Archaeological and textual evidence make clear that Israelite religion developed out of, alongside, and in response to the cults of the many gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East. Major male deities with origins in the southern Levant include the Caananite god El and the Israelite god Yhwh, while Mesopotamian deities such as Assur and Marduk also make occasional appearances in the region. These deities are usually associated with themes of kingship, creation and justice, and sit at the head of their respective pantheons. Other well-known gods include the Canaanite deities Ba’al (a storm-god) and Resheph (a god of plague) and the Mesopotamian deities Shamash (a sun-god) and Sin (a moon-god).
Alongside these male deities were a number of female deities. Some of them were considered consorts or wives of one of the male gods. Thus, Athirat was the consort of El and a major female goddess in the Canaanite pantheon; other notable Canaanite goddesses include Anat (the consort of Ba’al), Asherah, Astarte, and Qudshu. Biblical and extra-biblical texts very strongly suggest that the goddess Asherah was closely associated with Yhwh, perhaps as his consort, though the exact nature of their relationship is unclear and highly contested. Ishtar was the most prominent Mesopotamian goddess during the Neo-Assyrian period. Many of these female gods had similar characteristics; some were associated with fertility, but they also covered other areas—such as war. The symbols associated with these female gods are often similar, and it can be difficult to distinguish among them.
In this collection you will find examples of this religious diversity in Israel and Judah as it was manifested in inscriptions, figurines of gods and goddesses, amulets and other jewellery, and cultic ritual objects.
The exact pronunciation of the name of Israel’s God is unknown, as the divine name was considered too holy to speak at a relatively early stage. It may have been pronounced ‘Yahweh’, but—in part because of the uncertainty of this pronunciation and in part out of respect for Jewish tradition, which continues to hold that the divine name should not be pronounced—it is a common scholarly convention to write the name using only the consonants of the Hebrew text, that is, as Yhwh or YHWH, and this is also the convention of this exhibition.
Ba'al—literally 'lord'—was a storm and fertility god widely known and worshipped in ancient Canaan, as recorded in biblical and non-biblical texts. He appears regularly in the Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra and in numerous biblical texts, such as 1 Kings 18; Hosea 2:16–20; 2 Kings 11:17; 23:4–5; Zephaniah 1:4; and Jeremiah 2:8; 19:5, where he is a frequent object of the authors' ire, as they argue that the Israelites should worship Yhwh alone.This statuette of the god Ba'al is made of bronze and plated with gold. The deity is seated and holding an unidentified object in its left hand, while the right hand is missing. The facial features of the god are outlined with a black inlay and the left ear is pierced with an earring (missing from the right ear). The god is wearing a conical headdress and a long robe. The statuette was found in debris during the excavation of a Temple at Megiddo. The excavators dated it to Late Bronze Age layers. Although the original throne of the god and small parts of the statuette are missing, on the whole it is remarkably well preserved.
Many different goddesses were worshipped throughout the ancient Levant. This figurine of a goddess was excavated from a house at Megiddo which seems to have been part of a larger compound. The goddess is wearing a headress, a collar and a long robe, and has bracelets on her wrists. The figurine's edges are neatly trimmed, and her features are outlined with hatching.The many goddess of the ancient Near East were often depicted similarly by artists, which makes it difficult to identify which goddess is represented by a particular figurine. Candidates for this figurine include Athirat, Anat, Astarte, Qudshu, Ishtar and Asherah. Goddess worship is attested throughout Israel’s history, with the biblical texts' authors engaged in a seemingly futile effort to persuade their audience to stop such practices. The Bible condemns of worship of the “Ashtartes” (for example, Judges 10:6; 1 Samuel 12:10) and worship of Asherah (for example, Judges 3:7; 1 Kings 18:19; Jeremiah 17:2). Goddess worship is connected several times with Jerusalem; King Solomon is said to have set up a temple for Ashtarte which was later destroyed by King Josiah (1 Kings 11:5-7; 2 Kings 23:13), while the goddess Asherah seems to have had a role in the Jerusalemite cult (1 Kings 15:13; 2 Kings 21:7; 23:4, 6, 7). The book of Jeremiah also attests to a cult of the “Queen of Heaven”, worshipped in the streets of Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 7:17-19; 44:15-19).
This eye of Horus amulet is one of a number of similar amulets found at Megiddo. This one is small, made of faience (glazed ceramic), and covered in a blue glaze. It was pierced through horizontally, so may have been hung on a cord and worn as a necklace or accessory. It was found just outside of a building in an area mainly made up of residential houses, in a layer of material dated to around 780–650 BCE. Amulets were thought to be powerful symbols of protection, and their appearance at Megiddo testifies especially to the influence of Egyptian beliefs there. Many more amulets of a wide variety of different types have been found all over the Levant, attesting to the intermingling of religious belief and daily life.
This small, crescent shaped amulet was excavated in an Iron Age II room in a domestic building at Megiddo. The two holes at either end of the crescent suggest it would have hung from a cord or chain and been worn by its owner. The moon had always been important in ancient Near Eastern religion, but between the ninth and sixth centuries BCE it gained even greater popularity through the Aramean cult of the moon god Sin and the increasing popularity of astral cults across the ancient Near East. The moon was connected with agriculture and fertility and played an important part in religious festivals, including in Israel (see, for example, 1 Samuel 20:5, 24; Isaiah 1:13-14; Hosea 2:13; Ezekiel 45:17; 46:1, 3; Psalm 81:3). The crescent moon was celebrated as a symbol of redemption, as the small crescent moon rose from the days of darkness that form part of the lunar cycle. Although some texts in the Bible associate the moon with Yahwistic religious activity in a legitimate way (for example, Ezekiel 46), others polemicize against the astral worship that became popular in Judah in the seventh century BCE (Deuteronomy 4:19; 17:3; Jeremiah 8:2; 2 Kings 23:5). Jeremiah 8:1 announces judgement upon the “inhabitants of Jerusalem” for having worshipped the sun, moon, and the host of heaven, while 2 Kings 23:5 says that the kings of Judah had appointed special priests to make offerings to the sun, moon, stars, and constellations in the high places around Jerusalem. Both Jeremiah and 2 Kings associate astral worship, including worship of the moon, with the upper echelons of Jerusalemite society, accusing even the kings of engaging in these activities. Although the difference between “legitimate” (Psalm 81:3; 1 Samuel 20; Ezekiel 46) and “non-legitimate” (Deuteronomy 17:3; Jeremiah 8:1-2; 2 Kings 23:5) ritual practices involving the moon is unclear, the moon had a longstanding and important place in Israelite and ancient Near Eastern religious beliefs, at both official and popular levels.
This bronze, anthropomorphic (human-shaped) figurine was one of several found at Megiddo. It comes from a context dated to the eleventh or tenth century BCE, probably domestic in usage. The figure holds a club or mace in its right hand, poised to strike, as is common with depictions of 'smiting' deities such as Resheph and Ba’al. The figurine wears a headdress and a knee-length robe, decorated with incised lines. Resheph is a Canaanite god who was particularly prominent in Syria in the second millennium BCE. He was a warrior-god, associated with bringing violent plague and disease. He was previously thought to have connections with the underworld, but this has been recently called into question. Although Resheph was better known in the second millennium than in the first millennium, he appears eight times in the Bible. In Deuteronomy 33:24 and Habakkuk 3:5, he appears as part of Yhwh’s entourage, as Yhwh marches with his military might. In other references, however, 'resheph' no longer seems to refer to a deity: in Psalm 76:4 it seems to mean 'arrow', while in Psalm 78:48 it seem to mean 'fiery thunderbolt'. Notably, although the Bible seems to be aware of Resheph as a deity, there are no references to the people of Israel bringing offerings to him. The Resheph cult should thus be considered as an example of an cult practiced in the Late Bronze and early Iron Ages that began to be replaced by other cults in the later Iron Age. One cult supplanting Resheph was, as Deuteronomy 33:24 and Habakkuk 3:5 attest, the cult of Yhwh.
This cylinder seal came from the Megiddo water system. This makes a precise date impossible, but the imagery is typically Neo-Assyrian, from the late tenth to the late seventh century BCE. It is approximately 4cm high and is made of olivine, a mineral composition typically found in dark igneous rocks like basalt. It is slightly worn, blurring the image somewhat, but the main features can still be seen. This seal has seven stars in the upper left, probably signifying the Pleiades, and the star of the goddess Ishtar on the far left side. A bearded figure is on the far right, fighting a winged dragon in the centre. Another dragon lies face-down on the ground under the deity’s foot, symbolising its defeat. The deity may already have defeated one dragon and be in the midst of battling a second, or the seal may simultaneously show the battle and its outcome, emphasising that the deity is ultimately victorious. It may depict the god Bel (Marduk) fighting the dragon, although it also resembles a seal from Emar, in which Ninurta fights the Anzu bird—or it could be the chief deity of the Neo-Assyrian pantheon Ashur.In the second and early first millennia seals often had religious motifs; over time more and more text appears on the seals and in the Levant with aniconic (non-pictorial) seals eventually replace seals with text almost entirely. When a document was sealed with cultic imagery it may have been meant that the god(s) witnessed the sealing of the document and its contents, lending a divine imprimatur to the details and emphasising that they should be carried out exactly. Alternatively, such seals may have symbolised the owner’s devotion to the deity, or been used for a specific function such as signalling that the document was a certain kind of communication, involving a person or temple connected with the deity.
This clay cult stand was found in a cistern at Ta’anach, protected by layer of silt. Its exact purpose is unclear: no traces of incense or burning were found on it. Some have claimed it functioned as a pedestal for a deity. The bottom tier features a nude female stretching her arms out to two lions which flank her on either side. The faces of the lions can be seen on the front of the stand and their bodies on the sides. The lower middle tier features two creatures on either side, directly above the lions, and have been identified as 'cherubim' (subordinate divine beings). There is no figure between the creatures, which seems to have been deliberate. The upper middle tier also features lions, on either side of a tree flanked by two ibex. The top tier displays a side-view of a quadruped, perhaps a calf or a horse, with a winged sun disk above it. Volute columns appear on either side of the quadruped and winged sun disk, and a winged griffin or sphinx appears on the side of the stand. Each tier is thought to represent a temple. It is widely recognised that the bottom and upper middle tiers depict a goddess, probably Asherah. The identity of the deity represented by the empty lower middle tier is unclear. Some have suggested that it is an early representation of Yhwh, who was not supposed to be depicted pictorially, but it is inevitably difficult to identify a deity who is not there. The sun disk of the top tier suggests a sun-god; this might also be Yhwh, but a range of other deities could also be identified with a sun disk. If the upper tier and the lower middle tier should be identified with Yhwh, then this cult stand is an early example of Yhwh and Asherah depicted together, as they are at Kuntillet ‘Arjud, Khirbet el-Qom, and in the Bible, where a/the Asherah often appears in Yhwh’s temple (for example, 2 Kings 23:4-6).
This amulet is one of two that were found beneath the burial chamber of a rock-hewn tomb near Jerusalem, in a cave in Ketef Hinnom. The amulets probably date to the seventh or sixth centuries BCE. The amulets are made of thin, beaten silver, with inscriptions scratched on using a sharp tool. They were discovered rolled up, and were probably worn hung around the owner’s neck. Originally discovered in 1979, these amulets were re-photographed in 2004 by the West Semitic Research Project, allowing for more comprehensive translations. The amulets are particularly interesting for biblical scholars as they both contain a blessing in the name of Yhwh, which echoes the one found in the book of Numbers (6:24-26):'Yhwh bless you and keep you; Yhwh make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;Yhwh lift up his face upon you and give you peace.' The inscription on the amulet shown here (Amulet 2) reads: [top of inscription broken]May (s)he be blessed by Yhwh, the helper and the rebuker of [E]vil. May Yhwh bless you, may he keep you. May Yh[w]h make his face shine upon you and grant you p[ea]ce. The 2004 photographs of the amulets indicate that both amulets are intended to seek protection from evil, and thus have an apotropaic function (to protect the wearer from evil).
This kernos—a pottery ring with small vessels for holding offerings—consists of a hollow ring with five attached recepticals: two pomegranates, one jar, one cup, and one zoomorphic model that might be a bull or a calf. The kernos was found at Tell el-Hammah in a large room in the western complex, dated to the tenth or ninth centuries BCE. The exact function of the room is unclear, but the kernos was part of a rich assemblage of finds, including several figurines, a multi-handled krater (a very large vase) decorated with animal appliques, a cat amulet, astragali (small joint bones), and a censer lid. The term kernos (plural: kernoi) is borrowed from Greek archaeology, and there have been several suggestions that the kernoi found in Israel may have originated in the Aegean. Vessels like this one and the Megiddo Kernos were used for the ritual pouring of libation or drink offerings. Liquid—probably wine, oil, or milk—would be poured into the pomegranates, jar, or cup and then flow around the hollow ring at the base, so that it could either be poured out of the nostrils of the animal, or drunk from the cup itself. The circulation of the liquid perhaps symbolised the fertility of the earth, as it flowed through objects symbolizing animals, birds and plants. Libation rituals are widely known in the Hebrew Bible and seem to have been a part of daily religious life that anyone could enact in any location.
This silver pendant depicts the goddess Ishtar standing on the back of a lion, beneath the symbols for the stars and the winged sun. Lower down is the symbol for the crescent moon. A worshipper stands with arms outstretched, facing the goddess and in between them is a small cult stand. The hands of the worshipper are facing the goddess in supplication. The iconography is reminiscent of Phoenician craftsmanship, rather than the Mesopotamian iconography expected of the Mesopotamian goddess. This together with the crude workmanship suggests that it was locally made, with Mesopotamian influence. The pendant was found in a silver hoard, hidden in the hole of a hewn, perforated, stone olive press. This hoard, along with five others, were sealed in a destruction layer dated to 604 BCE. The silver hoards are highly unusual for a Levantine city at this time and probably reflect the growing economic status and expanding needs of Ekron’s population. Ekron was located on the border between Philistine and Judean territory. In the seventh century BCE it flourished under Neo-Assyrian influence, becoming a major olive oil production centre. Prosperity came with cultural strings attached, however, as the pendant’s use of the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar suggests. A similar depiction of Ishtar on a pendant was found at Zinçirli, while seals depicting Ishtar have been found throughout Israel. Ishtar was widely venerated across the ancient Near East in the seventh century, with depictions of her most commonly found on personal items, such as seals or jewellery, rather than monumental inscriptions. During the period of Neo-Assyrian expansion between the ninth and seventh centuries BCE, the development of trade routes and exchange of peoples and goods across the ancient Near East meant that cultural and religious ideas and goods were exchanged at a notable rate, which led to a diversification of local cultures. As the pendant from Ekron attests, foreign religious and cultural ideas were present among Judah’s closest neighbours during the seventh century; it seems very likely that they were known also in Judah itself.
The three horns of this figurine identify it as the head of a deity. The lack of a beard suggests a goddess, while traces of paint indicate that the face was originally painted red and the hair and the handle were painted black. The facial features and hair were modelled around a hollow object and the features are slightly asymmetrical. The nose is prominent and the lips are incised in a small smile. The head comes from Horvat Qitmit, a site in the Judean Negev region. Horvat Qitmit seems to have been a purely cultic site; hundreds of fragments of figurines, cult stands, cultic vessels, and statues were found at the site, but no evidence of habitation was uncovered. A large number of burnt bones were uncovered in one of the building complexes. The site had two main complexes: a bamah (high place) complex and an altar complex. The bamah complex was the larger of the two and produced more cultic finds, including this head of a goddess. The style of the pottery and finds has led to the site’s interpretation as an Edomite shrine, located near a number of small Judean settlements that in part guarded a road running from Edom through the Beersheba valley into Judah. A number of the figurines, including this one, were not made in Edom but were made in the Edomite style from materials local to the region, as indicated by analysis of their chemical compositions. Whether the site was primarily used by Edomites, Judeans, or was open to anyone is not clear. The large number of figurines and cultic finds at Horvat Qitmit is in stark contrast to the small amount found at the Judean shrine at Arad, but the reasons for this contrast are not entirely clear.
This bronze bull is a special find from a fairly remote open air cult site on the summit of a ridge in the northern part of the Samaria hills. The site is at least 6.5km away from the closest major city, though there were a number of small Iron Age settlements in the surrounding area. The site was only used for a short period of time in the twelfth century BCE before being abandoned, leaving little evidence of activity. The bull is bronze and would have had eyes made of a different material, pressed into the depressions in the face. The head is somewhat triangular and the legs have been made by looping the metal up over the back, creating a ridge. The tail is coiled on the right thigh, which is unusual; bulls were often depicted with the tail hanging between the back legs. The size of the object—quite large for a bronze figurine from Israel—suggests that it was itself a cult object, rather than a votive item brought as an offering. Bulls held an important position in ancient Levantine cult. They were associated with storm-gods, especially Hadad and Baal, but they could also symbolise other deities, including Yhwh. They represented the god's power and strength. Bulls are also sometimes used as pedestals for deities who stand on their backs; a bull figurine could thus represent the deity itself, or symbolise the presence of the deity. The golden calves in the biblical tradition provide a textual parallel to figurines such as this one; the golden calves may have been thought to represent Yhwh directly, or to symbolise his presence by serving as a pedestal for his invisible manifestation. The Megiddo Kernos in this collection may also attest to the cultic importance of the bull in early Iron Age society.
This inscription was removed from the pillar of a tomb at Khirbet el-Qom. It displays a carved handprint with some lines of text above it and two more lines of text on the lower left corner. The stone was smoothed over in preparation for the inscription with a tool that left scratches in its surface, and this, combined with natural faults in the stone and the presence of ghost-letters* has led to considerable debate over the translation of the text. Attempts to date the inscription paleographically (on the basis of the letter shapes) suggest a date between 750 and 700 BCE. If meant to be read top to bottom, the text perhaps reads: Uriyahu the rich wrote it Blessed be Uriyahu by Yhwh For from his enemies by his [Yhwh’s] Asherah he saved him [carving of hand]… by Abiyahu… by his Asherah… his A[she]eraAlmost all commentators agree that the inscription involves Yhwh’s blessing of Uriyahu, but it is not entirely clear if the inscription praises Yhwh for past blessings or expresses a plea for future blessing. The significance of the hand carving is also unclear, although a few places in the Bible associate hands with monuments. Both Saul and Absalom, for example, set up monuments that are referred to in the Hebrew as a 'hand' (1 Samuel 15:12; 2 Samuel 18:18). One of the most interesting features of the inscription is the mention of Asherah. This goddess was well known in biblical times; the biblical texts that use the term Asherah refer varoiously to a goddess or to an object (or, perhaps, sometimes to both, in an elision between the deity and the cultic object meant to represent the deity). When the texts refer to an object, it often appears in close proximity to Yhwh’s own altar. Biblical Hebrew does not usually affix pronominal suffixes to personal names. This has led to suggestions that 'his Asherah' in this inscription might mean the cultic object, rather than the goddess. A few other inscriptions associate Yhwh and Asherah; two inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Arjud provide an especially useful comparison, as they also refer to 'Yhwh and his Asherah'.*Ghost-letters are traces of letters that can be seen on an inscription but are not properly incised into it. They are often detected by modern cameras that pick up details the human eyes cannot see. Some of the ghost letters on this inscription were probably caused by a person in antiquity tracing the letters with a fingernail, or perhaps a stick.