Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel

  • Othmar Keel, Christoph Uehlinger
  • Jan 1, 2000
  • Series: Volume 3 - 2000

Keel, Othmar and Christoph Uehlinger. Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel. Translated by Thomas H. Trapp. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1998. Hardback, xiii + 466 pp. ISBN 0-8006-2789-X.

The German original of this work, when it appeared in 1992, was hailed as the most important work available on Israelite religion. Since then the publication of R. Albertz's History of Israelite Religion has provided an alternative standard for a critical reconstruction of the religious beliefs and practices of the people of the Old Testament. Meanwhile, the work of Keel and Uehlinger has lost none of its importance in translation. The vast number of drawings are reproduced as in the original. The value of this work can be found in its summary of all the extrabiblical evidence available to the authors in terms of ancient Palestinian cultic practices. The inscriptions and cult centers are included and the whole is placed in a chronological sequence according to established nomenclature, from Middle Bronze IIB (c. 1700-1550 B.C.), through the Late Bronze Age, the Iron I (1200-1000), the Iron II A (1000-925), II B (925-722), II C (722-586), and Iron III periods.

In addition, there is a thorough analysis of the pictorial art that reflects religious beliefs and practices. This comes primarily from the art of seals and seal impressions, of which the collection created by Keel includes some 8500. In fact, it is in this pictorial presentation that the authors make their distinctive contribution. No other publication has catalogued and produced a century by century survey of the representational art of ancient Palestine with a full awareness of the dominant forms and motifs, and how these develop and change. Thus while the Middle Bronze Age (the patriarchal period) emphasizes images of naked goddesses and eroticism, this is replaced in the Late Bronze Age (though never entirely) by protrayals of deities and princes as warriors. This is the period of the exodus and the beginnings of the conquest. Iron I, the period of the Judges, reveals dominant masculine imagery in the art while the female deities retreat to the arena of private worship and devotion. The tenth century, the period of the United Monarchy, saw the gradual disappearance of anthropomorphic representations of deities, an Egyptian trait, and an orientation toward the north where deities were represented with their symbols. The Iron II B period (c. 925 - c. 722 B.C.) finds Judah with few pictorial representations, except symbols of royalty adapted from Egypt and some local motifs. The northern kingdom adapted and contributed to the flourishing Phoenician artistic and religious traditions. When Judah remained alone independent (Iron II C) the images in the country decreased significantly (contrast, however, pillar based figurines and horse-and-rider figurines). Elsewhere in Palestine Assyrian influenced art and religion predominated.

The close correlation of these artistic and religious developments with the biblical accounts of each period are treated broadly and sympathetically by the authors but not developed in any detail. This is probably for the best because it avoids the scholarly tendency to opt for one or another critical theory and superimpose it on the biblical period is a way unacceptable to everyone else. By focussing on the evidence and avoiding extensive biblical interpretations and correlations, Keel and Uehlinger succeed in providing a useful volume for everyone interested in the subject.

Of course, issues can be raised. The imagery of the naked goddesses and human couples, so popular in the Middle Bronze Age, may well have as much to do with fertility as with eroticism. The Late Bronze Age recounting of Palestinian religion must address the Mt. Ebal instalation. It is probably a sanctuary. Finally, the distinction between Asherah (Asherata) and Astarte in the Iron Age is difficult to identify and arguments that depersonify Yahweh's "asherah" and reduce it to a cult symbol are not persuasive.

Nevertheless, the methodology of the overall presentation is useful. As long as one remembers that all art without text is somewhat speculative in terms of interpretation, there is much here that will help to recreate the religion, life, and culture of the Old Testament world of ancient Israel.

Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary