Male figurines from ancient Judah might depict the God of the Bible
What does God look like?
In the Bible, the Israelites are charged to not create any idol—whether of a deity or living thing. This prohibition, which is clearly articulated in the second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8), also extends to depictions of their God. Yet recent discoveries from the Kingdom of Judah challenge the existence or enforcement of this biblical ban.
In his article “The Face of Yahweh?” published in the Fall 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem reveals the head of an anthropomorphic male figurine excavated from the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Kingdom of Judah. The head dates to the tenth century B.C.E.—the time of King David. Garfinkel believes that this figurine head represents a male deity. Given its location, it may even denote the Israelite God, Yahweh.
Garfinkel and his team recovered the clay figurine head from a large tenth-century B.C.E. building, which they have tentatively identified as a palace. Measuring about 2 inches tall, the head has prominent eyes, ears, and a nose. It has a flat top that is encircled by holes, possibly signifying a headdress. The figurine’s eyes and ears are both punctured, creating the eyes’ irises and ear piercings. As the only figurine uncovered from Qeiyafa from the early tenth century B.C.E., the figurine is significant.
Nearby, at the site of Moẓa, archaeologists uncovered two similar male figurine heads. Dated to the late tenth or early ninth century B.C.E., these measure about 1.2 and 1.4 inches tall. Like the head from Qeiyafa, they exhibit prominent eyes, ears, and noses. Their eyes have been punctured, and one has perforations on its jawline to represent a beard. They wear headdresses, as indicated by their flat tops with raised edges, and have strips of hair attached to their backs. Archaeologists found the heads, along with two horse figurines, in a courtyard outside a temple. Located a mere 4 miles west of Jerusalem, the Moẓa temple was in use from the late tenth or early ninth century through the early sixth century B.C.E.
Garfinkel believes the two Moẓa heads and horse figurines are best interpreted together, as male figures mounted on horses. This type of figurine is called a horse-and-rider figurine. Although it is attested in the ancient Near East in the second millennium B.C.E., it did not become common in the Kingdom of Israel until the eighth century B.C.E. Its surge in popularity coincides with the increasing significance of cavalry in regional warfare. Numerous biblical passages equate military might with cavalry and chariotry. For example, Haggai 2:22 says, “I [the Lord] am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders; and the horses and their riders shall fall, every one by the sword of a comrade.”
The Qeiyafa and Moẓa figurines date to a period before the horse-and-rider figurine type reached its zenith. Further, in contrast to other male anthropomorphic figurines from the second and first millennia B.C.E., the heads are unusually large. With their similar dating, size, modeling, and facial features, as well as geographical proximity, the figurines from Qeiyafa and Moẓa seem to constitute a new figurine type.
Who then do these figurines depict? Do they portray a human, such as a king, or a deity? If the latter, which deity?
In certain biblical texts, Yahweh is described as a rider on the clouds (e.g., Psalm 68:4) and a rider on a horse (e.g., Habakkuk 3:8). The Canaanite god Baal is also called a rider on the clouds in ancient texts—but not a rider on a horse. This may be partially due to the fact that most of the texts that shed light on the Canaanite pantheon date to the second millennium B.C.E.—before cavalry gained new importance and before the concept of a male god as a rider on a horse appears to have developed. Yet Garfinkel argues that the iconographic evidence supports these textual descriptions. No figurine of Baal or another Canaanite god has the form of a rider on a horse.
Thus, the new type of male figurine—found inside or near significant buildings (a palace and a temple) within the Kingdom of Judah and corresponding to biblical descriptions of Yahweh—might represent the Israelite God.
Garfinkel thinks that this may even suggest that the biblical ban on idols of Yahweh did not begin in the land of Israel until the eighth century B.C.E. He explains, “This is because these figurines, resembling the literature of ancient Canaan and Israel, have been discovered in contexts dating to the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E., but not in the eighth century and afterward.” It is also possible that the ban existed earlier but was not seriously enforced until the eighth century B.C.E.
Male figurines from the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E. are rare in ancient Israel and Judah. However, this new type provides a window into the religious landscape of that period. Learn more in Yosef Garfinkel’s article “The Face of Yahweh?” published in the Fall 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Shua Kisilevitz and Oded Lipschits, Another Temple in Judah! The Tale of Tel Moẓa, January/February 2020. A puzzling discovery of an Iron Age II temple at Tel Moẓa, only 4 miles outside of Jerusalem, challenges the biblical claims that King Hezekiah centralized worship at Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and eliminated all rival shrines. In reality, the Tel Moẓa temple fits into the greater economic and administrative context of Judah and reflects an advanced level of localized civic administration in the early ninth century B.C.E.
Madeleine Mumcuoglu and Yosef Garfinkel, The Puzzling Doorways of Solomon’s Temple, July/August 2015. Using the rare stone model shrine discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa to understand the reference to five mezzo on the doorways of Solomon’s Temple. Through analysis of this ancient model, authors Madeleine Mumcuoglu and Yosef Garfinkel surmise what the doorways of Solomon’s Temple might have looked like.
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