Pondering the Spade: The Kuntillet Ajrud Pithoi

by Dr. David Schreiner

There are a number of things an archaeologist considers when he or she is trying to determine where to dig. One consideration is that of travel routes. Find a travel route—better yet find the intersection of travel routes—and you will likely find a location that yields large amounts of material culture, which is the lifeblood of archaeological discourse.

Kuntillet 1
Figure 1

Travel routes permeated Syro-Palestine. [I have another cure for insomnia: The Roads and Highways of Ancient Israel by David Dorsey]. North, south, east, and west, travel routes dissected the landscape of Syro-Palestine–even the most arid and inhospitable places. Even the Sinai Peninsula.

Speaking of the Sinai Peninsula, if you have not been there, well…you don’t want to stay long. At least make sure you are in an air-conditioned vehicle and pray you don’t have a break-down.

Sorry, I digress.

In the northeast corner of that barren wilderness is an important site at the crossroads of intersecting ancient travel routes and near a regional wadi. It has proven to be one of the most formative sites for understanding popular conceptions of Yahweh during the period of the divided monarchy.

Kuntillet 2 Kuntillet Ajrud is an architecturally modest site, first documented in the late 1800s. However, significant excavations did not commence until the 1970s. While the site did not offer much more than a couple of buildings, each of those buildings boasted loads of epigraphic and artistic data. In fact, relative to its size, one can argue that Kuntillet Ajrud is the most epigraphically rich Iron Age Hebrew site. Graffiti and inscriptions abound, covering walls, benches, posts, and pithoi (large storage jars). Without question though, the most significant find was that of two large pithoi that had similar graffiti and votive inscriptions that link the personal name of God, Yahweh, with particular geographic locations and the pagan goddess Asherah.

Yep…you heard right. In these inscriptions, Yahweh is associated with Asherah.

Kyle McCarter has offered a standard translation for both, which is as good a place to start as any.

Pithos 1: Utterance of ʾAshyaw the king: “Say to Yehallel and to Yawʿasah and to […]: ‘I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah!’ ”[1]

Pithos 2: Utterance of ’Amaryaw, “Say to my lord: ‘Is it well with you? I bless you by Yahweh of Teman and his asherah. May he bless you and keep you, and may he be with my lord!’ ”[2]

Now, stick with me for a moment, but I need to get technical. The bold phrases, which is the heart of the debate, stem from the Hebrew consonants waw-lamed-aleph-shin-resh-taw-hey. “Asherah” comes from aleph-shin-resh-taw, which means that there is a final hey for which we need to accommodate (the waw and the lamed are a conjunction and preposition respectively). So, how are we to understand the final hey?

1. This first option is widely accepted, and it understands the final hey as a third person pronominal suffix, signifying possession. If this is accepted, then there are a couple of further options:

Kuntillet 3 a. The translation can be rendered “his Asherah.” This means that Yahweh “owns” the pagan goddess, implying that Yahweh had a divine consort.
b. It is also possible to understand “asherah” in a more generic sense, as a symbol for Yahweh (versus a proper name for a pagan goddess). Thus, the writer of the votive inscription is invoking both the name of Yahweh as well as a symbol of his presence, likely some type of wooden object.

2. Richard Hess champions another option. He does not understand the final hey as a pronominal suffix, but rather as a historical spelling otherwise not employed by the biblical writers.[3]

Kuntillet 4So the $64,000 question is, “Which one is it, and what are the implications?”

Before I tip my hand, it is important to realize that this debate will continue to rage until we find other inscriptions that will clarify a very convoluted and difficult discussion. In other words, feel free to call me crazy! Yet considering the totality of the debate, I think that these inscriptions are associating Yahweh with the pagan goddess Asherah. Even if one understands the consonants aleph-shin-resh-taw as a symbolic reference, the Old Testament is clear that the asherim were to be destroyed because of their association with the pagan goddess. Therefore, the issue becomes either a direct or indirect association with the pagan goddess.

I remember the first time I came across this data. I struggled with it. Yet as I pondered it, I realized some things. Didn’t the prophets rail against religious syncretism? Also, should we understand this site to reflect “official” orthodox views? I mean, the debate on the function of the site notwithstanding, Kuntillet Ajrud is likely a “truck stop” in the middle of the desert, a caravansary. Thus, this site likely represents certain ideas associated with Yahweh that may or may not have been shared by the populace at large. However, if we take the intensity of the prophetic critique seriously, the Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions may be reminiscent of popular understanding.

In the end, we should not perceive a sharp dichotomy between those who worshiped Yahweh and those who worshipped pagan gods and goddesses. Rather, among the general populace, the lines were blurred, and, much like today, people struggled with properly understanding the Lord. Thus, the biblical writers and the prophets of Israel were constantly fighting an uphill battle, criticizing incorrect notions that took root among a populace surrounded and influenced by outsiders. The more things change, the more things stay the same, don’t they?

Figure 1: Permission Granted from Associates for Biblical Research

[1] William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Context of Scripture (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2000), 171.

[2] Ibid, 172.

[3] Richard Hess, Israelite Religions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 283-89.

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