Israelites in Biblical Dan Worshipped Idols – and Yahweh Too, Archaeologists Discover

Finds in the northern biblical city of Dan suggest that even if King Jeroboam pushed worship of golden calves and goat demons to spite Jerusalem, there was a big YHWH temple

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One of two seal impressions found with the name of Immadiyaw, meaning "YHWH is with me." There is a possibility that Immadiyawn served as High Priest, or ;riest in the temple at Dan: one of his seals was found in close context with the sanctuary.
One of two seal impressions found with the name of Immadiyaw, meaning "YHWH is with me."Credit: Nelson Glueck / School of Biblical Archaeology
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

The Ten Tribes living in the Kingdom of Israel during the 8th century B.C.E. practiced a mixed religion, but contrary to the conventional wisdom among biblical scholars, their main deity was Yahweh after all, not the Canaanite god El and his envoys, golden calves and goat-shaped demons.

New excavations headed by Dr. David Ilan and Dr. Yifat Thareani of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem discovered that Dan also housed Arameans and Phoenicians as well as Israelites. But the gigantic sanctuary, originally found over four decades ago, has the hallmarks of Yahwistic practice, not pagan ritual.

"Dan was ruled by Aram Damascus circa 830-770 B.C.E. We know this from both the Bible and from the Tel Dan inscription," says Ilan. "The Aramaeans practiced their cult at Dan too. The question is whether Israelite worship was carried out concurrently during this time. We still aren’t sure but this is one of our research questions."

Mainly based on the biblical narrative, scholars had thought that Yahweh became the main god in Israel only after that kingdom's obliteration by the Assyrians in 720 B.C.E. But new analysis of epigraphic, archaeological and textual evidence in Tel Dan, a key center of worship in the northern kingdom, strongly indicates that the people were worshipping Yahweh in an organized manner as early as the 9th century B.C.E.

At the time, some 2,700 years ago, the land was split between the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south, which were rivals, occasionally bitter ones. Israel's capital was Samaria but its religious centers were Bethel and Dan, while Judah's capital and religious center was Jerusalem.

A theoretical map of the region around 830 BCE. Moab is shown in purple on this map, between the Arnon and Zered rivers.Credit: Oldtidens Israel & Judea / Richardprins

While the priests in Israel and Judah may have devoted themselves to the "one god," evidence of the people's unrepentent polytheism is rife.

"So he put out of business the foreign-god priests, whom the kings of Judah had appointed to make sacrificial smoke on the high places in the cities of Judah and the surroundings of Jerusalem, as well as those making sacrificial smoke to Baal, to the sun, to the moon, to the constellations of the zodiac, and to all the army of the heavens" - 2 Kings 23:5

However, according to the biblical story, in the north, rivalry between the two kingdoms led to a sharp deviation from the path toward monotheism.

Competing with Jerusalem

It seems that Jeroboam, the first king of Israel from around 922 B.C.E. to 901 B.C.E. (the dates are arguable) had a beef with Rehoboam, son of Solomon and king of Judah.

The priests and Levites sided with Rehoboam; fearful that his people would too, Jeroboam deliberately drove them to idol worship in the Kingdom of Israel's main cities, Bethel and Dan.

Artist's reconstruction of the temple at Dan: It looks a lot like what Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem is believed to look likeCredit: Jonathan Greer

On Jeroboam's predilection for paganism ("the golden calves that Jeroboam made to be your gods" – Chronicles 13.8), the Bible says:

"The Levites even abandoned their pasturelands and property and came to Judah and Jerusalem, because Jeroboam and his sons had rejected them as priests of the Lord when he appointed his own priests for the high places and for the goat and calf idols he had made." 2 Chronicles 14-15

On why Jeroboam would push idolatry, the Bible says:

"If this people continues to go up to offer sacrifices at the house of Yahweh in Jerusalem, the heart of this people will also return to their lord, King Rehoboam of Judah… the king made two golden calves and said to the people: It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here is your God, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." – Kings 12

God's severe view of Jeroboam's faithlessness is described in the Book of Kings 13:1-5 which evocatively describes his punishment: a withered hand.

Mainly based on all this, some modern scholars have been assuming that a key distinction between Israel and Judah lay in fundamental beliefs: that the priests and people of the north, Israel, worshipped El and pagan idols while the Judahite kingdom was faithful to Yahweh.

It's starting to look like the biblical account was heavily biased.

Heraldic symbol of Dan or the ruler of Dan in the 8th century BCE. Credit: Nelson Glueck / School of Biblical Archaeology

First of all, Chronicles apparently dates to the 4th – 2th century B.C.E., so it was written hundreds of years after the events described. Also, it would have been written by scribes in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. The ethics of writing history accurately did not exist then, and they may have had an interest in trashing their long-dead brethren of Israel. True, the writer acknowledges

Now the new analysis of the evidence excavated under the late Avraham Biran at Tel Dan indicates that in fact, both kingdoms worshipped Yahweh, as well as pagan idols.

Aerial view of Tell Dan. Credit: Nelson Glueck / School of Biblical Archaeology

Immadiyaw was here

It is the preponderance of evidence that suggests Yahwistic worship in Dan, the archaeologists explain.

Heraldic symbol of Dan or the ruler of Dan in the 8th century BCE. Credit: Nelson Glueck / School of Biblical Archaeology

Suggestive finds include seal impressions with Yahwistic names, temple architecture, and artifacts typical of Yahwistic temple rituals. They also found massive evidence of animal sacrifice at the Tel Dan temple, of species associated with Yahwistic worship at the First Temple in Jerusalem.

“The significance of what we have in the Tel Dan temple is probably greater than most people realize,” says Jonathan Greer, associate professor of Old Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and Tel Dan staff member who has recently reevaluated some of the evidence.

The first clue to the northern kingdom's bent lies in the inhabitant’s very names.

Yahwistic names were spelled differently by geography, due to differences in the dialects of north and south. In the south, the Yahwistic element was spelled “yahu” (yod-heh-vav), whereas in the north, it was spelled “yaw” (yod-vav) due to the contraction of the diphthong—both are shortened forms of YHWH.

Seal impression with names that include the element yaw [yod-vav – a shortened form of YHWH] invoking the name of their protective deity abound at Dan. For example, stamped seals dating to the 9th and 8th century BCE, carrying the names Immidayaw and Zechariyaw have been found.

If the primary tutelary deity they were worshipping was El, the personal name would have included the element El, and been Immanue-el and not Immida-yaw (meaning "YHWH is with me").

Of the two seal impressions with the name Immadiyaw, one was on the handle of a jar in a structure about 15 meters north of the altar room. Immadiyaw may have been an officiating functionary at the sanctuary, the archaeologists suggest.

The spelling Immadiyaw is typical of the north; this same name spelled the southern way (Immadiyahu) was found on an ostracon from Horvat Uza in the Negev, Greer says, adding that it was almost certainly a completely different man.

Immadiyaw parallels a similar name with an El theophoric, Immanu-el (Emmanuel), “God is with us,” Greer also adds.

Another jar found in the royal storerooms was stamped with the name Zechariyaw (meaning "Yahweh remembers"). Some wonder if this might be King Zechariah of 2 Kings 14:29.

The third potential Yahwistic name was on a sherd, in an 8th century B.C.E. context, with an inscription that read “[belonging to] Amoz...” but the sherd breaks right after the z. The name could have been “Amaziah,” another Yahwistic name (Amoz is short for Amaziah, just as Ben is short for Benjamin).

Rival temple in Dan

The city of Dan goes back at least 6,000 years. In the biblical period, Dan apparently posed competition to Jerusalem as a center for worship.

The main discoveries at Tel Dan, also known as Tel Qadi, date back to 1966, when Biran found the sanctuary ruins. His excavations unearthed a large platform, small altars that were flat-topped and four-horned, seven-spouted oil lamps, perforated incense cups, and cult stands.

Until the recent discoveries, the thinking had been that the sanctuary in Dan was used by idol-worshippers, because the Danites under Jeroboam were supposed to be pagan. But for one thing, the architecture of the sacred precinct is in keeping with biblical descriptions of Solomon’s Temple, including the proportions of the precinct and construction techniques.

The archaeologists found a massive altar base, a huge 4.75 meters square, with one of the altar's four horns. They estimate that the altar itself stood 3 meters high (the altar in Solomon's Temple is said to have been 4.5 meters high).

Aerial of temple precinct at Tel Dan showing side chambers, temple platform, and central altar locationsCredit: Nelson Glueck / School of Biblical Archaeology

In view of the altar's height, some means of approach was essential. In fact Biran found two intact staircases, one facing the right-hand side of the precinct and the other the entrance (though the dating is still under investigation).

The position of the staircases or ramps corresponds with the Bible's directives to priests when making burnt offerings at the altar. After slaughtering the animal, they would approach the altar from the right to arrange and burn the carcass (Leviticus 1:5,11; 4:4; 15:24). Then they would descend toward the entrance to deposit the ashes (Leviticus 1:16; 6:3).

If anything, it seems that the position of approaches in the Jerusalem temple deviated from the biblical dictate. The approach to the Jerusalem altar was from the left, as some scholars reconstruct from later examples.

Replica of the shovels used to remove ashes from the altarCredit: Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeolog

Possibly the tradition of approaching the altar from the right was actually a northern Yahwistic tradition that ended up in the Bible, though most people assume the Temple traditions were created by southern Yahwists, centered in Jerusalem.

The altar kit

Another discovery that shrieks of Yahwistic worship in Dan, as described in the Bible, was the discovery of an "altar kit" in one of the rooms.

Excavators under Biran uncovered a bronze bowl, a pair of identical shovels, a long-handled shovel like those that held incense, a sunken pot filled with burned animal remains, and a long iron handle that may have come from a fork.

"What is remarkable is that these five elements—a bowl, pair of shovels, incense pan, ash pot, and fork—are listed, often as a group, in descriptions of sacrificial paraphernalia in the Bible such as in Exodus 27:3. We just don't get this sort of thing in archaeology too often (if ever!), where we read a list of items in the Bible that should be in an 'altar kit,' then dig them up right next to each other beside an altar like this," says Greer.

"Build an altar of acacia wood...Make a horn at each of the four corners, so that the horns and the altar are of one piece, and overlay the altar with bronze. Make all its utensils of bronze—its pots to remove the ashes, and its shovels, sprinkling bowls, meat forks and firepans" - Exodus 27:1-3

The temple utensils. The copper equipment was made in the form of cans and shovels for the ashes, forks for handling the flesh, and fire holders.Credit: Nelson Glueck / School of Biblical Archaeology

“Archaeological finds in the northern biblical city of Dan look like they came straight out the Bible's ritual checklist”, says Ilan.

Metal bowl for catching the blood of the sacrificial animal.Credit: Nelson Glueck / School of Biblical Archaeology

If the archaeologists are right about what it is, the bowl is extraordinary - the only example ever found of a “blood bowl” (mizraq) in excavation.

By extension the bowl is potentially the earliest evidence for specialized rituals involving blood in Yahwistic worship. The sanctity of the blood was heavily emphasized in ancient Israel, and animal sacrifices, particularly those offered on the Day of Atonement, were typically in atonement for sin. The priests would pour the blood of sacrificed animals at the base of the altar and dab it on the altar horns (Leviticus 9:9). The high priest in Israel would also take a token portion of the blood into the Most Holy of the earthly sanctuary (Leviticus 16:14).

In the priests' quarters, right-sided portions: Meat-bearing elements from right hindlimbs and forelimbs of sheep and goats outnumbered those from the left side of animals.Credit: Nelson Glueck / School of Biblical Archaeology

Tell-tale toe bones and turtledoves

Another discovery was thousands upon thousands of animal bones, found in the temple precinct. Many were in concentrated deposits, allowing the archaeologists to compare the area of deposits as well as the type of animal remains.

They found a striking difference between the bone deposits in the western chamber, where the altar kit was found, and the room where the priests officiated.

“My analysis of a series of concentrated animal bone deposits revealed several patterns of non-random distribution," explains Greer. . "The strongest was that, looking at the bones from meat-bearing portions of hindlimbs and forelimbs from sheep and goats, I noticed that there were far more right-sided portions in the western chambers, an area associated with priests.

"This called to mind the biblical prescriptions for priests to receive right-sided portions as their priestly due from certain sacrifices such as in Leviticus 7:32-33."

Israelites' offerings to Yahweh included bulls, rams, male goats, turtledoves, and young pigeons (Leviticus 1:3,5,10,14), The offerer laid his hand on the animal's head (Leviticus 1:4). The animal was then slaughtered and the blood, representing life, was sprinkled upon the burnt offering altar (Leviticus 1:5.11). The carcass would then be skinned and cut up into its parts, its intestines and shanks would be washed, and the head and other body parts were all placed on the altar (the officiating priests received portions).

Furthermore, 88% of the toe bones (three small bones that extend into the hoof sheep or goats) that the archaeologists found were in the western chamber, which could be because of the payment of skins from the burnt offering to the officiating priests. Hooves would have been left attached to the hides.

Animal bones found at Tel Dan in the context of the temple, including the toe bonesCredit: Nelson Glueck / School of Bibli

Pagan at heart

Evidence of "non-orthodox" religious perspectives can be found all over ancient Israel and Judah, especially pertaining to the incorporation of the veneration of Asherah (or “the asherah”), a Canaanite goddess of fertility.

The bible is scathing. 2 Kings 23:5, 8 mentions "high places in the cities of Judah and the surroundings of Jerusalem ... from Geba [northern border] as far as Beer-sheba [southern border]."

At these high places, the Israelites made "sacrificial smoke to Baal, to the sun and to the moon and to the constellations of the zodiac and to all the army of the heavens." They had houses for "male temple prostitutes . . . in the house of Yahweh" and offered their children "through the fire to Molech."—2 Kings 23:4-10

But at Dan, these high places were likely dedicated to Yahweh.

Archaeologists have found hundreds of figurines in Jerusalem and Judah, mainly in the ruins of private homes. Most were depictions of a nude female with exaggerated breasts. Scholars identify these figurines with the fertility goddesses Ashtoreth and Asherah, talismans to help conception and childbirth. In Tel Dan, a so-called "Judahite Pillar Figurine" was found next to the main platform.

One can sympathize with the angry desperation of the embattled prophets, who clearly felt their "orthodox" position was a minority opinion.

But cumulative evidence indicates that whether or not Jeroboam discouraged Yahweh worship while deifying golden bovines and demon goats, in Dan, at least some people also worshipped Yahweh.

The seal impressions with Yahwistic names, the architecture, the artifacts, and the bones argue the case. Add the biblical descriptions of Tel Dan as an important pilgrimage site rivaling Jerusalem, and the prophets, regarding whom Yahwistic worship is assumed.

"It may suggest a more robust and comprehensive Yahwism in the northern kingdom, 'from Dan to Bethel,' if not in the whole of ancient Israel, 'from Dan to Beersheva'. We are used to thinking of the kingdoms as completely separate and writing the north off as a kingdom of idol worshipers due to a cursory read of the biblical accounts," Greer says.

"It is a shame that most tourist groups head to the sacred precinct at Dan to illustrate the idolatry of Jeroboam’s golden calf rather than as our best parallel to the First Temple, with evidence from animal bones, architecture, epigraphy, and artifacts to boot," he adds.

In fact, the finds at Dan correlate so strongly to biblical texts, even more so – possibly – than the finds in Jerusalem, that a thought is begged, Greer says. Perhaps it was the Israelites of Dan in the north, not the Judahites in Jerusalem, who were the source of some Judaic traditions.



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