The fortress/caravanserai of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud sits on a plateau overlooking the junction of major roads through the northeastern Sinai desert. Of the two buildings preserved, the larger and better preserved of the two apparently served as a rest stop for desert travelers with a large central courtyard surrounded by work and storage rooms. Inscribed blessings and invocations and graffiti on large storejars, or pithoi, and on the plastered walls of rooms invoke the Israelite god Yahweh and his asherah.

In addition to Yahweh who is invoked by two epithets, “Yahweh of Samaria” and “Yahweh of Teman/Southland,” Baal and El appear in a poetic text written in ink on one of the plaster walls. El and Baal may be the Canaanite gods worshipped in early Israel or epithets for Yahweh. Alongside the inscriptions, numerous drawings of divinities, humans, and animals (cow with calf, lion, ibex) survived on walls, on doorposts and door jambs, and on pottery. Given this site’s southern location, the large number of northern features is surprising- the reference to “Yahweh of Samaria,” Phoenician (northern) writing and spelling, northern artistic motifs, and a northern origin for some of the pottery. Based on these northern features, the excavator, Ze’ev Meshel, considers the site a religious center or “wayside shrine” operated by northern priests for desert travelers during the early eighth century BCE.

The most debated depiction consists of a blessing “To Yahweh and His Asherah” inscribed on a pithos over a drawing of two crudely-drawn, grotesque figures standing side-by-side. Breasts on the smaller of the two figures suggest they are male and female. Their squarish faces and apparent tail hanging down between the legs lend the figures a bull-like appearance. P. Kyle McCarter identifies the male figure with “the Young bull of Samaria,” the idolatrous depiction of Yahweh erected by King Jeroboam and despairing referred to by Hosea (Hosea 8-6). Beside him stands his consort. Alternatively, as noted by Pirhiya Beck, the two figures possess traits of the Egyptian dwarf-god Bes who takes both male and female form. If depicting Bes then the inscription invoking “Yahweh and his A/asherah” coincidentally appears across the top of the figures. Various drawings and inscriptions, all graffiti, overlap elsewhere on the storejar with no apparent connection and so no connection may be intended here. Who is depicted and are the drawings related to the inscription above? The debate continues.

Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and the Bible

A number of features attested at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud supplement the picture of Israelite religion garnered from the Bible. First, Yahweh is referred to names of local manifestations, both from the north (Samaria) and the south (Teman). Second, while El and Baal may be epithets of Yahweh rather than independent deities, their invocation may attest to Israelite polytheism in the early eighth century. Polytheistic practices are clearly attested in the ninth century BCE northern Israel capital city of Samaria (Elijah story in I Kings 18) and down through the late seventh century BCE “sins” and cultic reforms of Judah’s kings Hezekiah, Manasseh, and Josiah (II Kings 18-23). Invoking multiple deities is therefore not unexpected at this site allegedly operated by northern priests. Third, scholars debate the identity of “his A/asherah” as the goddess or the cult symbol representing her attributes now subsumed into Yahweh. Both incarnations appear in the Bible (eg. I Kings 14-15; 18-19). Invoking “his” asherah, with the possessive pronoun, supports identification with the cult symbol rather than the goddess. Fourth, do the drawings depict Yahweh and Asherah? If so, the image violates the commandment forbidding images of Yahweh (Exodus 20-4; Deut 5-8) plus it renders him in a form highly evocative of the Egyptian god Bes. These drawings and inscriptions substantiate prophetic ranting and admonitions against idolatrous and polytheistic practices in Israel.

Ref- Zeev Meshel, “Kuntillet ‘Ajrud” ABD IV- 103-09; S. Ahituv, “Did God Really Have a Wife?” BAR 32.5 (2006) 62-66.

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith