No other gods…

Kuntillet Ajrud

The site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud

The Ancient Israel site of Kuntillet ‘Arjud shows that the commandment to “have no other gods” was regularly broken. I’m not quite sure why that should be either controversial or presented as a new discovery, but every so often it is!

The latest example I’ve come across is in an article by Sean Kingsley in the excellent magazine Current World Archaeology, reviewing the excavation report of a small site in the Sinai Desert called Kuntillet ‘Ajrud. It was built in the 8th century as a staging-post for the trading caravans between the Red Sea and the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. It is a small, short-lived site (c800-c740 BC) which was excavated in 1975-76 and has only now being fully published (one of the perennial problems of archaeological research).

One of the most interesting features of the site are the numerous inscriptions and pictures that have been found. These inscriptions (most written in Hebrew) including references to the Canaanite gods Baal and Asherah and to El. El is a rather generic name for ‘god’, and so can mean a Canaanite god or the God of the Bible. The worship of Baal and the use of Asherah poles are frequently mentioned in the biblical record (as something to get rid of!). Asherah was a mother-goddess whom, it seems, was believed by some to be Yahweh’s wife. This includes the people who at least wrote the inscriptions.

Ajrud pithosAlso, the most famous picture has been interpreted as showing Baal, Yahweh (the Lord God of the Bible) and Asherah. This is how Kingsley, amongst many others, interprets it. However, the excavator Ze’ev Meshel wrote
in Expedition vol 20(4) (1978 pp50-54) saying that the drawing shows:

the [Egyptian] god Bes in the center, another deity standing at his left and a seated woman playing the lyre at the right.

A similar interpretation is apparently also given in the final excavation report.

The inscription overlaps with the drawing, which means that it is questionable whether the later drawing refers to it or just uses the same space for something different (which happens elsewhere). However, whatever the relationship, it is still interesting! It reads in part:

I have blessed you to Yahweh of Samaria and to his Asherah

Kingsley presents this as a significant revelation. He writes:

Kuntillet ‘Ajrud revolutionises perceptions of Old Testament religion on two significant points. Not only was graven imagery strictly forbidden in the Book of Deuteronomy, but Yahweh is supported to have been the supreme Israelite deity who ruled in isolation with an iron rod ever since King Solomon built the Temple of Jerusalem in the 10th century BC as the flagship of monotheism.

Why don’t I think that this is revolutionary? Well, the Bible goes to some lengths to tell us how far Israel fell from those ideals. To start with, if you spend as much time prohibiting polytheism and idolatry as Deuteronomy does, then they’re probably significant problems… Also, Kingsley writes that the site was built on the orders of King Jehoash (c.801-786 BC) as part of a state-run trading initiative.

But, here’s what the Bible says about Jehoash/Jehoahaz, in 2 Kings 13:1-2:

Jehoahaz son of Jehu became king of Israel in Samaria, and he reigned for seventeen years. He did evil in the eyes of the Lord by following the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit, and he did not turn away from them.

A couple of verses later (v6) we read:

the Asherah pole remained standing in Samaria.

It’s possible, of course, to interpret these various bits of evidence in a variety of ways, but one of those ways is simply to argue that the biblical record is supported by the archaeological record…!

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Bibliography
Kingsley, S. 2013 The Face of God? Current World Archaeology 62:32-34
Meshel, Z. 2012 Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, Israel Exploration Society

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