(Gods, Godesses, and God) Aniconic Politics in Ancient Israel (Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger)


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I’m prepared to walk back anything in this post with sufficient critical pushback from experts in a field upon which I’m making such gross trespass. But I wanted to write about God, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel, which has been on my radar for awhile. Originally published in German in 1992, this authoritative and widely cited study of ancient Israelite and Judahite seals by Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger is a keystone in the iconographical approach to Hebrew Bible/Old Testament studies. The focus is not on big ticket items like cult statues and figurines. What Keel and Uehlinger look at are scarabs with ornamental designs, stamp seals (carved stone objects used to impress pictures or inscriptions onto clay surfaces), cylinder seals (small, barrel-shaped stone objects with an engraved design or inscription rolled over soft clay). Such objects were used to indicate authority, ownership or authenticate document. The objects in Keel and Uehlinger’s study were all discovered in what is today modern Israel and the West Bank. Most of the evidence is drawn from stamp seals, which Keel and Uehlinger understand limits the purview of their already massive 400 page study (p.405).

The basic argument is that we can say nothing authoritative about ancient Israelite religion just on the basis of texts, and that kind of visual evidence dug up at archaeological sites provide a better sense of what’s going on in official and popular religion at any given historical juncture. Without the visual evidence, the pursuit of biblical studies is a blind one. Or perhaps rather, without the visual material, our impressions are lifeless, even dead.

My own take on this argument would be to say that without the visual material, there’s no way that we can have any sort of sense about the “look” of ancient Israelite and biblical religion. A “look” would indicate the kind of visible forms and structures that shape any given culture or religious culture. This includes speculation about different gods and goddesses, their appearance and then gradual disappearance over time. Of particular interest to me are questions relating to images and the imagination, aniconism and idolatry, gender, power, and politics. To be more precise, why is it that the deuteronomistic writers reacted with such severity to so many things like other gods, goddesses, and their pictorial representation? What did they see in such “things” to have created such alarm?

Strictly philosophical and theoretical approaches to these kinds of questions leave me generally underwhelmed. They seem to grope around with too little evidence and too many preconceived ideas about gender, power, monotheism, and “polytheism.” There is of course no clean way past those presuppositions, about which Keel and Uehlinger themselves are upfront. But they arrange their material historically in such a way as to make possible multiple and even contradictory conclusions.

God, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel a theological historical sketchbook. They start us in the Middle Bronze Age and work through the Late Bronze Age, into and through the early and late Iron Age (i.e. from 1800 BCE through 405 BCE or so). It is a visual march through the history of ancient Near Eastern empire and its eventual impact on Israelite religion and late biblical monotheism.

We are shown the relatively easy interaction between the sexes in Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1800-1550 BCE) religious iconography give way to much harder, aggressive, and militarized figures in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550-1250 BCE) under Egyptian imperial and colonial influence which dominated Palestine in this period, particularly along the coast and the south of the country. To turn this into a polemical-apologetic point one should note that naked, anthropomorphic goddesses make their retreat long before the advent of biblical monotheists. In Iron Age II (ca 1000-925 BCE), anthropomorphic images are already rare. Instead of anthropomorphic figures, the gods and (Ashera) goddess are represented by emblems and other symbols such as stylized trees and the like. In Iron Age IIB (925-720/700 BCE), the evidence points to the formation of regional nation states (namely the unified monarchy and the southern and northern kingdoms of Judah and Israel). Derived from Egyptian sources, the visual evidence shows the dominance of solar elements (wing creatures like falcon headed figures, scarabs, uraei, griffins, cherubs, and solar disks) in the iconographical materials. (Readers of the Bible will notice the vision of the prophet in Isaiah 6, and the figure of YHVH as sun god). In Iron Age IIC (720/700-587 BCE) makes a sudden shift. Now under Assyrian domination and influence, we now see anthropomorphic figures set under astral configurations and constellations. It’s in this period that Keel and Uehlinger present the re-emergence of Ashera in anthropomorphic shape, as well as the popular dissemination of terra-cotta figurines. (Mention is made here of “The Queen of Heaven,” mentioned in Jeremiah 7 and 44, as a related astral figure). Iron Age III (ca 587-405 BCE) is presented by Keel and Uehlinger as something of a sad denouement as the image of god, gods, and goddesses now disappear from off the Israelite scene. The returnees from the Babylonian exile are said to represent a more and most rigorous form of monotheistic “exclusivity.”

Important to note is how Keel and Uehlinger already demarcate the limits to their own work. To draw a more firm set of conclusions would require us to draw from a larger corpus of images than they themselves provide here. We would also need to track more clearly the various levels of religious identity (family, regional, national, international) as well as track the osmosis between official religion and personal piety, assuming that those aspects are permeable, not fixed. Also of note is the mention that there is no found iconography of YHVH, either in Judah or Israel. But, and this is important, Keel and Uehlinger go on to note that ancient Israelites indeed pictured their national god anthropomorphically and would have done so in relation to the kind of pictorial representations common to this or that period in Israelite history. What this does is to give YHVH what the authors call a more “colorful” visage, rooted in the pictorial worlds of the Middle Bronze to Iron Age ancient Near East (pp.405-407).

Reading with and against the grain of the text, my own tentative and non-expert conclusions are these:

–Aniconism appears, disappears, and re-appears in the history of ancient Israelite history. Its form is contingent, and there’s nothing about it that is particularly unique to monotheism in its struggle with idolatry. Aniconism is a broader phenomenon than ancient Israelite and is in fact much older than it. As per Mettinger, it appears across the Levant in the 11th and 10th centuries BCE.

–It’s not the Middle Bronze Age earthy, sexy gods and goddesses that provide the immediate visual backdrop bothering the biblical writers. The images that would have bothered them were more like the Egyptian-inspired solar and Assyrian-Aramean astral iconographies. The pagan gods and goddesses lose much of their earthy, egalitarian charm ascribed to them by Keel and Uehlinger at some point after the Middle Age Bronze Period. The gods become hard, virile, bright, distant, nasty, and war-like. They lose their earthy aspect; they become solar and astral. Were Iron Age gods warm, like Middle Age Bronze gods might have been?

–The problem with “idols” and “idolatry” probably had nothing to do with “nature” or “finitude” or even art, gender, or “representation.”  It seems to have almost everything to do with politics, namely the project of national consolidation in the face of international domination. Keel and Uehlinger refer to the “colorful” world of images that characterize Assyrian “internationalism” in a way that obviates its political import (pp.403, 318). But from their own observations it would seem possible to speculate that the shift away from anthropomorphic representation is/was a basic response to political domination by foreign powers  and the image world that represents that power. We see it first in response to Egyptian rule over large parts of the country between the 10th and 8th centuries BCE (???) and then in response to the catastrophic encounter with Assyrian and then Babylonian power. Perhaps it is the case that female goddesses would not have been the solution to the problem of domination posed by asymmetrical power relations, but may have been part of the problem as understood by biblical writers. In other words, biblical aniconism and the hostility to idols may have had more to do with colonialism and postcolonialism, and with the xenophobia, with the anger and shame, that comes with being on the wrong side of “empire.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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