Kuntillet Ajrud

Kuntillet Ajrud is a 9th-8th century BCE site in the northeast part of the Sinai peninsula.[1] It is frequently described as a shrine, but this is not certain.[2]

The site was investigated in 1975-76. The fortress-like main building is divided into two rooms, one large and the other small, both with low benches. Both rooms contained various paintings and inscriptions on the walls and on two large water-jars ("pithoi"), one found in each room. The paintings on the pithoi show various animals, stylised trees, and human figures, some of which may represent gods. They appear to have been done over a fairly considerable period and by several different artists, and do not form coherent scenes. The iconography is entirely Syrian/Phoenician and lacks any connection to the Egyptian models commonly found in Palestinian art.[3]

Ceramic fragment
Kuntillet Ajrud, Negev, 9th century BCE
Motifs painted on a jar known as "Pithos A"

The inscriptions are in a mix of Phoenician and Hebrew script. The unique Hebrew inscriptions can be divided unto several types: inscriptions incised on pottery vessels before, or after, firing; inscriptions incised on the rims of stone bowls; ink inscriptions on wall plaster and, together with drawings, on large pottery vessels. All of these are unique in Iron Age Israel both in quantity and variety.[4] Many are religious in nature, invoking Yahweh, El and Baal, and two include the phrases "Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah" and "Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah."[5] There is general agreement that Yahweh is being invoked in connection with Samaria (capital of the kingdom of Israel) and Teman (in Edom); this suggests that Yahweh had a temple in Samaria, and raises a question over the relationship between Yahweh and Kaus, the national god of Edom.[6] The "Asherah" is most likely a cultic object, although the relationship of this object (a stylised tree perhaps) to Yahweh and to the goddess Asherah, consort of El, is unclear.[7]

J.A. Emerton, "New Light on Israelite Religion: The Implications of the Inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud," Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft Berlin, 1982, vol. 94, no1, pp. 2-20: Kuntillet Ajrud, ca. 50 km au sud de Kadesh-barnea, carrefour de pistes caravanières du Sinaï septentrional. Importance théologique de deux inscriptions sur jarres qui y furent trouvées (cf Z. Meshel, 1979): YHWH smrn wlsrth et YHWH tmn wsrth. Meshel les date d'avant ou d'après 800 av. J.-C. et lit: "YHWH de Samarie et son Ashera" et "YHWH de Teman et son Ashera". L'A. discute la question de syntaxe: la règle "en hébreu biblique un nom propre ne peut être à l'état construit", pour laquelle l'expression YHWH Sevaot fait problème. Les inscriptions de Kuntillet Ajrud confortent la justesse de la traduction classique "YHWH des Armées". L'expression "YHWH de Samarie" vient d'un voyageur originaire de Samarie et évoque le culte de YHWH tel qu'il y était célébré. YHWH de Téman évoque la tradition de YHWH "venu des montagnes d'Edom". Quant à Ashera, dans ces inscriptions, elle est probablement le symbole en bois de la déesse de ce nom, dont l'association avec le culte de YHWH est attestée dans l'AT. Peut-être, dans la religion populaire, pouvait-elle être considérée comme la parêdre de YHWH.

La critique historique et les découvertes épigraphiques et archéologiques des dernières décennies convergent sur le fait qu’on ne peut, à l’époque de la royauté, parler de judaïsme pour décrire les systèmes religieux en Israël et en Juda. Les inscriptions de [...] Kuntillet Ajrud ont confirmé que Yahvé n’était pas un dieu célibataire, mais associé à la déesse Ashérah, [...] comme l’ont suggéré tout récemment Na’aman et Lissovsky de l’université de Tel Aviv.[8]

Some scholars, including William G. Dever, have asserted that the Asherah was worshipped as a consort of Yahweh, until the 6th century BCE, when strict monolatry of Yahweh became prevalent in the wake of the destruction of the temple.[9] However, the consort hypothesis has been subject to debate with numerous scholars publishing disagreement.[10]

Meaning in the Fragment
by Mariano Akerman

The material found at Kuntillet Ajrud should be taken cautiously and perhaps seriously, but only up to a certain point. Israelites kept the Law, but they occasionally had unexpected twists, including plenty of humor too. The area in which the fragments have been found is relatively far from Jerusalem. It is possible that the individual who depicted "YHWH with His Asherah" was in a sense kidding. That individual was of course not an Israelite priest, but possibly a soldier. That individual pressumably knew about Abraham's response to idolatric polytheism, yet was not entirely for it. Significantly, the graffiti of the Kuntillet Ajrud fragment is popular in character and bold in its insinuations. It presents three figures, yet their identity remains unclear. The sitting figure playing the harp looks feminine. The standing ones do not. Moreover, the standing figures appear to have identical male genitalia. Is YHWH blatantly in the nude? And is "Asherah" a woman or a man? According to the fragment inscription, the "Asherah" depicted is YHWH's one. Supposing that YHWH is the big man standing on the left of the fragment, then who is "His Asherah"? One possibility is to consider the figure playing the harp to be Asherah, while YHWH has apparently arrived "home" with His "Closest Friend". Then one gets some kind of triangular relationship, perhaps speaking for a ménage à trois. But, there is also another possibility that may suit better the tongue-in-cheek aims of the certainly not-entirely-Jewish individual who represented these three Kuntillet Ajrud figures: in the fragment, the figure depicted as the closest to YHWH has been provided with male genitalia and this suggests that "His Asherah" is a male. Thus, the Kuntillet Ajrud fragment can be a provocation testing the very foundations of what opportunely was to become the Abrahamic Nation, whose Singular Being it considers but also mocks in various levels. Concerning the Asherah in the Kuntillet fragment, a popular saying may come to one's mind, "If your grandpa were not a man, he would have been your grandma." Although given the specific genitals of the Kuntillet figure depicted by the side of YHWH, another saying, which is undoubtedly vulgar, may fit this case better: "If your grandma had balls, she'd be your grandpa."[11] Significantly, even if objecting any of these possibilities, one should keep in mind that the Kuntillet Ajrud framgment is probably an early, paleo-Hebrew expression of a strong desire that was going to reappear among some Israelites again and again. Such desire will eventually find expression in terms of paradoxical humor much later, as for example in the double-edged Yiddish holding that if eating pork, one should do it thoroughly.[12]


1. Robert Karl Gnuse, No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997, pp. 69-70
2. Judith M. Hadley, The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess, Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press, 2000, pp. 108ff
3. Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel (Göttinnen, Götter und Gottessymbole, 1992), Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998, pp. 210ff
4. Ze'ev Meshel, Kuntillet Ajrud: An Iron Age Way-Side Religious Center in Sinai, The Shelvy White Leon Levy for Archaeological Publications, Harvard, 2006 (accessed 20.1.2012).
5. Anthony Bonanno, Archaeology and Fertility Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean, University of Malta, 1986, pp. 238ff
6. Keel and Uehlinger, p. 228
7. Ibid, pp. 232-33
8. Nadav Na’aman and Nurit Lissovsky, "Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, Sacred Trees and the Asherah," Tel Aviv, 35, 2008, pp. 186-208 (Thomas Römer, De nouvelles visions sur les récits bibliques des origines, CDF, Paris, 5.2.2009).
9. William G. Dever, Did God Have A Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel, Eerdmans, 2005; and Judith Hadley, The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah, pp. 122–136
10. A. Shmuel, "Did God Really Have a Wife?", Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 32 (2006), pp. 62–66; Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God, Yahweh and Other Deities in Ancient Israel, Eerdmans, 2002, p. xxxii–xxxvi; John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, Sheffield Academic Press, 2002, pp. 50–52; André Lemaire, "Who or What Was Yahweh’s Asherah?," BAR, 10:06, Nov/Dec 1984; Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, Mercer Bible Dictionary, Mercer UP, 1991, pp. 494–494; Othmar Keel, Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Godesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel, Fortress Press, 1998, p. 237; J.A. Emerton, "Yahweh and His Asherah": the Goddess or Her Symbol?," Vetus Testamentum, Volume 49, Number 3, 1999 , pp. 315–337(23).
11. For obvious reasons, this saying is sometimes expressed as "If grandma had a beard, she would be a grandpa" (Oyb di bobe volt gehat a bord, volt zi geven a zeyde; YiddishWit.com, #8), but the idea it conveys is ultimately the very same.
12. Ez men est khazer zol rinen ariber der bord (Yiddishisms), "If you eat pork, let it run down your beard"; Az men est khazer, zol es shoyn rinen ibern moyl, "If you're going to eat pork, eat it till your mouth drips" (YiddishWit). Both tongue-in-cheek sayings convey the idea that if one is going to do what's forbidden, at least is supposed to enjoy it to the hilt.

Further discussion
André Lemaire, Date et origine des inscriptions hebraïques et pheniciennes de Kuntillet Ajrud, 1984
Kathryn QannaYahu, Kuntillet Ajrud Inscriptions, Lebtahor, accessed 29.1.2012
Sects and Violence in the Ancient World, 2009-11
Ignatz Bernstein, Ignatz Bernstein, Yidishe Shprikhverter un Redensarten, Warsaw, 1908; repr. Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten (Jewish Proverbs and Sayings), Wiesbaden: Fourier Verlag, 1988
YiddishWit Resources


Anonymous said...

Impressive collection! Keep it up.

Jenny Naseem said...

The short form of Yahweh implies a Jewish approach. But no strict Jewish approach was implemented here. Otherwise, the form of God would not have been depicted, let alone in such a brutish way. The figures are actually men, possibly soldiers underlying, as men will, their strict masculinity. Seemingly, figures of the worshipper rather than the worshipped.

akermariano said...

It's incredible how much one can learn from that single fragment. The topic is both surprising and a revelation in its own right.

Johanna said...

The literal translation of the Yiddish "Az men est khazer zol rinen ariber der bord" is "If you eat pork, let it run down your beard." In other words, if you're going to do what's forbidden, at least enjoy it to the hilt. See http://www.yiddishwit.com/gallery/pork.html

akermariano said...

Yiddish oral tradition is rich and there are several variations of that proverb. Such variations even include relatively recent ones. Yiddish humor remains always great. Thanks a lot for your words Johanna :)

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