Biblical scholars reject ‘Face of God’ claim

Written by on September 1, 2020

“Unfortunately, his argument is riddled with inaccuracies, and his methodology disregards available evidence on ancient coroplastic (terracotta) art and the study of religion in ancient Israel.”

A clay head dated to the 10th century BC, found at Khirbet Qeiyafa (photo credit: CLARA AMIT ISRAELI ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)

A clay head dated to the 10th century BC, found at Khirbet Qeiyafa

(photo credit: CLARA AMIT ISRAELI ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)

A controversy is heating up in the world of biblical archaeology over whether clay heads found in Khirbet Qeiyafa and Moza can be viewed as representing a male god. 

In the most recent issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Professor Yosef Garfinkel, head of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published an article stating that an anthropomorphic clay head from Khirbet Qeiyafa as well as two other clay heads from Tel Moza dating back to the 10th or ninth centuries BCE represent a sculpted image of Y-H-W-H, the Tetragrammaton name of God in accordance with Jewish tradition. 

But his analysis has been criticized by many other scholars, who have accused him of trying to grab headlines. 

On Monday, Bible History Daily, which is run by the Biblical Archaeological Society, published a scathing response to Garfinkel’s article by the directors of the Tel Moza excavation, Prof. Oded Lipschits, head of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University; and TAU and Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Shua Kisilevitz.Shua Kisilevitz, Ido Koch, Oded Lipschits, and David S. Vanderhooft.

“Unfortunately, his argument is riddled with inaccuracies, and his methodology disregards available evidence on ancient coroplastic (terracotta) art and the study of religion in ancient Israel,” they write in the piece, titled “Facing the Facts About the Face of God.” 

Part of Garfinkel’s argument was based on the fact that two horse figurines were also found in Tel Moza with the anthropomorphic vessels, as well as  and that, according to him, the Hebrew bible sometimes portrays Yhwh as a rider on a horse. He focused on the grouping of seven clay artifacts: an anthropomorphic head from Khirbet Qeiyafa, two anthropomorphic heads and two horse figurines from Tel Moẓa, and two vessels of unclear provenance from the Moshe Dayan Collection at the Israel Museum —a jug and a vessel in the shape of a horse and rider.

“We reject Garfinkel’s presentation of the figurative clay artifacts, his interpretative framework, and the alleged metaphor of Yhwh as a seated horseman,” they say and go on to challenge Garfinkel on several points. 

One is that they contend that these objects should not be grouped together because of their “their obvious typological, stylistic, and technological differences.”

The second and perhaps more important point is that although the terracotta heads were found in a “cultic context,” they have no markers indicating that the heads are meant to represent gods. These heads are similar many other clay figures of the period and the region which do not represent a deity, according to their article.

The paper makes specific points as to why the Moza figurines are different from those from the Dayan Collection and disputes Garfinkel’s claim that the Moza heads are larger than average for the period and region. 

In addition, they conclude, “The main methodological transgression in Garfinkel’s article is the nearly complete disregard of current scholarship on clay figurines and coroplastic art from the ancient Levant and beyond. Although past mainstream interpretation considered anthropomorphic clay figurines as representations of deities, recent scholarship shows that while some clay figurines could represent deities, most served other purposes, such as votive offerings placed by worshipers or charms utilized in rituals.”

They also dispute whether Yhwh would be depicted riding a horse, rather than on a chariot and characterize Garfinkel’s interpretation as “unfortunate.”

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