Puzzling Finds from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud

A drawing of God labeled “Yahweh and his Asherah” or the Egyptian god Bes?

“Yahweh and his Asherah” is written across the top of this eighth-century B.C. drawing on a ceramic pithos, or storage jar, from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the eastern Sinai. Some scholars have theorized that these figures resembling the Egyptian god Bes (on the left in the photo above) are in fact a drawing of God and his consort. Others, however, have interpreted both figures as male. The recently published Kuntillet ‘Ajrud excavation report sheds some light on this enigmatic fragment, but many questions remain. Photo courtesy Dr. Ze’ev Meshel and Avraham Hai/Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology.

Everything about it has been difficult. Located in the Sinai desert about 10 miles west of the ancient Gaza Road (Darb Ghazza, in Arabic) as it passes through Bedouin territory separating the Negev from Egypt, Kuntillet ‘Ajrud is remote and isolated from any other settlement. In 1975, Tel Aviv University archaeologist Ze’ev Meshel and a band of nine volunteers, mostly from kibbutzim and a few colleagues as staff, decided to excavate at the site.

The finds from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud were fantastic. The zingers were two large pithoi, or storage jars, that weighed about 30 pounds each. The now-reconstructed pithoi are painted with deities, humans, animals and symbols, and feature a number of inscriptions, including three that refer to Yahweh and his asherah or Asherah, depending on your interpretation. Asherah is a pagan goddess. Was she God’s wife?

Below an inscription on one of the pithoi (referring to Yahweh and his asherah) are drawings of two figures easily and unquestionably identifiable as the Egyptian god Bes, in fact a collective name for a group of dwarf deities. Is this meant to be a drawing of God (i.e., Yahweh) with his consort Asherah? The scholar who published the chapter about the drawings doesn’t think so. She interprets it as two male deities—probably just the Egyptian god Bes—and not as a drawing of God and his goddess wife. Other scholars disagree, but this much is clear: The drawing was added to the pithos after the inscription was written, so the two may be completely unrelated.
 


 
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Why has it taken nearly four decades to publish this final report? One reason is that everything about Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and its finds is so darn difficult to interpret—or even to see. The recently published report is a superb volume, and the discussion and interpretation will surely continue far beyond its pages.

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Subscribers: Learn more about the site and finds at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, including the fragment with the two figures of the Egyptian god Bes that may be a drawing of God labeled “Yahweh and his Asherah,” by reading BAR editor Hershel Shanks’s review article The Persisting Uncertainties of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the November/December 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a subscriber yet? Join today.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Asherah and the Asherim: Goddess or Cult Symbol?

Judean Pillar Figurines

Israelite Kings Depicted in Ancient Art?
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in October 2012.
 


 

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  • Paul says

    Though the bible doesn’t explicitly refer to Asherah as Yahweh’s wife there is another reference from the territory of Judah, if I may quote from the May/June 1994 issue of BAR, p.54; “Another inscription similar to those from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and from the same period was found in a tomb at Khirbet el-Kom, eight miles west of Hebron. In this inscription, carved into a wall of the tomb, someone is blessed ‘by Yahweh’ and ‘by his Asherah.’ Rather than the numerous drawings on the pithoi from Kuntillet Ajrud, only one image-of a hand-accompanies the Khirbet el-Kom inscription.” Since we know there were priests at Kuntillet Ajrud blessing travelers, it is worth mentioning that the priestly tradition of raising the hands while blessing may have its antecedence in pagan ritual. It is in the same period that this desert outpost functioned, in the reign of Joash (802-787 B.C.E.) that Zakir the king of Hammath mentions in an inscription; “I lifted up my hand to Ba’alshamayn (lord of heaven), and Ba’alshamaym heard me. Ba’alshamaym [spoke] to me through seers and through diviners.” (ANET p.501) It mentions him lifting his hand (singular) which is consistant with Leviticus 9:22, “Aaron raised his hands” which is written in Hebrew (J.P.S. Bible) as “Aaron raised his hand”. The goal is to elevate the right hand which symbolizes the attribute of mercy over the left hand, the attribute of judgment (Matt, The Zohar vol. 4, p.369).

  • Kevin says

    Shechinah, God’s female manifestation, came to be interpreted as God’s Queen as separated from God by some cultures in the form of Ashera. The practice was not permitted by mainstream Judaism as enforced from the time of Moses. The practice predates Moses and explains the adoption of similar female god images by many other cultures…

  • Joel says

    The Bible itself never links Jehovah (Yahweh) with the false god, Asherah. In fact, the Bible repeatedly contrasts Jehovah with Baal and Asherah as in Judges 3:7. However, the Israelites often returned to pagan rituals and worshiping false gods, even shortly after leaving Egypt. It is likely that they, in a polytheistic way, tried to combine worship of Jehovah with Asherah, perhaps even before the Exodus. Perhaps this piece of jar was owned by one of these pagan Israelites who left Egypt and was wondering there during the forty years of wandering. We may never know.

  • Ric says

    Could a major problem in the difficulty in interpretation due to current Bible Chronology?

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