Bible and Beyond

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In 1988 the Israel Museum paid $550,000 for a small ivory pomegranate in the belief that it was once the head of a scepter that had been used by the priests in Solomon’s Temple.a In so doing, the museum relied heavily on the authentication and judgment of one of Israel’s most highly respected senior archaeologists, Hebrew University’s Nahman Avigad.1

Now a prominent Tel Aviv University archaeologist and former Avigad student, Aharon Kempinski, has suggested that the museum got taken—not only because the price was exorbitant, but because the little scepter head probably came from a temple of Asherah, the consort of Baal, and not from a temple of the Hebrew God Yahweh;b and, in any event, says Kempinski, it did not come from Yahweh’s Temple in Jerusalem.2 In a caustic retort, Avigad has defended his original judgment.3

The 1.68-inch-high ivory pomegranate was not uncovered in an excavation; rather, it turned up in the shop of a Jerusalem antiquities dealer. No one knows where it was actually found.

What led to its identification as having originally come from Solomon’s Temple (although after Solomon’s time) was an eighth-century B.C. inscription incised around the shoulder of the pomegranate. The paleo-Hebrew letters of the inscription are easily readable, but unfortunately one side of the pomegranate has been destroyed, so—judging from the size of the missing area—four or five critical letters are missing. These letters must therefore be “restored,” to use the paleographer’s term for the best guess as to what the missing letters were. Avigad says the missing letters should be restored to read “[Yahwe]h,” the personal name of the Hebrew God. According to Kempinski, the missing letters could as easily be restored to read “[Ashera]h,” the Canaanite fertility goddess. Each name is spelled with four Hebrew (Semitic) letters, ending with the letter heh (h).

Long-time BAR readers will recall the early report of this ivory pomegranate by the eminent French scholar André Lemaire, a report that virtually stunned the Biblical world.c

Smuggled out of Israel after its discovery, the pomegranate later turned up in France. Clandestine negotiations (many of the details are still unknown) finally led to its return when the Israel Museum purchased it for $550,000. The pomegranate is now displayed in a special room of the museum.
Except for the identity of the three letters that could complete either “Asherah” or “Yahweh,” all scholars agree on the letters in the inscription. In the following translation of the inscription, the restored letters appear in brackets-

“Belonging to the Temp[le of Yahwe]h, holy to the priests.”

“lby[t yhw]h qdsû khnm”

“µnhk vdq h[why t] ybl”

This English translation is essentially Lemaire’s. Avigad would translate the same words slightly differently. He would begin at a different point in the circular inscription, with the word Lemaire renders as “holy” (vdq). Avigad would vocalize this as qodesû, meaning “holiness.” It designates something set apart for worship, consecrated to the Lord, a sacred donation for the priests. Thus qodesû kohanim should, in Avigad’s view, be translated, a “sacred donation for the priests.” That is, the pomegranate is an offering or donation to be used by the priests during their service in the Temple. Avigad’s translation of the inscription therefore is-

“Sacred donation for the priests of [or “in”] the Temple [literally “House”] of Yahweh.”

Both Lemaire and Avigad, however, restore the missing letters of the name in the inscription as “Yahweh.”

Kempinski’s attack, published in the Hebrew journal Qadmoniot, is entitled “Is It Really a Pomegranate from the ‘Temple of Yahweh?’” Avigad’s reply is entitled, “It Is Indeed a Pomegranate from the ‘Temple of Yahweh.’”

Although Kempinski charges that the pomegranate was purchased by the Israel Museum “in no small measure because of [BAR editor] Hershel Shanks’ claim that it was a holy object that should be redeemed,” Kempinski directs primary attention to Avigad’s analysis of the inscription. “Avigad,” says Kempinski, “has my esteem as a teacher, scholar and epigrapher. Because of this esteem and because of the caution he instilled in us, his students, I feel obliged to voice my criticism of the decipherment that Lemaire began and Avigad continued.”

In his own defense, Avigad conceded that “epigraphy is not an exact science” and that it is “absolutely legitimate” to question someone else’s reading, provided that one is “reasonable” and “not simply [acting] in order to be contradictory.” The clear implication is that Kempinski’s article falls into the latter category.

Avigad continues- “Kempinski, who says he admires me as his teacher and as an epigrapher, himself becomes a teacher and admonishes me- ‘Every decipherer of an inscription must beware of hasty conclusions.’”

“Haste, indeed, comes from the devil,” Avigad concedes. “Therefore I will try to purify myself from this handicap and place it on my accuser.”

Kempinski, says Avigad, recognizes that “temple [literally “house”] of Yahweh” is one possible restoration, but “as a cautious epigrapher who, unlike his teacher, does not make hasty conclusions, he [Kempinski] argues that ‘with equal certainty’ we may restore ‘temple (house) of Asherah,’” the Canaanite fertility goddess. Both names end with the same letter, h (partially preserved on the pomegranate); and both names consist of four Hebrew (Semitic) letters.
The phrase bet Yahweh or “temple of Yahweh [the Lord]” appears hundreds of times in the Bible, Avigad points out. It also appears on an ostracon excavated at a temple of Yahweh in Arad, in the Negev.d

By contrast, Asherah, the consort of Baal, is mentioned approximately 40 times in the Bible, but not once do we find any reference to a “temple of Asherah” (neither bet Asherah, nor miqdash Asherah).

Kempinski notes that at one point a statue of Asherah was even placed in the Jerusalem Temple, which thus served as her house (2 Kings 21-7). That the Jerusalem Temple would be called the house (or temple) of Asherah, replies Avigad, cannot be a “serious suggestion.”

Despite the popularity of Asherah in both Judah and Israel during the First Temple period (c. 920–586 B.C.), she apparently did not have a temple of her own, Avigad argues. She was worshipped at high places and open altars, as the Biblical references demonstrate. If she was placed in a temple, it was as a second occupant, after Baal or, in the case of the Jerusalem Temple in the time of Manasseh, Yahweh. In short, she never had a temple of her own. Certainly the Jerusalem Temple would not be called the temple of Asherah—even when her statue was installed there.

Moreover, the suggestion that the pomegranate referred to the temple of Asherah is refutable grammatically, according to Avigad. Whenever Asherah refers to the goddess herself (and often even when the reference is to her common symbols, a tree or a carved tree trunke), Asherah must be preceded by the definite article, the (that is, the letter heh in Hebrew prefixed to the subsequent word). In short. if the reference was to Asherah, the inscription would have to be restored as the “temple [house] of the Asherah.” Examples of heh (the) preceding Asherah are found in Judges 3-7, 6-25; 1 Kings 16-32–33, 18-19; 2 Kings 13-6, 18-4, 23-4, 6. In addition, an ostracon recently excavated at Tel Miqne (Biblical Ekron) refers to “the asherat.” According to Avigad, “An exact measurement of the gap in the inscription shows that there is space for exactly four additional letters,” so there would be no room for a heh before Asherah.

Even if the restoration of “Yahweh” is correct, however, argues Kempinski, there is still only a slight chance that this ivory pomegranate came from Yahweh’s Temple in Jerusalem. In the eighth century B.C., there must have been many temples to Yahweh outside Jerusalem, says Kempinski. One has been excavated at Arad. A bit tongue in cheek, Kempinski suggests that Avigad is like the Biblical author whom scholars call the Deuteronomist, who tried to suppress all cultic sites dedicated to Yahweh outside Jerusalem. “Avigad finds himself in a strange contradiction,” asserts Kempinski. He acknowledges other temples to Yahweh, but, on no discernible basis, places the ivory pomegranate in Yahweh’s Temple in Jerusalem.

It is most unlikely that the pomegranate was found at the site of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, Kempinski continues. In 586 B.C. this Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. Another Temple was then built some 70 years later when the exiles returned from Babylonia. The structure was entirely rebuilt by Herod the Great shortly before the turn of the era. Therefore, says Kempinski-
“The chances of an object from Solomon’s Temple being found on the site are extremely low. More likely, the pomegranate comes from a local Judahite temple—at Hebron, Nob, Bethlehem, Anatot or Bethel, sites that have not yet been excavated but are constantly ransacked by [illegal] treasure seekers.”

The fact that pomegranates (even as scepter heads) are known from several other sites indicates that the pomegranate was in general use as a cultic object and was not unique to the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem.

Avigad responds that in the Bible, no mention of a temple of Yahweh outside Jerusalem occurs after Solomon built his Temple at the end of the tenth century B.C. As for Kempinski’s contention that Avigad was misled by the fact that the Deuteronomistic editor suppressed all references to such non-Jerusalem temples of Yahweh, Avigad consulted the eminent Biblical scholar, Hebrew University Professor Menahem Haran, who wrote Avigad that
“there is no basis for Kempinski’s contention.… The Deuteronomistic editor did not obliterate mention of local worship [of Yahweh] outside Jerusalem. On the contrary, he specifically mentions them, mostly as sins of Israel. He accuses Israel specifically and without cessation during almost all of the First Temple period of ‘sacrificing and burning incense on the high places.’ If he does not refrain from mentioning that the Asherah statue was placed even in the temple in Jerusalem, all the more so he had no reason to ‘obliterate’ the worship [of Yahweh outside Jerusalem].”

Avigad notes that the Arad ostracon referring to the “House of the Lord” may well refer to the Jerusalem Temple, even though there was a small temple dedicated to Yahweh at Arad—although this is more like a high-place structure with an altar. If “House of the Lord (Yahweh)” on this ostracon refers to the Jerusalem Temple, as it does in the opinion of many scholars—a kind of intuitive link to Jerusalem—how much more likely that the inscription on the ivory pomegranate is a reference to the “House of Yahweh” in Jerusalem.

As for Kempinski’s argument that the pomegranate could hardly survive all the destruction and construction on the Temple Mount after Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., it is possible that during such a time the pomegranate was thrown somewhere near the Temple Mount and was only recently rediscovered. Avigad provides an analogous example- During Avigad’s own excavations in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in the 1970s, huge amounts of dirt were removed by truck and dumped outside the city boundaries. Over the years, the people of the adjacent village would rummage through the dirt and sift it. They found all kinds of small items that had escaped the eyes of the excavators, and sold them to antiquities dealers in Jerusalem. In 1979, when the pomegranate was discovered in the shop of an antiquities dealer, the villagers were still gleaning artifacts from this pile of dirt. “I don’t want to say that the pomegranate came from this gleaning,” Avigad adds. “I only wish to point out one of the ways items find their way to the antiquities market.”

Another possibility, Avigad suggests, is that the pomegranate was taken from the Jerusalem Temple sometime during the 150-year period between the time it was made in the eighth century B.C. and the time the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 586 B.C. Avigad points out that other pomegranate scepters—from Tel Namif on Israel’s coast and from Cyprus—were found in tombs, not in temples.

Kempinski’s suggestion that the pomegranate may have been robbed from unexcavated sites outside of Jerusalem (where, according to Kempinski, there may have been temples to Yahweh) is also baseless, says Avigad. “Kempinski has not done his homework properly,” says his former teacher. Neither surveys nor excavations at Tel Hebron in the last ten years have produced any evidence relating to religious activities. As for Biblical Bethlehem, Nob and Anatot, they have not been identified with any certainty. Bethel was excavated long ago, but the temple mentioned in the Bible was not discovered. Moreover, the people excavating in this area have advised Avigad that they are unaware of site-robbing at the places Kempinski seems to suggest.
Thus, in Avigad’s view, the Jerusalem Temple remains the most reasonable location to assume the pomegranate was used.
Kempinski is also critical of the Israel Museum’s $550,000 purchase on other grounds-
“Even if the pomegranate could be shown with certainty to have originated in Solomon’s Temple, the price paid is far above its value as a scientific object or as a museum artifact. This amount ($550,000) could have supported ten seasons of excavations in a key area of Israel, and then enriched the museum with important and interesting objects whose origins would be certain, objects of greater significance than a small pomegranate whose source might be a pagan temple of Asherah.”
Avigad recognizes that the sum is indeed large. This simply reflects the skyrocketing prices in the international antiquities market. Nevertheless, Avigad concludes-

“I can understand the museum’s wish to salvage this unique artifact and to display it for the public. Every museum wants to do this. Kempinski knows very well that the item was not purchased from the museum’s empty bank account; it was purchased with money provided by a generous anonymous donor from abroad. And who would know better than Kempinski himself—an excavator—that donors who are willing to purchase expensive items for a museum will not give their money for archaeological excavations. In short, there was no choice here between purchasing the pomegranate and funding excavations; the choice was between the pomegranate and nothing. … Presenting the matter in the way he has, Kempinski uses disrespectful rhetoric. … It is not fair toward the museum and to a certain extent misleads the public.”

The debate is not over, however. In private correspondence, Baruch Halpern of York University has expressed additional doubts about Avigad’s reading of the pomegranate inscription. While recognizing Avigad as a “distinguished epigrapher,” Halpern calls Kempinski’s suggestion “an important advance in the attitude with which such objects [as the pomegranate] are approached.”
In the late seventh century B.C.E. (about 621 B.C.E.), King Josiah of Judah established a well-known religious reform in an attempt to centralize the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem. “The state cult of the reform era of Josiah attempted to stamp out the acknowledgment of subordinate deities. The religion of Josiah’s reform was not the traditional cult of the foregoing centuries,” says Halpern. But what we have in the Bible is the story told from Josiah’s viewpoint. Halpern continues-
“Documents such as Deuteronomy, Judges and Kings, shaped largely under Josiah’s inspiration, impose a conceptual framework on our understanding of how Israelite religion developed. These documents were produced in order to justify a cultic reform, under Josiah, even more radical than that of Akhenaten in Egypt some seven centuries earlier. Kempinski’s suggestion liberates the pomegranate inscription from the shadow of the normative theology of the seventh century.”

But Halpern proposes yet another way to interpret the inscription, which he prefers to either Avigad’s or Kempinski’s. The Hebrew word bet, literally house, is regularly used for the temple of a deity. But it can also be, literally, a house or the members of a lineage. That may be the case here, argues Halpern- “The ‘house’ in question may not be a temple at all.” Thus, for example, the incomplete name could be restored “Ahijah,” a common name in Biblical times (at least nine are mentioned in the Bible) that is spelled with four Hebrew letters and ends in a heh- ’H|YH [hyja]. In short, the “house of Ahijah.” Or the original may even have read Moses, which, in Hebrew, consists of three letters and ends in heh, MSðH [hvm]. This reference may be to a priestly family or lineage, instead of a deity. Halpern notes that “descendants of Moses practiced as priests throughout the Iron Age, and were acknowledged as Levites thereafter.4 At least three of the Biblical Ahijahs were also Levites (1 Samuel 14-3, 18; 1 Chronicles 26-20; Nehemiah 10-26).

In arguing for his own interpretation Halpern also casts doubt on Kempinski’s restoration of Asherah- “[The restoration with a priestly house or lineage] is more probable than a reference to a ‘temple of Asherah’ because the state cult of Asherah seems to have been conducted within the precincts of Yahwistic shrines.” On this point, Halpern agrees with Avigad.

Thus Halpern opts for a restoration that would refer to a lineage. Halpern concludes-

“The one thing certain is this- It is completely uncertain that the pomegranate comes from the Jerusalem Temple. The notion that it must assumes that the traditional religion of Judah, and the state cult at which the prophets regularly rail, was identical with the idealized theology of the late Josianic reform movement. Kempinski’s alternative reading directs our attention to the undeniable fact that the Israelite religion was a good deal more complex, and in many ways richer, than the spare Puritanism that Josiah’s literature would have us imagine.”5

Unfortunately, Professor Avigad recently passed away (see “Nahman Avigad- In Memoriam,” in this issue), so we shall never have his response to Halpern.

a. See Hershel Shanks, “Was BAR an Accessory to Highway Robbery?” BAR 14-06; “Pomegranate- Sole Relic From Solomon’s Temple, Smuggled out of Israel, Now Recovered,” Moment, December 1988.

b. ”Yahweh” is the usual rendition of the tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable name of God consisting of four Hebrew letters, yod, heh, vov, heh (YHWH).

c. See André Lemaire, “Probable Head of Priestly Scepter From Solomon’s Temple Surfaces In Jerusalem,” BAR 10-01.

d. See Ze’ev Herzog, Miriam Aharoni and Anson F. Rainey, “Arad—An Ancient Fortress with a Temple to Yahweh,” BAR 13-02; and Yohanan Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions (Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1981), inscription 18, pp. 35–38.

1. See Nahman Avigad, “The Inscribed Pomegranate from the ‘House of the Lord,’” The Israel Museum Journal 8 (1989), p. 7.

2. See Aharon Kempinski, “Is It Really a Pomegranate from the ‘Temple of Yahweh?’” Qadmoniot 23 (1990), p. 126 (in Hebrew).

3. See Avigad, “It Is Indeed a Pomegranate from the ‘Temple of Yahweh,’” Qadmoniot 24 (1991), p. 60 (in Hebrew).

4. Judges 18-30, read with the Septuagint, against the Masoretic text “Manasseh,” an acknowledged scribal emendation; 1 Chronicles 26-24, 23-14–17. See also Frank M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, MA Harvard Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 195–215.

5. Halpern also notes a peculiar syntax in the inscription- “The preposition l-, meaning “to, for, of,” comes after the word “priests” in the inscription. When the first word, qoµdesû, “dedication, sacred object,” is qualified in the Biblical text, as “sacred” to someone, it is almost always followed by this preposition. (The exception is in Leviticus 19-8, qdsû yhwh, “dedication of Yahweh” [in the sense of a dedication to Yahweh], and the derivative Malachi 2-11. Contrast Leviticus 27-14, 21, 23, 30, 32; Isaiah 23-18 Jeremiah 31-40; Zechariah 14-20, 21; Ezra 8-28; for “sacred to [person],” Numbers 6-20, 18-10; Leviticus 23-20, 25-12; Ezekiel 45-4.) Yet here, it is followed by a genitive noun without the preposition—qdsû khnm, “dedication of the priests.” The interpretation, “Dedication belonging to the priests of the house of Yahweh,” is philologically possible. (It has a parallel in the Hebrew syntax of Exodus 20-5–6.) Yet, were this the meaning, we should ordinarily expect the preposition to come after the word “dedication”. we would expect the formulation- qdsû lkhny byt [yhw]h.