YHWH and His Wife?

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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

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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%

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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.

Arabian Precious Stone Imports

The breastpiece that the high priest was commanded to wear in the desert Tabernacle required a variety of different gemstones. “Fashion a breastpiece for making decisions, the work of skilled hands…It is to be square, a span a long and a span wide, and folded double. Then mount four rows of precious stones on it. The first row shall be carnelian, chrysolite and beryl, the second row shall be turquoise, lapis lazuli and emerald, the third row shall be jacinth, agate and amethyst, the fourth row shall be topaz, onyx and jasper. Mount them in gold filigree settings.” Some of these items would have been imported from Arabia.

Historically, Arabia was a primary source for gemstones, spices and camels. Arabian mines were the source of a wide variety of gemstones, including the agate and amethyst that were required for the breastpiece. Arabia was also a source for frankincense and myrrh, which came from plant residue. Arabia has a hot and arid climate, and in these conditions the camel developed into the primary beast of burden for transportation across the desert. Skill in domesticating camels help make the camels themselves became an important trade good for Arabia.

There is a debate as to whether extensive trade existed during the Iron IIB period, in the 8th century BCE, or if this developed later, in the 7th century BCE.

Arabian goods moved along trade routes that continued on to Egypt, Syria and the Aegean. This became a boon for the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, who sat along these trade routes and could collect taxes on transported goods. One likely route would have passed Beersheba on the way to the port at Gaza. Some have argued that this positioning would have been an important factor in the rise of the Kingdom of Judah during the Iron IIB period, in the 8th century BCE.

Another more southerly trade route would have gone from Arabia, passed just north of the Gulf of Aqaba and then headed north along the eastern edge of the Sinai desert and on to Gaza. Inscriptions found at Kuntillet Ajrud in the Sinai Peninsula suggest that this southern site was controlled by the northern Kingdom of Israel, which means that the Kingdom of Israel would have found a way to exploit trade from Arabia.

The image above is of amethyst, one of the precious stones used in the high priest’s breastplate.

Israel a Leading Oil Producer?

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Olive oil was an important cash crop in the ancient Near East, and its importance is reflected in the Bible. In Exodus 27, one of the centerpieces of the Temple was the lampstand, which burned olive oil. “Command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light so that the lamps may be kept burning. In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that shields the ark of the covenant law, Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before the Lord from evening till morning. This is to be a lasting ordinance among the Israelites for the generations to come.”

The Bible is replete with references to olives and oil production. In Micah 6, the prophet warns that “ You will plant but not harvest, you will press olives but not use the oil, you will crush grapes but not drink the wine. In Jeremiah 11, “The Lord called you a thriving olive tree with fruit beautiful in form. But with the roar of a mighty storm he will set it on fire, and its branches will be broken.” Later in Nehemiah 9 “They captured fortified cities and fertile land; they took possession of houses filled with all kinds of good things, wells already dug, vineyards, olive groves and fruit trees in abundance.” It also recognizes oil’s importance in trade, as Hosea 12 notes: “Ephraim feeds on the wind, he pursues the east wind all day, and multiplies lies and violence. He makes a treaty with Assyria and sends olive oil to Egypt.”

The hill country of Samaria and the Shephela are well suited for olive cultivation. The Mediterranean climate offers cold not but not too cold temperatures and hot summer temperatures that allow olives to collect oil.

In the Iron IIB period, olive oil production increased substantially in the regions of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This is in evidence in the rise of a mass production olive oil industry that increased in size and in productive capacity. Oil production became central to town planning and entire industrial villages were founded around olive oil production. The centrality to town planning can be seen in the number of olive presses, in channels for waste drainage and storage buildings adjacent to production areas. Most of the oil was slated for export, likely to markets in Egypt, Mesopotamia and to the Aegean.

The image above is of an olive press at Hazor.

Everything God Had Done for His People Judah

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Exodus 18 marks a point from which Israel begins its rise as a nation. “Now Jethro, the priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, heard of everything God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, and how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” God’s bond with Israel would soon continue to grow with giving of the Ten Commandments and God’s laws for Israel.

2 Chronicles 26 marks an apex for the Kingdom of Judah, that in the Bible is one of the kingdoms that emerges from Israel, with the reign of King Uzziah. “He was the one who rebuilt Elath and restored it to Judah…He went to war against the Philistines and broke down the walls of Gath, Jabneh and Ashdod. He then rebuilt towns near Ashdod and elsewhere among the Philistines. God helped him against the Philistines and against the Arabs who lived in Gur Baal and against the Meunites. The Ammonites brought tribute to Uzziah, and his fame spread as far as the border of Egypt, because he had become very powerful. Uzziah built towers in Jerusalem at the Corner Gate, at the Valley Gate and at the angle of the wall, and he fortified them. He also built towers in the wilderness and dug many cisterns, because he had much livestock in the foothills and in the plain. He had people working his fields and vineyards in the hills and in the fertile lands, for he loved the soil.”

Scholars estimate King Uzziah’s reign to have taken place from the early to mid-8th century BCE. And the archaeology comports with the Bible’s description of this period of King Uzziah’s rule as an expansionary period.

The Shephelah is the region between the hill country of Judea, which includes Jerusalem, and the southern coastal plain, which in ancient times was the heartland of the Philistines.

During the Iron I period, roughly 1200 BCE through 1000 BCE according to the ‘High Chronology,’ the Shephelah was undeveloped, with only a small Canaanite presence in its eastern range. In the early Iron II period, new sites developed at places such as Lachish and Tel Zayit that appear to have been connected to a more centralized force in the highlands area.

A key turning point came in the late 8th century BCE with the defeat of the powerful Philistine city of Gath by the Arameans. With the loss of a powerful coastline rival, the polity in the central highlands, presumably Judah, was able to expand further west without interference. Theis expansion can be seen at sites such as Lachish, Tel Beth Shemesh, Tel Batash, Tel Zayit, Tell Beit Mirsim and Tel ‘Eton. A population estimate for the period ranges from 50,000 to 100,000.

The Uzziah Seals

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Historically speaking, the land of the Philistines was concentrated in the southwestern corner of the southern Levant, and encompassed towns with names familiar to modern ears, names such as Gaza, Ashkelon and Ashdod. In Exodus 13, after freeing the Israelites from servitude in Egypt, God steered Israel away from the northeastern route that led to the Philistine country. “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, if they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt. So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea.”

2 Chronicles 26 tells of a king of Judah that did enter the Philistine region and defeated the Philistines. “Then all the people of Judah took Uzziah

, who was sixteen years old, and made him king in place of his father Amaziah…He went to war against the Philistines and broke down the walls of Gath, Jabneh and Ashdod. He then rebuilt towns near Ashdod and elsewhere among the Philistines. God helped him against the Philistines and against the Arabs who lived in Gur Baal and against the Meunites.”

In the ancient Near East, seals were used for administrative matters, for ensuring communications were authenticated and for record keeping. And two seals appear to be linked to this King Uzziah. King Uzziah is acknowledged on different ancient seals. One seal belonged to a “Shebnayau servant of Uzziyau.” Another seal, this one containing an Egyptian style motif, belonged to Abiyau servant of Uzziyau. These seals appear to be dated to the 8th century BCE, which accords with scholarly estimates of the reign of King Uzziah in the 8th century BCE.

The Shebnayau servant of Uzziyau seal is shown in the image above. It is housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

Shema, Servant of Jeroboam (II)

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In the Bible, God can direct the course of history through human agents. In Exodus 10, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, so when Moses asked to allow the Israelites to worship in the desert, he refused, and the Egyptians were punished with additional plagues. “Then the Lord said to Moses, Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord.” Even after begging Moses to remove the plague, he would not change his position. “Moses then left Pharaoh and prayed to the Lord. And the Lord changed the wind to a very strong west wind, which caught up the locusts and carried them into the Red Sea. Not a locust was left anywhere in Egypt. But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go.”

In 2 Kings 14, Jeroboam II King of Israel was not a righteous king. “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit.” Yet God still restored Israel’s fortune through Jeroboam. “The Lord had seen how bitterly everyone in Israel, whether slave or free, was suffering; there was no one to help them. And since the Lord had not said he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Jehoash.” Jeroboam is described as having had a successful reign, including capturing Damascus and Hamath.

Working backwards from later events, biblical scholars and archaeologists estimate that the biblical Israelite king Jereboam II reigned from approximately 786 BCE through 746 BCE, a period that the archaeology shows to have been an expansionary one for the kingdom of Israel.

Beyond the estimated time frame, there appears to be archaeological evidence for this King Jeroboam II.

In the ancient Near East, seals were used for administrative matters, for ensuring communications were authenticated and for record keeping. One such seal was unearthed at Megiddo, a location within the ancient Israelite kingdom.

In the Bible, there are two kings of Israel named Jeroboam. The first one, Jeroboam I, is remembered as the king who led the ten northern tribes to seceded from the Davidic United Monarchy of twelve tribes. The second, Jeroboam II, is described as a king who ruled 150 years later.

Archaeologists working at Megiddo discovered a seal that featured a lion and the inscription “Belonging to Shema servant of Jeroboam” – “L’Shema eved Yeravam.” From the seal alone, it is not known if this seal relates to the first or second Jeroboam. Indications are that it refers to the latter. The motif of a lion is more typical of seals from the 8th century BCE. And an epigraphic analysis of the letters suggests a later form of the archaic Hebrew alphabet that dates to the 8th century BCE, the period associated with the second King Jeroboam.

The image above is of a replica of the Seal of Shema.

Israel’s Peak in the Iron IIB

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In Exodus 6, God tells Moses to tell the people of Israel in his name that “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.” In the biblical account, this moment stands out as an inflection point, where Israel’s fortunes are reversed to eventually become a powerful state.

In the Bible, the Kingdom of Israel achieves its greatest stretch of relatively peaceful dominion under the reigns of Jehoash son of Jehoahaz and Jereboam ben Jehoash. Egypt had not invaded since the times of Shishak over a century and a quarter earlier. The Aramean threat was reduced due to a “deliverer.” The Assyrians had yet to conquer Israel.

In 2 Kings 13, “Jehoash son of Jehoahaz recaptured from Ben-Hadad son of Hazael the towns he had taken in battle from his father Jehoahaz. Three times Jehoash defeated him, and so he recovered the Israelite towns.” When Amaziah of Judah challenged Jehoash to war, “Jehoash went to Jerusalem and broke down the wall of Jerusalem from the Ephraim Gate to the Corner Gate, a section about four hundred cubits long. He took all the gold and silver and all the articles found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace. He also took hostages and returned to Samaria.” Jereboam ben Jehoash later restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, and “he recovered for Israel both Damascus and Hamath, which had belonged to Judah.”

These biblical accounts align with the archaeology of the Iron IIB period, a period stretching from the latter part of the 9th century BCE through the mid-to-late 8th century BCE.

In Egypt, after the 21st Dynasty pharaoh Shoshenq I’s foray into the southern Levant, the area encompassing today’s Israel, Egyptian rulers remained tethered to Egypt. The Libyan pharaohs of Egypt’s 22nd and 23rd Dynasties do not appear to have invaded the kingdoms of Judah or Israel, allowing for an extended stretch of peace in the southwest. The Arameans to the north were weakened by the Assyrian expansion out of the region of today’s northern Iraq, and the Assyrians had yet to expand into the Kingdom of Israel as they later would under the rule of Tiglath-Pileser III.

This period of peace and expansion of wealth is reflected in the archaeology.

Judging by the archaeology, the Iron IIB period was a prosperous one for the Kingdom of Israel. The Kingdom of Israel contained dozens of cities, the larger ones of which included fortification systems, administrative buildings and water supply systems. There were hundreds of villages and farms. The area of its control stretched from the port of Dor in the northwest, Hazor in the north, Gezer in the south and into the Jordan Valley at Tel Rehov and Tel Bet She’an. One estimate is of a population of 350,000 at that time. This population appears to have been heterogeneous, including non-Israelites, likely absorbed into the Kingdom of Israel as it expanded.

The image above is of the site of Samaria, from where the Kingdom of Israel was ruled in the Iron IIB period.

The Seal of a Servant of YHWH

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Harvard Semitic Museum

In Exodus 3, Moses was tending to his father-in-law Jethro’s flock when God appeared to Moses from the flames of a burning bush. God revealed to Moses that he had seen the Israelite suffering and that he was appointing Moses to go to the Pharaoh and to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

Moses asked God what his name is. “God said to Moses, I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I am has sent me to you. God also said to Moses, Say to the Israelites, YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.”

In the ancient Near East, seals were used to signify ownership or authority. A seal could be used to create an impression on wet clay, affixed directly to a letter, or be tied through a hole in the seal to the threads at the edge of document.

The Seal of Miqneyaw is a red jasper seal that appeared on the antiquities market in Jerusalem. The text on the seal reads “Belonging to Miqneyaw, servant of YHWH.” The letters are written in negative, meaning in reverse, so that when stamped the letters appear correctly. The language on the text is notable for the language “servant of YHWH,” as in the Bible Moses is referred to similarly: “and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” And it is significant for being the oldest seal to feature the name YHWH.

The seal is written in the archaic form of the Hebrew alphabet, not on our modern day Hebrew letters. This alphabet evolved over time, originating as objects whose first letter was used to represent a sound, to more abstract forms. Based on the shapes of the letters, the seal is estimated to have originated in the early half of the 8th century BCE, during the Iron IIB period.

The Seal of Miqneyaw, shown above, is kept at the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East.