Some scholars point out a seeming contradiction with the newly-announced shrines from Khirbet Qeiyafa. The Qeiyafa archaeologists conclude that the city’s inhabitants observed the Israelite ban on religious images, yet they show us a model temple adorned with lions and birds. Could the Qeiyafa excavators be making such a blatent contradiction?
The answer is no. A fresh look at the biblical text reveals key distinctions in the Israelite ban on religious images.
Let us first examine the main texts that prohibit images. (There are other texts, but these three make the point.) Besides the ban on images, what do the following statements have in common?
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5 ESV)
“You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 26:1)
“‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” (Deuteronomy 5:8-9)
You may notice that these texts associate banned images with worship (“bowing down”). These passages do not forbid ordinary works of art. They prohibit any “image” used as an object of worship. This is an important distinction.
Bible students may recall the bronze serpent made in response to an outbreak of poisonous serpents in the Israelite camp. (Numbers 21) That image was obviously considered acceptable until it became an object of worship, leading to its eventual destruction (2 Kings 18).
Perhaps the most important examples of this distinction are found in the tabernacle and the temple built by Solomon. These two structures were considered ritually pure by the priests and were according to divine blueprints. They didn’t include any images, did they?
The Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle’s Most Holy Place:
“You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark.” (Exodus 25:17-21)
The first Israelite temple:
“In the inner sanctuary [Solomon] made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. The other cherub also measured ten cubits; both cherubim had the same measure and the same form. The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and so was that of the other cherub. He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house. And the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one touched the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; their other wings touched each other in the middle of the house. And he overlaid the cherubim with gold. Around all the walls of the house he carved engraved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms.” (1 Kings 6:23-29)
We see the tabernacle and the temple originally contained images of cherubim – winged mythical creatures frequently associated with God. (Psalm 18:10; Ezekiel chapter 10) The temple sanctuary had carved images of cherubim and various flora on its inner walls.
Does this mean that the tabernacle and temple violated the ban, or does it mean the Israelites understood the prohibition differently than we do? Putting the texts together, we see the law banned any image that was an object of worship. Other types of images were permitted, even in the most sacred places of Israelite religion.
What does all of this mean for the Qeiyafa shrines? The lions and birds on the clay shrine appear to be consistent with Israel’s understanding of the prohibition during the First Temple period. With all of the cultic finds at Qeiyafa, there are no idols or religious figurines to inhabit these shrines. Thus, Garfinkel and Ganor do not contradict themselves when they say the shrine may indicate an aniconic (“no images”) society.
One thing must be said… The biblical text admits that many Israelites worshiped images such as Asherah and Baal. Even the most conservative interpretation of the Bible must accept that true monotheism suffered a slow acceptance in early Iron Age Israel and Judah. We should not expect to find many pure examples of aniconic practice, but it is certainly reasonable that pockets of it existed in places.
Evidence of aniconic cult is in large part based on the absence of certain artifacts. This somewhat complicates any determinations based on physical evidence. We must all keep one thing in mind: An aniconic religion as described in the Bible would include the kinds of evidence seen so far at Khirbet Qeiyafa.
The jury is still out on exactly how to understand the Qeiyafa shrines, but an aniconic interpretation is certainly reasonable. We’ll see how things go with this over the coming months and years.