Clues to Israelite and Judahite Religion

This post is part of an online Intro to Old Testament “class” for the person on the go. Check it out.

Those who grow up hearing Bible stories learn there is only one God, maker of heaven and earth, whom the Israelites worshiped at a temple in Jerusalem. This God revealed a personal name to Moses at a burning bush in the wilderness:

“Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am’” (Exod 3:13-14; NRSV).

In Hebrew, the letters of the verb used for the divine name are yhwh (יהוה).[1] Scholars typically refer to this as the “tetragrammaton,” a Greek term meaning “[with] four letters.” In English, Yhwh is pronounced Yahweh or Jehovah. Jews consider the name holy and do not speak it aloud, substituting “Adonai” (Lord) or “HaShem” (The Name). In English, Yhwh is usually translated and capitalized as LORD, while the generic term for God, “El,” is printed as “God.” Lower case “Lord” often translates “Adonai.” Thus, the impact of the personal divine name is obscured in the English translation.

Where Did Yhwh Come From?

The biblical authors say God revealed this personal name to Moses while the fugitive was living as a pastoralist in rural Midian (modern day NW Saudi Arabia; Exod 3). Interestingly, his Midianite father-in-law is described as a priest, raising questions about influence. In addition to Midian, the biblical authors also suggest Yahweh came from Edom (Judg 5:4-5; Deut 33:2; Psa 68:8-9, 18; Hab 3:3, 10a). Edom is next to Midian. Some scholars theorize Yahwism developed in this southern region (see map). This is also why the Israelites are sometimes associated with the Shasu, a term used in Egyptian records to refer to various groups of nomadic pastoralists. The Shasu are said to come from Edom, as well as other West Semitic regions.

The first extra-biblical mention of Yahweh might be Egyptian inscriptions on the wall of the Soleb Temple built in Nubia by pharaoh Amenhotep III (c. 1390-1352 BCE). The inscription reads “The land of the Shasu, those of Yhw.” A similar inscription appears on the Amara West temple from the time of Ramesses II (c. 1279-1213 BCE). The hieroglyphics correspond with the Hebrew consonants for Israel’s and Judah’s Yhwh. However, scholars are undecided if these citations of “Yhw” refer to the name of a god or a place. If the inscription does refer to Yahweh, this could explain how a non-Canaanite god ended up in Canaan. Yahweh is foreign to Canaanite religion.

Were the Israelites and Judahites Polytheistic?

Yahweh was both Israel’s and Judah’s chief deity, but not the only one they worshiped. Both kingdoms honored Canaanite gods, including Baal and Asherah. The biblical authors indicate polytheism was a reality throughout their history from Solomon to the exile (e.g. 1 Kgs 11:5-8; 18:20-30; 2 Kgs 17:16; 23:4-20; Jer 7:9). Even the biblical authors who opposed the worship of other gods sometimes acknowledged their existence (if inferiority). For example, Yahweh is said to be the God above other gods (Deuteronomy 10:17; Psalm 82:1). And one writer acknowledges the power of Kemosh, god of Moab, to defeat Israel in battle (2 Kings 3:26-27).

Archaeological sites provide clues to these Canaanite religions.[2] The “Bull Site,” in the northern Samarian hills, is within the tribal territory of Manesseh (Iron Age 1). The site is named for the bronze bull statue found there (5 inches high and 7 inches long). The bull was a common representation of the Canaanite god El, while the bull-calf depicted his son Baal. The Bull Site is an open air “high place” that has a large stone circle and a “standing stone” (massebah in Hebrew). Standing stones were common in the ancient Near East and apparently represented gods or ancestors. In the Bible, Jacob is described as setting up a stone and calling it “God’s house” (Gen 28:22). The Bull Site may have been used by Israelites, but difficulty distinguishing Israelite and Canaanite remains makes it uncertain. The biblical authors describe the Israelites using a bull-calf in their worship (Exod 32; 1 Kgs 12:28-32; 2 Kings 10:29, 17:16).

Biblical names sometimes contain reference to Baal. For example, Ishbaal or Meribaal (son and grandson of Saul). A pottery inscription found at Khirbet Qeiyafa has the name “Ishbaal son of Beda.” It is dated to circa 1020-980 BCE and written in Canaanite script. However, these names don’t show up in the record after the 10th century. Both kingdoms often employed names indicating Yahweh was chief deity. In the south, this took the form of “yahu” such as “Hilqiyahu,” the name of a southern priest inscribed on an 8th century BCE seal. In the north, it might appear as “yah” or “yo” such as “Zekharyo,” the name of a northern priest also inscribed on a seal.

The Canaanite goddess Asherah is mentioned in extra-biblical Hebrew writing. The Kuntillet Ajrud ritual site in the Sinai (late 9th/early 8th century BCE) has an inscription that reads, “I have blessed you by Yahweh of Samaria and [his] Asherah.” Another archaeological site, Khirbet el-Qom, in the territory of ancient Judah, also refers to Asherah: “I bless Uryahu to Yahweh . . . from his oppressors by his Asherah he has saved him.” The inscription is dated to the 8th century BCE. However, there is debate regarding whether the designation refers to Yahweh’s wife (a deity) or only a sacred symbol. Adding to the mystery are numerous female figurines found in Judah (see picture). They typically exhibit oversized breasts that the woman holds up with her hands. Some scholars consider them additional evidence for Asherah worship. These Judahite Pillar Figurines were prominent between the 8th-6th centuries BCE. As many as 500 were found in Jerusalem alone. It was a common household item. Other scholars have suggested the figurines could be sacred objects used for healing and protection as opposed to representing a deity.

Altars and Temples

Like many ancient Near Eastern religions, the Israelites and Judahites centered their worship on sacrificial offerings. At Rehov, in northern Israel, the remains of numerous small ceramic altars have been found dating to the 10th and 9th centuries BCE. At least some of these had nude female figures, apparently representing goddesses. These may have been used by Israelites or Canaanites. The small altars also had rounded corners that resemble the common four-horned altars found in multiple places, including Beersheba, Tel Dan, and Megiddo. Sacrificial offerings in the ancient Near East had various connotations, including feeding the gods. However, in Israelite and Judahite belief, sacrifices typically signified atonement. Some Canaanites also saw sacrifice as having atoning elements. A text from Ugarit reads:

“Whether your sin: be it in your anger, be it in your impatience, be it in some turpitude that you should commit; whether you sin: as concerns the sacrifices, or as the concerns the t’-sacrifice. The sacrifice, it is sacrificed, the t’-sacrifice, it is offered, the slaughtering it is done” (KTU 1.40).

In addition to open air sanctuaries and small shrines, sacrificial offerings also took place at temples. Ancient Near Eastern peoples considered temples to be “homes” for their gods to live in. In fact, the Hebrew word for temple is “house.” The biblical authors acknowledge the existence of various sacred sites, but describe only one temple: the one Solomon built in Jerusalem (the Second Temple and Ezekiel’s visionary one are rebuilt versions, not additional temples). Solomon’s temple cannot be excavated because mosques now sit on top of the Temple Mount. But the detailed biblical descriptions of Solomon’s temple can be comparatively matched with numerous temples in Syria-Palestine dating from the 15th-8th centuries BCE. The design of Solomon’s temple is Canaanite: a long three-roomed floor plan. The Tel Tayinat and Ain Dara temples in Syria (9th-8th century BCE) provide good examples of what the Jerusalem temple probably looked like.

However, Solomon’s temple is not the only one the Israelites/Judahites used. Others have been found at Tel Arad near Beersheba (c. 8th century BCE) and Tel Motza near Jerusalem (c. 8th century BCE). A small temple was also built by Jews living in Elephantine, Egypt (c. 6th-5th centuries BCE). These were used at the same time as Solomon’s temple (with the possible exception of Elephantine), demonstrating that worship was not centralized in one place, despite the biblical authors’ insistence that Jerusalem was the only legitimate place for a temple.

Prayer

The earliest inscriptions found thus far that match the biblical texts are on two small silver scrolls that appear to have been worn as amulets (Ketef Hinnom; see picture). They contain the familiar Priestly Blessing that appears in Numbers 6:24-26 and are dated to around the 7th century BCE:

“May be blessed h/sh[e] by YHW[H], the warrior/helper and the rebuker of [E]vil: May bless you, YHWH, keep you. Make shine, YH[W]H, His face [upon] you and grant you p[ea]ce.”

Extra-biblical data shows Canaanite religion involved prayer for similar concerns such as protection from enemies. For example, from Ugarit:

“When a strong foe attacks your gate, a warrior your walls, you shall lift your eyes to Baal and say: O Baal, if you drive the strong one from our gate. . .” (KTU 1.119).

A song from Ugarit that praises the goddess ‛Athtart has language similar to Israel’s song of praise:

RIH 98/02: “May the name of ʿAṯtartu be sung. Let me sing the name of the lioness: by (her) name she is victorious over [. . .] She has banged shut the maw of the whelp of El.”

Exodus 15:1 (NRSV): “I will sing to Yahweh, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

Conclusions

Israelites and Judahites worshiped a deity not found among the Canaanites. However, alongside Yahweh, they also worshiped the gods of their neighbors. The archaeological record and biblical texts suggests this was true throughout much of their history prior to the exile. Thus, Israelite and Judahite religion was often polytheistic and decentralized. This appears to be the case across status (elite and non-elite). Their rituals, artifacts, and buildings also resembled those found in the ancient Near East even when Yahweh was the center of worship. Their temples had the same layout as those of Canaanites, the sacrificial system was common, and people’s prayers for safety and justice were universal. This does not mean Yahwism was exactly the same as Canaanite religion. The Israelites and Judahites had their own theological distinctions. But it does show Yahweh’s people were very much at home in their ancient Near Eastern context.

Although certain prophets preached against the worship of other gods, and some kings like Hezekiah and Josiah campaigned for religious reform (2 Kings 18:1-8; 2 Kings 23), monotheism seems to have won only after the Babylonian exile. The biblical authors pushed a perspective that apparently went against the grain, raising questions about when monotheistic Yahwism took root (or was revived). Some scholars would suggest during Josiah’s reforms in the 7th century BCE. Perhaps, this is also around the time certain biblical texts were written or redacted, sealing the ethos of reform on the sacred page.

The destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the exile also led to changes that likely encouraged monotheism. Living in a foreign land made protecting Jewish identity important. The worship of Yhwh alone was a way to resist assimilation and set oneself apart (although the Elephantine papyri indicate Anat-yahu was worshiped alongside Yahweh in at least one diaspora community). At some point synagogues developed and eventually replaced the Jerusalem temple after the Romans destroyed it a second time in 70 CE. This solidified a break from the common ancient Near Eastern practice of sacrificial offerings and certain rituals of the past, a rupture that had begun to develop with the Babylonian exile. While Judaism shares continuity with Yahwism, it is distinct, centering on Torah reading and rabbinical tradition rather than the sacrificial system.

Take a virtual tour of Solomon’s Temple.

Sources for this essay:

Uzi Avner, “Sacred Stones in the Desert,” BAR 27 (May/Jun 2001).

Gabriel Barkay, et. al., “The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom: A New Edition and Evaluation,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 334 (2000) 41–70.

Erin Darby, Interpreting Judean Pillar Figurines: Gender and Empire in Judean Apotropaic Ritual (FAT II 69. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014).

William G. Dever, “Were There Temples in Ancient Israel? Archaeological Evidence” in Text, Artifact, and Image: Revealing Ancient Israelite Religion, ed. Gary M. Beckman and Theodore J. Lewis, BJS 346 (Providence, RI: Brown University, 2006), 300-318.

Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, ed. Brian B. Schmidt (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007).

Yosef Garfinkel, et. al., “The ʾIšbaʿal Inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 373 (2015), 217-233.

Richard S. Hess, Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).

Karen Keen, “Beyond Sacred Marriage: A Proposed New Reading of Birth of the Beautiful and Gracious Gods,” Th.M. Thesis, Duke Divinity School, 2010.

Amihai Mazar and Nava Panitz-Cohen, “To What God? Altars and a House Shrine from Tel Rehov Puzzle Archaeologists,” BAR 34 (July/Aug 2008).

Dennis Pardee, “Preliminary Presentation of a New Ugaritic Song to (ʿAṯtartu (RIH 98/02)” in Ugarit at Seventy-Five: proceedings of the Symposium ‘Ugarit at Seventy-Five’ held at Trinity International University, Deerfield, Illinois, February 18-20, 2005 under the auspices of the Middle Western Branch of the American Oriental Society and the Mid-West Region of the Society of Biblical Literature (ed. K. Lawson Younger Jr.; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007) 30, 35.

Ephraim Stern, “Pagan Yahwism: Folk Religion of Ancient Israel,” BAR 27 (May/June 2001).


[1] The verb is “to be,” “to exist,” or “come to pass.” Possible translations options are “I am who I am,” “I will be who I will be,” or “I cause to be.”

[2] Archaeological discoveries are plentiful when it comes to investigating Israelite/Judahite religion. This short essay cannot begin to catalogue everything. I touch on a few key findings.

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