Bible and Beyond

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In “The Peculiar Headrests for the Dead in First Temple Times,” BAR 13-04, Professor Othmar Keel takes issue with an earlier BAR article in which Amos Kloner and I discussed these stone headrests carved on top of burial benches (“Jerusalem Tombs from the Days of the First Temple,” BAR 12-02). Professor Keel, relying on evidence from Mesopotamia, interprets these headrests as follows-

“I believe these headrests represent the womb of the earth from which the body came at birth and to whose motherly warmth and care the deceased hoped to return in death.”

Professor Keel cites many religious objects depicting what he takes to be “a very similar shaped symbol” from Mesopotamian iconography, which he calls “omega-shaped because it resembles the Greek letter omega, … consist[ing] of a bubble-shaped center with curls at the ends.” Professor Keel’s argument is based on two incorrect assumptions- that these omega-shaped headrests are typical of First Temple period burial caves and that they can be found at a number of other sites. In fact, they are peculiar to Cave Complex 2 beneath St. Étienne’s church in Jerusalem. (There are two burial cave complexes at St. Étienne. The headrests in Cave Complex 1 differ from those in Cave Complex 2.)

Moreover, Professor Keel mis-states what we said in our original article. Professor Keel has us stating that these headrests—which we likened to the Egyptian goddess Hathor’s wig in shape and which he calls omega-shaped—“are not confined to these particular tombs … but are found in the necropolis of the Judean nobles found just outside Jerusalem … and in a number of other burial caves typical of the First Temple period.” But that is not what we said. In our article we stressed that “the headrests in the other burial cave complex at St. Étienne, Cave Complex 2, are slightly different. They are heavier and higher, with a curve at the two ends, reminding us of the wig typically worn by the Egyptian goddess Hathor.”

Other burial sites of this period do not have the “omega-shaped” headrests, to use Keel’s designation. In many respects—including their rock-hewn headrests for the deceased—the burial caves at St. Étienne are typical of First Temple period burial sites in Jerusalem and Judah. But thus far, the very special headrests that remind us of a Hathor wig—the headrests Keel calls “omega-shaped”—have only been found at one site, Cave Complex 2 at St. Étienne. In contrast, the headrests in Cave Complex 1 at St. Étienne are simpler, horseshoe-shaped headrests.

I know of more than 90 examples of rock-carved headrests dating from Iron Age II (ninth to seventh centuries B.C.) in Judah and in the various cemeteries in Jerusalem.1 These headrests are basically of two types- a carved-out depression in the rock with a neck opening carved into a slightly elevated rock pillow; and an elevated, sculpted band (6 to 8 cm high) into which the head of the deceased was placed. The Hathor-wig-shaped headrests belong to the second type.

Several months ago the editors of BAR asked me to submit a photograph from an excavation I directed at the Jerusalem burial site known as Ketef-Hinnom (the Shoulder of Hinnom). The photo—of headrests—was intended for Keel’s article. I sent it willingly, without having the opportunity to see the article, or to know anything about its contents. After having read the article, I now understand why the editors did not use the photo I sent- The headrests in the photo did not have the expected Hathor-wig (or omega) shape. I have asked the editors to print this photo now to demonstrate the point.

Professor Keel’s argument has another major weakness—namely his basic contention that the peculiar headrests in the shape of Hathor’s wig symbolize the womb of the earth to which the deceased wished to return, which Keel associates with Mesopotamian iconography. The idea of death as a return to the womb, or as a preparatory stage for rebirth, is not found among the ancient Israelites. Contrary to Professor Keel’s assertions, there is nothing in the Hebrew Bible or in Israelite burial customs that can be connected to the Sumerian “Lady of Birth,” who is pictured so beautifully in Keel’s article. In Iron Age II Israelite burial caves, the body was always stretched out and laid on its back on the rock-hewn burial bench, as if in a bed. Not a single case of a burial in a knees-to-chin, embryonic position has been found in those tombs. In other civilizations, such burials are common and are taken to be clear representations of the concept of “death equals rebirth.”

Death among the Israelites was considered a kind of sleep, a continuation of life in another world, known as Sheol. As the family was the major social nucleus in life, so it remained in death—and in burial. In life, the family was organized around the father, the patriarchal head of the family. The family unit was known as the “Beit-Ab,” literally the “House of the Father” (Genesis 24-38; 41-51; 47-12; Leviticus 22-13; 1 Kings 2-31, etc.). The tomb was a kind of continuation of the house of the father, of the family house, after death. The ancient Israelite term for death is Neesaf el abotab, “gathered to his fathers” (Judges 2-10; 2 Kings 22-20; 2 Chronicles 34-28, as well as many other passages, especially in connection with the death of the kings of Judah, for example, 1 Kings 11-43). The ancient Israelites “slept with their fathers” or were “gathered to their fathers,” and their graves were always “their fathers’ tombs” (2 Samuel 17-23; Genesis 49-29; Nehemiah 2-3, 5).

Therefore, Keel’s conclusion—that “they wanted to return to the womb from whence they came at a time when they had been as helpless as they now were in death. They wanted to return to the motherly warmth and care”—is simply incorrect.

The shape of the rock-cut burial caves themselves is never round or oval, to reflect the shape of a womb. Rather, they are always square and angular, to symbolize the continuation of life in the chamber of a house, within the family context. A tomb chamber is called a heder, which means room or chamber, and never rehem, which means womb.2 The concept of the grave and death as a return to the womb is attested neither in Scriptures nor in the archaeological evidence, and it was not part of the philosophy and belief of the ancient Israelites.

Professor Keel’s ideas are far-fetched in another respect. Each example of an “omega-shaped symbol” that he cites in his article occurs either as an isolated symbolic element or in the context of a series of religious symbols in various cultic scenes. However, the Hathor-wig-shaped headrests in the St. Étienne burial caves are practical, not symbolic. They are there simply as places for the heads of the deceased to rest (as was also suggested by several BAR readers in Queries & Comments, BAR 13-06). Any attempt to connect these two different phenomena—the Mesopotamian “omega-shaped symbol and the St. Étienne headrests—is, in my view, far-fetched. To compare different objects that have a similar appearance, without first establishing the purpose, nature and cultural context of each, is like claiming that the pyramids in Egypt and Mexico are products of the same culture, or are influenced by each other and served the same purpose.

Every example of the so called omega-shaped symbols in Professor Keel’s article is Mesopotamian or Canaanite—none of them is Israelite. In direct contrast to this, the Hathor wig, like other Egyptian cultural elements, is widespread in Israelite and Judahite culture.

The peculiar headrests found in Cave Complex 2 at St. Étienne in Jerusalem are simply an elaboration of the standard headrests found in Cave Complex 1 and elsewhere. This elaboration of the standard form was familiar to the Israelites because of their close contact with Egyptian civilization, but at St. Étienne it was used as a mere decorative element in a practical device. It had no symbolic meaning, no connection to the meaning of Hathor in Egyptian religion.

I will go one step further- In my opinion the Iron Age II burial benches with their headrests in the Jerusalemite and Judean burial caves were rock-cut copies of beds commonly used in ancient Israelite houses. The bed itself was probably influenced by Egyptian prototypes. These headrests were portable pieces of furniture that might be identified with the rosh-hammitta, the “head of the bed,” referred to in Genesis 47-31. In that passage, Jacob is lying on his deathbed in Egypt. He tells his son Joseph, “When I lie down with my father, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” Joseph swears he will do so. Then Jacob/Israel bows at the rosh-hamitta, the “head of the bed.” The head of the bed to which the writer is referring may have had a Hathor-wig or horseshoe shape.

1. Rock-hewn headrests have been found at the following sites in addition to St. Étienne- Jerusalem, Silwan (east of the City of David)- David Ussishkin, The Village of Silwan—The Necropolis from the Period of the Judean Kingdom (Jerusalem, 1986 [Hebrew]), pp. 67–68; 80; 82–83; 95–98; 100–103; Jerusalem, the Northern Necropolis- Charles Clermont-Ganneau, Archaeological Researches in Palestine I (London, 1899), pp. 266–267; Amihai Mazar, “Iron Age Burial Caves North of the Damascus Gate,” Israel Exploration Journal (1976), pp. 1–8; Jerusalem, the Western Necropolis- R. A. S. Macalister, “The Rock-Cut Tombs in Wadi er-Rababi, Jerusalem,” PEF Quarterly Statement (1900), p. 248 and fig. no. 9 (opposite p. 240); PEF Quarterly Statement (1901), pp. 21; 145–146 fig. no. 10; Magen Broshi, Gabriel Barkay, Shimon Gibson, “Two Iron Age Tombs Below the Western City Wall, Jerusalem, and the Talmudic Law of Purity,” Cathedra 28 (1983), pp. 17–28 (Hebrew); Gabriel Barkay, Ketef Hinnom—A Treasure Facing Jerusalem’s Walls (Jerusalem- The Israel Museum, 1986), pp. 19 ff; Khirbet el-Qôm, on the western slopes of the Hebron Hills- William G. Dever, “Iron Age Epigraphic Material from the Area of Khirbet el-Kôm,” Hebrew Union College Annual 40–41 (1969–1970) pp. 140–146; Sovah, west of Jerusalem- Amos Kloner, Excavations and Surveys in Israel, 1 (1982) p. 114 (for plan, see Amos Kloner, “Iron Age Burial Caves in the Judean Shephelah and Mountain Regions,” Niqrot Zurim [Journal of the Israel Cave Research Center] 10–11 [1985], pp. 10–12 [Hebrew]); Gibeon, north of Jerusalem- H. Eshel, “The Late Iron Age Cemetery of Gibeon,” Israel Exploration Journal 37 (1987), pp. 5–15.

2. See, for example, the tomb inscriptions of the Royal Steward or of Khirbet el-Qôm where the term heder—chamber is mentioned, see also Proverbs 7-27.