There is very little archaeological evidence of royal ancient Israelite religion. While excavations throughout Israel have revealed evidence of Israelite “folk religion,” the center of elite ancient Israelite religion—the Temple Mount in Jerusalem—has remained archaeologically inaccessible. In his Archaeological Views column “Cultic Practices at Tel Dan—Was the Northern Kingdom Deviant?” archaeologist Jonathan Greer looks to Tel Dan in the northern kingdom of Israel for evidence of the official ancient Israelite religion.
In 1 Kings 12, King Jeroboam establishes a royal sanctuary for the northern kingdom of Israel in the city of Dan to compete with the Jerusalem Temple. Four decades of excavations at Tel Dan have uncovered myriad evidence of cultic activity at the site’s so-called “sacred precinct,” including temple architecture, the remains of a massive altar, cult stands and metal implements, all of which are associated with rites involving animal sacrifice.
What does urban anthropology tell us about the administrative versus sacred nature of Samaria and Jerusalem, the capitals of Israel and Judah? Learn more about the administrative and regal-ritual cities in Bible History Daily.
Greer uses these finds to question just how “Israelite” the northern kingdom of Israel really was. Biblical writers often condemn the northern kingdom of Israel for heretical worship of foreign gods, and Greer examined the evidence from Tel Dan to assess these charges. Analyzing textual traditions and archaeological finds, especially faunal remains from animal sacrifice in the sacred precinct, Greer suggests that the northern cultic practices reflect ancient Israelite religion as described in the Bible.
Excavations at Tel Dan have yielded thousands of animal bones in the priestly and common worship areas of the sacred precinct. Greer concludes that the bone fragments indicate the practice of animal sacrifice as described in the Book of Leviticus. The priestly area of the sacred precinct at Tel Dan had a higher proportion of right-sided meaty long bones, while the common worship area featured more left-sided bones. This is consistent with descriptions of animal sacrifice in Exodus 29:27–28 and Leviticus 7:32–33.
Similarly, a high percentage of phalanges (toe bones) were recorded in the priestly area at Tel Dan, furthering the idea that the northern kingdom of Israel practiced ancient Israelite religion as detailed in the Bible. Leviticus 7:8 describes how a priest would keep the skin of a burnt offering, which would include the phalanges and hooves left intact during the skinning following the animal sacrifice. Beyond faunal evidence, Greer reveals further similarities between Tel Dan and the Biblical cult, citing artifacts such as an altar kit reminiscent of those used in Temple and Tabernacle rituals.
Greer’s studies of animal sacrifice and the archaeological evidence from Tel Dan suggest that ancient Israelite religion as practiced in the northern kingdom of Israel was not as deviant as is often thought.
To continue learning about the religious practices of ancient Israel’s northern kingdom, read Jonathan Greer’s “Cultic Practices at Tel Dan—Was the Northern Kingdom Deviant?” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2012.