Female figurines and inscribed prayers to a "divine couple" found in temples in Israel suggest that the “one God” of the Bible may not have been entirely alone.
A recent excavation in Tel Motza, not far from Jerusalem, found what archaeologists believe to have been a ritual building - with clay figures of animals and men from the time of the First Temple, according to Israel's Haaretz news site.
The find suggests that Iron Age religion in the area around Jerusalem may not have been monotheistic just before the time the Hebrew Bible – the basis of the Old Testament - started to be written.
Now experts are increasingly suggesting that far from there being “one God”, there were many.
One expert, Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou of the University of Exeter, says there is “increasing evidence” of Israelites worshipping several gods - including one who may have been seen as Yahweh’s “wife”.
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Archaeologists Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily and Shua Kisilevitz, said, "The ritual building at Tel Motza is an unusual and striking find, in light of the fact that there are hardly any remains of ritual buildings of the period in Judaea at the time of the First Temple. Among other finds, the site has yielded pottery figurines of men, one of them bearded, whose significance is still unknown."
“The iconography points to a pantheon of deities, as some scholars believe, or to two main deities, something of a duality,” says archaeology writer Julia Fridman, writing in Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“Interestingly, there are vastly more female figurines and representations found on shrines than there are male ones. The evidence points to the worship of at least two deities.”
Fridman points to discoveries in an 8th century tomb at the site of Khirbet el Qom, containing the names of YHWH - the God of the Bible - and a female figure, Ashera. Fridman says that the inscription appears to be a prayer, invoking both deities.
Another inscription, found at the site of Kuntillet Arjud, is dedicated to, ““YHWH and his ASHERA”. Such practices continued into the late Iron Age of the Land of Israel (10th–6th centuries BC), according to Fridman.
Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou of the University of Exeter said, “There is increasing evidence that the ancient Israelites worshipped a number of gods alongside their ‘national’ patron deity, Yahweh. The goddess Asherah was among these deities.
“Not only is she mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), but inscriptions dating to the eighth and seventh centuries BCE attest to her worship alongside Yahweh in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Taken together, the biblical and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that Asherah was worshipped by some Israelites as the wife of Yahweh. They were likely a divine couple at the head of the local pantheon.”
Stavrakopoulou says that deities such as Asherah were “written out of history” as Yahweh became the “one God” of Jerusalem.
Theologians of the time were the scribes responsible for biblical texts - and Asherah’s appearances cast her as “foreign”, rather than as wife material.
“With the gradual emergence of monotheism in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, a process in which Yahweh was increasingly prioritised over and above all other deities to the point at which the pantheon was ultimately rendered redundant, the goddess Asherah fell from favour among the leading theologians among Jerusalem’s elites,” Stavrakopoulou says.
“Many of these theologians were the scribes responsible for the production of biblical texts, and they sought to discredit and vilify the goddess of old by casting her as a deity ‘foreign’ and ‘abominable’ to traditional Yahweh-worship. As a result, she was falsely caricatured in the Bible either as a ‘Canaanite’ competitor to the Israelite god Yahweh (as in Torah and the Books of Kings), or as a lifeless wooden idol – an object to be destroyed by obedient to Yahweh’s demands that Israelites should worship him, and him alone (as in Deuteronomy).”
Other academics point to clay figurines of female forms as evidence that monotheism did not take hold instantly in the aera.
Erin Darby of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville says that female figurines were used widely - although perhaps not as a “religion” in the way we understand it today.
"The Judahite pillar figurines certainly tell us that many of the people who lived in Judah used small terracotta females in rituals that I strongly believe relate to protection and healing, most frequently taking place in homes and neighborhoods. This is especially true in Jerusalem,” Darby said in an interview with Haaretz.
The idea that Iron Age Israelites were strict “monotheists” is perhaps wrong, Darby suggests.
"I think you have tons of evidence to back this up, especially in Jerusalem and outlying areas like Motza. Not even the Bible claims that most ancient Judeans were strict monotheists," she said.