“You Have Seen the Detestable Things”

Sacred Scarab Slammed in the Torah?

Egyptian Limestone Relief

REVERED IN EGYPT from ancient times, the scarab (kheperer, in Egyptian) represented the god of the morning sun, Khepri, whose name means “he who comes into existence” and who is often shown as propelling the sun. On this Egyptian limestone relief from 400–200 B.C.E., the rising sun is accompanied by two baboons. Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Fletcher Fund and the Guide Foundation Inc.

The Hebrew word gilulim (or galal, in the singular) appears some 50 times in the Old Testament and is typically translated as “fetishes” or “idols.” It occurs in passages that warn the Children of Israel not to practice idolatry, which was common among the neighboring peoples. We may ask: Is galal a generic word for “idol” or does it denote any particular ritual object used in idol worship?

Scarab at the Temple of Amun at Karnak

THIS HUGE SCARAB statue was set up by Pharaoh Amenhotep III (Dynasty 18) on the edge of the Sacred Lake of the Temple of Amun at Karnak. Made of durable granite, it represents the sun god Atum-Khepri. Photo: Olaf Tausch / CC-BY-3.0

Writing for the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Zohar Amar of the Department of Land of Israel Studies at Bar-Ilan University contends that the mental image the ancient Hebrews had associated with the word gilulim was particularly of the Egyptian sacred scarab (Scarabaeus sacer), also known as the Pharaoh’s scarab. In his article “The Scarab: The Idol That Rolls in Dung,” Professor Amar points out that one of the definitions of the term galal “refers to the feces of animals and people that take on a round, pill-like shape.” The dung-rolling beetle of the Egyptians then seems to fill the bill for three powerful reasons: besides being an object of idolatry in Egypt and being considered ritually unclean in the Torah, the animal actually deals with excrement, which is another meaning of the word galal.

Canaanite scarab seal with the “an-ra” inscription

BEGINNING IN DYNASTY 11 (21st century B.C.E.), scarabs started to be employed as seals. Owing to the region’s ties with Egypt, scarabs became common in the Levant during the first half of the second millennium B.C.E. and were even produced there locally. Middle Bronze Age imitations include this Canaanite scarab seal with the “an-ra” inscription, which is inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphic writing but makes only limited sense in the Egyptian language. Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Theodore M. Davis Collection

To explore the identification of the Egyptian scarab in detail, read “The Scarab: The Idol That Rolls in Dung,” published in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Read more  about scarabs in the BAS Blog

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Egyptian Scarab Amulet Unearthed at Sepphoris
A group of Israeli students found a 3,300-year-old Egyptian scarab amulet during the excavation of a site at Sepphoris.

Birdwatcher Spies Egyptian Scarab Seal at Dor
Birdwatcher Alexander Ternopolsky spotted a rare Egyptian scarab seal at the archaeological site of Tel Dor on Israel’s Carmel Coast.

Lachish Field Report: Ancient Jewelry, a Scarab and More
Luke Chandler describes the discovery of Late Bronze Age gold jewelry and an Egyptian scarab that may be inscribed with a Pharaoh’s name on the Fourth Expedition to Lachish.

I Spy: A 3,500-Year-Old Ancient Egyptian Scarab
An ancient Egyptian scarab with the cartouche of Pharaoh Thutmose III was recently found by a hiker in the Lower Galilee of Israel.

City of David Archaeologists Unearth Late Bronze Age Egyptian Scarab
Israeli archaeologists working at the City of David excavations in Jerusalem uncovered a rare 13th century B.C.E. Egyptian scarab.

Subscribers: Read the full article “The Scarab: The Idol That Rolls in Dung,” by Zohar Amar, in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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