Pagan Yahwism: The Folk Religion of Ancient Israel
The Bible imagines the religion of ancient Israel as purely monotheistic. And doubtless there were Israelites, particularly those associated with the Jerusalem Temple, who were strict monotheists. But the archaeological evidence (and the Bible, too, if you read it closely enough) suggests that the monotheism of many Israelites was far from pure. For them, Yahweh (the name of the Israelite god) was not the only divinity. Some Israelites believed that Yahweh had a female consort. And many Israelites invoked the divinity with the help of images, particularly figurines. I call this Israelite religion pagan Yahwism.
The archaeological evidence we will look at comes mostly from Judah in what is known in archaeological terms as the Assyrian period, the span from 721 B.C.E., when the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, until 586 B.C.E., when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and brought an end to the Davidic dynasty in Judah. This period, to put it into perspective, is several centuries after King Solomon built the Jerusalem Temple in about 950 B.C.E. So the archaeological evidence we are about to discuss documents a level of Israelite paganism long after Solomon built an exclusive home for Israel’s god.
While Yahweh was the god of the Israelites, other nations had their own national gods. The chief god of the Phoenicians was Ba‘al. For the Philistines, the chief god was at first Dagon and later also Ba‘al (Judges 16:23; 2 Kings 1:2). For the Ammonites it was Milkom. For the Moabites, Chemosh. For the Edomites, Qos. And for the Israelites and Judahites—Yahweh. Except for the Edomite god Qos, who appears only in the archaeological record, all of these gods are mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 11:5, 7, 33).
Interestingly, while each nation’s chief god had a distinctive name, his consort, the chief female deity, had the same name in all these cultures: Asherah or its variants Ashtoreth or Astarte. (As we shall see, this was even true of Yahweh’s consort.)
Not only was the female consort the same, the various nations used the same cult objects, the same types of incense altars made of stone and clay, the same bronze and clay censers, cult stands and incense burners, the same chalices and goblets and the same bronze and ivory rods adorned with pomegranates. It was easy to take cult vessels of one deity and place them in the service of another one—and this was commonly done. For example, in the ninth-century B.C.E. stela erected by Mesha, the king of Moab, he describes himself as the “son of Chemosh,” and tells how he defeated the Israelites (see also 2 Kings 3:4–27). He then brags, “[I] took t[he ves]sels of Yahweh, and I hauled them before the face of Chemosh.”
We sometimes get the impression that after Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, Yahweh had no other sanctuary in ancient Israel—but this is not the case. The religious reforms of, first, King Hezekiah in the late eighth century B.C.E. (2 Kings 18:1–8; 2 Chronicles 29–31), and then of King Josiah, in the late seventh century B.C.E. (2 Chronicles 34–35), sought to centralize the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem. The need for these reforms demonstrates, however, that Yahweh worship was by no means confined to Jerusalem.
The Bible itself mentions sanctuaries at sites such as Dan, Shechem, Shiloh, Bethel and Beersheba, and archaeology confirms that there were numerous other sanctuaries outside Jerusalem dedicated to the Israelite national god. A cultic installation dedicated to Yahweh must have existed at Judahite Nebo in Moab during the ninth century B.C.E.: In his stela, Mesha claims to have taken from Nebo the vessels of Yahweh that he later used in a sanctuary dedicated to the Moabite god Chemosh.
A complete Judahite sanctuary has been uncovered in the fortress of Arad in southern Judah.a Despite scholarly disputes as to precisely when it was built and when it was destroyed, it is clear that the Arad sanctuary was in service simultaneously with the Jerusalem Temple and was probably in use during most of the monarchy. It consisted of three parts—a courtyard, a heikhal, or main hall, and a debir, or holy of holies, which was ascended by three steps. In the debir was a massebah, or standing stone. Two additional masseboth were embedded in the wall of the holy of holies. On the third step two limestone incense altars were found, with remains of burnt material on top, probably incense. In the temple courtyard stood a large animal altar. Other cult centers have been uncovered in Israelite Megiddo and Judahite Lachish, both dating to the tenth century B.C.E.
Cult installations have also been excavated in several Israelite and Judahite fortresses. One—at Vered-Jericho—was reported in these pages some time ago.b The excavator, Avi Eitan, interpreted the installation as a bamah, or high place.
More recently, Itzhaq Beit-Arieh reported on cult platforms ascended by steps, found adjacent to the gates of two fortresses near Arad, ‘Uza and Radum.1
In addition, a large four-horned altar and a bamah were excavated at Beersheba2
Stone stairs at the fortress of Mes\ad-Michmash, on Judah’s northern border, have been interpreted as leading up to a bamah.3
Although it has not been found, there was doubtless a sanctuary to Yahweh at Lachish, the most important city in Judah after Jerusalem. We know of the Lachish sanctuary from reliefs depicting a pair of large cultic stands taken as booty from Lachish by Sennacherib’s soldiers after they had sacked the city in the late eighth century B.C.E. (see photo and drawing). These well-known reliefs were excavated long ago at Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh. The Judahite cultic stands depicted in the reliefs are very similar to numerous smaller examples frequently found in contemporaneous levels at sites in Judah.
Inscriptions also confirm the existence of cultic installations dedicated to Yahweh, some even outside the country. At the cult site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, in the Sinai, inscriptions were found that mention “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah” and “Yahweh of Teman” and his Asherah.c4
A “house of Yahweh” is also mentioned in numerous inscriptions. In one of the Arad ostraca it is said of someone that “he is in the house of Yahweh.”5
An ostracon from the collection of Shlomo Moussaieff records a contribution of three shekels to the “house of Yahweh.”d
Similarly on the inscribed ivory pomegranate (see photo and drawing) that BAR made famous and which was purchased by the Israel Museum: The inscription says that it is sacred to the priest of the “house of Yahweh.”e It is generally supposed that the three-shekel ostracon and the pomegranate refer to Solomon’s Temple, the House of Yahweh in Jerusalem. But that is not necessarily so. In light of the many sanctuaries dedicated to Yahweh outside Jerusalem, the references to the house of Yahweh on the three-shekel ostracon and on the inscribed ivory pomegranate may well refer to a sanctuary other than the Jerusalem Temple. A “house of Yahweh” could have been located in any settlement in Judah, or in any area settled by Judahites.
These houses of Yahweh, like the Jerusalem Temple, were served for the most part by hereditary priests. Several seals contain names designated with the title cohen, priest. One recently published seal refers to “Hanan son of Hilqiyahu the priest” (see photo).f The ending –yahu is a form of Yahweh. Another seal, dating to the last days of the northern kingdom (late eighth century B.C.E.), mentions an Israelite priest active in the temple at Dor: “Zekharyo [-yo is a shortened form of Yahweh] the priest of Dor.” Similarly, the prophet Amos reports that “Amazyah [-yah is another form of Yahweh] the priest of Bethel” sent a message to King Jeroboam of Israel (Amos 7:10).
A seal inscribed with the name “Miqnayahu [still another Yahwistic name] servant of Yahweh” indicates that the owner served in one of the many sanctuaries dedicated to Yahweh. Obviously “servant” here means not a person without status, but rather a high functionary in service to the divinity—not quite a priest, but almost.
The Yahwistic names just mentioned incorporate the name of the Israelite god. In Judah, names had –yahu as a suffix. In Israel, it tended to be simply –yah or –yo. The theophoric element could also appear at the beginning of a name, as in Yo-natan (Jonathan). Evidence of Yahweh worship comes from the prevalence of Yahwistic names. Approximately 1,200 personal names have turned up in archaeological excavations in Judah—on seals, bullae (lumps of clay impressed by a seal) and ostraca. Over 45 percent of them contain a Yahwistic element.6 And although a more general name for god is ‘el (Israel and Nathaniel), only 3 percent of the 1,200 names contained this theophoric element. Other gods were incorporated into Judahite names even less frequently.
The prevalence of Yahweh worship is also reflected in the frequency with which his name is invoked—for instance in the ostraca found at such Judahite sites as Arad and Lachish.7 His name appears in numerous oaths and blessings: “I have blessed you to Yahweh”; “May Yahweh let hear my lord tidings of peace”; “May Yahweh bless you in peace”; “May Yahweh give my lord pleasant tidings”; “May Yahweh give you prosperous tidings,” and the like.8 All this reflects the widespread devotion to Yahweh among the Judahite population.
Yet was it pure? Or did elements of the population mix their Yahwism with paganism?
I have already mentioned the inscriptions from the Israelite sanctuary at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the Sinai, dating to the late ninth or early eighth century B.C.E., that refer to Yahweh “and his Asherah.” This site of course is outside the borders of Judah. But a reference to the divine couple has also been found at the site of Khirbet el-Kom, in the heart of Judah (near Hebron). A tomb inscription there reads: “Blessed will be Ariyahu to Yahweh and his Asherah.”9
Like their neighbors, Israelites and Judahites widely used figurines to represent aspects of divinity. But it is rather surprising that so many figurines peculiar only to Judah are found within the borders of this supposedly monotheistic (but not to say imageless) kingdom.g
Like the figurines in the surrounding cultures, the Judahite examples are mostly female and about 5 to 6 inches high. They belong to the type known as “pillar” figurines. The head is made separately, from a mold. The body is usually solid and handmade, in the shape of a small column, to which are added exaggerated breasts supported by the statuette’s hands. Scholars usually identify these figurines as Astarte, the fertility goddess.
Another common variation involves a handmade head with a kind of pinched face. These are often called “bird’s-head” figurines.
Sometimes the goddess is playing a tambourine or holding a dove—a traditional emblem of goddesses in all periods throughout the ancient Near East. A few figurines, made in the Phoenician tradition, have a hollow, round body—a bell-shaped body, in scholarly jargon. Even rarer, but occasionally found, are figurines in the form of a plaque, flat on the back and impressed from a mold on the front.
The Judahite figurines were originally painted in strong colors such as white, black and red, but the paint has survived on only a few. Eyes and hair were made especially prominent, and occasionally a necklace was added.
Another surprising fact: Although these figurines have been found all over Judah, about half (405 out of 822, to be exact) were found in Jerusalem, many only a short distance from the Temple Mount.10
What about male figurines? In this respect, too, Judah did not differ from its neighbors. There were male figurines, though not as many as there were female figurines. In Judah, we have a few dozen. They come in two types: riding on horses (see photo), and wearing a round turban, sometimes with a raised hand.
The first type is by far the most common. Some scholars connect these figurines with the cult of sun chariots mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 23:11); according to others, they represent a warrior god. The latter seems more likely: A warrior god appears in the cults of all of Judah’s neighbors, and Yahweh himself is pictured as a warrior in the Bible (for example, in Isaiah 13:4: “The Lord of Hosts is mustering a host for war”).
The turban-crowned figurines seem to be wearing an authentic turban; the turbans are very similar to those depicted on the Israelites going into exile on the reliefs at Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh.
These male figurines could represent some foreign deity—perhaps the Phoenician god Ba‘al, who was worshiped in Judah alongside Yahweh. Or they may represent Yahweh himself, who would be joined by his consort Astarte or Asherah (the female figurines). In either case, there can be no question but that these figurines are Judahite.
We are thus led to the inevitable conclusion that between the foreign pagan practices and the pure monotheism of Yahwism there existed a cult that may be called pagan Yahwism or perhaps more accurately, Yahwistic paganism. Of course in the background was the central monotheistic cult practiced in the Jerusalem Temple by its priests and preached by the Biblical prophets. And some of the kings of Judah—especially Hezekiah and Josiah—made efforts to centralize the monotheistic cult in Jerusalem. But looking at the archaeological evidence, we must conclude that they were less than 100 percent successful. Indeed, until the Babylonian destruction of Judah and the end of the Israelite monarchy in 586 B.C.E., pagan Yahwism was common even in Jerusalem, to say nothing of the rest of Judah.
Coda: We have almost no evidence of cultic practices of any kind from the period between the Babylonian destruction and the return of the exiles under Cyrus, king of Persia, in the late sixth century B.C.E. This situation changes in the Persian period with the return of the exiles. Once again figurines are found in the area of what was Judah, but now the area was divided among the Idumeans (descendants of the Edomites) and the Judeans or Jews (descendants of the Judahites). The Galilee was inhabited mostly by the Phoenicians. In the post-Exilic period the figurines are found only in areas inhabited by Idumeans and Phoenicians. In the areas of the country occupied by Jews, not a single cultic figurine has ever been found despite intensive excavations and archaeological surveys of these areas.
The situation is much the same with respect to post-Exilic sanctuaries: Many have been found in non-Jewish areas, but none in Jewish areas. The only exceptions are the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the Samaritan temple on their holy mountain, Mt. Gerizim in Samaria. Upon the return from exile, the Jews purified their worship.h Jewish monotheism was at last consolidated.
1. Itzhaq Beit-Arieh, “H|orvat Radum,” The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 4 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and Carta, 1993), pp. 1254–1255.
2. Yohanan Yadin, “Beer-Sheba: The High Place Destroyed by King Josiah,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) 222 (1976), pp. 5–18.
3. Shim’on Riklin, “A Fortress at Michmash on the Northeastern Border of the Judaean Desert, Judea and Samaria,” Research Studies of the College of Judea Ariel 4 (1994), pp. 69–74 (Hebrew).
4.John A. Emerton, “New Light on Religion, the Implications of the Inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 94 (1982), pp. 2–20; William G. Dever, “Ashera, Consort of Yahweh,” BASOR 255 (1984), pp. 21–37.
5. Yohanan Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions Text 18:9–10 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981).
6. Alan R. Millard, “The History of Israel Against the Background of Ancient Near Eastern Religious History,” in Timo Eskola and Eero Junkkaala, eds., From the Ancient Sites of Israel: Essays on Archaeology, History and Theology in Memory of Aapeli Saarisalo (1896–1986) Iustitia Supplement Series (Helsinki: Theological Institute of Finland, 1998), pp. 101–117.
7. See Jeffrey H. Tigay, You Shall Have No Other Gods: Israelite Religion in the Light of Hebrew Inscriptions (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1986), esp. pp. 47–63.
8. Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions; Harry Torczyner et al., The Lachish Letters (Lachish 1), (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1938); see also Christopher W. Mitchell, The Meaning of BRK “to bless” in the Old Testament, Dissertation Series, Society of Biblical Literature 95 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1987).
9. William G. Dever, “Iron Age Epigraphic Material from the Area of Khirbet El-Kom,” Hebrew Union College Annual 40–41 (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1969–70), pp. 139–204; Ziony Zevit, “The Khirbet el Qom Inscription,” BASOR 255 (1984), pp. 39–49; William H. Shea, “The Khirbet el-Kom Inscription,” Vetus Testamentum 40 (1990), pp. 56–63.
10. Raz Kletter, “The Judean Pillar-Figurines and the Archaeology of Asherah,” British Archaeological Reports, International Series S-636 (1996).