Gods of Old

In the Jacob narrative of the Book of Genesis, Jacob left his home and headed north to live with his uncle in Harran. There he worked for Laban and married Laban’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel. After years of maltreatment, Jacob fled back to his homeland with his expanded family and accumulated wealth in tow. On the way out the door, Rachel stole her father’s gods.

The Bible doesn’t offer any information about which specific gods Rachel pilfered. Archaeology could offer possibilities of which West Asian or Hittite gods they might have been. But continuing on with a theme, here the focus will be on Egyptian gods.

The implication of Rachel stealing her father’s gods is that there was a belief in Harran in a multiplicity of gods. Similarly, the Egyptians believed in a pantheon of gods. The role of the gods was not uniform across Egypt, but varied by region. At Hermopolis in central Egypt, there were eight gods at the beginning of time. At Heliopolis, in today’s Cairo, there were nine original gods, and the god Ra came to be elevated in status and identified with the sun. At Memphis, also in the area of today’s Cairo, the god Ptah sat above the nine gods. The god Ptah is the source of the name Egypt, taken from the Greek reading of Het-ka-Ptah, meaning the “House of the Spirit of Ptah,” as Aegyptus.

There were myths around the various gods. Ra, the sun god, was said to travel across the sky during the day and then through the underworld at night before the cycle repeated itself daily. In the Osiris Myth, the goddess Isis hid her baby Horus in the reeds of the Nile delta to protect him from Seth. Gods could be depicted in animal or human form or some combination thereof, connected to an associated myth.

Egyptian religion was not static over time. Gods rose and declined in importance. Ra and Ptah were two of the most prominent gods, and were linked with cities in northern, or Lower Egypt. Prior to the 16th century BCE, Amun was a minor deity linked with the city of Thebes in southern, or Upper Egypt. The leaders of the New Kingdom were originally from Thebes. When they unified Egypt under their rule, the local god Amun was elevated in national importance and blended with Re, to become Amun-Re, the chief god of the pantheon. In the 14th century BCE, a pharaoh known as Akhenaten attempted to eradicate all gods but the Aten, the sun disk, but this ‘monotheistic’ reform did not last beyond his rule.

In the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great set his sights on conquering the world. He invaded Egypt, and established himself as ruler. Because of the fluidity of Egyptian beliefs, the Greeks were able to blend Greek and Egyptian gods. Amun-Re was blended with the supreme Greek god Zeus, to become Zeus Ammon.

The fluidity of Egyptian religion lay in contrast to the rigidity of the Jewish monotheistic religion. The Jewish monotheistic God could not adopt the mythology of Zeus or find its place in a broader pantheon of many gods. What could be done in Egypt could not be done in Judah. This came to a head 150 years after Alexander. While a large country like Egypt could adopt Greek culture through Hellenization, it came to a head in the events of the story of Hanukkah, and the Greek attempt to eradicate Jewish religious practices.

The image above is of a king depicted as Zeus Ammon, featuring the ram’s horn formerly associated with Amun-Re. It is on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.

King Jacob

In the 2nd millennium BCE, the Hittite Empire of Anatolia, the area of modern day Turkey, and Egypt fought for control over the real estate between the two regions. Coincidentally, the feud between the rival brothers Esau and Jacob can be connected to the Hittite and Egyptian rivalry.

In Genesis 28, Esau married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite.

In the Bible, Jacob began his life in Canaan. In Genesis 27, Jacob’s mother Rebekah warned him that he needed to escape the wrath of his brother Esau and that he should go her brother Laban in Harran. In Genesis 28, Isaac told Jacob to leave Canaan to find a wife from Laban’s daughters. Harran is today identified with a site in Anatolia. In the Bible, Jacob headed north, but eventually made his way back down to Canaan and then to Egypt where his family settled.  

It is from Egypt that a king with the name Jacob is attested.

Scarabs are a type of beetle with a distinct body type and often with very bright colors. The ancient Egyptians carved amulets and created seals in the shape of scarab beetles.

When the early 2nd millennium BCE Middle Kingdom of Egypt could no longer hold power over the entire landmass of Egypt, centralized authority broke down. Different dynasties ruled different parts of Egypt. During this Second Intermediate Period of Egypt, the 14th and later 15th dynasties were ruled by West Asian Semitic kings from the Levant, the area between Anatolia and Egypt.

Tel el Yahudiya is a mound in the Delta region of northern, or Lower Egypt. The site gets its name from a Jewish temple that was in operation in the 2nd century BCE. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the temple was built during the Greek persecutions of the Jews and the defilement of the temple in Jerusalem by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

At Tel el Yahudiya, numerous scarab seals were found that date to the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt.  The scarabs contain the names of the Asiatic rulers of the 14th Dynasty and the 15th Dynasty of the Hyksos. One name that appears on scarabs can be alternately read as Yaqub-Har, Yaqub-El or Yaqub-Baal. This Yaqub was likely a king during one of the Asiatic dynasties. An accurate reading is complicated because the Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet at the time did not contain the equivalent of the sound ‘L’, but if it is indeed an ‘L’, the name Yaqub would be attached to a Canaanite god.

Demonstrating the Egyptian reach into Canaan, a Yaqub-Har scarab dating to the 18th or 17th century BCE was discovered at Shiqmona, near Haifa.

Thus while in the Bible, Esau is connected to the Hittites, in archaeology, the name Jacob can be connected with Egypt.

A Yaqub-Har scarab can be viewed at the National Maritime Museum in Haifa, Israel. A (blurry) image can be seen on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/p/Bp6Vx9hA-Q-/)  or via this link (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shikmona_-_Scarab_-_3.jpg)

Whose Land Is It Anyway?

In Genesis 23, Abraham approaches the Hittites about purchasing land to bury his wife Sarah, and is introduced to Ephron the Hittite. Abraham discovers haggling in the ancient Middle East: “the land is worth four hundred shekels silver, but what is that between you and me?” Abraham acquired the land and buried Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan.

The Hittites appear in the Bible in a number of places. In Genesis 10, Noah’s son Ham bore Canaan who had his own sons, including Heth. The Hittites are frequently listed as inhabitants of the land of Canaan that Israel is to conquer. King David plotted against Uriah the Hittite to take his wife. In 2 Kings 7, the Hittites are identified as a power. “Behold the king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come upon us.”

The people who we label as the Hittites formed an empire in Anatolia, the area of modern day Turkey, around the 17th century BCE. They spoke an Indo-European language, distantly related to the Hellenic (Greek), Italic (Latin), Germanic and Indo-Iranian languages. This is contrast to the inhabitants of the Levant, the area between Anatolia and Egypt, who spoke languages of the Hamo-Semitic language family.

The capital of the Hittite Empire was Hattusa, in Anatolia, roughly 100 miles east of Turkey’s capital city Ankara. The inhabitants of the Hittite Empire referred to their land as Hatti, and to themselves as  “the people of the land of Hatti.”

The Hittite Empire gradually managed to extend its reach into Syria, and ranged from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Euphrates River in the east. This put the Hittites in conflict with Egypt, and culminated in the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE, near the northern Lebanese and western Syrian border. The Egyptians were led by Ramesses II and the Hittite Empire by Muwatalli II. The battle is well documented in Egyptian and Hittite records and remains the largest chariot battle in human history.

In the 12th century BCE, the Hittite Empire collapsed. From the wreckage of the Hittite Empire, new Neo-Hittite states emerged in Anatolia and in Syria. It is these Hittites that are likely referenced in the Book of 2 Kings, when it refers to the “kings of the Hittites.”

In the story of Abraham burying his wife, the Hittites are found in the region of Judah, in the southern part of the Levant. If these Hittites are the same as the “the people of the land of Hatti,” it would represent Hittites migrating beyond their home territory. Ephron the Hittite would be selling land that was later within the Egyptian sphere, in a contested region over which the two sides eventually went to war. There is a popular comedy show titled “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” If Ephron the Hittite was selling land the Egyptians’ claimed, whose land is it anyway?

The above image is of a sealed Hittite document on display at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.

When Words Create Worlds

In Genesis 21, Abraham enters into an oral treaty with Abimelek: Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelek, and the two men made a treaty. Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, and Abimelek asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?” He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.” So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there.

The use of an oral treaty follows an earlier pattern in Genesis. In Genesis 15, God made an oral covenant with Abram, saying “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” In Genesis 17, God told Abram “this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations…the whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

By contrast, the later Ten Commandments is a written covenant. In Exodus 24, God instructs Moses to “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.” According to the Bible, this covenant is written in stone.

The presumed setting for the Abraham story is Canaan in the first half of the 2nd millennium. This would have been a time of limited literacy in Canaan. The Phoenician alphabet, the world’s first known alphabet and precursor to the Hebrew alphabet, had yet to be invented. Treaties in Canaan would primarily be oral agreements.

If during this time period Canaan was a backwater, Egypt was a developed state. By the first half of the 2nd millennium Egypt had a fully established writing system.

The invention of writing was driven by the need for recordkeeping in bureaucracy and trade. A thousand years earlier Egypt had already established a kingdom able to unify southern Upper and northern Lower Egypt. Egypt’s trading networks stretched from southern Africa to the region of today’s Afghanistan. These factors drove the adoption of writing.

Egypt’s writing system began with hieroglyphs that were simple images of the items they represented. Eventually hieroglyphic writing evolved to include a mix of images, consonants and individual letters. Hieroglyphs morphed into the simplified forms of the hieratic writing system and later the Demotic writing system.

By the early 1st millennium CE, hieroglyphic writing fell out of use, and with it the ability to read the writings of the ancient Egyptians. Nearly everything we know about ancient Egypt today can be traced back to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

In 1799 a French soldier in Napoleon’s army discovered the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone contained an inscription in three forms: hieroglyphs, Demotic and Greek. A brilliant French scholar by the name of Jean-François Champollion successfully deciphered the scripts and in doing so opened up the ancient Egyptian world to us. This has allowed us to learn about ancient Egypt and better understand the backdrop for the stories in the Bible.

The Rosetta Stone itself has its own fascinating history. When the English defeated the French army, the Rosetta Stone was turned over the British as part of the French surrender agreement. It was sent to London where today it still makes its home at the British Museum.

The oral and written covenants in the Bible opened up a new world going forward. The Rosetta Stone opened up the world of the past. 

Whodunit?, Egyptian Royal Edition

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Abram to leave his birthplace and father’s house to go to Canaan. After Abram’s journey from Shechem in the north to the Negev in the south, Canaan was hit by famine. Abram, with his wife Sarai, continued on south to Egypt, where the plentiful waters of the Nile River helped the Egyptians avoid the drought that plagued Canaan. The Egyptians were captivated by Sarai’s beauty. The pharaoh’s officers took Sarai to to the pharaoh. As a punishment for taking Abram’s wife, God afflicted the pharaoh with plagues, so he returned Sarai back to Abram.

The Nile River begins in the highlands of East Africa, and flows northward through Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. In ancient times, southern or Upper Egypt and northern or Lower Egypt were thought of as two distinct regions, and each was home to the capital city of Egypt at one time or another.

Egyptian kingdoms began with the unification of both Upper and Lower Egypt, when a single ruler was able to consolidate power over the Egyptian landmass. Over time, Egypt experienced periods of being ruled by Kingdoms that maintained control over both Upper and Lower Egypt, and Intermediate Periods, when central authority broke down and local rulers dominated. The Old Kingdom was followed by the First Intermediate Period, the Middle Kingdom by the Second Intermediate Period and the New Kingdom by the Third Intermediate Period.

Within each of these periods, kings, later to be known as pharaohs, ruled. Kings ruled in dynasties, with power passing from father to son, until there was a break in the chain. In total, twenty-five dynasties ruled from the first kingdom until the end of the Third Intermediate Period.

There are a number of artifacts that list the kings of Egypt. These include the Turin Canon, Palermo Stone and Saqqara Stone. But they do not include a full breakout of kingdoms, varying periods and dynasties.

The concept of Kingdoms and Intermediate Periods is only known from Manetho, a 3rd century BCE Egyptian priest who wrote the book Aegyptiaca. The book does not survive today, but is quoted by later writers Julius Africanus, Eusebius and the Roman-era Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in his book Against Apion.

The lists are not uniform, which complicates efforts to paint an accurate picture of Egypt’s rulers over time. The Bible also does not mention the name of the Egyptian king who took Sarai. As a result, there is no way to state with confidence who the pharaoh is in the setting for the story of Abram’s trek to Egypt. But the most likely culprit would be a king of the 11th or 12th Dynasty of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, or a king from the Second Intermediate Period.

The relief shown above dates from the Middle Kingdom period. The male figure on the left is wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt, the region where a traveler from Canaan would first enter Egypt. This relief can be viewed at the Brooklyn Museum. To protect the innocent, I will refrain from naming the Egyptian king in the photo above, so he will not be accused of improper behavior without a fair trial.

Sounds From the Past

Genesis 10 lists Noah’s sons as Ham, Shem and Japeth. Ham had his own sons, including ‘Mitzrayim’, or Egypt, and Cush.

Genesis 11 begins with everyone on earth speaking the same language. People migrated to the “land of Shinar,” which based on the earlier description of Nimrod’s kingdom, is ancient Babylonia, modern day Iraq.

There the settlers conspired. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.” God said “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel (Babylonia) — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.

The languages that are spoken from North Africa thorough West Asia belong to the Afro-Asiatic language group. The Afro-Asiatic language group was originally known as the Hamo-Semitic language group, the moniker borrowed from the names of Noah’s sons. 

There are six divisions of the Afro-Asiatic language group:

  1. Semitic, which includes Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and a number of Ethiopian languages
  2. Berber, which is spoken in North Africa
  3. Chadic, spoken in West Africa
  4. Cushitic, in East Africa
  5. Omotic, Central Africa
  6. Egyptian, the language spoken by the ancient Egyptians.

Languages tend to evolve over time from an original proto-language. In related languages, a historical kernel can be discerned in similar words or features. Afro-Asiatic languages all use a feminine gender marker -t and the second-person marker -k.

Languages can also fall into disuse. The Egyptian language ceased to be used as a spoken language, replaced by Greek and Arabic. However, the Egyptian language survived as a liturgical language in the Coptic Orthodox Christian Church, much as Hebrew survived as the liturgical language for the Jews after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Egyptians call their own country “Misr,” more similar to the Hebrew word for the country, Mitzrayim. The name Egypt comes from the Greek term Aigyptos, a derivation of Hut-ka-Ptah, the Palace of the Spirit of Ptah, Ptah being an Egyptian god. The ka-Ptah forms the term Coptic, the primary church of Egyptian Christians.

Today, the Coptic language is only used in the Coptic Church service, by Coptic priests such as the one in the photo above. To hear the closest facsimile of the language that was spoken by the pharaohs in the biblical stories, one can listen to this well known Christian prayer in Coptic:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUPQ2scobOY

In the Beginning

In chapter 2 of Genesis, God places the first man Adam in the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden is identified as the source for four rivers: the Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel and Euphrates. The Hiddekel is identified with the Tigris, which lies to the east of the Euphrates. While the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers are known to us, the Pishon and Gihon Rivers are not. The Jewish medieval commentator Rashi writes that the Pishon is the Nile River.

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve sin by eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. As a punishment God curses Adam that he will have to work for his food. God “banished Adam to till the soil.” For Adam and humanity, this represents the shift from being hunter-gatherers to settled farming and civilization.

Early humans were hunter-gatherers. Humans would wander in small bands to find their daily food, picking fruits and vegetables, hunting, fishing, or scavenging for animal remains. In the Garden of Eden story, Adam and Eve can find their daily food without having to farm the land.

Eventually, humans learned how to domesticate plants and animals. Humans could then settle in one location and work the land, planting, harvesting and storing their food. They could raise animals such as sheep, cows and pigs to supply their protein. In this system, one person could supply food for a larger group, allowing for a division of labor. While one farmed, others could be engaged in activities such as homebuilding, sewing clothing, tool and pottery production, and trade.

To manage the growing society, humans established judicial systems and appointed rulers. To better manage trade and bureaucracy, writing was invented.

The key condition for settled farming and human development was the availability of consistent and stable water. The earliest known settled villages were in Mesopotamia, the area of today’s Iraq, between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, and in Egypt, along the Nile River. Early farmers dug channels to divert water from these rivers to irrigate their fields or saw the waters rise above their banks and deposit mineral rich silt and water. 

We take it for granted today that humans are better off in farming based societies; after all, who does not like indoor plumbing or going to sleep without the fear of being eaten by a lion? But in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that humans are not necessarily better off for all our advances. With the advancements have also come stratified societies, large-scale war and disease. Skeletal remains show that settled farmers were shorter and suffered from cavities, arthritis and other conditions that did not affect hunter-gatherers.

Today we can more clearly appreciate the advances of a farming based society over that of the hunter-gatherer. But in the case of Adam, before today’s technological advances, farming could be seen as a curse, and not a blessing.

This gradual process in part began in Egypt. The Nile River was important not just for Egypt, but for all of humanity.

A Unique Nation

In Deuteronomy 31, God tells Moses that the nation he has been leading will eventually worship foreign gods. Deuteronomy 32 recounts Israel’s transgressions with foreign gods. “They made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols…The Lord saw this and rejected them because he was angered by his sons and daughters.”  But the end message of chapter 32 is more hopeful for Israel. “Rejoice, you nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people.”

During the First Temple period of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, from roughly the 10th through 6th centuries BCE, the archaeological record demonstrates that the people worshipped a variety of gods other than the God of Israel. There is evidence for the worship of Baal, Asherah, standing stones and worship at high places. People kept graven images. And there are reasons to believe the biblical stories that claim there was child sacrifice and shrine prostitution.

After the Judeans returned home from the exile in Babylon and built the Second Temple in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, utilizing Deuteronomy 32’s term, there was “atonement for his land and people.”

From this time period forward, there is no evidence of the worship of foreign gods in the archaeological record of the territory of the former kingdom of Judah. Writers begin to recognize the cultural uniqueness of the people who were residing in the Persian territory of Yehud, later to be called Judea.

The 5th century BCE Greek historian Herodotus finds people who practice circumcision. “The Colchians and Egyptians and Ethiopians are the only nations that have from the first practiced circumcision. The Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine acknowledge that they learned the custom from the Egyptians.”

Theophrastus was first the pupil of and later the successor to Aristotle as head of the Peripatetic school in Athens. The later Christian writer Eusebius quotes Theophrastus as having said of the “Syrians [of Judaea]…all this time, as being a nation of philosophers, they converse with one another about the Deity, and at night they contemplate the heavenly bodies, looking up to them, and calling upon God in prayers.”

Hecataeus of Abdera was a Greek 4th century BCE philosopher whose writings are found only in later sources. Diodorus Siculus quoted Hecataeus about the Jew: “He made no representation or image of gods, because he considered that nothing of a human shape was applicable to God; but that heaven, which surrounds the earth, was the only God, and that all things were in its power.”

It is not just and absence of evidence of idolatry that tells us that the inhabitants of Judea no longer practiced idolatry. There was now external recognition of a distinct cultural group worshipping a God without imagery and in a unique way. Towards the end of Deuteronomy 32, Moses tells the people to listen to his words, including the warnings against idolatry, so that they should endure in the land across the Jordan. The evidence shows that on the matter of worshipping foreign gods, the people took this message to heart. 

Detestable Stones

The weekly Torah portion of Nitzavim in Deuteronomy reminds Israel about what they had encountered on their journey from Egypt to the eastern banks of the Jordan River. “You yourselves know how we lived in Egypt and how we passed through the countries on the way here. You saw among them their detestable images and idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold. Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.”

One of the “detestable” practices that Israel would have seen along the way was that of the matzevot. A matzevah is a pillar that was set up as a standing stone and is typically associated with worship to the gods. Early on in the Torah, before the exodus from Egypt, the standing stone might have had a positive connotation. In Genesis 28, “early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it and he called the place Bethel.” However, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy the standing stone assumes a negative connotation, as it advises to “smash their matzevot.”

Isolated groups of standing stones dot the landscape across the regions that the wandering nation of Israel is said to have crossed. They appear across the Sinai Desert, the areas of today’s southern Israel that were not part of biblical Israel, and in the Transjordan, the region east of the Jordan River. These ubiquitous standing stones were in the land that Israel entered as well. They appear across the country, notably at Gezer, Megiddo and Hazor, which were major Canaanite cities on important trading routes.

As with other forms of worship, such as to Baal and to Asherah, the Israelites appear to have continued to engage in the local practice. Matzevot have been found at sites that were controlled by the northern kingdom of Israel as far north as Tel Dan and as far south at Arad. The Book of 2 Kings indicates that standing stones were also commonplace in the southern kingdom of Judah. Hezekiah and Josiah both “smashed the standing stones” as part of their religious reforms.

In the First Temple period, evidence points to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah both continuing the practices of the nations they passed through and those of the Canaanites, worshipping “detestable images and idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold.” It is only after the return from the Babylonian exile, with the Persian Empire, that practices such as the use of standing stones finally ceases.

The Canaanite standing stones in the image above can be seen at Gezer, in central Israel today.

Goddess or Toy?

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.