Israelite Art


Just some thread where I’m gonna post some surviving examples of Israelite/Judahite art.

You all know the commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them …” But what many people don’t know is that Jews had historically shifted from a more lenient interpretation of this commandment to a more stricter interpretation and then back again to a degree of leniency. In other words, in pre-exilic Israelite culture there was really no objection to the mere act of making works of art or figural depictions (the Old Testament itself infers this). However, by the 2nd century BC, perhaps in reaction to the Hellenization the Jews in Judea were forced to adopt, you see Jews adopt a more stricter interpretation of the commandment, in a number of ways really kind of par to Muslim aniconism. (Josephus records incidents where riots started all due to some public breach of this ‘no images’ commandment.) This continued until well around the 3rd century AD and later, when Jews once again took up figural art (cf. the Dura-Europos synagogue in Syria and the later synagogues in Palestine, for example the 6th-century Beth Alpha synagogue).

Without further ado:



We actually have many examples of Judahite seals (or rather, impressions or stamps made by those seals).

The so-called LMLK seals (after the letters lamed-mem-lamed-kaf, which could be read as le’melek “to/for/of [the] king”) were stamped on the handles of large storage jars found mostly in and around Judahite sites like Lachish or Jerusalem. None of the original seals have been found, but about 2,000 impressions (or stamps) made by at least 21 seal types have been documented. What makes them interesting is that many of these seals bear the image of a four-winged scarab beetle or a two-winged solar disc, with one of four place names (Hebron, Mamshat, Socoh, and Ziph) inscribed underneath. Other seals bear personal names (which could be that of royal officials).

Winged solar disk with ‘Hebron’ over it

Scarab version of the Hebron type seal

Jar handles stamped with personal seals and incision marks have also been found. (Other examples of personal seals here and here.) So far, the exact purpose of these seals remain unknown and there are many theories that try to explain their original function, although they are now often associated with the reign of Hezekiah (reigned c. 715-686 BC).

Speaking of Hezekiah, we actually have his seals.

Impressions of two of Hezekiah’s seals, bearing the inscription: “Of Hezekiah, (son of) Ahaz, King of Judah”

You would notice that many of these seals have the solar imagery (the winged solar disk and the scarab), which is ultimately Egyptian in origin (although the symbols, especially the latter, were already quite well known in the area around that time, thanks in part to the huge influence of Egypt and peoples like the Phoenicians, who adopted Egyptian art styles). We know from the Old Testament that Hezekiah, seeking to throw off his subservience to the Assyrian kings, entered into an alliance with Egypt during his reign (Isaiah 30-31; 36:6-9), which could explain his use of Egyptian motifs.

But why the solar imagery? One theory is that these are actually symbols or representations of Yhwh, the Israelite God. This is not a very prominent idea in the Old Testament, but judging from some archaeological finds it kind of seems that the association of God (Yhwh) with the sun - even the outright worship of the sun as Yhwh - was a popular idea among pre-exilic Israelites/Judahites.

The closest thing we have to this within the OT is Psalm 84:11/12 “For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor.” Not to mention that there are possible solar overtones in certain expressions such as “seeing God,” God “rising,” and God’s glory coming from the east, as well as biblical and extrabiblical names with the elements *šḥr (shaḥar) “dawn,” *zrḥ (zaraḥ) “rise” and *n(w)r (nur) “light.” In addition, the references to God’s ‘wings’ (cf. Psalm 17:8; 57:1; 36:7; 61:4; 63:7) invites comparison with the winged solar disk represented on the above seals - although it could have also been informed with the iconography of the winged cherubim in the Temple of Solomon.

The LORD came from Sinai
and dawned from Seir upon us;
he shone forth from Mount Paran;

he came from the ten thousands of holy ones,
with flaming fire at his right hand. (Deuteronomy 33:2)

“How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”

In fact, in Ezekiel 8:16 and 2 Kings 23:5, 11 you have the criticism of solar worship by priests within the Jerusalem temple (the association of Yhwh with the sun gone awry?):

And he brought me into the inner court of the house of the LORD. And behold, at the entrance of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the Lord, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east. (Ezek. 8:16)

And [Josiah] removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun, at the entrance to the house of the LORD, by the chamber of Nathan-melech the chamberlain, which was in the precincts. And he burned the chariots of the sun with fire. (2 Kings 23:11)

I also recommend this:

Lasting Impressions: New bullae reveal Egyptian-style emblems on Judah’s royal seals by Robert Deutsch


Here are some more other examples of seals from Israel and Judah. Some of them have figural depictions, others not.

Seal of Shema, servant of Jeroboam
Seal of Jezebel

Abijah, servant of Uzziah

Seal of Jotham (son of Uzziah?)

Seal of Sam(ek?) son of Zephaniah, showing a four-winged snake

Seal of Ushna/Ashna(?), from the time of Hezekiah
Seals of Jehucal son of Shelemiah (left) and Gedaliah son of Pashur (right) (cf. Jeremiah 38:1–13)

Going back to the lmlk seals: as time went on, those seals with their Egyptian imagery were eventually discontinued in favor of stamps bearing rosette motifs, which was used until the destruction of the Judahite kingdom in 587/6 BC. The exact reason for the change, and whose reign it was that the change began is also a matter of controversy.

One theory ascribes their production to King Jehoiakim (reigned c. 608-598 BC) to build up military supplies in response to the threat of Babylonian invasion that followed the Egyptian defeat at the Battle of Carchemish. (The adoption of this design was thus probably a way to disassociate with Egypt: the rosette is a common Assyrian-Babylonian royal motif). However, some scholars assign their development to the earlier worship reforms instituted by Jehoiakim’s predecessor King Josiah (c. 641-609 BC). Judahite seals from the time of Josiah onwards generally become aniconic (cf. the Jehucal and Gedaliah seals above): if they bore any images it would usually be symbols associated with the Temple like pomegranates or palm trees.


Before I go on, a little elaboration.

One thing I could say about the Bible is that it somewhat presents an idealized, somewhat one-sided picture of ancient Israelite religion. It only shows you the ideal ‘orthodox’, the officially-sanctioned form of worship as practiced by the priests of the Jerusalem temple and preached by the prophets. It doesn’t delve much into the more loose, folk forms of religion, except to condemn it as ‘idolatry’.

Anyone who has studied religion will know that there’s usually a sort of distinction or divide between the codified form of a given religion and the popular, folk manifestations of it.

In a wider sense, folk religion is the appropriation of religious beliefs and practices at a popular level. This may occur as much in urban as in rural environments, and may also be the way in which individuals or groups belonging to mainstream religions practise their religion: it may be at considerable variance from what is officially supposed to be the case, and is thus also referred to as non-official religion.

  • Folk Religion, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions

The difference between ‘official’ religion and ‘folk’ religion can usually be summed as follows. Official religion tends to be intellectual and literate: it focuses more on doctrines, theologies and ideologies (the things to be believed in) than praxis (the things performed). In fact, (overt) belief drives practice. Official religion is organized, having things ‘set in stone’; beliefs and practices are clearly spelled out and regulated. Hence, it relies on founder traditions and on written texts.

On the other hand, folk religion is quite the opposite: it is more practical, improvisational and emotive/spontaneous in nature. There are no set dogmas or written rules to follow; practice has precedence over (implied) belief. It is ‘unorganized’ just as official religion is ‘organized’. Unlike official religion, which is by its nature centralized, public, ceremonial and ethical, folk religion is diffuse, private, ritualistic, and pietistic.

The relation between official and folk religion is quite complicated (they’re not really neatly distinguishable): both exist apart from, and at the same time, alongside with, each other. Oftentimes there will be some overlap (as official orthodoxy will co-opt things from folk religion), but at other times, the official orthodoxy will frown upon certain popular practices as ‘heterodoxy’ and ‘superstition’.

I’d use Catholicism as an example (since many of us here are Catholics). On the one hand you have Catholicism as officially defined by the Church in things such as the Catechism, the Code of Canon Law and the GIRM (General Instruction on the Roman Missal) - ‘orthodoxy’. The Cathecism and Canon Law tell us the doctrines and the laws of the Church, while the GIRM regulates how the Liturgy is to be performed. It’s all set in stone. On the other hand, you have on the popular level what some would call ‘folk Catholicism’: local, grassroots expressions of the faith that could sometimes encompass stuff that official Catholic doctrine would often frown upon as superstition, stuff like chain letter novenas, syncretistic beliefs (for example, Vodou, Santeria or the devotion to folk saints such as Santa Muerte or Maximon), faith healers, spiritualism, use of relics and sacramentals as amulets. While on the official level these aspects of folk Catholicism would be seen as being contrary to the faith as officially defined, very often actual practitioners would not see any problem; they still regard themselves as good Catholics.

This is the same thing you had with the ancient Israelites. You had on the one hand the official, state-sanctioned ‘orthodoxy’ centered around the priests and the temple in Jerusalem. On the other hand, you had the folk religion practiced by the majority of Israelites. While the official orthodoxy lays out its beliefs and practices in a clear cut way (only Yhwh is to be worshipped, He is to be worshipped in the Jerusalem temple, sacrifices offered to Yhwh are to be done in the prescribed manner, etc.), folk religion is more loose and improvisational (i.e. no fixed rules), which makes it open to syncretism (i.e. the identification of Yhwh with other deities / other deities as Yhwh, the belief in a female consort of Yhwh). This Israelite folk religion is what the Old Testament condemns as heterodoxy and idolatry.

I’d recommend this article:

Pagan Yahwism: The Folk Religion of Ancient Israel


The Taanach Cult Stand

Taanach is located on the southern edge of the Esdraelon plain some five miles southeast of Megiddo. It is currently a small village in the Palestinian West Bank going under the name of Ti’inik, but as per the Bible, in its heyday it was an ancient Canaanite city that Israel could not conquer (Judges 1:27; Joshua 17:11f.), although its king is mentioned as one of the 31 kings defeated by Joshua (Joshua 12:21). Consequently Taanach does not have a big role in biblical history due to its predominately Canaanite occupation; it was only during the monarchy - the time of Solomon onwards - that Israelite occupation of the city became more firmly established (cf. 1 Kings 4:12). Taanach is mentioned in the account of the Battle of Megiddo (ca. 1457 BC) by Pharaoh Thutmose III (reigned 1479-1425 BC), as a southern bypass to Megiddo and as a place where Egyptian troops were mustered. Pharaoh Shishaq (Shoshenq I) also mentions it as one of the Israelite cities he destroyed in his campaign (cf. 1 Kings 14:25; 2 Chronicles 12:1-12).

What archaeological excavations show us was that Taanach was at first a prestigious Early Bronze Age (ca. 2700-2300 BC) settlement; after a gap of a half-millennium Taanach experienced as a revival as an impressive Middle Bronze Age city and later as a smaller Late Bronze Age town (ca. 1700-1350 BC) with a mixed population and far-reaching trade relations, but it was dependent on the still larger Megiddo. Taanach was affected by the Battle of Megiddo; like Megiddo it sided with the Canaanite states and was consequently seriously affected by the victory of Thutmose III. It then experienced a decline in population and culture - all the while getting embroiled again in the local conflict between Megiddo and Shechem around the mid-14th century BC - and apparently suffered two (at least partial) destructions by the 12th century BC. After a period of reduced population, Taanach grew larger again in the 10th century BC; it was now under the control of the Israelites. The town was destroyed by Shishaq, but it eventually recovered under the House of Omri in the 9th century BC. After a couple more setbacks (the Israelite-Aramean wars in the late 9th century BC, the Assyrian war in 733 BC), Taanach was finally destroyed in 600 BC, either by the Egyptians or the Babylonians. In Hellenistic and Roman times, a new village with the same name was built to the east of the old site; we know from St. Jerome that it grew quite large by the late 4th century. By the 10th-11th century Taanach became a large country town, both an important site at the crossroads and a rural center; the town was presumably destroyed by the Crusaders, and since then the place stayed as a small village up to the present.

Some of the interesting finds in Taanach come from the period of Israelite settlement: folk religious objects such as cult stands (which are also found in other sites). We don’t know the exact function of these ancient Israelite cult stands, which continue a long Bronze Age tradition of offering-stands throughout the Ancient Near East: presumably they were used on the folk level to present gifts of food, drink or incense to gods/God. But what’s curious is, nowhere in the Old Testament are offering-stands (or for that matter, many other religious artifacts that we now have) hinted at, as though the writers were not aware of them. Or perhaps this silence meant that this was another practice frowned upon by Yahwistic orthodoxy?

Many of the Israelite cult stands (which are usually made out of clay) we’ve found are rather plain, with no obvious symbolic significance. But some examples are notable in that they feature religious imagery borrowed from Canaanite motifs. (The one thing you might say about the Israelites is that they are copycats when it comes to art: they never really developed an art-style of their own but simply copied and adapted from their neighbors, be it the Canaanites, the Phoenicians or the Egyptians - as we can see from the seals I mentioned in the last post. This is actually part of the reason why it can be difficult to identify an artifact as being ‘Israelite’: it’s hardly indistinguishable from non-Israelite examples.) One such example is a cult stand found in Taanach.

This cult stand (made out of poorly-fired clay, measuring 53.7 cm in height) dates to the late 10th century BC by its excavators, well within the period of Israelite occupation of the site. What makes this piece interesting is the depictions on the four tiers. I’ll describe them in the next post.


Starting from the top tier, the Taanach cult stand depicts:

  • (Topmost tier) A winged sun disk above a quadruped animal (bull, calf – or maybe a horse?); on the sides are figures of two winged griffins
  • (Second tier) Two ibexes standing on their hind legs and facing a tree in the center, flanked by two lions/lionesses
  • (Third tier) Two winged sphinxes flanking an empty space
  • (Bottom tier) A naked female figure with each of her hands resting on the heads of two lions/lionesses flanking her

Many scholars agree that the first and third tier are abstract representations of Yhwh. I’ve already talked about the possible Israelite association with Yhwh and the sun earlier; that could explain the sun disk (= symbol of Yhwh) on the top tier. (If we identify the animal as a horse, the connection becomes more explicit: whereas bovines could easily also be symbols of another god such as Baal, the horse – based on other artifacts we have – was an animal more clearly associated with Yhwh, but not with Baal.) As for the third tier, an analogy is usually drawn between these two sphinxes flanking an empty space with the two cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant and the temple of Solomon: God is aniconically symbolized by that empty space in the middle. (One needs to keep in mind that for ancient Israelites, ‘cherubim’ are not cute baby heads with wings; they are pretty much like these sphinxes: creatures that look like a cross between a human and/or an animal - an eagle and a lion or a bull.)

The second and the fourth tier are more interesting, in that they may depict and symbolize the goddess known as Asherah. The sacred tree on the second tier is the goddess’ symbol, the asherah, while the naked woman on the bottom is a depiction of her. In which case, what we have with the Taanach cult stand is: a symbol and representation of Yhwh (tiers 1 and 3), and a symbol of representation of Asherah (tiers 2 and 4).

Does God have a wife? Many ancient Israelites (specifically, those who practice folk Yahwism or ‘pagan Yahwism’, just like the people who made and used this cult stand) would have probably said yes. After all, the gods of their neighbors all have consorts, so why should Yhwh be any different? I quote from the article I linked in the last post:

While Yahweh was the god of the Israelites, other nations had their own national gods. The chief god of the Phoenicians was Ba‘al. For the Philistines, the chief god was at first Dagon and later also Ba‘al (Judges 16:23; 2 Kings 1:2). For the Ammonites it was Milkom. For the Moabites, Chemosh. For the Edomites, Qos. And for the Israelites and Judahites—Yahweh. Except for the Edomite god Qos, who appears only in the archaeological record, all of these gods are mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 11:5, 7, 33).
Interestingly, while each nation’s chief god had a distinctive name, his consort, the chief female deity, had the same name in all these cultures: Asherah or its variants Ashtoreth or Astarte. (As we shall see, this was even true of Yahweh’s consort.)


Aside from the one described in the last post, another cult stand (also made out of clay) was discovered at Taanach, dating at around the same time as the other cult stand (1000-900 BC).

You would notice that this cult stand (also called Sellin’s stand, after the archaeologist who discovered it in 1902-1904, Ernst Sellin), like the first one (Lapp’s stand, after archaeologist Paul Lapp, who found it during his excavations in the 1960s), also carries the asherah symbol (two ibexes flanking a tree) and features alternating rows of sphinxes and lions. Also note the voluted (spiral, scroll-like) protuberance in topmost row: it resembles the volutes flanking the sun disk on the topmost tier of Lapp’s stand.


Lions were notoriously one of the symbols of Inanna/Ishtar/Ashtoreth.

You can also see another reason why it was so important to insist that God regarded Israel as “the wife of his youth,” and to go with all the marriage symbolism. If God had a wife, it was not some pagan hussy goddess who enticed every god, mortal, and animal she could manage, just to play with them and leave them empty (as Gilgamesh said to Ishtar’s face, in the story of Gilgamesh):

“You loved the many coloured roller, but still you struck and broke his wing; now in the grove he sits and cries, “kappi, kappi, my wing, my wing.” You have loved the lion tremendous in strength: seven pits you dug for him, and seven. You have loved the stallion magnificent in battle, and for him you decreed whip and spur and a thong, to gallop seven leagues by force and to muddy the water before he drinks… And if you and I should be lovers, should not I be served in the same fashion as all these others whom you loved once?”

God’s espoused wife was His people, the Qahal, the Ecclesia. She cheated on Him with other gods, but He didn’t cheat on her.


Patrick, I don’t know whether this is the kind of thing that might interest you, but I once tried to find out, having access only to freely available online sources, whether the five* zodiac mosaics in Byzantine-era synagogues in Israel are laid out in accordance with the points of the compass. All the sources I’ve seen say they are not, but I think I have found clues suggesting that they probably are. If you’re at all interested, I’ll be happy to explain in greater detail.


*There are seven altogether but Ein Gedi doesn’t count because it’s lettering only, without a geometrical layout, and Sussiya doesn’t count either, because the damage is too extensive for any of the twelve signs to be identifiable.


Thanks for the tip-off. I hope I’m not being rude here, but that is probably a bit outside the scope of this thread (Israelite art - we’re talking about Byzantine-era Jewish art here). Why not make your thread thread about that? I’m quite curious about it.


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