Godly (and Ungodly) Names in Ancient Israel

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Istanbul Archaeology Museums

In Leviticus 26, God affirmed his covenant with Israel, leading with the sin of idolatry. “Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it. I am the Lord your God.” In this covenant, adherence to the law and fealty to God would be rewarded with blessings, and disobedience punished with curses: “For the land will be deserted by them and will enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them. They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees.”

The historical books of 1 & 2 Kings chronicle the reigns of several kings of Israel and Judah, many of whom fell afoul of the warnings mentioned in Leviticus and who worshipped foreign gods. King of Israel Ahaziah worshipped Baal, and kings Jehoahaz, Jehoash and Jeroboam II each “did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat.” In the Kingdom of Judah, the kings Jehoram and Ahaziah “followed the ways of the kings of Israel.”

The archaeological record shows a declining attachment to God alone in the Kingdom of Israel.

The Samaria Ostraca are a collection of over 100 inscriptions on clay shards that were found in Sebastia, near today’s Nablus, the site of the ancient royal estate of the Kingdom of Israel. These inscriptions, written in ancient Hebrew on pottery shards, primarily document transactions of oil and wine, but their significance extends beyond mere commercial records. Theophoric names, names that include the title of a god within them, represented on the Samaria Ostraca, demonstrate the Israelite citizenry’s devotion to other regional gods.

A significant number of the names on the Samaria Ostraca include the element “Yau,” reflective of the Israelite God, YHWH, indicating a society where worship of the national deity was prevalent. Examples of such names featured on the Samaria Ostraca include Yeda’yau, Gera Yauyosheb, Abed-yau and Abi-yau.

Yet, mixed in with these names in almost equal measure are names that invoke the Canaanite god Ba’al, names such as Ba’alzamar, Ba’ala Elisha and Abi-Ba’al. These reflect a society where the boundaries between the worship of YHWH and that of other gods was fluid.

This duality in theophoric names corroborates the biblical accounts of a period marked by religious syncretism and idolatry, illustrating a tangible connection between the scriptural admonitions of Leviticus and the historical reality reflected in the Books of Kings 1&2.

The Samaria Ostraca are housed in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums. Theophoric names visible in the image above.

Records of Israel’s “Lush Vineyards”

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Istanbul Archaeology Museums

Leviticus 25 instructs about the sabbath year, and the restrictions on planting crops. “For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.”

Records from the 8th century BCE show that Samaria experienced years of successful harvests.  

The Samaria Ostraca are a collection of records written in the ancient Hebrew script on clay shards. The ostraca were found at the palace in Samaria, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel. They are records of wine and oil, two key crops for ancient Israel. They are presumably records of taxes collected by the kingdom or from lands held by royal officials.

These records of high value goods, oil and wine, accord well with the 8th century BCE prophets. The prophets Hosea, Amos and Micah are critical of Israel for their flaunting wealth while others suffered in poverty. Hosea remarks that “The merchant uses dishonest scales and loves to defraud. Ephraim boasts, I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin.” Amos remarks that “You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” And Micah says that “They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance.”

These Samaria Ostraca record the produce of the “lush vineyards” that produced the wealth of which the prophets speak.

The Samaria Ostraca are held at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.

Going Out in Style

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, British Museum

In Leviticus 21, the Bible discusses the laws of ritual purity for priests when dealing with the deceased. “The Lord said to Moses, speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die, except for a close relative, such as his mother or father, his son or daughter, his brother, or an unmarried sister who is dependent on him since she has no husband, for her he may make himself unclean. He must not make himself unclean for people related to him by marriage, and so defile himself.”

A number of the prophets in the biblical book Minor Prophets are critical of those flaunt their wealth in the face of poverty or who abuse the poor. The biblical prophet Isaiah continues in this tradition, in his criticism of an advisor to the king and this advisor’s plans for after his own death.

In 2 Kings 18, the king of Judah, Hezekiah, had an advisor named Shebna. “Then Eliakim son of Hilkiah the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph the recorder went to Hezekiah, with their clothes torn, and told him what the field commander had said.” In Isaiah 22, the prophet is critical of Shebna for his plans for an ostentatious tomb and warns of punishment heading his way. “This is what the Lord, the Lord Almighty, says: Go, say to this steward, to Shebna the palace administrator: What are you doing here and who gave you permission to cut out a grave for yourself here, hewing your grave on the height and chiseling your resting place in the rock? Beware, the Lord is about to take firm hold of you and hurl you away, you mighty man. He will roll you up tightly like a ball and throw you into a large country. There you will die and there the chariots you were so proud of will become a disgrace to your master’s house. I will depose you from your office, and you will be ousted from your position.”

The Royal Steward Inscription is an inscription that was discovered in Silwan, across from the ancient city of Jerusalem. The inscription reads “This [burials …]-iah, the royal steward. There is no silver or gold here only … [his bones and the bones] of his maidservant with him. Cursed be the man who opens this.”

The bulk of the individual’s name cannot be read, but it ends with the suffix showing it to be a theophoric name, containing God’s name. Some have suggested that the original name on the inscription was Shebnaiah, a variation of the royal steward Shebna mentioned in 2 Kings and in Isaiah, although this cannot be confirmed.

The Royal Steward Inscription is on display at the British Museum.

Israel Adorned with Ivory

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Israel Museum

Leviticus 19 lists laws that protect and assist the poor, the weak and the disenfranchised. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God…Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight. Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord. Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly…When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

The biblical prophets Hosea, Amos and Micah stress the importance of treating the poor well and of not abusing them, and of not abusing one’s position of power and wealth. In Amos 5, the prophet warns “You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.” Micah 6 is similarly critical. “Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house, and the short ephah, which is accursed? Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights? Your rich people are violent; your inhabitants are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully.”

1 Kings 22 notes that the Israelite king Ahab’s palace was “adorned with ivory.” The prophet Amos, writing roughly a century later, is critical of the use of ivory and notes in it his warnings. “I will tear down the winter house along with the summer house; the houses adorned with ivory will be destroyed and the mansions will be demolished.”

Already in the 9th century BCE, it was clear that the Kingdom of Israel was a powerful. The Kurkh Monolith of Shalmaneser III lists Israel as a major contributor to an alliance against Assyria. In the 8th century, it appears that this wealth was being spent on luxury and not on the poor.

The Samaria Ivories are a collection of ivory carvings that were unearthed in the vicinity of Israel’s ancient capital. The carvings number in the thousands, much of which were likely for use in furniture carvings. These ivories date to the 9th and 8th centuries.

The existence of these ivories confirms the credibility of the Book of Kings’ and Amos’ criticism of the Kingdom of Israel’s use of ivory luxury products, and supports the idea that the criticism matches the circumstances of the time.

The image above of is of a Samaria ivory, housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Ethics Above Ritual in Ancient Times

Leviticus 16-18 discuss atonement and behavioral sins. First it sets aside the 10th day of the 7th month as a day of atonement, then it discusses sexual sins, a form of interpersonal transgression.

A number of 8th century BCE prophets also stress the importance of interpersonal transgressions. Hosea 12 criticizes those who are dishonest: The merchant uses dishonest scales and loves to defraud. Ephraim boasts, “I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin.” Similarly, Amos 2 complains of Israel that “They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name. They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge.” Micah 2 sticks with this theme: “They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance.”

There is a debate in the area of human development about the introduction of ethics as a religious concept in the 8th century BCE, and if the period that begins with the 8th BCE and extends for a number of centuries is an “Axial Age,” an age in which human perceptions and values changed.

More so than the prophets of any other period, the early biblical prophets Hosea, Amos and Micah stress the importance of ethics, not just fealty to God or adherence to religious ritual. Similarly, at a parallel point in time and across the known world stretching from India to southern Europe, new concepts that stress ethics emerge. These include the Hindu Upanishads, the introduction of Buddhism and the Greek philosophers, all which had a heightened focus on ethics and behavior instead of religious legend.

The image above is a bust of Socrates, a key figure in Greek philosophical thought.

The Return of the Pig

Leviticus 11 gives the list of a permitted and prohibited foods. “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, Say to the Israelites: Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud. There are some that only chew the cud or only have a divided hoof, but you must not eat them. The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof, it is ceremonially unclean for you. The hyrax, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.”

In the books of 1 Kings and 2 Kings, King David maintained his fealty to God alone, but subsequent kings, notably in the Kingdom of Israel, did not. Ahaziah worshipped Baal, and the kings Jehoahaz, Jehoash and Jeroboam II each “did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat.” In the Kingdom of Judah, the kings Jehoram and Ahaziah “followed the ways of the kings of Israel.”

In the archaeological record, it appears that the Bible’s stories of the worship of God alone not being honored are matched by a change in pig consumption.

At the end of the Late Bronze Age and into the Iron I period, a new population emerges in the central hill country, the area of the Samarian and Judean highlands. This population settles in villages at new sites, lives in unique pillared houses, utilizes poorer quality pottery, and in a cultural phenomenon similar to the biblical prohibition, avoids pig in their diet. This lies in contrast with the Philistines who settled in the coastal region, for whom pigs were central to their diets.

In the Iron IIB period, this pattern changes.

In the Iron IIB, in the northern Kingdom of Israel, pig appears to be an important part of the local diet. By contrast, in the southern Kingdom of Judah, pig is not a part of the local diet, in continuity with the pattern established in the Iron I and Iron IIA period.

This food consumption pattern mirrors the Bible’s account of the northern Kingdom of Israel’s lessening attachment to God in the Iron IIB period, while the southern Kingdom of Judah for the most part maintained its fealty to God. In the books of 1 and 2 Kings, the northern kings are chastised for worshipping other gods, while the southern kings for the most part do not worship other gods.

If pig avoidance was indeed connected to a biblical prohibition, than the pig consumption patterns could be an indicator for a declining attachment to God’s laws in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

The image above is of a pig skull, the type that might be found in the refuse dumps of ancient northern Kingdom Iron IIB towns. 

By His Asherah He Has Saved Him

Credit: BiblePlaces.com

Leviticus chapters 6-7 continue to list the sacrifices that Israel must offer YWHW, and YHWH only. Yet in 1 Kings & 2 Kings numerous kings engaged in the worship of other gods. Ahaziah worshipped Baal, and the kings Jehoahaz, Jehoash and Jeroboam II each “did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat.” In the Kingdom of Judah, the kings Jehoram and Ahaziah “followed the ways of the kings of Israel.”

There is evidence to show that in the Iron IIB period, in the 8th century BCE, people in Judah worshipped gods other than YHWH. At Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, archaeologists found an inscription that mentions “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.” There is similar evidence from Khirbet el-Qom.

Khirbet el-Qom is an archaeological site situated between Hebron and Lachish, in the former territory of the ancient Kingdom of Judah. At Khirbet el-Qom archaeologists found two tombs carved into the rock that date from the mid to late 8th century BCE, the Iron IIB period. Each of these tombs contained inscriptions. One of the inscriptions includes the following text:

Uriyahu the honourable has written this

Blessed is/be Uriyahu by Yahweh

And…from his oppressors by his Asherah he has saved him

As at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, YWHW is connected with Asherah. In Canaanite worship, Asherah was the consort of the god Baal. This tomb inscription may suggest that this is the way some in the Kingdom of Judah saw YHWH, as having a goddess as a consort.

The image above is of Khirbet el-Qom.

YHWH and His Wife?

Credit: BiblePlaces.com

Leviticus chapters 1-5 discuss the various sacrifices that Israel must offer YWHW, their lone God. But if Israel was commanded to only worship the one God, they often did not meet this standard.

In 1 Kings & 2 Kings numerous kings engage in the worship of foreign gods. Of the later leaders of the Kingdom of Israel, Ahaziah worshipped Baal, and the kings Jehoahaz, Jehoash and Jeroboam II each “did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat.” Even in the Kingdom of Judah, the kings Jehoram and Ahaziah “followed the ways of the kings of Israel.”

There is evidence that demonstrates that at a minimum, at times, people of either Israel or Judah worshipped gods other than YHWH.

Kuntillet ‘Ajrud is a hilltop site in northern Sinai, about 50 km south of Kadesh Barnea. A high water table at the base of the hill provided a stable water source in this arid region, which in ancient times made this isolated spot an important station on ancient trading routes between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Mediterranean.

The Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions are a series of inscriptions on pieces of ancient storage jars that date to the early 8th century BCE.  There are inscriptions mentioning El, Baal and images of the easily identifiable Egyptian god Bes. And there also two inscriptions that refer to YHWH and Asherah.

The commonly accepted readings of the inscriptions that refer to YHWH and Asherah are “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah,” and “Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah.” Kuntillet Ajrud is closer in proximity to the Kingdom of Judah, but the inscription reading “Yahweh of Samaria” has led some to suggest that the site was connected to the northern Kingdom of Israel and not the southern Kingdom of Judah.

There is some debate about the exact reading. The commonly accepted readings are of Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah, and another that reads as Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah. Some disagree with this interpretation and just see it as “by YHWH and by Asherah.” Whichever reading one chooses, it does not comport with the biblically approved form of worship.

There is also debate about what Asherah means here. Asherah could refer to a form of worship. But Asherah was also a Canaanite goddess. In Canaanite worship, Asherah could be the consort of the god Baal. For those who read the text as Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah, it would suggest that YHWH’s consort or wife is the goddess Asherah. Again, this would run counter the Bible’s instruction to worship only YHWH.

The Kingdom of Judah’s New Administrative Center

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Judah, Israel

Exodus 38 explains the source of material for Israel’s desert Tabernacle, its traveling center of worship. “The silver obtained from those of the community who were counted in the census was 100 talents and 1,775 shekels, according to the sanctuary shekel, one beka per person, that is, half a shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, from everyone who had crossed over to those counted, twenty years old or more, a total of 603,550 men. The 100 talents of silver were used to cast the bases for the sanctuary and for the curtain, 100 bases from the 100 talents, one talent for each base. They used the 1,775 shekels to make the hooks for the posts, to overlay the tops of the posts, and to make their bands.”

Governments typically manage these forms of administrative functions and collections from administrative centers. In the Iron IIB period Kingdom of Judah, this appears to have occurred from an area that is today’s Ramat Rachel, which replaced Jerusalem in that role.

Ramat Rachel is located in the southeastern corner of Jerusalem, near the neighborhoods of Talpiot and Arnona, on a hill that is roughly between the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In the Iron IIB period, the site appears to have been connected to royalty. It contained a fortified palace or citadel. The stones were hewn, indicating a degree of wealth. It had a large courtyard and a tower on the summit of the hill. East of the hill was a building. The site also produced many vessels that were stamped with seals with the word “LMLK,” meaning to the king. These vessels would have held agriculture goods that were collected from the population. Thus by archaeological appearances, Ramat Rachel appears to have been an important center for the operation of the Kingdom of Judah.

The image above of ashlar masonry stones at Ramat Rachel.

The Ancient 1%

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Israel

Exodus 35 lays out the plans for the construction and furnishing of a desert Tabernacle that would serve as nascent Israel’s center of worship. The physical and labor resources for the Tabernacle were to come from the people of Israel. “Moses said to the whole Israelite community, this is what the Lord has commanded: From what you have, take an offering for the Lord. Everyone who is willing is to bring to the Lord an offering of gold, silver and bronze; blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; ram skins dyed red and another type of durable leather; acacia wood; olive oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; and onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece. All who are skilled among you are to come and make everything the Lord has commanded.”

The Tabernacle, in its building and operation, is an example of social stratification in Israelite society. Within the community of Israel, there were a group of priests who were dedicated to working in the Tabernacle, while the rest of the nation provided the goods and services to supports its operation.

In the Iron IIB period, both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah appear to have become increasingly stratified, with a richer class living better than a poorer class. This is evidenced in the archaeology of the period through the presence of houses that differed in size and quality within towns.

In the northern Kingdom of Israel, the city of Samaria is an example of stratification, with the large palace structure of the Israelite king. Similarly, at Megiddo, there appear to be large open areas that are associated with stables belonging to a king.

Similarly, the Kingdom of Judah contains evidence of social stratification. At Lachish, a royal palace sat in middle of the city. Tel Moza, a city to the northwest of Jerusalem, was home to a large building and courtyard that shares a layout with other monumental temples in the Levant, and whose remains suggest that this building functioned as a temple.

These various site demonstrate the changes over time in social structures of the ancient Israelites and Judahites. Whereas the areas were once egalitarian in the Iron I period, in the Iron IIB period these same areas are divided into different classes.

The image above is of ashlar masonry, smooth cut stones, at the site of ancient Samaria, indicative of higher value construction available only to those with greater resources.