Judean Pillar Figurines

Puzzling artifacts from Iron Age Judah

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2014. It has been updated.—Ed.

First discovered more than one hundred years ago, Judean pillar figurines continue to be poorly understood in scholarship today. Judean pillar figurines—abbreviated JPFs—were prevalent in Judah during the First Temple period (ca. 800–586 B.C.E.). These household objects, of which thousands have been found, are not present in Judah following the Babylonian conquest in 586 B.C.E.


Two major types of Judean pillar figurines have been found. One type has a face that’s pinched to make two eyes (Left, Photo: Israel Museum, Jerusalem). The second type has a mold-made head with defined facial features and rows of curly hair (Right, Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art).

In “JPFs: More Questions than Answers” in the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Robert Deutsch provides an overview of these puzzling pillar figurines.

To begin, the name “Judean pillar figurine”—as these objects are universally called—is somewhat of a misnomer. The land in which these pillar figurines were found was called Judah, not Judea. The name Judea emerged when the southern Levant came under Roman rule beginning in the first century B.C.E. The adjective Judahite—to describe the people and material culture of Judah—is a recent designation. Deutsch believes these Iron Age pillar figurines in question are more accurately represented by the name “Judahite pillar figurines.” They are also called JPFs for simplicity.

JPFs are clay female figurines with heads rendered largely in two major types: those that are handmade and those that are mold-made. The handmade heads are fashioned in a rudimentary way, with their faces pinched to form two eyes. The heads made from molds display hairstyles resembling Egyptian wigs, with rows of curls, and defined facial features. A solid cylindrical pillar is used for the bodies of both types of JPFs. Both types also have oversized breasts, under which the arms curve.

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The form, function and symbolism of these pillar figurines have been heavily debated, with many questions still remaining. Archaeologist Raz Kletter, who is considered an authority on JPFs, believes the figurines represent Asherah—a Canaanite goddess whom some scholars contend was worshiped as God’s wife or consort. Others have suggested, however, that JPFs represent the goddesses Astarte or Anath. Further, were JPFs fertility goddesses? Good-luck charms? Toys? The scholarly community has not reached a consensus.

To learn more about JPFs, read the full article “JPFs: More Questions than Answers” by Robert Deutsch in the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


BAS Library Members: Read “JPFs: More Questions than Answers” by Robert Deutsch in the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on August 21, 2014.


Learn more about Judean pillar figurines in the BAS Library:

Shmuel Ahituv, “Did God Have a Wife?” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2006.

Ephraim Stern, “Pagan Yahwism: The Folk Religion of Ancient Israel,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2001.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Asherah and the Asherim: Goddess or Cult Symbol?

Puzzling Finds from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud

Canaanite Worship? 3,400-Year-Old Figurine Found at Tel Rehov


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19 Responses

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  1. Ben says

    It is interesting to me, especially related to the figurines with “pinched” eyes, that they seem to be made without the use of any tools except hands. This brought to my mind two things: 1) The commandment called for no “graven image” to be made. This consequently may have been an idol, but made in partial compliance to the commandment. 2) The simplicity and relative ease in making the figures may lend to them been made either for, or by children as playthings, though the enlarged breasts would tend to discount this as a probability.

  2. Jacques says

    Are the answers limited by unconscious blockade: Jews weren’t that monotheists they have always pretended to be and Prophets said it often enough to allow us to think that the story of God,with some Wife and a Kid (statues found in Pre second Temple times) were an old Jewish/Pagan/Greek cult of which the legend finally drifted, some centuries later, into Christianity s dogmas and principles…?.

  3. Ryan says

    Jews were “monotheistic.” However, the prophets prophesied that Israel had drifted away from Yahweh, and had followed the religions of those surrounding them. Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel testified to Israel “worshiping the queen of heaven (Semiramis, Ishtar),” and for this the remembrance of them would be “blotted out” which is why archaeology and antiquity is ending up with “dead ends.”

  4. Jo says

    All of you three are correct. In short, these were household gods kept by the women of the home, probably used more as good luck charms than for actual worship. After the Babylonian Exile, Jews (called that by Babylon because they came from Judah) never again had anything to do with any form of idol worship and, instead, followed the precepts set forth by Second and Third Isaiah. They paid more attention to YHWH. They wept when Ezra read the Torah, and they repented their sins. Read about it in Nehemiah 8-10.

  5. Clark says

    Ben, you’ve seen a Barbie doll. These easily could have been playthings for girls.

  6. CLAYTON says

    So Yahweh didn’t start out as the “one true god”? Interesting.

  7. PAM says

    According to the Bible, Abrahams’ father made idols, but one God spoke to him and he followed instructions to move around. God din’t have a name until He spoke to Moses… He was just the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob. Bible says one of the reasons God took them out of Egypt was because they worshipped other gods, and they kept doing so until after they were captive in Babylon. I suspect the little statues are fertility goddesses or charms. That was important to women, and I think men would worship their god(s) more ostentatiously.

  8. ralph says

    These figurines are not ‘poorly understood’, well at least not by those of us who can open our eyes.

    In reality these models are icons of the Queen of Heaven. If you read the Book of Jeremiah, you will see that the big debate and dispute between the people and the priesthood is that the people worshipped the Queen of Heaven (Malketh Shamem), and Jeremiah did not like this. And the Jews who worshipped the Queen of Heaven moved to Egypt (and then Saba), which is why these figurines end in Judaea at this time.

    Interestingly, if you translate Queen of the Heaven into Egyptian, the title becomes the Queen of Sheba. This is why it is likely that these people moved down to Saba (Sheba) and founded the Sabaean nation at this time. There is no archaeological evidence for Saba being founded in the 9th century BC.

    And in Saba they produced figurines like this:

    Case solved?

    Ralph Ellis

  9. Shannon says

    Am I the only one that sees these figurines as possibly a grinding tool of some sort? The top portion being the grip while the flat portion being used to grind grains and such. As for jews following other gods/idols,the scriptures are full of them doing this very thing at times. God did have a name before Moses. He was called El or El Shaddi, respectfully.

  10. Raven says

    Could this be the archtype of thel Maiden Form Bra, that “lifts and separates”?

  11. Kurt says

    Family gods or idols. (Ge 31:30, 34) Although in the plural, the designation “teraphim” can also apply to a single idol. At least some of these idols may have been the size and shape of a man. (1Sa 19:13, 16) Others must have been much smaller, able to fit inside a woman’s saddle basket. (Ge 31:34) The teraphim were, on occasion, consulted for omens.—Eze 21:21; Zec 10:2.
    The findings of archaeologists in Mesopotamia and adjacent areas indicate that the possession of the teraphim images had a bearing on who would receive the family inheritance. According to one tablet found at Nuzi, the possession of the household gods could under certain circumstances entitle a son-in-law to appear in court and claim the estate of his deceased father-in-law. (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by J. Pritchard, 1974, pp. 219, 220, and ftn 51) Perhaps Rachel, with this in mind, reasoned that she was justified in taking the teraphim because of her father’s deceptive dealings with her husband Jacob. (Compare Ge 31:14-16.) The importance of the teraphim with respect to inheritance rights would also explain why Laban was so anxious to recover them, even to the point of taking his brothers with him and pursuing Jacob for a distance of seven days’ journey. (Ge 31:19-30) Of course, what Rachel had done was completely unknown to Jacob (Ge 31:32), and there is no indication that he ever attempted to use the teraphim to gain the inheritance from Laban’s sons. Jacob had nothing to do with idols. At the latest, the teraphim would have been disposed of when Jacob hid all the foreign gods turned over to him by his household under the big tree that was close to Shechem.—Ge 35:1-4.
    In Israel the idolatrous use of teraphim existed in the days of the Judges as well as the kings. (Jg 17:5; 18:14, 17, 20; Ho 3:4) It is not likely, though, that the teraphim served for purposes of inheritance in Israel, in view of God’s express command against the making of images. (Ex 20:4) Also, the prophet Samuel spoke of teraphim in parallel with uncanny power, comparing the use of both to pushing ahead presumptuously (1Sa 15:23), and the teraphim were among the appendages of idolatry cleared out of Judah and Jerusalem by faithful King Josiah. (2Ki 23:24) Hence, the fact that Michal, the wife of David, had a teraphim image among her possessions suggests that her heart was not complete with Jehovah and that David either did not know about her having the teraphim image or else tolerated it because she was the daughter of King Saul.—1Sa 19:12, 13.

  12. Cherilyn says

    I definitely agree with Clark (#5)– Occam’s razor might rule on this one. I’ve played with my Barbies back in the 1970s, and the physical resemblance is striking, plus the concept of having multiple similar dolls per household. Nothing new under the sun– JPFs as ancient Barbie dolls, with the same potential for affecting girls’ developing concepts of body image, strikes me as a very useful null hypothesis.

    The bigger question, in a sense: are Barbie dolls what God would consider teraphim? How close are our own modern playthings, in our own hearts, to what the Old Testament refers to as idols?

  13. David says

    Looking at what everyone wrote–the point is that any of these could be true. We simply have no idea. Unless you find a statuette that says “Queen Consort of G-d” or something the idol theory is a theory. And assumign it’s an idol–whcih idol? I have no idea what that whole Sheba thing is about–malkat sh’va, whoever she and wherever she was from, was a real person with whom sh’lomo (Solomon) had a relationship. She was not a goddess.

    But back to the Judean thing. It is true that nobody was calling malkhut y’huda Judea in the First Temple period. But it is also true that the Latin word for Judah (y’huda) was Judea. The Jews weren’t calling their country or Land Judea in the 1st Century BCE, so I’m not sure why we care that the Romans did. But to the extent we want to use the Latin name, it is the same name. But I can hear an argument that you want to differentiate because the borders and make-up of malkhut y’huda in the First Temple were very different than the later country the Romans called Judea. What did the Maccabees call it? Wasn’t it yisrael?

  14. Anita says

    Or couldn’t they be devices to hold or display the women’s jewelry of the day, like armlets and necklaces?

  15. LARRY says

    Something I find to be interesting is the similarity of the Judean Pillar Figures to those of the Sumerian Temple Figures. While they are not as refined as the Sumerian ones they are still similar.

    As some suggested they could represent a female idol, perhaps a food grinder, a child’s toy and more. I have not looked into the Judean Pillar Figures before but it would be interesting to know the context as to where they are typically found. Perhaps the location they were found could help solve the mystery.

    This might be a stretch yet here is a thought that came to my mind and ties in with the Sumerian Temple Figures. The Sumerian Temple Figures are noted for their eyes (typically big eyes) and hands folded in prayer just under the chest. Just a quick scan of various articles about Judean Pillar Figurines the eyes are often mentioned and just by looking at them one can see the position of the arms and hands.

    Abraham was born in Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia. Temple figures were very common in Mesopotamia. Perhaps the Sumerian votive figurine tradition continued to be practiced amongst Jewish women at that time.

    It is my understanding that Mosaic Law recognized women’s responsibility to be in the home as wives and mothers to the family, yet did not exclude women from religious service. Jewish women just weren’t allowed to participate as actively as men in regard to worship but they were allowed to observe the ceremonies they were not allowed to be a part of. The Jewish husbands were to be the spiritual leaders of their households and to intercede for their wives when it came to communicating with God. However, the Old Testament is filled with instances where women took it upon themselves to pray to God directly to open their womb and give them a child.

    Could it be possible that these Judean Pillar Figurines are actually votive statues expressing a religious vow, wish, or desire in regard to having children? And like their Sumerian Temple Figurine counterparts are in perpetual prayer in regard to this vow, wish, or desire?

    Just my two gerahs worth….

  16. Regina says

    To visualize each other’s
    With Love, Art

  17. Cynthia says

    If you read the ancient Sumerian texts, and the Canaanite texts you will see that Yawet’s wife/consort was Ashera…who along with her priestesses supported the temple building project by weaving the linens and garments for the priests. At some point Asher advocated for Baal, her brother according to these texts, and Yawet…who is God of the Bible which has been revised so many times it’s ridiculous…and older versions of the Bible use the name Yawet. If you read Hosea 2 you will find the scorn if Yawet against the feminine blatantly obvious !! It was about this time Yawet ordered Jeremiah, or was it Elijah ? to cut down all the Ashera POLES which stood next to Yahweh’s alters in all shrines. And it was ordered the Israelites were not to worship at the “high places” anymore.

  18. Cynthia says

    Yaweh…..& Ashera….sorry, auto spell ?

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Biblical Archeology: Keep Learning | Hear what the Spirit is saying linked to this post on August 22, 2014

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