Evidence of Idolatry and Polytheism in Ancient Israel

Biblical Evidence of the Pre-exilic Popular Religion
Archaeological Traces

Biblical Evidence of the Pre-exilic Popular Religion

The Bible does not present a simple or unified picture of the religious beliefs and practices of the period before the exile. The dominant impression the casual reader receives is coloured by the sweep of the narrative in the Torah and in the Former Prophets. This presents Israel as monotheistic from the start, forever in contrast to the peoples around them.

As one looks at the details of this narrative one soon spots occasions when this ideal broke down. From Rachel with her family household gods (teraphim) in Gen 31:19ff. through the home based idols of the period of the judges (cf. Micah's story in Jud 17) to the state-supported cults of Ba'al and Asherah in the time of the kings (e.g. 1 Kgs 14:15, 23; 15:13; 16:33; 18:19; 2 Kgs 13:6; 17:10, 16; 18:4; 21:3, 7; 23:4-7, 14-15) there seems to have been a regular, or at least frequent stream of polytheism in popular religion.

That the Psalms sometimes picture Adonai as "king of the gods" (eg. Ps 95:3) with other gods as his ministers (Ps 82) suggests too that even "official" pre-exilic religion was henotheistic.

Archaeological Traces

drawings on pithos A from Quntillet 'Ajrud

As well as statuettes that might have served as religious idols archaeological evidence concerning possible polytheistic practices in Ancient Israel is of two sorts.

At some sites like Quntillet 'Ajrud in the Negev there indications of possible devotion to a female consort alongside Adonai. The inscription found near the image (opposite) is a strong example. It reads something like: "I bless you by Adonai of Samaria and his Asherah". (Asherah was the consort of the Canaanite supreme god El.)

However the very well preserved temple at Arad, also in the Negev, not only conforms closely to the biblical pattern, but shows no sign of polytheistic practices. That it was filled in rather than destroyed may suggest it was abolished as a site for sacrifice to Adonai during a reform like Josiah's or Hezekiah's not long after Amos' time.


This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,

© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.