Idols of the People

Miniature Images of Clay in the Ancient Near East

by P.R.S. Moorey

Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003, 102 pp.
$45 (Hardcover)

Reviewed by Victor Avigdor Hurowitz

For some two millennia the Hebrew Bible, whether read through confessional or independent interpretations, was the exclusive window for viewing the religion of ancient Israel. With the rise of critical scholarship in the 19th century, the reliability of the Bible was called into question concerning the periods it described, but it was still considered trustworthy for reflecting the ages in which its various strands were composed. However, over the years some scholars have viewed the Bible as tendentious, anachronistic and as having a highly distorted view of ancient Israel’s true religious beliefs and practices. In the estimation of these scholars, official religion was anachronistically presented and evaluated, while popular beliefs and practices were totally subdued.

This revisionist appraisal of the Bible, deeming it nearly worthless for the portrait of religion it presumes to draw, would leave a vacuum in our knowledge; and archaeology, long called upon to support Scripture, is now invoked more and more to fill the gap; and the privileged status of the Hebrew Bible as testimony to what once was is now ironically enjoyed instead by archaeological finds (as interpreted by modern scholars).

The archaeological discoveries that did more than any other to support this revisionist perception of ancient Israelite religion were the inscriptions from Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud mentioning “YHWH [Yahweh, the personal name of the Israelite God] and His Asherah.” For the first time contemporary texts revealed the God of Israel, long believed to be a recluse bachelor, as sharing His life with a female partner, who appears in Canaanite mythology as a goddess and is known from the Bible as represented by a tree. This revelation, along with the recognition that ancient Near Eastern gods were always represented and worshiped in some physical embodiment, led certain archaeologists, such as Raz Kletter and Judith Hadley, to suggest that a large array of well-attested but enigmatic artifacts known as Judean pillar figurines were in fact idols representing Asherah. The Asherah cult thus came to be regarded as much a feature of popular religion in ancient Israel and Judah as the worship of Yahweh.

This sensational and influential theory is the understated specific target and, yea, pretext for P. R. S. Moorey’s powerfully argued Schweich Lectures, delivered at the British Academy in 2001 and published in the present volume.1 Moorey has the broader goal of presenting a methodology for properly using archaeology in reconstructing ancient Israelite popular religion and demonstrating its efficacy by applying it to clay objects, which constitute a vast corpus of artifacts from a wide geographical expanse and lengthy period of time.

Roger Moorey is a distinguished and decorated former Keeper of Antiquities of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with encyclopedic knowledge of nearly every artifact ever discovered from the ancient Near East. He writes with authority emanating from prodigious knowledge of primary evidence and secondary literature of which few others can boast. These three erudite and highly nuanced lectures are a Biblical-archaeological “spinoff” of a catalogue he prepared of ancient Near Eastern terracotta in that museum. The major issue involved in these studies is how the huge assortment of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and architecturally shaped terracotta items can contribute to our understanding of ancient Israelite and ancient Near Eastern religion beyond what the Bible records. Discussion of the material goes from the general to the specific and falls into three parts: methodology; terra cottas from early complex societies (including Sumer, Babylonia, Syria, Egypt and Canaan) in the third and second millennia B.C.E.; and terracotta imagery in Israel and Judah between 925 and 586 B.C.E. Moorey stresses the “plurality of meanings” of artifacts in ancient societies and adopts a working hypothesis from Mary Voigt, who established on the basis of pre-historical studies that human or animal shaped terracottas could function in five different ways: 1. as cult figurines representing supernatural beings as symbols or objects of worship; 2. as vehicles of magic that are manipulated and often disposed of in rituals intended to influence specific situations, such as fertility or health; 3. as didactic or learning aids; 4. as representations of living or dead people (ancestors); and 5. as toys.

Adding to the uncertainty of interpretation formed by these possibilities, any individual artifact or group of artifacts can fulfill more than one function either simultaneously or over the course of its use. Another working premise stressed time and again by Moorey can be summarized with a maxim coined by this reviewer concluding a BAR review article: “a word is worth a thousand pictures.”a The fact of the matter is that when dealing with archaeological remains, and with iconography in particular, nothing conclusive can be said unless the item bears a text or belongs to some class of items described in other texts. Everything else is guesswork. To all this Moorey adds that artifacts must be studied in their various specific contexts, such as the other finds with which they were found, the ancient antecedents and parallels, and the scientific inquiries relating to them.

But the main scholarly thesis engaged by this book is the one identifying the Judean pillar figurines with Asherah. The pillar figurines were associated with Asherah because they are female, as indicated by their large breasts, and have a tree-shaped base. The Biblical Asherah is a tree (see, for example, Deuteronomy 16:21), whereas the tree-like base of the figurines marks them as a humanoid-arboreal hybrid. Moorey points out, moreover, that male and female figurines from the second millennium B.C.E. that cannot be associated with Asherah already display the same type of base. The base is no more than a stylized dress worn by both men and women, leaving nothing to link the figurines with Asherah. In addition, in Iron Age Judah female pillar figurines appear along with males on horseback, and just as the latter are not sun-god figurines, as sometimes claimed, but votive objects representing the human males for whom they were produced, so the former represent human females. The items most likely had a ritual role, but as expressions of human concerns rather than representatives of supernatural beings.

If the Judean pillar figurines do not represent Asherah, the supposed archaeological evidence relating to her worship decreases precipitously, inviting yet another revision in how we describe ancient Israelite religion. In general, Moorey calls for the realization that not every anthropoid object represents divinity, and just as often it has another meaning altogether. One might mention that this applies not only to the terracotta figurines analyzed in this book, but to stone idols or even to pillars. An object, even when found in a cultic assemblage, can be considered with certainty to be a god only if described in a text or if it bears an explicit sign of divinity, such as a horned crown, or if it contains an inscription identifying it as divine.




1. Moorey defines the aim of his lectures “to investigate the social contexts, of which any religious aspect is but a part, of the popular terracotta imagery of Canaan, Israel and Judah within its wider Near Eastern context”.

a. See Victor Hurowitz, “Picturing Imageless Deities: Iconography in the Ancient Near East,” BAR 23:03.



Victor Avigdor Hurowitz is a professor in the department of Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel.

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