In Deuteronomy 27, the nation of Israel is instructed to separate by tribal group and to stand opposite each other on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Once there, the Levites would recite a series of blessings and curses. One curse was “Cursed is anyone who makes an idol, a thing detestable to the Lord, the work of skilled hands and sets it up in secret.” This is just one of the many times in Deuteronomy that the nation is warned against owning idols.
In the Bible, the northern kingdom of Israel is commonly portrayed as less loyal to God than the southern kingdom of Judah. But it is in the region of the kingdom of Judah that archaeologists have found ubiquitous female figurines, often referred to as Judean Pillar Figurines.
Judean Pillar Figurines refer to female figures that are about six inches tall. The bodies are cylindrical with a flat base, and have folded arms that support a large pair of breasts. The heads come in one of two forms, either with pinched head or with a more defined head that is attached to the body.
These figurines are commonplace at archaeological sites in areas that were part of the kingdom of Judah. Over 1000 have been found, with high concentrations in Jerusalem, and at sites stretching from Tell en-Nasbeh or Mizpeh north of Jerusalem, to Beersheba in the south. They begin to appear in the 10thcentury BCE, but only become commonplace in the 8thand 7th centuries. After the kingdom of Judah was exiled to Babylon in the 6th century, these figurines disappear from the archaeological record.
The question is, what were these figurines? Various explanations have been offered.
One explanation is that the figurine represented the Canaanite goddess Astarte, known as Ashtoret in Hebrew. Astarte was the goddess of fertility and war. The oversized breasts of the figurine suggest a connection to fertility and thus the connection to Astarte.
A more common assumption today is that these figurines represent the female goddess Asherah. Asherah was the god El’s partner in the Canaanite pantheon, and it is thought that in the Judahite kingdom Asherah was God’s consort. This argument is supported by the inscriptions at Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud that mention “Y-hwh and his Asherah.”
In 2 Kings 23 Josiah “got rid of…the household gods, the idols and all the other detestable things seen in Judah and Jerusalem. This he did to fulfill the requirements of the law written in the book that Hilkiah the priest had discovered in the temple of the Lord.” Most of the figurines have been found in broken condition, and as these disappear from the archaeological record after the Babylonian exile, some argue that the destruction of these figurines was the result of Josiah’s reform. But even this is not clear, as others argue that they show natural damage and not signs of mutilation.
Others suggest that the figurines were not goddesses but charms, related to fertility. The figurines are not normally found with other cultic objects or in specialized locations in the home, and thus would not be likely to have been considered to represent a god. Some have gone as far to suggest that these are just toys.
There is no way today to know exactly what these figurines were meant to be. Eventually though, even these figurines fell out of use as the Judeans began to take a more strict view about worshiping God only, removing icons and avoiding imagery.
The figurines in the photo above are on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.