A fragment of what may be a depiction of an ancient Canaanite deity has been found in seemingly the most unthinkable place: a Judahite shrine near Jerusalem from the time of King Solomon’s fabled Temple. The shrine also closely resembles the biblical descriptions of that First Temple and is seen as reflecting the beliefs and rituals that were upheld in Jerusalem at the time.
If the discovery is verified, it would be tangible evidence confirming the long-standing suspicion that, in the First Temple period, starting 3,000 years ago, the religion of the ancient Israelites was very different from the aniconic, monotheistic faith that Judaism later became. The Israelites apparently didn’t confine their adoration to Yahweh but worshipped a pantheon of gods, including the infamous Baal.
The emphasis here is on the “if” because researchers are being very cautious about how they interpret this weathered stone, which was found in the temple of the ancient community of Motza, just six kilometers from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The putative artifact may be a stone that has broken off in a most unusual way, but it is more plausible that it was part of a manmade relief depicting the legs of a standing figure. That would be typical of Levantine and Canaanite religious imagery in which deities, rulers and mythical beings were portrayed standing, archaeologists say.
The enigmatic stone was embedded in one of the massive walls of the Motza temple and was spotted this summer by the archaeologist Shua Kisilevitz, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University who co-directs the dig together with Prof. Oded Lipschits.
“This section had been previously excavated but hadn’t been properly cleaned,” says Kisilevitz. “It’s not surprising that we initially missed it, but this is one of those cases in which once you see it you can’t unsee it.”
Unless the researchers are suffering from a collective optical illusion, the relief indeed shows the lower limbs of a figure with its feet pointing in the same direction, which, across the ancient Near East, was often a pose used in depictions of smiting storm deities like Baal, Kisilevitz notes.
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“Because this is so weathered and worn, there is always a chance that it was naturally formed. It’s possible but not plausible,” she says. “If we accept this is a manmade relief, then this becomes extremely exciting.”
Stand-ins for Solomon’s Temple
The Motza site was first excavated in 1993 by the Israel Antiquities Authority ahead of construction work for a new overpass on the road into Jerusalem, which now towers above the ruins of the ancient complex.
The shrine is one of a handful of temples from the Iron Age that have been uncovered in the Levant and which were built roughly at the same time as the Temple of Solomon – in the 10th century B.C.E. if one goes by the biblical chronology. These buildings range from the monumental Syro-Hittite temple of Ain Dara (which was heavily damaged by recent Turkish military operations in northern Syria to the much smaller shrine at the Judahite fortress of Arad in southern Israel.
While they belonged to different peoples and political entities, all these temples shared certain features, like a three-chambered structure (a courtyard, a main hall and a holy of holies) and, in the more monumental examples, the presence of pairs of sphinxes or lions serving as guardians.
It is unlikely that remains of the First Temple will ever be found, largely due to King Herod’s massive reconstruction of the Second Temple in Roman times and because digging at the site that now hosts major Muslim shrines could spark world war.
So for researchers, studying these other Near Eastern shrines has been the next best thing in the quest to gain insight into the religious practices of the First Temple and the beliefs of the ancient Israelites.
The Motza temple has been a particular boost to this line of investigation, both because it is almost the same size as Solomon’s holy sanctuary (described in 1 Kings 6) and due to its proximity to Jerusalem. This means that for a sizeable part of its history the settlement at Motza must have been part of the Kingdom of Judah, and its temple should reflect the official religious beliefs promoted by the Davidic dynasty.
It is not known when exactly Motza was incorporated into Judah (or when Judah itself became a kingdom), but it is clear that the area must have held a certain importance for Jerusalem. Not only was it on the main western approach to the city, but the surrounding valley was a prosperous breadbasket, as evidenced by the numerous grain silos that have been uncovered around the temple.
“This is not a small, peripheral shrine, it’s a massive, monumental temple that almost equals the one in Jerusalem and is sitting smack on the road to the city, which is just a few kilometers away,” Kisilevitz says. “Everybody must have known it. It could not have existed if it was not considered legitimate and approved by the rulers in Jerusalem.”
Hence the great excitement – and caution – in exposing something that appears to fly in the face of the most basic tenets of Judaism as listed in the first and second commandments: the embrace of monotheism and the ban on making graven images.
A married God
To be clear, this is not the first time that researchers found evidence showing that the Israelite belief system in the First Temple period was very different from its description in the Bible. For one thing, most scholars agree that the Old Testament was first put in writing, at the earliest, during the very end of the First Temple period, in the late seventh century B.C.E, just a few decades before the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The text underwent further additions and editing in the Second Temple period and therefore largely reflects the beliefs and ideologies of this later time, experts say.
Biblical scholarship and archaeology have also shown time and again that the ancient Israelites worshipped multiple gods, and that in fact, YHWH, the God of the Bible, only became the head of the local pantheon in the latter part of the First Temple period. For example, the tutelary deity of Jerusalem was initially the Canaanite god of dusk – Shalem – while the very name Israel marks these people as initial worshippers of El, the central Canaanite deity.
Equally, many personal names in inscriptions from the period include the name of other gods, marking their bearers as devotees of Baal, El and so on. Even when YHWH took El’s place as the national deity of Israel, inscriptions from the First Temple period have shown that the Israelites continued to believe in other divine entities, including Asherah, who was believed thought to be God’s wife.
The Motza temple itself also flies in the face of another Biblical rule according to which worship had be the centered only on the Temple in Jerusalem. The Bible tells of multiple reforms conducted in the late First Temple period by Judahite kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, who destroyed shrines outside the capital and attempted to stamp out idolatrous cults.
While some archaeological evidence of these iconoclastic reforms has been found farther from Jerusalem, that evidence is still contested. In any case, the temple of Motza shows no sign of having been destroyed and it is not yet clear when it went out of use, Kisilevitz notes.
Finally, in a sign that the biblical laws banning graven images were only imposed at a much later time, archaeological finds have shown that the Israelites made a plethora of horses and riders (some of which have been uncovered at the Motza temple as well) throughout the First Temple period.
Too good to be true?
Despite this and more evidence of polytheism, archaeologists had never found a “‘smoking gun” such as a large anthropomorphic statue of a deity inside an ancient Israelite or Judahite temple. This may be partly due to the small number of Iron Age shrines that have been found in Israel and partly because religion during this period, not just in the Holy Land but throughout the Levant and Mesopotamia, did tend toward the abstract and aniconic.
In contrast to the plethora of images and statues in the preceding Late Bronze Age, in the Iron Age deities tended to be represented by symbols or standing stones, with statues being kept only in the holy of holies of temples, explains Prof. Tallay Ornan, a Hebrew University expert on religious imagery in the ancient Near East. So the putative artifact from Motza could be a surprising first.
“If it is what it seems, then it’s well-made art, at a level we don’t find here, and the standing position is typical of a storm god, which we don’t see in Israel in this period, especially in such contexts,” Ornan says. “It so rare that it looks too good to be true.”
Ornan, who has examined the stone, cautions that it needs to be further cleaned, photographed and analyzed before we can be sure that we are actually in the presence of a manmade sculpture.
Of course, finding other pieces of the relief would help clinch the argument, but so far that goal has proven elusive. Part of the problem is that the stone was found in what archaeologists call “secondary use” – meaning it had been removed from its original spot – and the other parts of the puzzle may be lost who knows where. The Motza temple underwent multiple, superimposed reconstructions throughout its existence, with the earliest phase dated to the 10th century B.C.E. – the same time when the Temple of Solomon was supposedly built.
However, the “leggy” stone was found embedded in the core of a wall of a slightly later phase, from the early ninth century B.C.E., when the original structure was partially dismantled and a larger, more monumental temple was built on top of it, Kisilevitz explains. What most likely happened is that the relief was the focus of worship in the earlier temple and when that became obsolete the material was broken up and recycled into the walls of the new building, the archaeologist says.
A new syndrome
This, by the way, does not mean that the breaking up of the image should be interpreted as an iconoclastic act in the vein of the much later biblical reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, which occurred in the late eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., the researchers note. It was common throughout the ancient Near East to reuse obsolete sacred objects as building materials within the holy structure as a sign of reverence, Kisilevitz says.
The concept is similar to that of a genizah, a space where Jews dispose of old books and papers that may hold the name of God, and therefore should not be destroyed or cast out, she notes.
“The temple does not belong to humans, it belongs to the god who lives there, so you can’t remove what is in the sacred space, because it doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the god,” Ornan adds. “It is a sign of respect and continuity, and not that someone came, destroyed the idols and a new age began.”
But the mere existence of the Motza temple, as well as the putative relief, are additional evidence of the fact that the ancient population of Judah was more similar to other neighboring Levantine peoples than a face-value reading of the Bible lets on. They likely shared most of their the beliefs and customs of the local Canaanite culture, Kisilevitz concludes.
As for the rest of the relief, it may have been washed away from the walls of the temple over the centuries or been used in some other structure. The archaeologists vow to continue looking for it.
“After finding this we have been turning over every rock we can to check if there are any signs of sculpture, which is also a problem, because at some point you start seeing things that are not there,” Kisilevitz jokes. “It’s like a sickness. We call it the Motza Syndrome.”