‘Face of Yahweh’ Claim Sets Off Archaeological Brouhaha

Israeli archaeologist says he found 3,000-year-old clay head depicting the biblical God of Israel. Colleagues respond the image doesn’t represent Yahweh, a deity and maybe not even a man

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The Qeiyafa figurine
The Qeiyafa figurineCredit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ariel David
Ariel David

An archaeologist’s controversial assertion that a nearly 3,000-year-old clay head may depict the face of the biblical deity Yahweh has sparked a furious response from fellow researchers, who are calling the theory unfounded and irresponsible.

The spat surrounding the figurine found among the ruins of Khirbet Qeiyafa, an ancient settlement south of Jerusalem, is only the latest round in a broader debate over the historicity of the Bible and particularly the existence of the great Israelite kingdom of David and Solomon.

Professor Yosef Garfinkel, a prominent archaeologist from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who has led the dig at Qeiyafa, made waves when he published his theory about the figurine in the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review earlier this month. Garfinkel’s stunning conclusion was that this graven image and a handful of other figurines found in the region surrounding Jerusalem are representations of the God of the Bible.

The Qeiyafa figurineCredit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Dated to the 10th century B.C.E., the bug-eyed figurine from Qeiyafa, with its prominent nose, pierced ears and what looks like a flat headdress, is similar to two clay heads found in a 10th-9th century B.C.E. temple unearthed at Motza, an ancient town some 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem, Garfinkel claims in his study.

He groups these three figurines with two more artifacts that were part of the private collection of Israel’s former defense minister, legendary general and amateur archaeologist Moshe Dayan. The two objects, a jug in the shape of a horse and rider and a strainer jug with a human face, came from the antiquities market and were likely looted, so their provenance is unknown, but according to Dayan’s records they supposedly came from somewhere in the Hebron area, Garfinkel relates.

Horse figurine found at Motza templeCredit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority
Clay head found at Motza: depressions along jawline simulate a beardCredit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities A

The archaeologist’s interpretation of the figurines as depicting Yahweh rests heavily on the fact that the Motza heads were found in a deposit on the floor together with several other cultic objects, including two horse figurines.

Garfinkel speculates that the heads were once part of statuettes mounted on the two horses. He then goes on to claim that the “Canaanites did not depict a male god on a horse” and the “iconographic elements of the figurines correspond with descriptions of Yahweh in the biblical tradition.” In the Bible, he says, God is described as a rider in several passages, for example in Psalm 68:4, where he is called “Him who rides on the clouds” or in Habbakuk 3:8, which invokes “You [who] rode on Your horses, Your chariots of salvation.”

From this, the archaeologist draws the broad conclusion that Yahweh was commonly depicted in the anthropomorphic form of a rider during the early days of the Kingdom of Judah, and the biblical ban on making images of God was introduced shortly after this period.

“This is because these figurines, resembling the literature of ancient Canaan and Israel, have been discovered in contexts dating to the 10th and ninth centuries B.C.E., but not in the eighth century and afterward,” Garfinkel writes.

Where’s the beard?

Garfinkel is a polarizing figure in Israeli archaeology, being one of the most prominent scholars who tend to treat the biblical narrative as close to historical fact, particularly when it comes to the existence and extent of King David’s kingdom, which would have been around the 10th century B.C.E., the same period of the putative Yahweh figurine. Critics have often accused him of creatively interpreting archaeological finds to fit biblical narratives, for example with his excavation of Qeiyafa, which Garfinkel identifies as the biblical town of Shaarayim and where he claims to have unearthed a palace that would have housed the kings of Judah when they came to visit.

Even by his normally controversial standards, his latest theory on the presumed “face of Yahweh” figurines has ruffled many feathers, particularly those of archaeologists who have excavated the site at Motza, on which Garfinkel’s claim relies heavily. On Tuesday some of these researchers published a response in BAR to Garfinkel’s original study, saying he had misrepresented the figurines from the Motza temple and made patently false arguments in building his case to identify them as depictions of God.

First of all, one of the heads from Motza has punctures on the chin to simulate a beard, while the other does not – meaning that we cannot even be sure they both represent male figures, the response points out. The same problem arises with the Qeiyafa figurine, whose chin is missing, leaving us in the dark as to its gender, notes Shua Kisilevitz, the lead author on the paper.

Man or woman? Clay head found at MotzaCredit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

And whether they are male or female, there is no reason to interpret them as depictions of a deity, since they lack any divine attributes that would be expected to accompany such a representation, says Kisilevitz, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority and doctoral candidate at Tel Aviv University, who participated in the IAA dig that uncovered the Motza temple in 2012. For example, the storm god Baal, worshipped by the Canaanites but also by the early Israelites, had a bull as his main attribute and was usually depicted with this animal or at least with symbolic horns, she explains.

“Given the lack of divine attributes, the figurines from Motza seem more like votive offerings brought by the worshippers, just like the other vessels that were found in the same deposit,” Kisilevitz says. “It is a way of communicating with the gods but there is no reason to believe they are depictions of deities.”

God rides a chariot

It is true that at least one of the Motza heads may have been originally the rider of one of the two horse figurines that were found in the same deposit – but that does not a Yahweh statuette make. That’s because the Bible never actually depicts Yahweh as riding on a horse, notes the article, which Kisilevitz co-authored with Tel Aviv University archaeologists Professor Oded Lipschits and Ido Koch and David Vanderhooft, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston College. Even the verses that Garfinkel cites to support such an iconography describe the God of Israel as riding on clouds or a chariot – but not on the quadruped itself.

Khirbet QeiyafaCredit: Yuval Gesser

Moreover, figurines of horse riders become very common in later periods, from the eighth century B.C.E. onwards. Hundreds have been found not only within the borders of the Kingdom of Judah, but across the Levant and even the Aegean, Kisilevitz says.

“If it’s enough to find a rider on a horse to say it’s a deity, then the entire region was depicting the same deity,” she tells Haaretz.

Many of the objections raised by the respondents are shared by Professor Tallay Ornan, a Hebrew University expert on Near East religious imagery in the Bronze and Iron ages.

“We have gods riding on chariots, but nowhere do we have representations of gods riding on horses,” says Ornan, who was not involved in either of the BAR articles. Calling Garfinkel’s original publication “irresponsible,” she says the Qeiyafa head was probably not even a figurine. Given its relatively large size and the fact that it appears to flare out at the neck it was more likely part of a vessel, possibly a big bowl or a cultic stand.

“You never find depictions of major deities that are shown as attachments on other objects. Usually those figures represent secondary divinities that were called upon to protect the artifact itself or its owner,” she says. “This too precludes the idea that this is an image of Yahweh.”

The respondents in the BAR article also reject the idea that the Qeiyafa head, whatever it depicts, should be specifically grouped together with the Motza finds and the two artifacts from the Dayan collection, which supposedly hailed from Hebron. While figurative art in the 10th-9th centuries B.C.E. is indeed fairly rare, there are a few other clay heads that share similar features with the ones from Qeiyafa and Motza, but which were found much farther from the putative borders of Judah, for example in port city of Ashdod, then a Philistine settlement, or at Tel Kinrot, on the Sea of Galilee, the response says.

“Trying to seclude Motza and Qeiyafa from everything else in the region makes no sense,” Kisilevitz says. By doing so, Garfinkel may be trying to shore up his interpretation of the reality of the 10th century B.C.E. in connection to the broader debate on the historicity of the Bible. Asserting that between Motza, Qeiyafa and Hebron there was a uniform way of depicting the face of God is a way to back up his view that these regions were already then part of the vast kingdom of David and Solomon described in the Bible, ruled from Jerusalem and worshipping a single deity.

Most scholars today, however, agree that the Bible was written centuries after the time of David and the biblical description of his kingdom is not supported by archaeological finds. “Our knowledge about Judah as a kingdom and Jerusalem as its capital is almost nil for this period,” Kisilevitz says. “There is almost nothing in Jerusalem to support the idea of a kingdom run from there until the end of the ninth century B.C.E.,” that is, more than a century after the time when David and Solomon supposedly reigned.

Horse figurine found at MotzaCredit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

It is more likely that in the 10th century B.C.E. Motza and other towns in the region were small, independent polities that were only incorporated into the Kingdom of Judah at a later stage, she says.

As for the religious practices in this period, we should remember that the early Israelites were not particularly inclined to monotheism. The very name “Israel” marks these people, at least initially, as worshippers of the god El, the chief deity of the Canaanite pantheon. Archaeologically, Yahweh makes his first extrabiblical appearance only at the end of the ninth century B.C.E., in an inscription by the Moabite King Mesha. So, we don’t know if there was a Yahwistic cult in the 10th century B.C.E. and how prominent it was. Even in the later part of the First Temple period, the Israelites continued to believe in multiple gods. Yahweh himself, for example, was thought to have a divine companion, a female deity named Asherah, as attested by invocations to these two gods found at Kuntillet Ajrud, an Israelite shrine in the Sinai desert from the early eighth century B.C.E.

Symbolic depictions

Irrespective of what the Qeiyafa head really depicts, it remains an open question whether the Israelites in the First Temple period did make images of Yahweh at all. The plethora of anthropomorphic figurines from this region does support the idea that the biblical commandment against making graven images was a later addition, probably developed during the Babylonian exile and the Second Temple period. Even after the return from the exile the prohibition was clearly not strictly enforced, as the image that is most widely accepted as a figurative depiction of Yahweh comes from coins from this later period. These coins, minted when Judah was part of the Persian Empire, display the image of a deity seated on a winged wheel, which many scholars have interpreted as a depiction of Yahweh.

On the other hand, there is no clear and uncontested image of the God of Israel from the First Temple period, notes Ornan, the expert on religious iconography. Cognitively, the ancient Israelites definitely imagined Yahweh as an anthropomorphic figure, as the Bible often describes him as possessing human-like features, but they seem to have rarely, if at all, depicted him as such, she says. Instead, they represented him through symbols, like the winged sun disk on the royal stamps of the Kingdom of Judah, or a lion, or a palm tree, Ornan says.

King Hezekiah's sealCredit: Uriah Tadmor, courtesy of Eilat Mazar

This behavior was not an anomaly in the wider region. Throughout the Levant and especially in Babylon, during the Iron Age there was a general tendency to avoid anthropomorphic depictions of gods and use symbolic stand-ins, Ornan tells Haaretz.

Over the centuries, and particularly during the Babylonian exile, this trend would evolve and transform the God of Israel into what he is for Jews today: an abstract, invisible entity that cannot be represented or even conceived in human form. But back in the First Temple period, Ornan says, Yahweh was conceived as a human-like god, even though the figurine from Qeiyafa is most probably not a depiction of him.

The Qeiyafa figurine: The postulated face of Yahweh, from the sideCredit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

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