Focus of Study: Religion, Death and Burial

Focus of Study: Religion, Death and Burial

Religion death and burial, including:


Nature of conflicting religious beliefs and practices: polytheism, Ba'al, Asherah, Yahweh

Yahweh was the major god of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Private names found on seals, seal impressions, and other written documents in Judah (mostly from the eighth century BCE and later) include in many cases the theophoric ending -yahu, while in northern Israel the common ending is -yo. Both reflect belief in the god of Israel, Yahweh, the national god of both kingdoms. However, in northern Israel, where the older Canaanite legacy was stronger, we find also private names with Canaanite theophoric endings like Baal. Indeed, the population of the Northern Kingdom included many indigenous Canaanites, who inhabited the main northern valleys. In addition, Israel was heavily influenced by nearby Phoenicia.

Israelite religion went through several stages of development. The worship of Yahweh alongside a consort named Asherah is known from the inscriptions at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a fortified citadel-like structure in the eastern Sinai desert dated to the first half of the eighth century BC. This unusual and remote site, located on the main highway between Gaza and the Red Sea, seems to have been used as a roadside station, but was also a place of religious activity. The material culture of the site reflects a strong influence originating in the northern Kingdom of Israel, in spite of its far southern location. Ink inscriptions and paintings found on the white plaster of the walls, as well as on large pottery containers and a stone trough, contain dedications, prayers, and blessings. Some of the blessings are addressed to “YHWH of Teman and his Asherah” or “YHWH of Shomron (Samaria) and his Asherah”. A similar combination of Yahweh and Asherah appears also on an inscription from a cave at Khirbet el-Kom (biblical Makedah?) in the Shephelah. This evidence indicates a strong continuity with Canaanite religion, where El was the head of the pantheon and Asherah was his consort, and reflects a theology that is substantially different from the pure monotheistic religion as it is preserved for us in the Hebrew Bible. While the worship of Asherah was condemned by the Jerusalem prophets, they probably represent the new theology that was emerging towards the end of the monarchy among the Jerusalem intellectual elite, while the popular religion embraced by ordinary people was much more traditional, preserving indigenous ideas and beliefs rooted in Canaanite religion.

The formulas “YHWH of Shomron” and “YHWH of Teman” indicate that YHWH at the time was considered a deity with local “representative”. This concept is indicated in the bible as well, for example: “The mountains dripped before YHWH of Sinai” (Judg. 5:5 - considered one of the oldest parts of the Hebrew bible). In opposition to this old theology we find verses such as “Hear O Israel, YHWH is our God, YHWH is one!” (Dt. 6:4), as a reaction against the view that recognized god as having various local manifestations. The verse represents well the Deuteronomistic school of thought (originating from the book of Deuteronomy in the seventh century BC) which encouraged centralization of worship and strict monotheism.

Evidence for local cult places and places of worship near city gates or in open areas inside the city has been found at several sites, such as Dan, Tel Reḥov, Megiddo, Samaria, and Lachish. The use of standing stones, or biblical masseboth, has been detected at several of these places, for example, the city gates of Dan and Bethsaida (a large Aramean [Geshurite?] city north of the Sea of Galilee). Like Asherah, the masseboth were opposed by the prophets as symbols of a foreign (Canaanite) cult; however, their presence at these sites indicates that these standing stones were popular in both Israel and Judah.

Excavations at Tel Rehov, in the Beth Shean Valley in northern Israel, revealed a large Israelite Iron IIA town. Much evidence of cult and religious practices was exposed in the structures of this site. An open-air sanctuary was uncovered in area E, including cult installations such as an altar, standing stones and an offering table. Alongside the sanctuary, evidence for domestic and private cult was revealed in the houses that were excavated. These include pottery altars, a model shrine, cult stands and other objects. The cult objects in Tel Rehov present a continuity with Canaanite material culture and religious practices.

4 horned altarHundreds of clay figurines found in both Israel and Judah representing naked women are probably related to the popular cult of Asherah. In the Northern Kingdom, the artistic style is rooted in Canaanite art and probably inspired by contemporary Phoenician art. Naked female figurines are also the main decorative motif on clay altars from the tenth to ninth centuries found at Tel Reḥov and Pella. These altars often have four horns, like the similar stone altars found at several sites. Such altars were used for burning incense or for making small sacrifices in residential cult corners, and they should be seen as part of the popular religion of the time. In a few other cases, such altars were more elaborately decorated, like the two tenth-century pottery altars found at Taanach, which yielded rich iconography rooted in the Canaanite art.

During most of the monarchic period, Israelite religion, though centered on the national god Yahweh, was based on Canaanite myths, beliefs, and cult practices, and a great goddess was worshipped alongside the main male god. A major change took place during the late-eighth and the seventh centuries BCE in and around Jerusalem, with the centralization of cult at the temple of Jerusalem. The inscriptions and artifacts related to cultic practices show that Israelite monotheism was a product of a long and gradual process. Jerusalem during Josiah’s reign is considered by many as the time and place when Judahite religion consolidated and became the foundation for further development into monotheistic Judaism as we know it.

(Image: Finkelstein and Mazar, 2007:178)

Source Description

I. Finkelstein and A. Mazar (2007), The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, pp.174-179.

An overview of the characteristics of Israelite religion, its development and important sites.

Z. Meshel (2012), Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (Horvat Teman): An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah-Sinai Border, pp.XXI-XXII and 129-135.

On the site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and its cultic finds.

A. Mazar, (2015), "Religious Practices and Cult Objects during the Iron IIA at Tel Rehov and Their Implications regarding Religion in Northern Israel", in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, Vol.4, No.1, pp. 25-55.

See especially the figures on pp.49-53.

The result of excavations at Tel Rehov in the Jordan Valley. Archaeological finds date to the 10th–9th centuries BC and relate to religious practices, including cult objects and iconography. The evidence relates to the private (domestic) as well as public sphere and includes an open-air sanctuary, pottery altars, a model shrine, clay figurines, Egyptian amulets, seals and a few inscriptions.

Back to top


Roles of priests and prophets

The priests carried out the cult functions at the temple. In ancient Israel this included the system of sacrifice and offerings. From sources relating to Second Temple period, we know that these include the daily offerings and the special offerings on the Sabbath and festivals. They were also the personnel of the temple, alongside the Levites, who attended to supplies, storage, repairs and other necessities to facilitate the smooth function of the temple. In texts associated with the early days of the monarchy another role is mentioned for the priests: different forms of divination meant to provide divine answers. Several biblical examples demonstrate how the priest and the prophet were not always entirely separate roles, for example, Samuel preformed cultic functions (e.g. 1 Samuel 2:11), anointed King Saul (1 Samuel 10:1), acted as a judging authority and was consulted on prophetic matters. In addition, in spite of the negative view of the bible towards temples outside of Jerusalem, we know they thrived and had their own priestly personnel, probably fulfilling similar functions to the priests of the Jerusalem temple.

The prophet in ancient Israel was a mediator claiming to communicate messages received by various means directly from god. The prophets delivered these messages to recipients, often the king, but also ordinary individuals. While the bible gives an impression of the prophets as social critics and ethicists, the prophetic books are not necessarily the products of the prophets themselves, but rather of scribes who wanted to emphasize certain aspects of their activity. The text often labels the prophets as “true” or “false”, but these represent theological judgement and do not indicate what was the actual importance of the prophet in society.

Source Description

L.L. Grabbe (1995), Priests, Prophets, Diviners, Sages: A Socio-Historical Study of Religious Specialists in Ancient Israel.

pp.41-53: discusses various roles of priests referred to in the bible.

pp.57-60: on the roles and status of priests in the Jerusalem temple and in temples outside Jerusalem.

pp.64-65: summary on the role of the priest.

pp.66-72: several examples of biblical prophets.

pp.82-84: the role of the prophet in the biblical texts.

pp.116-118: concluding remarks on the role of the prophet.

Back to top


Roles and importance of religious places: High Places – Dan and Bethel

The term Bamah (“High Place”, plural: Bamot) appears 97 times in the Hebrew Bible. It is a built man-made place of worship. In at least some of the cases, it is described as a public building which included a large hall, an altar and some priestly personnel. These were built in the cities, such as Gibeon and Bethel. Even though the bible mentions an altar and a Bamah at Bethel (2 Kings 23:15), excavations at the site yielded no evidence to an Iron Age cult center.

The cultic place in Dan is not explicitly labeled as a bamah in the bible. It is listed alongside Bethel as one of two places where Jeroboam I installed a golden calf and instituted a cult place. The only public, monumental temple excavated so far in northern Israel is the one discovered at Tel Dan. It was identified by its excavator, Avraham Biran, as the temple erected by Jeroboam I at the end of the tenth century BC. Even if this precise foundation date of the temple at Tel Dan may be questioned, the existence of a major temple at Dan during the ninth and eighth centuries BC is beyond question. The temple enclosure features a podium built of ashlar stones that probably supported a shrine, which might have contained the “golden calf” mentioned in 1 Kings 12:29. In a spacious courtyard at the front of the temple, there was a large sacrificial altar with four horns, the latter being an essential part of the altar in the bible. Subsidiary rooms at the side of the enclosure were used for ritual and other cultic functions.

Source Description

L.S. Fried (2002), "The High Places (Bamot) and the Reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah: An Archaeological Investigation", Journal of the  American Oriental Society, vol.122, no.3, pp.437-465.

pp.437-441: the meaning of the term “Bamah” according to the different sources.

pp.442-443: the find of the “Bamah” from Tel Dan.

pp. 443-461: the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah and the archaeological evidence for it. See also the appendix with list of Judean kings.

A. Biran (1974), "Tel Dan", The Biblical Archaeologist, vol.37, no.2, pp.26-51.

p.40-43: the cultic finds from Iron Age Tel Dan.

A. Biran (1993),"Dan", in New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land vol.1, pp.327-329.

On the high place at Tel Dan, including the architecture and finds, including figures.

I. Finkelstein and A. Mazar (2007), The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, p.176.

On the characteristics of Israelite religion, its development and important sites .

Back to top


Importance of the Jerusalem temple

The bible presents Solomon’s temple at the heart of the United Kingdom already in the tenth century BC. However, archaeological evidence (or the lack of it), epigraphic evidence and biblical criticism reveal that the immense importance of the city of Jerusalem and its temple are later realities, inserted into the description of earlier periods for ideological and literary purposes.

There is no archaeological evidence for the existence of the temple in the tenth century BC, and very little (and highly contested) evidence to support any major construction in Jerusalem during this period. At the same time, the archaeological and epigraphic evidence attest to polytheism (belief in many gods), various types of cult practice and a multitude of shrines all over the country. The idea of the Jerusalem temple as the spiritual heart of the nation comes mostly from the Deuteronomistic books (Deuteronomy - Kings), which was formulated after the fall of the Kingdom of Israel. The Deuteronomistic author promoted an ideology of the Davidic kings as the only legitimate rulers over all Israel and the Jerusalem temple as the only legitimate cult-place.

In order to present Jerusalem’s temple as the only legitimate cult-place, the bible told of the destruction of all other cult places during the reforms of the righteous kings of Judah, Hezekiah (715-686 BC) and Josiah (640-609 BC), as a religiously motivated act (2 Kings 18:4-5 and 2 Kings 23:3-25.)

Based on earlier archaeological evidence from the northern kingdom, Nadav Na’aman suggested a political rather than religious explanation for the intentional desertion of destroyed cultic sites. According to Na'aman, it was part of the effort of rulers of the two kingdoms to centralize their rule by minimizing the number of cult places in their territories.

There is archaeological evidence for the destruction of cultic structures in the Kingdom of Israel in the ninth century BC:

  1. In Megiddo two shrines were identified. They were destroyed by the Arameans in the second half of the ninth century BC and deliberately buried following their destruction.
  2. At Taanach another cultic structure destroyed by the Arameans was unearthed. Here too its sacred objects were deliberately buried under the ruins.
  3. The same phenomenon occurred in a small shrine which was unearthed in Tel 'Amal.

Na’aman suggests that it was a royal decision not to restore these sacred sites. Local shrines must have enjoyed prestige, achieved a certain degree of independence and competed with the royal court for economic gains. The king was considered responsible for their maintenance and restoration and had reasons for attempting to reduce their number. However, closing down local sanctuaries in a peaceful situation might have provoked hostility towards the central government. Therefore, Israelite and Judahite rulers took advantage of the foreign destruction of cult places and avoided restoring them for political and financial reasons.

Source Description

I. Finkelstein (2013), The Forgotten Kingdom: The Archaeology and History of Northern Israel, pp.155-158.

On the creation of the concept of Biblical Israel, including the centrality and importance of the Jerusalem temple.

N. Na’aman (2002), "The abandonment of cult places in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah as acts of cult reform", Ugarit-Forschungen vol.34, pp.585-602.

p.595-597: An explanation of the desertion of cultic buildings as a political step taken by the Kings of Israel in order to strengthen their control and power.

2 Kings 18:3-5

Hezekiah is a righteous king who destroys cultic places throughout the land to maintain the centrality of Jerusalem.

2 Kings 23:1-25

Look up any verse here.

Josiah is a righteous king who purges all forms of cultic worship throughout the land to refocus worship to Yahweh at the temple in Jerusalem.
Back to the top of this page