SUMMARY: Spectacular evidence for worship of Israel’s God has been discovered in Israel. It is consistent with the worship of Israel’s God YHWH as prescribed in the Bible. The artifacts come from the ancient city of Dan, and have been dated to the 8th century BC. If accurate, this would correspond to the era following a significant chapter in the history of ancient Israel in the 900s BC when the unified kingdom of David and Solomon split into two upon Solomon’s death. There are popular views among academics that run contrary to the Bible’s descriptions.
So the king [Jeroboam] took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. – 1 Kings 12:28-29 (ESV)
Worship of Israel’s God
Spectacular evidence for worship of Israel’s God has been discovered in Israel. It is consistent with the worship of Israel’s God YHWH as prescribed in the Bible. An article by Philippe Bohstrom in Haaretz Magazine recently, highlights the stunning finds while displaying the popular views among academics that run contrary to the Bible’s descriptions. The evidence includes seal impressions with names that incorporate the name of Israel’s God YHWH, a huge temple whose architecture matched Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, and artifacts typical of Yahwistic temple rituals.
The artifacts come from the ancient city of Dan, and have been dated to the 8th century BC. If accurate, this would correspond to the era following a significant chapter in the history of ancient Israel in the 900s BC when the unified kingdom of David and Solomon split into two upon Solomon’s death. The tribes in the north formed the kingdom of Israel under its king Jeroboam. The southern kingdom of Judah followed Solomon’s son, and had its capital and religious center in Jerusalem.
Afraid that his people would continue to worship at the temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem, potentially leading them to reunite with Judah, Jeroboam built his own centers for worship in the northern cities of Dan and Bethel. Golden calves were put in each city and replacement feasts and priesthood were instituted in an effort to keep the people loyal. The Levites who were the priests under the former system handed down from the time of Moses were cast out of service and many fled to Judah.
For the Levites [in Israel] left their common lands and their holdings and came to Judah and Jerusalem, because Jeroboam and his sons cast them out from serving as priests of the LORD, and he appointed his own priests for the high places and for the goat idols and for the calves that he had made. – 2 Chronicles 11:14-15 (ESV)
Scholarly View of Evidence
Overwhelming evidence of idol worship and practices contrary to the worship system initiated under Moses (at the time of the Exodus) for Israel’s God YHWH has been found throughout the lands of ancient Israel and Judah. This is one factor that has caused many mainstream scholars to adopt the view that monotheistic worship of YHWH was only a later invention that was then added into the biblical accounts for the early history of Israel in an attempt to revise history and bring the Semitic populations living in Canaan under the control of the priests and kings in Judah.
These issues are covered in a previous Thinker Update on evidence for idol worship in ancient Israel from September 8th, 2018. The fact is that pervasive idol worship fits what the Bible describes for these times and is therefore not evidence that the Bible somehow got it wrong or was trying to cover something up.
The new evidence from the northern city of Dan (and a reassessment of older material) has brought up another criticism. The conclusion of the Haaretz article is that “contrary to the conventional wisdom among biblical scholars,” the main deity worshipped by these northern Danites “was Yahweh after all, not the Canaanite god El and his envoys, golden calves and goat-shaped demons.”
Does the apparent robust YHWH worship in the city of Dan really contradict what the Bible portrays? As we will see, the finds at Dan may challenge mainstream scholars’ understanding of the Bible and history, but they do not necessarily differ from what should be expected if the Bible is giving an accurate picture of history.
Evidence for Worship
The new excavations at Tel Dan are headed by Dr. David Ilan and Dr. Yifat Thareani of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. They found that Israelites were not the only inhabitants of the city; Aremeans and Phoenicians were also present and practiced their rituals. This fits the Bible’s account of Aram (or Syria) frequently warring against Israel and many times took control of portions of it (as is seen in 1 Kings 20 and 22).
A dominant feature at Dan was a massive sanctuary that was uncovered by archaeologists decades ago. Scholars have long assumed that it was a center for the pagan worship promoted by Jeroboam after the split of the two kingdoms into north and south. However, now Ilan and Thareani are changing their views after realizing that this temple actually has all the hallmarks of YHWH worship. Their conclusion is that the people at this key religious center were worshipping YHWH in an organized manner as early as the 9th century (800s) BC.
“The significance of what we have in the Tel Dan temple is probably greater than most people realize,” Jonathan Greer, associate professor of Old Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and Tel Dan staff member, told Haaretz.
The temple itself included a large platform, small altars that were flat-topped and four-horned, seven-spouted oil lamps, perforated incense cups, and cult stands. According to excavators, the proportions and construction techniques of this temple match biblical descriptions of Solomon’s Temple. Two intact staircases were even found as approaches to the main altar.
Another clue that suggests Yahwistic worship in Dan is the use of Yahwistic names found in seal impressions. In the north, these names incorporated the element “yah” or “yaw” (a short form of “YHWH”) as part of their name.
A seal impressions found with the name of Immadiyaw, meaning “YHWH is with me..” (credit: Nelson Glueck, School of Biblical Archaeology)
God is With Us
Two seal impressions were found with the name Immadiyaw, one on a jar handle (pictured at top of article). Immadi-yaw means “YHWH is with me” and is the same name form as Immanu-el (Emmanuel), which uses the name “el” for God and means “God is with us” Greer added. The archaeologists suggest that Immadi-yaw may have been an officiating functionary at the sanctuary.
Another jar found in the royal storerooms was stamped with the name Zechari-yaw (meaning “YHWH remembers”). Might this be the King Zechariah of 2 Kings 14:29?
These names should not have been such a surprise to scholars, since other kings of Israel recorded in the Bible also had Yahwistic names.
Another indication of Yahwistic worship in Dan was the discovery of an “altar kit” in one of the rooms. It included a bronze bowl, a pair of identical shovels, a long-handled shovel like those that held incense, a pot filled with burned animal remains, and a long iron handle that may have come from a fork.
“What is remarkable is that these five elements—a bowl, pair of shovels, incense pan, ash pot, and fork—are listed, often as a group, in descriptions of sacrificial paraphernalia in the Bible such as in Exodus 27:3. We just don’t get this sort of thing in archaeology too often (if ever!), where we read a list of items in the Bible that should be in an ‘altar kit,’ then dig them up right next to each other beside an altar like this,” Greer told Haaretz.
“You shall make the altar of acacia wood … make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze. You shall make pots for it to receive its ashes, and shovels and basins and forks and fire pans. You shall make all its utensils of bronze.” – Exodus 27:1-3 (ESV)
“Archaeological finds in the northern biblical city of Dan look like they came straight out the Bible’s ritual checklist”, says Ilan.
One other discovery from the temple precinct was thousands of animal bones that matched the species prescribed for sacrifice in the Torah. The bones in one area that appeared to be linked with the priests’ quarters fit the biblical account in a unique way.
“Looking at the bones from meat-bearing portions of hind limbs and forelimbs from sheep and goats, I noticed that there were far more right-sided portions in the western chambers, an area associated with priests,” Greer said. “This called to mind the biblical prescriptions for priests to receive right-sided portions as their priestly due from certain sacrifices such as in Leviticus 7:32-33.”
And the right thigh you shall give to the priest as a contribution from the sacrifice of your peace offerings. Whoever among the sons of Aaron offers the blood of the peace offerings and the fat shall have the right thigh for a portion. – Lev 7:32-33 (ESV)
Nearly all of the toe bones from sheep and goats were found in this same priests’ chamber, which might link to the fact that the priest was to be given the skin of some offerings. Hooves could have remained attached to the hides.
And the priest who offers any man’s burnt offering shall have for himself the skin of the burnt offering that he has offered. – Leviticus 7:8 (ESV)
Seal impression of a proposed heraldic symbol of Dan. (credit: Nelson Glueck / School of Biblical Archaeology)
Line drawing of the seal impression. (credit: Nelson Glueck / School of Biblical Archaeology)
Impressions of heraldry, thought to signify the tribe of Dan, were also found in the city. However, the image seen in this impression bears a resemblance to the image for the tribe of Naphtali on a seal impression (below) as was proposed by Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron. Information on this seal can be found in the Thinker Update from September 14, 2018 about the possible representation of the 12 tribes of Israel on a seal from Avaris.
LEFT: A portion of an impression made by a cylinder seal found in the Middle Kingdom palace at Avaris. RIGHT: Part of the column that may be depicting a doe. (from the book by Manfred Bietak. Avaris, The Capital of the Hyksos, Recent Excavations at Tell el-Daba. London. British Museum Press. 1996. p. 28. Fig.25.)
One wonders if the seal found in the city Dan may actually have a connection to the tribe of Naphtali, whose lands surrounded Dan. In Jacob’s blessings to his sons we find the following reference:
“Naphtali is a doe let loose, he gives beautiful words.” – Genesis 49:21 (ESV)
Thinking Through the Data
The article in Haaretz uses this data to draw several conclusions. It frames the story such that uncovering evidence consistent with YHWH worship in Dan is contrary to the Bible’s claim that they were worshiping idols. When noting the mainstream view that the Book of Chronicles was not written until the 4th-2nd centuries BC (therefore, it supposedly wasn’t written until about 700 years after the split of the two kingdoms), and that it was written by scribes based in Judah’s capital of Jerusalem who were rivals of Israel, the assertion is made that, “It’s starting to look like the biblical account was heavily biased.”
This indictment ignores the fact that the faithlessness of idolatry is emphasized for both Israel and Judah.
And Judah did what was evil in the sight of the LORD … They did according to all the abominations of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. – 1 Kings 14:22-24 (ESV)
Additionally, the Bible’s condemnation of idol worship in Israel (and Judah) does not necessarily mean that there was no worship of YHWH going on. It is often the mixing of worship of YHWH with that of other gods that is condemned.
“You shall have no other gods before me.” – Exodus 20:3
... you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart, doing only that which was right in my eyes, – 1 Kings 14:8 (ESV)
…this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me … – Isaiah 29:13 (ESV)
And Jehoash did what was right in the eyes of the LORD all his days, because Jehoiada the priest instructed him. Nevertheless, the high places were not taken away; the people continued to sacrifice and make offerings on the high places. – 2 Kings 12:2-3
Jehu is an example of one northern king who at least paid lip service to Israel’s God.
[Jehu, king of Israel, speaking] “Know then that there shall fall to the earth nothing of the word of the LORD, which the LORD spoke concerning the house of Ahab, for the LORD has done what he said by his servant Elijah”… And Jehu took him up with him into the chariot. And he said, “Come with me, and see my zeal for the LORD”…But Jehu was not careful to walk in the law of the LORD … – 2 Kings 10:10,15-16,31 (ESV)
The mainstream views expressed in the article have swung from one extreme (that Israel was different than Judah in that they practiced idolatry only) to the other extreme (that Israel was actually practicing official and orthodox YHWH worship – therefore the Bible’s portrayal of them as the bad guys shows the bias of the Judah authors of the Bible). Neither view fits a careful reading of the Bible.
Jeroboam felt the need to set up alternative worship sites because he perceived there would be a great desire among his people to go to Jerusalem to worship YHWH.
And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” – 1 Kings 12:26-27 (ESV)
To produce a counterfeit brand of worship in Israel, he would need to incorporate aspects that felt like the authentic YHWH worship the people were used to. So, it shouldn’t be surprising to find many religious practices at Dan matching what was done in Jerusalem. The pattern of the temple in Dan not only fits Solomon’s temple, it fits the general plan of the tabernacle that Solomon’s temple emulated, and that the Israelites had been familiar with for centuries after the Exodus.
Another reason to be skeptical of the article’s conclusions has to do with dating. The article admits that the dating is still under investigation. Even within the standard view, these finds may come from a time long after Jeroboam.
A broader view of the question of dating creates even greater reason to avoid such jumps to conclusions. If the dates assigned to the archaeological periods are suspect and may need revising, then the period dubbed as “9th century BC” may not be the 9th century at all. If the archaeological periods are pulled forward in time, all these finds at Dan could possibly be much further after the time of Jeroboam or Ahab, another of Israel’s notorious kings.
While Bible relates times when pure YHWH worship was persecuted in Israel, it never claims that there was a complete absence of outward forms of worship resembling the prescribed biblical norms from the time of Jeroboam to the fall of Samaria and beyond. The whims of different kings may have gone back and forth between the complete exclusion of YHWH worship, to at other times more inclusion and mixing of all forms of worship. The temple in Jerusalem had times when idols were set up inside of it (see 2 Kings 23:4-12). No doubt, sacrifices went on as usual during those periods.
So three general options come to mind (there are others). Either the temple complex in Dan was built by Jeroboam for pure YHWH worship, and the Bible just got it wrong because of the bias of the authors of Chronicles based in Judah, or this complex was built by Jeroboam (or Solomon) as an outward copy of what was going on in Jerusalem – incorporating many religious practices that the northern Israelite culture was used to from the time of the tabernacle through the time of Solomon’s temple, or perhaps it was built centuries later by someone wanting to mix YHWH worship with that of all the other gods, as was also being done in Judah. To land squarely on the first option while ignoring the others seems biased in its own way.
Several faulty conclusions and leaps of logic can then be addressed. These finds do not automatically indicate some pure form of monotheism in Dan. If this is evidence of officially sanctioned YHWH worship, there is nothing yet to securely date the finds (to the time of Jeroboam or Ahab for instance). The fact that monotheism was not practiced continuously and exclusively by both kingdoms, in no way means that monotheistic worship of YHWH was not instituted by Moses and endorsed by some of the judges and kings of Judah as the Bible portrays. The conclusion of many scholars that the Bible portrays Israel as exclusively practicing idolatry (with no mixture of YHWH worship) and Judah as the faithful nation is just not true. Judah was sent into exile for the same reasons Israel was.
The spectacular finds from Dan show a remarkable fit to the details for the type of worship of Israel’s God prescribed in the books of Moses. The fact that these practices were passed down in such an unaltered way is one of the great evidences for the accuracy and ancientness of the early books of the Bible. – Keep Thinking
** TOP PHOTO: Copper utensils uncovered at the temple in Dan. (credit: Nelson Glueck / School of Biblical Archaeology)