Seeing God(s) in Temples, the Heavens, and in Model Shrines: A Problem in Ancient Metaphysics

Posted in: AIAR
Tags: Albright, American Jewish University, Ancient Metaphysics, God, Heavens, Los Angeles, Model Shrines, Seymour Gitin Distinguished Professor, Sinai Peninsula, Temples, YHWH, Ziony Zevit
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+1
By: Ziony Zevit, American Jewish University, Los Angeles
Seymour Gitin Distinguished Professor

In the 21st century, we have access to two types of texts written by ancient Israelites. The first consists of anthologies of poems, collections of worldly observations and aphorisms, historiographic writings, and extended ethno-narratives. These were curated and ended up—as a result of processes understood but darkly, in a collection, the Hebrew Bible. We also have official inscriptions, some generated by ancient higher-ups for public display, and others by lower-downs, members of the ancient bureaucracy, for more restricted, “inner-departmental” needs. A few contain the proper name YHWH.

Not one of these compositions may be read as if written to prove the reality of YHWH. Their authors presupposed YHWH’s reality.

Consequently, when YHWH is the grammatical subject of sentences in narratives or the subject or object of legal and ritual prescriptions, or when he is addressed in absentia in a poem, contemporary readers understand that the ancient authors were completely unselfconscious about what they wrote. Israelite compositions address reality as they perceived it, basing their knowledge on experience and on what had been transmitted to them by prior generations: parents, grandparents, tribal elders, and perhaps by wandering storytellers. The more learned and “scroll-ish” of them may have read of events past in chronicles kept in temple or palace archives. Their thought-world, the cultural bubble within which they lived and wrote and made sense of their private and collective lives, is best described from a modern perspective as both mythopoeic and realistic. It was realistically mythopoeic. It provided the tangible sense of reality within which they lived their religion.

Whatever the contents of their thought-world, it was a logically constructed world that they were able to explain. It was much like our thought-world, only different. They knew that the earth was flat and that the sun rises and sets; that rain comes from waters beyond the firmament that is beyond the heavens, and that all dead people—good and bad, friend and foe, continue to exist in Sheol. I consider discovering some of the contents of their thought-world an interesting and worthwhile undertaking.

My research as a Seymour Gitin Distinguished Professor during the 2013-2014 academic year is part of a large project: “Seeing God(s) in Temples, the Heavens, and in Model Shrines: A Problem in Ancient Metaphysics.” This project focuses on notions about the corporeality and hence the occasional visibility of gods, including YHWH, in various places. Although not frequent, reports of god sightings are attested in ancient Near Eastern texts as well as in the Bible.

What makes “Seeing God(s)” somewhat difficult is the fact that philosophical theology in Christianity and in Judaism starts out with an axiom that God is immaterial and hence incorporeal. Were the opposite true, as medieval thinkers realized, then God could not be eternal, the ground of all being, and therefore not immutable, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. The “problem” to which my project’s title alludes and that has to be resolved is that various formulations of these ideas that define deity have been retrojected into the Bible since the Septuagint was translated in the third and second centuries BCE, backread into historical periods unaware of them and untroubled by their absence.

Part of resolving the problem involves reading literally texts that have been interpreted figuratively for more than two millennia.

Most of my research during the year that I spent at the Albright centered on:

(a) tracing the history of God sightings and belief in the corporeality of God in texts from the Iron Age through the late Middle Ages and the beginning of modern thought in the sixteenth century;

(b) understanding how “knowledge” about the corporeality of YHWH, who was usually invisible, was accounted for in the literary blueprints of the desert Tabernacle and Solomon’s temple known from the Bible; and how the corporeality of deities was addressed in fixed Iron Age temples and cult sites, and in portable model shrines excavated in Israel and elsewhere in the Levant;

(c) writing a commentary of sorts on the published results of excavations at Kuntillet Ajrud, an eighth century BCE religious center in the eastern Sinai Peninsula, where an inscription identifies a painted figure comprised of a lion-like head atop a human body as YHWH. The juxtaposition of inscription and drawing compels the following question: Is this what came to mind when ancient Israelites thought of themselves as created “in the likeness like the image” of God (Gen 1: 26)?

Although I have managed to integrate some conclusions that I reached during my time at the Albright into a forthcoming publication, the bulk of my research will be written up during the coming academic year for publication beginning, perhaps, in 2015.



Want more like this post? Let us know! Be sure to share this post on Facebook, and tweet it out on Twitter! As always, we’d love to hear from you! Let us know what you thought of this post by leaving a comment below. Be sure to like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to us on YouTube to stay updated on all things ASOR.


All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this blog or found by following any link on this blog. ASOR will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information. ASOR will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information. The opinions expressed by Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of ASOR or any employee thereof.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+1
2 Comments for : Seeing God(s) in Temples, the Heavens, and in Model Shrines: A Problem in Ancient Metaphysics
  1. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #4 | Doug's Archaeology

    • Jose
    • December 19, 2015

    Ans. to The Lord’s Name YHWH or YAHWEH:YHWH; Yod Hey Vod Hey of the Living Everlasting Light. The Revealed Name to our Father Universe of the Living God behind all Creator Gods. The YHWH is one of the 72 Sacred Names of the Infinite Mind, each havnig its own Father Universe and Celestail Hierarchy!The Yod Hey Vod Hey letters of the Divine experience representing all the combinations of the 4 Letters which reveal the Essence of God: the 12 permutations are: WHWY, YHHW, YWHH, HWHY, HYHW, HHYW, HHWY, HYWY, WHHY, WHYH, and WYHH.The Yod Hey Vod Hey is the first mystery of the first 24 mysteries of the Father YAHWEH Jehoovah and revealed to be the first Adam Kadmon!

Leave a Comment

Sign in to view all ASOR Blog content!
If you have not set up a username and password for the ASOR Blog, please close this box by clicking anywhere on the screen then go to the Friends of ASOR option in the menu above. If you have forgotten your password, please click the Forgot Login Password option in the above menu.