What Are Clay Female Figurines Doing in Judah during the Biblical Period?
Overview of Judean Figurines
Thousands of terra-cotta figurines dating to the Iron Age II (First Temple Period) have been found at archaeological sites located in the biblical Kingdom of Judah, including Jerusalem. The figurines fall into two main categories:
Human Figurines – Female Judahite Pillar Figurines (JPF’s) form the vast majority among anthropomorphic figurines. These stand ca. 6 inches tall (with either pinched or less common mold-made heads) and are often clutching their breasts. Male figurines, other than the horse riders (below) were rare in Judah.
Animal Figurines – The more abundant group are the zoomorphic (or animal) figurines; most of these are horses, some with riders on their backs. Figurines were popular among Judah’s neighboring nations as well (such as the Israelites, Philistines, and Phoenicians). The figurines in each region, including Judah, had some unique stylistic motifs and attributes, though cross-cultural influences were also common. Since all the figurines were individually manufactured (the only part made in a mold were some of the heads), each is unique in form and size, although the common figurines are very schematic and stereotyped. They seem to have been common mostly in domestic contexts, i.e., in people’s homes. Their production and use seem to have stopped after the Babylonian conquest and destruction of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE.
In all excavations in biblical Judah the quantity of the zoomorphic figurines is greater than that of the anthropomorphic ones, nevertheless, the latter have traditionally received more attention. Their identity and function are the focus of ongoing debates in archaeology and biblical studies.
Interpretations of the Figurines’ Identity, Function and Symbolism
Since textual sources that relate directly to the issue of household cultic practices in the Iron Age Levant are rare, and direct mention of terra cotta figurines remains ambiguous (see below), the study of this sphere must rely heavily on the archaeological record. The figurines are almost always found broken and discovered in secondary contexts—in refuse or fill contexts (i.e., not in their original place of use). They contain no distinguishing marks – of individual, mortal, divine identity, age, or status – which might assist in identification and interpretation.
For these reasons, their interpretation is debated. Numerous scholars have offered their thoughts on these figurines. The typical questions raised in the discussions have largely centered on who the figurines might have represented and how they might have been used: Are they depictions of a female deity such as Astarte or Asherah? Do they depict a human female? Were they used as votives, fertility charms, toys for children, or even something else?
In the 1930s, prominent scholar William Foxwell Albright identified the female figurines with the Canaanite goddess Astarte (Hebrew ʻAštōreṯ). She was a foreign, non-Judahite goddess of fertility, sexuality, and war adopted from the Phoenicians. This identification remained popular for several decades.More recently, however, scholars have turned their attention to Asherah (probably perceived as YHWH’s consort in biblical times), given her prominent position within the Yahwistic cult. The distribution of an inexpensive icon that incorporates Asherah’s trademark tree image seems plausible. Yet another group of scholars believe that the figurines do not represent a specific goddess, but rather mortal women (in a generic form) which were used as votive figurines, presented to the gods or goddesses.
Function and Symbolism
Many different theories have been suggested over the years regarding the function and symbolism of JPFs.
Fertility – Some scholars have related them to female domestic ritual practices bestowing plenty and fertility on the household.
Apotropaic – Other scholars have suggested that figurines may have carried an apotropaic or healing function, posting that they were addressed in prayers or wishes during times of need.
Amulets – Yet others suggested that they served as amulets for domestic use, namely as talismans or good luck charms.Biblical legislation would allow these uses, which do not include worship or any of the specified forms of forbidden magic. No biblical texts prohibit apotropaic or prophylactic rites, nor do they prohibit therapeutic rituals.
Domestic cult – Others prefer to interpret the JPF’s, alongside the zoomorphic and Horse-and-Rider figurines, as popular representations related to either the official state religion, or to forbidden female, foreign, or even pagan cults. In other words, JPF's may personify an amalgamated goddess or (ancestral) intercessors through which one appealed for divine favors. Similarly, some have suggested that the animal figurines and the Horse-and-riders may have been used together in the domestic cult to represent Asherah and her entourage.
Archaeologists have uncovered overwhelming quantities of broken JPF’s, a phenomenon which begs explanation.
The Reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah
Some scholars viewed the broken JPF’s as direct evidence for the iconoclastic biblical reforms of Hezekiah (late 8th century BCE; 2 Kgs 18:1–6; 2 Chr 29–31) and Josiah (late 7th century BCE; 2 Kgs 22–23; 2 Chr 34–35). The premise of this position is that the figurines were related to a non-Yahwistic cult or, at least, a heterodox Yahwistic cult. To quote Erin Darby:
During this period the Bible characterizes elite religion by the worship of Yahweh alone through prescribed ritual encounters centered in the Jerusalem temple. Thus, if the Bible were taken at face value, and the reforms treated as historical, these reform practices would stand in contrast with a popular religion that worshipped many deities through any number of rituals in spaces outside the Jerusalem temple.
Nevertheless, a connection to Hezekiah does not seem possible, archaeologically speaking, since the figurines continued to be popular throughout the late eighth and the entire seventh century and were not smashed. A connection to Josiah remains possible, however, since his reform was only a few decades before the exile, and it would be hard to sharply distinguish between Josiah’s reform and the exile archaeologically.
Others saw the deliberate breaking of the figurines throughout the 8th-6th centuries BCE as a “safe disposal” method which eliminated the magical powers with which they had been endowed when the object was no longer in use. That figurines are found in the destruction levels dating to the end of the First Temple Period supports this interpretation.
Finally, Raz Kletter (op cit) maintained that the figurines did not show any signs of deliberate mutilation, and were just manufactured poorly and broke naturally when they fell, and thus he broken statues have no connection to religious reforms or ritual acts.
Idols in the Bible
The biblical text prohibits several types of images. For example, the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) prohibits the people of Israel from making a pesel (Deut 5:7-8):
לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל כָּל תְּמוּנָה אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ. ח לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לָהֶם וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם
You shall not make for yourselves a sculptured image (pesel), any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters below the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them…."
Deut. 4:16-18 likely elaborates upon this prohibition:
פֶּן תַּשְׁחִתוּן וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לָכֶם פֶּסֶל תְּמוּנַת כָּל סָמֶל תַּבְנִית זָכָר אוֹ נְקֵבָה. תַּבְנִית כָּל בְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ תַּבְנִית כָּל צִפּוֹר כָּנָף אֲשֶׁר תָּעוּף בַּשָּׁמָיִם. תַּבְנִית כָּל רֹמֵשׂ בָּאֲדָמָה תַּבְנִית כָּל דָּגָה אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ.
Do not act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image (pesel) in any likeness whatever (semel tabnît): the form of a man or a woman, the form (tabnît) of any beast on earth, the form (tabnît) of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the form (tabnît) of anything that creeps on the ground, the form of any fish that is in the waters below the earth.”
Similarly, the Israelites are prohibited from worshipping certain pre-existent items, even if they did not manufacture them. This is noted especially in Deut 7:5, which commands to “tear down their [the Canaanites] altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred posts, and consign their images (pesileihem) to fire.”
Idol Production: A Focus on Materials
In an attempt to identify which biblical term/s (if any) may refer to the JPF’s, Erin Darby has recently summarized some of the scholarship on this topic. The Hebrew word pesel is the most common biblical term for an idol. Its related verb means, “to hew” or “hew into shape,” and can refer to stone tables or building stones (e.g. Exod 34:1, 4; Deut 10:1, 3; 1 Kgs 5:22). The noun, however, refers to idols in general. These seem to have usually been made of wood, stone, or metal (e.g. Isa 30:12; Deut. 7:5), and this is the likely referent in the early use of the term pesel, though the term may theoretically refer to a wider range of materials, including clay.
Similarly, other words associated with idolatry, such as ṣelem, massēkâ, ʿāṣāb, ḥārāš, and even maʿăśê and ʾĕlîl, all suggest items made mostly of wood, stone, or metal, and not of terra cotta. Moreover, none of the biblical texts using clay terminology (ḥereś, ḥōmer and yṣr) intersect with those describing idol production.
Other terms, however, such as tabnît, tĕmûnâ, semel, gilûl, tôʿēbâ, and šiqquṣ (which are common in later biblical texts) do not indicate the material from which they were produced and were often appended to the word pesel (e.g. Lev 26:1; Deut 4:16–18; 2 Chr 33:7). This may have been done with the intent of broadening the meaning to include any type of image or likeness, regardless of the material from which the object is made.
The ambiguous biblical teraphim deserve special attention. These can be understood as small scale cultic objects with a human appearance in some of the biblical narratives (Rachel stole her father’s teraphim and hid them under her saddle in Gen 31:19–35; see also Ezek 21:26; Zech 10:2), though the same term seems to refer to a life sized “mannequin” in 1 Sam 19:13. Teraphim were outlawed in Josiah’s religious reforms (2 Kgs 23:24).
While teraphim may be a suitable candidate for a biblical term describing the JPF’s (as well as other figurines), the term is not used consistently by different biblical authors over time, and a number of cultic objects could fit the description of the teraphim in any given passage.
Reasons for the Bible’s Elusiveness Regarding Figurines
Biblical sources that relate directly to the issue of household cultic practices in the Iron Age Levant are rare since the Bible is naturally preoccupied with the ruling elite and the official state cultic practices. The textual evidence regarding the prohibition of household figurines which we have surveyed above is accordingly inconclusive and elusive. This silence - which has traditionally been interpreted as intentional deletion on the part of the biblical authors and evidence for the authors’ implied disapproval – can perhaps be understood differently.
Extending the Idol Prohibition to Include Clay Figurines
As we have seen, many of the earlier texts that prohibit images do not comment on the particular iconography of the image but rather on the materials from which the images were made (wood, stone, or metal). Only late in Israel’s history did the prohibition extend to include explicitly any type of material (including terra-cotta) or image, and to consider its iconography. It is thus possible that only during the late pre-exilic or even exilic and post-exilic periods, did the biblical authors (particularly the Deuteronomist and Ezekiel) prohibit images much more broadly than did earlier biblical texts.
The biblical sources referring to idol worship contain a repeated “foreign” motif (including Deut 4). More often than not, the text is concerned with preventing Israel from adopting the practices attributed to the surrounding peoples. Thus, the “foreign-ness” of these practices (whether real or imagined by the authors) must be considered a major factor in prohibitions against idolatry.
The terra-cotta figurines were accepted or tolerated during the First Temple Period. Perhaps only in the later strata of biblical texts was the production of these clay images considered problematic. During this period, deities (like Asherah) and practices (pillars, asherah trees, maybe JPFs) originally part of Yahwistic religion were re-categorized as foreign by collective memory. Whether this change took place while the First Temple was still standing (Josianic reform?) or in the following years is difficult to determine.
The Eraser of JPFs from Israelite/ Jewish Consciousness
Whether the JPFs were destroyed by religious reformers or just fell out of use, the final stage of the anti-idolatry laws in the Bible erased this ancient Judahite practice from existence and even from Jewish/Israelite collective memory. Only 2500 years later, with the advent of modern archaeology, are we now beginning to learn about these figurines, items that our ancestors crafted and cherished.
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August 16, 2016
October 13, 2020
Dr. Aaron Greener is a post-doctoral fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, and at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University. He holds a Ph.D. in archaeology from Bar-Ilan University. Greener directs “Dig the Past”, which recreates Israeli archaeological excavations at North American camps. He is currently preparing for publication the numerous figurine fragments discovered at the Temple Mount Sifting Project directed by Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira.
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