Cultic objects from the time of King David

After some initial suspense, The Hebrew University has released the following notification about evidence of a cult in Judah at the time of King David, with implications for Solomon’s Temple:

Hebrew University archaeologist finds the first evidence of a cult in Judah at the time of King David, with implications for Solomon’s Temple

Prof. Yosef Garfinkel with a stome shrine model found at Khirbet Qeiyafa (Credit: Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Jerusalem, May 8, 2012—Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, the Yigal Yadin Professor of Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, announced today the discovery of objects that for the first time shed light on how a cult was organized in Judah at the time of King David. During recent archaeological excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, a fortified city in Judah adjacent to the Valley of Elah, Garfinkel and colleagues uncovered rich assemblages of pottery, stone and metal tools, and many art and cult objects. These include three large rooms that served as cultic shrines, which in their architecture and finds correspond to the biblical description of a cult at the time of King David.

This discovery is extraordinary as it is the first time that shrines from the time of early biblical kings were uncovered. Because these shrines pre-date the construction of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem by 30 to 40 years, they provide the first physical evidence of a cult in the time of King David, with significant implications for the fields of archaeology, history, biblical and religion studies.

The expedition to Khirbet Qeiyafa has excavated the site for six weeks each summer since 2007, with co-director Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The revolutionary results of five years of work are presented today in a new book, Footsteps of King David in the Valley of Elah, published by Yedioth Ahronoth.

Images of the new discoveries can be downloaded from Images must be credited to The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Located approximately 30 km. southwest of Jerusalem in the valley of Elah, Khirbet Qeiyafa was a border city of the Kingdom of Judah opposite the Philistine city of Gath. The city, which was dated by 10 radiometric measurements (14C) done at Oxford University on burned olive pits, existed for a short period of time between ca. 1020 to 980 BCE, and was violently destroyed.

The biblical tradition presents the people of Israel as conducting a cult different from all other nations of the ancient Near East by being monotheistic and an-iconic (banning human or animal figures). However, it is not clear when these practices were formulated, if indeed during the time of the monarchy (10-6th centuries BC), or only later, in the Persian or Hellenistic eras.

The absence of cultic images of humans or animals in the three shrines provides evidence that the inhabitants of the place practiced a different cult than that of the Canaanites or the Philistines, observing a ban on graven images.

The findings at Khirbet Qeiyafa also indicate that an elaborate architectural style had developed as early as the time of King David. Such construction is typical of royal activities, thus indicating that state formation, the establishment of an elite, social level and urbanism in the region existed in the days of the early kings of Israel. These finds strengthen the historicity of the biblical tradition and its architectural description of the Palace and Temple of Solomon.

According to Prof. Garfinkel, “This is the first time that archaeologists uncovered a fortified city in Judah from the time of King David. Even in Jerusalem we do not have a clear fortified city from his period. Thus, various suggestions that completely deny the biblical tradition regarding King David and argue that he was a mythological figure, or just a leader of a small tribe, are now shown to be wrong.” Garfinkel continued, “Over the years, thousands of animal bones were found, including sheep, goats and cattle, but no pigs. Now we uncovered three cultic rooms, with various cultic paraphernalia, but not even one human or animal figurine was found. This suggests that the population of Khirbet Qeiyafa observed two biblical bans—on pork and on graven images—and thus practiced a different cult than that of the Canaanites or the Philistines.”

Description of the findings and their significance

The three shrines are part of larger building complexes. In this respect they are different from Canaanite or Philistine cults, which were practiced in temples—separate buildings dedicated only to rituals. The biblical tradition described this phenomenon in the time of King David: “He brought the ark of God from a private house in Kyriat Yearim and put it in Jerusalem in a private house” (2 Samuel 6).

The cult objects include five standing stones (Massebot), two basalt altars, two pottery libation vessels and two portable shrines. No human or animal figurines were found, suggesting the people of Khirbet Qeiyafa observed the biblical ban on graven images.

Qeiyafa shrine with standing stones. (Credit: Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

Two portable shrines (or “shrine models”) were found, one made of pottery (ca. 20 cm high) and the other of stone (35 cm high). These are boxes in the shape of temples, and could be closed by doors.

The clay shrine is decorated with an elaborate façade, including two guardian lions, two pillars, a main door, beams of the roof, folded textile and three birds standing on the roof. Two of these elements are described in Solomon’s Temple: the two pillars (Yachin and Boaz) and the textile (Parochet).

The Clay Shrine (Credit: Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

The stone shrine is made of soft limestone and painted red. Its façade is decorated by two elements. The first are seven groups of roof-beams, three planks in each. This architectural element, the “triglyph,” is known in Greek classical temples, like the Parthenon in Athens. Its appearance at Khirbet Qeiyafa is the earliest known example carved in stone, a landmark in world architecture.

The Stone Shrine (Credit: Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

The second decorative element is the recessed door. This type of doors or windows is known in the architecture of temples, palaces and royal graves in the ancient Near East. This was a typical symbol of divinity and royalty at the time.

The stone model helps us to understand obscure technical terms in the description of Solomon’s palace as described in 1 Kings 7, 1-6. The text uses the term “Slaot,” which were mistakenly understood as pillars and can now be understood as triglyphs. The text also uses the term “Sequfim”, which was usually understood as nine windows in the palace, and can now be understood as “triple recessed doorway.”

Similar triglyphs and recessed doors can be found in the description of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6, Verses 5, 31-33, and in the description of a temple by the prophet Ezekiel (41:6). These biblical texts are replete with obscure technical terms that have lost their original meaning over the millennia. Now, with the help of the stone model uncovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa, the biblical text is clarified. For the first time in history we have actual objects from the time of David, which can be related to monuments described in the Bible.

In addition, Barnea Levi Selavan sent along the following summary:

“Based on two decorated cultic boxes Prof. Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University and Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority suggest revising the understanding of several biblical verses and practices. They suggest the small boxes are actually the arks used in Israel as opposed to the ark of the desert. They suggest finding them in the rooms is akin to the four times the ark was kept in someone’s house. The decorations include a triple recessed design which could be the “sheqafim” and that insets of three lines on the top of the box are triglyphs which are the earliest found and explain the word “tzla’ot” in Solomon’s temple and in Ezekiel’s description. Other elements hint at the curtain and pillars. One has decorative lions. Prof Garfinkel suggests that only a contemporary writer would have this accuracy.”

These objects are, of course, fascinating and cast light on the way Israelites designed cult sites away from Jerusalem. I doubt, however, if these boxes were “arks as opposed to the ark of the desert”. Similar objects were found in Israel from an earlier period, for example this house model from Early Bronze Age (Canaanite) Arad.

Arad House (Credit Israel Museum).

Shrines have also been known from the earliest times, such as this Twin Temple complex in EB Arad:

The city of EB Arad extended over a large area and had a sacred precinct. This reconstruction drawing shows the largest of two twin temples that have been excavated. The temple has three rooms, the smaller one of which was the holy of holies. A stone stele was found in the room on the left. In the courtyard stood a large square altar with a stone lined pit, which was used as a ceremonial washing basin, next to it. © Leen Ritmeyer

Standing stones are also known from earlier periods.

The question remains if these two boxes, particularly, the stone box, could be prototypes of the Solomonic Temple which hadn’t been built yet at that time. Because these “Qeiyafa shrines” date from the Davidic period, it does not mean to say that they  are proof of Israelite monotheism. The Bible mentions several non-Jerusalem cult sites (high places) and this one in Qeiyafa appears to fall in the same category. Doubtless, more light will be cast on the subject in the coming days.

16 thoughts on “Cultic objects from the time of King David”

  1. love your analysis as always!
    we would love to see a sketch of how the temple facade would look based on these shrines. and how the tzlaot would look like. The amaltaraos is also a piece no one mentions.
    I cant understand how they make press conferences and miss to show it in a way a average person can understand the find with all it’s glory, also no diagrams of the place they found it in, and the rooms, how they prayed and so on.

  2. אלי

    Thanks for this interesting link. It confirms my suspicion that the little shrines need not be connected with Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, which wasn’t built at that time in any case! Their origin is patently Pagan and not Biblical.

  3. Thanks again Leen!

    The quote from above, “The absence of cultic images of humans or animals in the three shrines PROVIDES EVIDENCE [emphasis mine] that the inhabitants of the place practiced a different cult than that of the Canaanites or the Philistines, observing a ban on graven images.”

    Huh? Good grief! Another classic minimalist over-interpretation?

    These are little ‘houses’ for little ‘gods’ in the habitations of Canaanites … or perhaps some disobedient Israelites. They are certainly not ‘models’ of Solomon’s Temple or a prototype. There is no connection to BOAZ and JACHIN here except in as much as the famous 2-pillar design elements later applied to Solomon’s Jerusalem Temple project were the [brainchild] contribution of hired, experienced [pagan] temple artisans from Tyre. This 2-pillar motif was common among pagan temples across the region and the fact that this motif is discernible on these Khirbet Qeiyafa boxes should come as no surprise.

    The Canaanite notion that ‘deities’ LIVED in little houses or shrines, like these, was the norm. The Khirbet Qeiyafa boxes are remnant cult objects, where the locals placed one or more little god statuettes inside to DWELL. But hey! No gods were found. Why?

    These little ‘gods’ were valued items in antiquity … they could have been [as have been found repeatedly in Israel] painted clay, or iron, or copper, or bronze, maybe even gold? The gods they’re not finding had long since been taken from that site and when? When the place was first abandoned for whatever reason! What I don’t get is why/how academics fail to mention [or just ignore] the fact that people, as conscious as we are today, were ACTUALLY THERE at the time the site was first abandoned. Back in that distant time, these little gods were valued (or despised) and their absence from the site today is not so much ‘evidence’ of a ‘different cult’ … ‘observing a ban on graven images’ … as it is, someone ran off with them a long time ago!

    “Hurry … the walls are breached and on fire! Grab the skin of water and the bread, grab the spear and don’t leave the gods!”

    The Bible goes on and on about idolatry among the Israelites ‘learned’ from their Canaanite neighbors. The missing gods from these boxes were either stolen, burned, melted down, or spirited away to another place where they could be discreetly [or openly] idolized and the little ‘houses’ of Khirbet Qeiyafa are all that remain, cast aside, as so much trash. Remember, ancient scavengers and gold-diggers all rummaged through all the ancient sites across the Levant, for centuries, before Europeans invented ARCHAEOLOGY. We moderns dig it up and say … ‘they practiced a different cult’ … why? Because no little gods are found. Really?

  4. Yet the biblical pattern, executed by builders from Phoenicia, is pagan in its origins and antecedents. It neither fell from heaven nor was revealed uniquely; it developed in the cultural milieu of these shrines.

    The Scripture makes clear that the early practices of the Hebrews cum Israelites were based in and influenced by their so-called “pagan” neighbours. For example, David’s placement of the “household idols” (teraphim) in his bed as he fled from Saul, disguised as his sleeping body, is a textual artifact reflecting earlier iconic practices within Yahwism itself.

    While the shrines may not be of direct architectural influence, they are of clear cultural similarity. The pillars of the “clay shrine” are direct parallels to Joachim and Boaz before Solomon’s later structure. These have their architectural origins in the earlier humna-headed beasts on those like the Taanach incense altar….

    All that said, it is much less of a new revelation than the press release claims…

  5. David,
    Architecturally speaking there are certainly links with other temples. Yet, to say that the pattern “did not fall from heaven” appears to contradict 1Chr. 28:12 “He [David] gave him [Solomon] the plans of all that the Spirit had put in his mind for the courts of the temple of the LORD and all the surrounding rooms, for the treasuries of the temple of God and for the treasuries for the dedicated things.” So, the design of the Jerusalem Temple cannot easily be compared with small pagan house shrines.

  6. Just saw this title available through Eisenbraun’s:

    Family and Household Religion in Ancient Israel and the Levant
    by Rainer Albertz and Rudiger Schmitt

    A work of this depth would likely address these sort of ‘god-boxes’ and the practices associated with them. Interesting volume – would love to get my hands on the book, but for now, a bit too pricey for my wallet. 😉

  7. What an interesting article !

    It should put another nail in the sceptics coffin of those who claim the biblical narrative circa 960 bce is a myth. Archaeology is a fascinating field. More and more previously hidden gems are being revealed for all to see in these days.

    The Redemption continues…

  8. The three shrines are part of larger building complexes. In this respect they are different from Canaanite or Philistine cults, which were practiced in temples – separate buildings dedicated only to rituals. The biblical tradition described this phenomenon in the time of King David: “He brought the ark of God from a private house in Kyriat Yearim and put it in Jerusalem in a private house” (2 Samuel 6).

  9. Yet, to say that the pattern “did not fall from heaven” appears to contradict….

    no it does not, cause heaven talks to a person in the way he understands and lives the world.

  10. hi,

    would like to know how do you undrstand the comparison between the pheonician temples in lebanon (צור) which mirrors solomons temple with alot of characteristics.

    interesting enough solomon did ask חירם to participate in building his tempple.

    see here

    p.s. there used to be a link here to “latest comments”, on the right panel, would like to see it again. tx

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