Hebrew U. archaeologist says he found 'face of God'

From the Ten Commandments on, the warning against creating and worshiping physical depictions of the divine is one of the most recurring themes in the Bible.

A clay head dated to the 10th century BC, found at Khirbet Qeiyafa (photo credit: CLARA AMIT ISRAELI ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
A clay head dated to the 10th century BC, found at Khirbet Qeiyafa
At the time of King David and King Solomon, did the people of Israel produce figurines depicting God? According to Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, head of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the answer is yes.
“Take care, then, not to forget the covenant that the LORD your God concluded with you, and not to make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, against which the LORD your God has enjoined you,” reads a passage in the Torah weekly portion of Va’etchanan in the Book of Deuteronomy that was read this past Shabbat.
From the Ten Commandments onward, the warning against creating and worshiping physical depictions of the divine is one of the most recurring themes in the Bible. Yet, generation after generation, the people of Israel are described to repeatedly fail to abide by the rule, and the practice of idolatry was said to be widespread up until the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.
Several male figurines uncovered in three sites geographically located in the ancient Kingdom of Judah and dating back to the 10th or ninth centuries BCE represent a sculpted image of Y-H-W-H, the Tetragrammaton name of God in accordance with Jewish tradition, Garfinkel said. His analysis has been met with harsh criticism by other Israeli scholars, who accused him of pursuing sensationalism.
The research appeared as the cover story of the August issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), which describes itself as “the only magazine that connects the academic study of archaeology to a broad general audience eager to understand the world of the Bible.”
“When we uncovered the first figurine in Kirbhet Qeiyafa in 2010, there were no parallels to it,” Garfinkel told The Jerusalem Post. “Only two years later two similar heads were found in Tel Moza. When I saw how similar these three heads were, I started looking for more items, and I found two similar objects in the Moshe Dayan Collection at the Israel Museum.”
The archaeologist is the co-director of the excavations in Kirbhet Qeiyafa. Located in the Elah Valley and first discovered in 2007, the site presents the remains of a major fortified city. It has been considered by many to be an essential breakthrough in supporting the existence of a prominent kingdom in Judah at the time of King David.
Among the arguments presented to support the Judean identity of the center, Garfinkel and his team pointed out that no anthropomorphic figurines – especially female figurines, representing fertility goddesses and very common in other sites with different cultural affiliations – had been uncovered.
The male head that triggered his research represented the only exception.
“Male figurines are very rare,” Garfinkel said. “The key question is where those figurines were found.”
The clay artifacts feature bulging eyes, ears and noses. In Tel Moza, they were uncovered in a temple, while in Kirbhet Qeiyafa they were found in an administrative building on the top of the site, he said, adding: “In both cases, we are not speaking about private but public spaces.”
The artifacts currently at the Israel Museum are pottery vessels acquired on the antiquities market. But according to Dayan’s records, they were found in the Hebron Hills area, and Garfinkel believes they were probably originally unearthed in a burial cave.
The context where the objects were found suggests the divine nature of the images, he said.
“Now the question is: Who is the god they represent? We are familiar with the Canaanite pantheon and all its different gods, and we have Canaanite figurines depicting them,” he said. “However, these figurines are completely different, so they don’t portray one of them. We know that in Judah there was a new god. If this is not the God of Judah, who could it be? This is my understanding of it.”
THE TWO Tel Moza heads were found near horse figurines, while one of the artifacts from the Dayan collection, found intact, depicts the head as riding a horse – with almost no body in between. In the Hebrew Bible, God is sometimes described as a rider, Garfinkel said.
“Riding a swift cloud, The LORD will come to Egypt; Egypt’s idols shall tremble before Him, And the heart of the Egyptians shall sink within them,” reads Isaiah 19:1.
Asked whether it is possible that the figurines depict a king instead, Garfinkel said there was no tradition in Judah of considering the monarch as divine, contrary to customs in other civilizations.
He acknowledged that his theory was somewhat revolutionary, but he invited the scholars who criticize it to propose an alternative view.
“We are before a puzzle, and we need to put its pieces together to find meaning,” he told the Post. “The question of how we find meaning from the pottery, the bones, the houses and all remains is essential. We only work with small fragments, and we need to dare use the biblical text and other sources for this purpose.”
“If the people of Israel were not making statues, why would the biblical text be so concerned with the issue?” he added.
Garfinkel suggested that the ban on making images of God might have not been observed by the 10th century, or it might have been developed later in the Kingdom of Judah, differently from what the Bible says.
“This situation might have been the result of a contrast between simpler people who wanted to follow the Canaanite tradition of creating statues of the divine and a more sophisticated group who pushed for a more abstract approach,” he told the Post.
However, other archaeologists have dismissed Garfinkel’s theory. They include the directors of the Tel Moza excavation, Prof. Oded Lipschits, head of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University; and TAU and Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Shua Kisilevitz.
“Unfortunately, the article is riddled with factual inaccuracies in the presentation of the finds and a flawed methodological approach that disregards available evidence, the detailed publications of the Moẓa temple and its cultic artifacts, and the extensive scholarly literature on ancient coroplastic art on the one hand, and the study of religion in ancient Israel on the other,” Lipschits and Kisilevitz wrote in an article responding to Garfinkel’s article, which is set to appear in BAR’s next issue. TAU’s Ido Koch and David S. Vanderhooft from Boston College are also co-authors of the article.
Among other criticisms, they point to grouping the artifacts from the three sites together, as well as Garfinkel’s use of the biblical sources, mentioning specifically that while it is true that while God is described as a rider, he is not depicted as riding actual horses.
“Garfinkel categorically disregards of all previous typological, technological, iconographic, and contextual discussion of the figurines from Moẓa and the rest of the region,” Lipschits and Kisilevitz wrote.