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.