Thou Shall Not Be An Atheist

The Ten Commandments warn, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”

The English term aniconism refers to the belief in not using or worshipping images of deities. The archaeological record shows that the commandment against graven images was taken seriously in Israel and that God was aniconic.

The Merneptah Stele from Egypt demonstrates that there was a group known as Israel in the Judean and Samarian Hills at the end of the 13th century BCE. Theophoric names are names that contain a god’s name within a personal name, and the use of these names can be an indicator that a specific god was worshipped in that area. Israel is a theophoric name, as it contains God’s name El. Theophoric names with the Y-H-W-H, or the Lord, are common in the Tanakh, and are also found in the archaeological record. The 10th century Gezer Calendar, found at Gezer in Israel, is written by Abijah, with the suffix -jah here a shortened version of God’s name. The 9th century Samaria Ostraca include theophoric names such as Shemaryahu and Gaddiyau. The 9th century Mesha Stele, a monument by a Moabite king recognizing his defeat of Israel, mentions that he took the vessels of the Lord. The theophoric names plus the Mesha Stele all demonstrate that in the Judean and Samarian Hills people worshipped the Lord.

It is established that El/Y-H-W-H is worshipped by Israel in Israel. While the Egyptians and Canaanite gods were depicted with images, the God of Israel largely does not appear in any form. Even when the Bible says that the people sinned by worshipping other gods, the practice of not showing God in any form continued. The prophetic books inveigh against those who worship the gods Baal or Asherah. This can be seen in the archaeological record because Baal figurines and Asherah figurines are very common in Israelite sites. Even at a time when Israel is not maintaining strict loyalty to God, and worshiping Baal or setting up Asherah posts, God still is aniconic.

After the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem and the return from exile in Babylon, the Baal and Asherah figurines do not appear in Judean sites. But the commitment to refraining from using imagery continued. The Persians, Greeks and Romans who ruled Israel all featured images of gods or humans on their coins. When given the opportunity to mint their own coins, the Jews avoided doing the same. The Hasmoneans who defeated the Greeks minted their own coins and used images of objects from the temple, but no human imagery or images of God. During the First Jewish Revolt of 66-70, which culminated in the destruction of the temple, and the Bar Kochba Revolt, which ended in catastrophe, the Jews minted their own coins as a show of their independence. Again, the coins featured religiously significant objects but no human imagery.

In antiquity, the practice of having an invisible God in part led to charges that Jews were atheists. In his book Against Apion, Josephus writes that Apollonius Molo accused the Jews of being atheists. But aniconism was not a denial of God, and over the course of history people stuck to God’s laws against imagery. The lack of imagery affirms Israel’s belief in God and his laws, and demonstrates that they were not atheists.

Ancient coins from Israel survive in abundance, and are on display in many museums. One place to view Israel’s history of aniconic coins is at the Bank of Israel Visitor Center in Jerusalem. Due to renovations, the exhibit will be temporarily on display at a Bank of Israel Visitor Center in Tel Aviv.