A 3,000 year old picture from the Sinai Peninsula is back in the news again this week, with some claiming that this ancient Jewish artwork depicts God, God’s penis, and God’s wife. If this interpretation is correct, this picture would call into question much of what we think about Judaism, in particular the idea that there was only one God.
The picture was unearthed as part of excavations at Kuntillat Arjud, a hillside in the northern Sinai Peninsula that was excavated over four decades ago. The name of the site itself means “the solitary hill of wells,” a reference to the wells found at the base of the hill. Though today it is remote, three millennia ago it was a place that travelers could stop for refreshment during long journeys from Gaza to the Gulf of Eilat.
Excavations at that site unearthed numerous inscriptions and drawings. Given the proximity to Egypt, many of these became the property of the Egyptian government as part of a peace treaty. But the Jewish origins of the excavations have been recognized since 1870, when a British explorer found the Hebrew letter aleph inscribed on the side of a clay jar there.
Because the site was only occupied for a brief period it is comparatively easy to restrict the date of the find: the inscription and the picture must date to the late ninth-early eighth century BCE. Ze’ ev Meshel an archaeologist based at the Tel Aviv University, who oversaw excavations on behalf of the university and Israel Exploration Society, estimated that it was only used for approximately 25 years.
Meshel’s excavations uncovered more Hebrew letters and revealed that clay jars had been made in Jerusalem. This fact, coupled with the presence of religious blessings and texts led Meshel to suggest that the residents of the site were priests who received financial support from the Temple in Jerusalem.
The discovery that yielded the most controversy, however, was an image of a man and a woman holding hands and wearing crowns. The man is shown with what appears to be a large penis and above the two figures the words “Yahweh and Asherah” are inscribed. Yahweh is one of the primary names used for God in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. In English Bibles it is translated as “Lord.”
Asherah, on the other hand, is the name of a well-known Semitic goddess. She appears as the chief consort of the Sumerian god Anu and Ugaritic god El, both of whom were the oldest and most important figures in their respective religious pantheons. She is also referenced in the Bible, not as the wife of God, but as a competing religious figure who at one time had been worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple (2 Kings 23:4). In the past a number of scholars have hypothesized that Asherah might, at one time, have been regarded by ancient Israelites as the consort of Yahweh.
The discovery of her name alongside that of Yahweh at Kuntillat Arjud seems to add weight to this hypothesis. Could this be, then, that this is the oldest image of the well-endowed Yahweh and his wife?
Not everyone in convinced. Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou the author of the forthcoming book God: An Anatomy told The Daily Beast that the inscription isn’t a label to the picture at all. “It is best understood,” she said “as an appeal for a blessing from ‘Yahweh and his Asherah’—the divine couple worshipped in ancient Israel and Judah. But the image and inscription need not be directly related.” Stavrakopoulou and others argue instead that these are images of the minor Egyptian deity and demon, Bes. Professor Shmuel Ahitvu, an expert in inscriptions, told Haaretz that “Bes is a dwarf who was the deity of witches.” If the image is of Bes, then what appears to be his penis is in fact a tail. Stavrakopoulou noted that it’s probably a tail from a typical Bes cloak, which was made from animal skin.
Just because the image and the inscription are unrelated, however, does not mean that God was a singleton. There are a number of undisputed references to Yahweh and Asherah at the site. As for his nether regions, we shouldn’t emasculate Yahweh just yet, Stavrakopoulou told me, “Yahweh certainly had a big penis—but this isn’t it.”