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Ishtar Silver Pendant.jpg

Silver Pendant from Ekron, depicting the Goddess Ishtar

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.

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Seal from Megiddo depicting cosmological battle

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.

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Sennacherib's South West Palace at Nineveh, portraying the capture of Lachish

This panel is part of a series of wall reliefs excavated from the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s (ruled 705–681 BCE) palace at Nineveh. The panels records the Assyrian siege and eventual capture of the city of Lachish. The panel shown here depicts Assyrian soldiers carrying away cultic items from the city. Lachish was one of the most important cities in Judah, perhaps second only to Jerusalem, and it played an important role in the administration and military strength of the kingdom. Sennacherib’s army's siege of Lachish is reported in 2 Kings 18–19 (cf. Isaiah 36–37). On the upper left hand side of the relief the besieged city of Lachish is shown, with archers and siege engines (perhaps spiked battering rams) attacking the walls. On the upper level there are various trees, which probably represent the journey to Assyria on which the deportees in the bottom two registers are embarking. In the middle register Neo-Assyrian soldiers can be seen carrying away the spoils of war. These include a chariot and shields and, to the right of those pulling the chariot, two figures are shown carrying incense stands or burners. These are cultic (religious) items that have been looted from the city, either from its main shrine or from private homes. Cultic items were a prized spoil of war, because they symbolised the defeat of the god associated with them, and the power of the god of the attacking forces.  A similar practice may be seen on one of Tiglath-pileser III's wall reliefs. The Bible does not record the Assyrians plunder of cultic items during Sennacherib's invasion (perhaps because Hezekiah was supposed to have destroyed them, according 2 Kings 18:4), but it does report that the Babylonians took cultic items away from the Temple of Yhwh when they attacked Jerusalem in 597 BCE and when they destroyed it in 586 BCE (2 Kings 24:13; 25:13–17).

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Shalmaneser III's 'Black Obelisk'

This black limestone obelisk, inscribed at the command of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, was found in the city of Nimrud in modern-day Iraq. The bas-reliefs* and inscriptions on the obelisk record and glorify the achievements of the king, the impressive extent of his authority, and the vast tributes paid by his client kings, whose territories spanned a wide geographic extent, from modern Egypt and Turkey to northern Iran. Of particular interest to historians of Israel and Judah is that these client kings include King Jehu, who ruled the northern kingdom of Israel from c. 841–814 BCE. He has the distinction of being the only Israelite or Judean king of whom we have a picture: he is shown paying homage, prostrate before Shalmaneser. Tribute payments of the kind recorded on the Black Obelisk were made by the kings of Israel and of Judah to their Mesopotamian suzerains in the eighth, seventh, and sixth centuries BCE, first to Assyrian kings and later to Babylonian kings. Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE and Nebuchadnezzar's sieges of Jerusalem in 597 and 586 BCE were the result of Judean king's decision to refuse payment.*Bas-reliefs are a type of sculpture that depicts figures and faces in a shallower form than their usual proportions. Bas-reliefs allow the inscription to be viewed from many angles without distorting the image.

BM 118931 (Tiglath-Pileser III wall relief, 4 gods, BM)

Wall Panel from Tiglath-Pileser III's South West Palace at Nimrud

This wall panel from the South West Palace of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III (ruled 745–727 BCE) shows Assyrian soldiers carrying away four statues of gods, captured from a city the army has just conquered. Although the exact location of the city is unknown, it was perhaps in Syria. The relief depicts the practice of 'godnapping', in which a conquering army carried off statues of the defeated enemy's gods. Although the exact contents of the Jerusalem temple when it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE are unknown—Ezekiel 8–11 claims that all manner of objects and practices were present—it is likely that the Babylonian army would have carted off whatever it found there.Deporting the statues of the defeated people's gods demonstrated the power of the Assyrian or Babylonian king's god, who had enabled his victory by defeating the gods of the conquered. The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians posed a major theological crisis for the defeated people of Judah, because it implied that Yhwh was weaker than the Babylonian gods. Many texts from this period seek to understand how this could have happened. Rather than admit that Yhwh was weaker than the Babylonian gods, however, most of these texts (such as Ezekiel) argue that Yhwh has authority over all of human history, and that the disaster was punishment for their accumulated sins, including and especially the worship of other gods. The experience of defeat and deportation thus was an important contributor to the theological development of the idea that the Israelites should only worship one god and, ultimately, that their god was the god of all.

Incense Altar 2 (Tel Halaf, BM)

Incense Burner from Tel Halaf

This elaborately carved tripod vessel may have served as an incense burner, as evidence of burning substance was found in the bowl. It comes from a royal tomb of the tenth or ninth century BCE at Tel Halaf (ancient Guzana). Tel Halaf was an important Aramean site that became a vassal of the Neo-Assyrian empire in the early ninth century and was assimilated fully into the Neo-Assyrian empire by the end of that century. The sides of the vessel are decorated with carvings of bulls, a winged quadruped, and a man shooting a bird with a bow and arrow. The legs of the tripod are decorated with incised rosettes. Another example of an incense burner may be found here.