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Cult Stands, LaMoine F. DeVries, BAR 13:04, Jul-Aug 1987.

A Bewildering Variety of Shapes and Sizes

cylindrical stand from Beth-SheanWhen the editor of BAR asked me to write an article on Israelite incense stands, I knew that limiting the article to incense stands would make the task almost impossible. Many of the stands he would want me to include—once thought by scholars to be incense stands—were not used for incense at all.

But that wasn’t the only problem- The subject could hardly be confined to the Israelites. Often we can’t be sure whether some of these stands were used by Israelites or by some other ancient Near Eastern people. More important, the use of these stands was so widespread throughout the ancient Near East that it would be foolish to try to understand them apart from this broader context comprising many diverse cultures.

I thought of defining the subject more broadly as cult stands. “Cult” has an unfortunate connotation for many people, but to scholars it carries no pejorative baggage. It refers simply to religion; a cultic function is a religious function. So how about making the subject of the article religious stands or offering stands? Well, some of these stands may have been used for nonreligious purposes-1 Some of the incense burners were probably used for cosmetic purposes, to give women a lovely odor—the perfumery of their day.

So I was left without a very clearly defined topic.

But it doesn’t matter. I will simply focus mostly on the religious aspects of these stands—perhaps I can call them offering stands—in all their bewildering variety.

By the time you finish this article, you should have a good idea not only how these offering stands actually looked, but also how they functioned—in very specific ways and in a broad social context. All this is possible because of the extraordinary interaction between archaeological artifacts, ancient pictures that have survived and the text of the Bible itself. Here we have an excellent example of how archaeology and the Bible can shed light on one another.

Let us begin with the artifacts themselves. These stands not only come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and materials, but their use was over an unusually long period of time. They were used for literally thousands of years.

Some date as early as the Chalcolithic period (c. 4000–3100 B.C.),2 others to the Early Bronze Age (c. 3100–2000 B.C.),3 and still others to the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1550 B.C.).4

But by far the greatest number seem to date from the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 B.C.) and Iron Age I (c. 1200–900 B.C.), when they were extremely popular at sites such as Hazor,5 Megiddo,6 Taanach,7 Beth-Shean,8 Beth-Shemesh,9 Ai,10 Gezer,11 Tell Qasile,12 Ashdod,13 Tell Beit Mirsim,14 Lachish15 and Arad.16

In terms of Biblical history, these stands appear in greatest numbers during the time the Israelites were settling in Canaan following the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) and continue through the period of the Judges (c. 1200–1020 B.C.) and to some degree into the period of the Israelite monarchy.

As the stands have been found over an extended period of time, so they have been found over a very wide geographical range—from Egypt in the west to Mesopotamia in the east as well as in parts of the Mediterranean world. Stands have been found at such sites as Ashur,17 Tell Billah,18 Tepe Gawra,19 Tell Basmusian20 and Tell Shemshara,21 as well as on the islands of Crete22 and Cyprus.23 Tomb paintings feature offering stands as used in Egypt.

The materials used to make these stands also varied. They were fashioned of bronze, clay (pottery), limestone and basalt. Finally, they were fabricated in a wide variety of forms and shapes.

The most popular type of offering stand was the two-piece pottery stand consisting of a cylindrical base or pedestal, often cone-shaped, and a bowl that sat on top.24 Sometimes the pedestal and bowl were made in one piece instead of two.25

Another popular pottery stand was shaped like a one-, two- or three-story house, with the upper story set back so that the offering bowl could be placed on the lower level.26 The house is easily recognizable by its square or rectangular windows as well as by its doors.

Limestone stands had two basic shapes, cylindrical and square. The cylindrical forms are similar to the cylindrical pottery stands; that is, they have a pedestal and a basin-like27 or cup-like top.28 Sometimes the pedestal has a pillar-like appearance with decorated registers at various levels on the pedestal; the bowl on top may be decorated with petals to resemble the capital of a pillar.29

The square limestone stand resembles a small altar; indeed, it is a small altar. Often, but not always, the square stands have four horn-like projections on top.30 Sometimes they have decorative features like a ledge around the side walls.

Each material from which these offering stands were fabricated provided the craftsman with special opportunities, but none more than bronze. Unfortunately, bronze could also be melted down and reused, so very few bronze stands have survived. Those that have are of two basic shapes—one a tripod and the other a square openwork design. The tripod stand31 often had a ring-like base connecting the three prongs of the tripod; a central shaft extended upward from the point of the tripod and supported a saucerlike disc or basin.

The sides of square bronze offering stands32 consisted of openwork, which may depict a variety of scenes—such as a worshipper in a standing position offering a gift to a deity who is seated on a throne. On top of the square openwork sides was a round frame on which an offering bowl could be placed.

Finally, in a class by themselves are the small cuboid stands,33 which date mainly to Iron Age III (c. 600–332 B.C.), the Hellenistic period (c. 332–63 B.C.) and the early part of the Roman period (c. 63 B.C.–324 A.D.). They are made of clay and soft limestone and are only about 4 or 5 inches on a side, with a small depression on top. They were used for burning incense and other aromatics. But it is by no means clear that this was done in a cultic setting. Some scholars suggest that they were simply cosmetic burners, used to burn aromatics that scented women’s bodies and clothes (“Your robes are all fragrant with myrhh and aloes and cassia,” says the psalmist [Psalm 45-8]).a We shall exclude these cuboid burners from further consideration.

At one time it was thought that all of the other stands we have been examining were incense stands, because burn marks were sometimes found on the offering bowls. Now, after finding many stands that do not display burn marks, we know better. Moreover, the shape of some of the bowls indicates they were designed to hold something, not to burn incense.

This conclusion is supported both by Biblical texts and by pictures preserved from several ancient Near Eastern cultures. These pictures consist of ritual scenes on seals, reliefs, plaques and tomb paintings. In some of these offering scenes, we see smoke and flames rising from offering stands similar to the cylindrical and house-shaped stands described above. One Babylonian cylinder seal features an offering scene in which a two-stage, house-shaped stand is set between two deities.34 An animal head, possibly a ram or a young calf, is on the upper stage of the house. The lower stage supports a chalice from which flames or smoke rise, indicating a small fire offering of incense or oil.

In another offering scene, we see the goddess Ishtar welcoming two of her devotees.35 The first worshipper approaches and pours a libation into a cylindrical offering stand while the second worshipper remains in the background with a pail in hand. This reflects the use of an offering stand in a libation or drink-offering ritual.

Often a scene on a seal will combine several elements. A seal from ancient Mesopotamia portrays a worshipper bringing an offering to the weather god and goddess.36 The offering is a libation which the worshipper pours over a two-stage, house-shaped stand. On the upper level of the house, we see another offering for which these stands were used—cakes or loaves as part of a grain or cereal offering. In this scene, two or three cakes are located on the upper level of the offering stand. Three cakes can also be seen on another typical cylindrical offering stand before an unidentified, seated deity who is approached by two worshippers.

Cylindrical and house-shaped stands were also used for vegetation rites that involved growing plants. Offering scenes of this type feature a worshipper pouring a libation into a stand from which a plant is growing. The stand seems to function as a kind of cultic flower pot. In one example, a Mesopotamian king named Gudea, who ruled in the third millennium B.C.,b is portrayed pouring a liquid into a cylindrical stand containing a small tree or plant, apparently to water it. The cylindrical stand in this example sits on the lower level of a house-shaped stand. On the upper level of the house-shaped stand is an offering of three or four cakes.37

In a similar scene on a limestone stele, the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu offers a libation in a cylindrical stand from which a palm tree is growing.38 In offering scenes such as these, the offering stand served as a miniature garden or sacred plot in agricultural or vegetation rites. The offering stand was a microcosm of the land, the fertility of which was assured by the deity.

Offering stands, particularly cylindrical stands, were also used in Egypt. They appear frequently in tomb paintings. The offerings to the god or goddess were probably intended to assure the deceased of the deity’s bounty.

These Egyptian offering scenes are often detailed, graphic and well preserved. In them we see that, at least in Egypt, a wide variety of gifts to the gods, rather than just one or two, were offered. Typical offerings include different kinds of fruits, parts of plants, water fowl, fish, small animals or the leg of a small animal like a sheep or goat. These Egyptian offering stands are usually heaped to the limit, in contrast to the one or two gifts that seem to be characteristic of the Mesopotamian offering scenes.

From all of this evidence, it appears that these stands were used to hold many different kinds of offerings to a god or goddess—incense might be burned to propitiate the god; a water libation ceremony might be expected to bring rain; vegetation would make the land fertile; and cakes would ensure a bountiful harvest.

Unfortunately, we do not have offering scenes on cylinder seals, in reliefs or in tomb paintings from ancient Israel to tell us the offerings that were presented by the Israelites to Yahweh. But we do have literary pictures preserved in the Bible.

For example, the minhah, or cereal offering, was an offering that combined incense, libations and flour-

“When any one brings a cereal offering as an offering to the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour; he shall pour oil upon it, and put frankincense on it” (Leviticus 2-1).

Note that here the flour itself seems to be offered.

Elsewhere, however, the flour is presented in the form of cakes-

“When you bring a cereal offering baked in the oven as an offering, it shall be unleavened cakes of fine flour mixed with oil, or unleavened wafers spread with oil” (Leviticus 2-4).

The combination would be burned, presumably on an offering stand.

Offering a cake to the Lord goes back to the early days of Israel’s history. The Lord instructed Moses to tell the people to make such an offering on entering the Promised Land—and forever after-

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the people of Israel, When you come into the land to which I bring you and when you eat of the food of the land, you shall present an offering to the Lord. Of the first of your coarse meal you shall present a cake as an offering; as an offering from the threshing floor, so shall you present it. Of the first of your coarse meal you shall give to the Lord an offering throughout your generations’” (Numbers 15-17–21).

The Bible also tells of offerings involving libations. Exodus 29-41 speaks of a cereal offering “and its libation.” The libation referred to in this instance was “a fourth of a hin of wine” (Exodus 29-40). Other liquids used in libation ceremonies included water (Exodus 40-30), blood (Exodus 24-6) and, as already mentioned, oil.

The prophets frequently condemn cereal offerings and libations made to pagan gods (Isaiah 57-6; Jeremiah 7-18, 19-13, 32-29, 41-5, 44-17–19, 25; Joel 1-9, 13, 2-14).

We learn from Jeremiah, these offerings to pagan gods were accompanied by a libation-

“The fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods … Therefore says the Lord God- ‘Behold, my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place’” (Jeremiah 7-18–19).

The offering of incense to Baal is also condemned (Jeremiah 32-29); we assume it was permitted if offered to the Hebrew God Yahweh.

Ancient Israelites may also have used small offering stands for vegetation rituals. Both Isaiah and Ezekiel indicate that vegetation rites were incorporated into Israelite worship during their time (see Isaiah 17-7–11; Ezekiel 8-11–14).

The archaeological finds confirm that offerings other than incense and burnt offerings were made on the small stands; while many bear traces of burning—burn marks, scorching, ash and discoloration—others clearly do not show such traces.

The Bible also tells us how the offering itself functioned. It could, for example, expiate sin or propitiate God. The sin offering for the poor was of cakes alone; those who could afford more were expected to include two pigeons or doves-

“But if he cannot afford two turtledoves or two young pigeons, then he shall bring, as his offering for the sin which he has committed, a tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering; he shall put no oil upon it, and shall put no frankincense on it, for it is a sin offering” (Leviticus 5-11).

Small offering stands may have been used in the peace offering. The offering could be a bull, a cow, or a sheep or goat (Leviticus 3-1, 6, 12). At one point during the ceremony, the blood of the animal was thrown against the altar (Leviticus 3-2, 8, 13). Small offering stands with bowls on top may have held the blood for this ritual. Apparently water (Exodus 40-30), blood (Exodus 24-6) and other liquids used in rituals of this nature were placed in bowls for ready access. Leviticus 7 indicates the peace offering could be made as a thanks offering (verse 12), a votive offering which was made when one fulfilled a vow (verse 16) or a freewill offering which required no special occasion (verse 16). Here again small offering stands were used perhaps as receptacles for the “unleavened cakes mixed with oil, leavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of fine flour well mixed with oil” (Leviticus 7-12).

The find spots of the offering stands recovered in archaeological excavations suggest that the offerings were not confined to cultic areas. True, many offering stands were uncovered in cult centers or temples—such as the Canaanite temple and “Cult Place” at Hazor, the Philistine temple at Tell Qasile, the Israelite temple at Arad and the Egyptian temples of Ramesses III at Beth-Shean. But offering stands have also been found in palaces and even in domestic buildings such as the so-called Megiddo Palace.39 This suggests that private houses may have had their own small shrines that included an offering stand. Jeremiah refers to incense burning and drink offerings made to Baal on the roofs of the houses (Jeremiah 32-29). It is possible, however, that Jeremiah may be referring to the shape of the offering stand itself; it may have been a house-shaped offering stand on whose roof the offering was placed.

Finally, we should consider the symbolism, the meaning, that inheres in the forms and shapes of the offering stands and their decoration. Why were offering stands made in the shapes of houses or buildings? Why are the pedestals of so many offering stands fenestrated—that is, have windows in the pedestal? Why do some stone offering stands have horns and others do not? What is the meaning of the musicians or dancers found in the fenestrations of some offering stands?

Sometimes symbols were perhaps used simply to enhance the appearance of the stand. But in many cases the symbols played a more important role. For the ancient Israelites, many of the symbols in some way served as a visual reminder of the presence or the dwelling place of Yahweh. To know that the God Yahweh was present was extremely important, and his presence was often associated with some thing or object—an altar, a tent or tabernacle, a temple or worship center, horns or mountain peaks, etc. We may assume, therefore that the small portable offering stands served a dual purpose in Israelite worship. First, the offering stands served as altars on which a wide variety of offerings were made. Second, the offering stands bore symbols or motifs that reminded the worshipper of Yahweh’s continued presence.40

a. See “Albright the Beautician Reveals Secrets of Queen Esther’s Cosmetic Aids,” BAR 02-01.

b. ee Suzanne F. Singer, “Gudea of Lagash Ends Long Journey,” BAR 09-03.

1. See, for instance, Mervyn Fowler, “Excavated Incense Burners,” Biblical Archaeologist 47 (Sept. 1984), pp. 183–186.

2. See, for example, Ruth Amiran, Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land Jerusalem- Massada Press, 1969), p. 302, fig. 331.

3. See, for example, Amiran, Ancient Pottery, p. 302, figs. 332, 333 and 334.

4. See, for example, Amiran, Ancient Pottery, p. 303, figs. 336 and 337.

5. Yigael Yadin and others, Hazor III–IV (Jerusalem- Magness, 1961), pls. CCCXLV-II and CCCXXXI-1, 2, 3.

6. Herbert G. May, Material Remains of the Megiddo Cult (Chicago- Univ. of Chicago Press, 1935), pl. XX, nos. P 6055–6056; pl. XIII, no. 2986; pl. XII, no. M 5331; pl. XVIII, no. M 1342; Gordon Loud, Megiddo II- Plates (Chicago- Univ. Of Chicago Press, 1948), pls. 148-2–3, 80-9, 81-12, 253-3, 251, 254-1–4; R. S. Lamon and G. M. Shipton, Megiddo I (Chicago- Univ. of Chicago Press, 1939), pls. 38-7, 65-7; G. Schumacher, Tell El-Mutesellim (Leipzig- Rudolf Haupt, J.C. Hinrich, 1908), vol. I, Text and Plates, figs. 125, 190, 117, 118-a and c.

7. Sir Charles Wilson, “Austrian Excavations at Taanach,” Quarterly Statement of the Palestine Exploration Fund 36 (Oct. 1904), p. 390; Paul Lapp, “The 1968 Excavation at Tell Ta’annek,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) 195 (Oct. 1969), fig. 29.

8. Alan Rowe, The Four Canaanite Temples of Beth Shan (Philadelphia- Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1940), II, part 1, pls. LVIIIA-2–3; LVIIA-I, 2, 4; LIXA-2; LXIA-4; LXIIA-4; LVIA-I and 3; LXIIIA-4.

9. Elihu Grant and G. Ernest Wright, Ain Shems Excavations (Haverford, PA- Haverford College, 1938), part IV, pl. XLLX-6; Grant, Beth Shemesh (Haverford, PA- Haverford College, 1929), p. 103.

10. Amiran, Ancient Pottery, p. 304, photo 344.

11. R. A. S. Macalister, The Excavation of Gezer (London- John Murray, 1912), vol. II, fig. 460; vol. III, pl. 16-B.

12. Amihai Mazar, “A Philistine Temple at Tell Qasile,” Biblical Archaeologist 36/2 (May 1973), see cover page; “Excavations at Tell Qasile, 1971–72,” Israel Exploration Journal (IEJ) 23/2 (1973), pl. 16-B.

13. Moshe Dothan, “Ashdod II–III,” Atiqot 9–10 (1971), fig. 5-1, pl. X-5; “The Musicians of Ashdod,” Archaeology 23 (1970), p. 310.

14. W. F. Albright, The Excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim, vol. III, Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 21–22 (New Haven, CT- American Schools of Oriental Research, 1943), pl. 55-13.

15. Amiran, Ancient Pottery, p. 304, fig. 343.

16. Yohanan Aharoni, “The Israelite Sanctuary at Arad,” in New Directions in Biblical Archaeology, ed. David Noel Freedman and Jonas C. Greenfield (Garden City, NY- Doubleday, 1969), fig. 12; Aharoni, “Arad,” IEJ 17 (1967), pl. 47.

17. See James Pritchard, ed. The Ancient Near East in Pictures (ANEP) (Princeton, NJ- Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), p. 1950, no. 591.

18. See Ephraim A. Speiser, “Reports from Professor Speiser on the Tell Billah and Tepe Gawra Excavations,” BASOR 46 (April 1932), p. 4, fig. 3.

19. See Arthur J. Tobler, Excavations at Tepe Gawra (Philadelphia- Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1950), II, pls. CXXXII-228 and CXLVIII-435.

20. See Behnam Abu al-Soof, “Mounds in the Rania Plain and Excavations at Tell Basmusian (1956),” Sumer 26 (1970), pl. XII.

21. Abu al-Soof, “Mounds,” pl. XIII.

22. Spyridon Marinatos, Crete and Mycenae (London- Thames and Hudson, 1960), pl. 139; and Arthur Evans, The Palace of Minos at Knossos (London- Macmillan, 1935), vol. IV, part 1, fig. 110-C.

23. Marinatos, Crete and Mycenae, fig. 128-a & b.

24. See May, Material Remains, pl. XX, and Rowe, Four Canaanite Temples, pl. LVIIA-4.

25. See Yadin, Hazor III–IV, pl. CCCXLV-11.

26. See Rowe, Four Canaanite Temples, pls. LVIIA-I and LVIA-I, and May, Material Remains, pl. XIII.

27. Loud, Megiddo II- Plates, pl. 254-4.

28. Loud, Megiddo II- Plates, pl. 254-3.

29. Schumacher, Tell El-Mutesellim, vol. 1, fig. 190.

30. For square limestone altars without horns see Aharoni, “Arad,” IEJ 17 (1967), pl. 47; and with horns, see Loud, Megiddo II- Plates, pl. 254-1. The Old Testament refers to the “horns on the altar,” see, for instance, 1 Kings 2-28.

31. Schumacher, Tell El-Mutesellim, vol. 1, figs. 117, 118a, 118c.

32. May, Material Remains, pl. XVIII.

33. See Michael O’Dwyer Shea, “The Small Cuboid Incense-Burner of the Ancient Near East,” Levant 15 (1983), pp. 76–109.

34. William H. Ward, The Seal Cylinders of Western Asia (Washington, D.C.- Carnegie Institute, 1910), p. 360, no. 1233.

35. Pritchard, ANEP, p. 177, no. 525.

36. Pritchard, ANEP, p. 221, no. 689.

37. Rowe, Four Canaanite Temples, vol. II, part 1, p. 55, fig. 11.

38. Pritchard, ANEP, p. 98 no. 306.

39. Loud, Megiddo II- Texts, p. 16.

40. Other writings in which I have treated the topic of offering stands include- LaMoine DeVries, “Incense Altars in the Period of the Judges and Their Significance,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, 1975, “Incense Stands and Burners,” Biblical Illustrator (Spring 1979), pp. 82–85; and “Household Altars,” in Discovering the Bible, ed. Tim Dowley (Grand Rapids, MI- Eerdmans, 1986), pp. 51–55.

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