The Lack of Archeological Evidence for Israelite Monotheism

One of the “problems” with Biblical archeology is how little evidence we have of Israelite monotheism. I don’t know what the case is now, but the impression I got over the years was this: Archeologists couldn’t find much evidence that distinguished the population of Ancient Israel from the Canaanites. There was no clear break, no clear before and after. For the time period you’re interested in (ca. 1200-600 B.C), you find the same sort of religious paraphernalia (statues of deities, cult objects, etc.) that you would expect to find in a pagan Canaanite culture. Judging from the Bible, wouldn’t you expect to see a difference? The archeology doesn’t hold up the Scriptural account.

This used to bother me. Then I realized that, based on the Bible, you should *expect* to find pagan Canaanite artifacts throughout Israel during the time period in question. There are three reasons for this:

1.) Israelite worship, insofar as God authorized it, was focused on the Tabernacle and then the Temple. At any one time, the center of Israelite worship was in one place. The Tabernacle was mobile, and its paraphernalia were later used in the Temple. Other than post-holes, I’m not sure what the artifacts of the Tabernacle would be. As for the Temple, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque prevent much archeological investigation. So it’s no wonder we don’t find anything specifically Israelite.

2.) How would we identify Israelite (=monotheistic) worship, anyway? I assume through the absence of statues. How do you prove the absence of statues? Which leads to the next point . . .

3.) The Bible says that most Israelites, throughout much of Israelite history, were idolaters. From the time of Solomon until the time of the Exile (ca. 960-587 B.C.), the Old Testament recounts virtually continuous backsliding into idolatry. The land was filled with “high places” and asherah poles, altars to planetary deities, child sacrifice, and all manner of paganism. There were very few good kings (e.g. Hezekiah and Josiah) who destroyed the pagan sites, but they were ineffective in the long term.

Suppose the Bible is true (which it is). You have a majority of Israelites who practice Canaanite religion, at least to some degree. They produce things like idols and local altars and asherah poles and hilltop sanctuaries. You have a minority who worship only in Jerusalem, who don’t produce any identifiable cult objects (no statues, local sanctuaries, etc.). Who wins out in the archeological record? The pagans. The archeology will look Canaanite.

My only question is, do any of the Canaanite sites show signs of being destroyed? The Bible says that some of the prophets and kings did attack paganism, destroy the asherah poles, etc. What would the evidence of a demolished asherah pole look like? I’d like to think that Hezekiah and Josiah were pretty thorough — not a stone upon a stone and all that. I suppose we resolve it this way: if we find evidence of paganism, it’s because Hezekiah and Josiah weren’t able to locate all physical artifacts of paganism. Fair enough. Besides, they controlled only the Southern Kingdom. And when we look for signs of Israelite violence against pagan sites, we have to remember that the sites were often rebuilt during the reigns of subsequent kings. Either way, there’s no real inconsistency between the archeological record and the Biblical account.

One thought on “The Lack of Archeological Evidence for Israelite Monotheism

  1. Looks like I was wrong when I implied that Josiah’s reforms were limited to Judah (IV Kings 23:15-20; that’s II Kings in most Bibles):

    15 Moreover the altar also that was at Bethel, and the high place, which Jeroboam the son of Nabat, who made Israel to sin, had made: both the altar, and the high place he broke down and burnt, and reduced to powder, and burnt the grove. 16 And as Josias turned himself, he saw there the sepulchres that were in the mount: and he sent and took the bones out of the sepulchres, and burnt them upon the altar, and defiled it according to the word of the Lord, which the man of God spoke, who had foretold these things. 17 And he said: What is that monument which I see? And the men of that city answered: It is the sepulchre of the man of God, who came from Juda, and foretold these things which thou hast done upon the altar of Bethel. 18 And he said: Let him alone, let no man move his bones. So his bones were left untouched with the bones of the prophet that came out of Samaria. 19 Moreover all the temples of the high places, which were in the cities of Samaria, which the kings of Israel had made to provoke the Lord, Josias took away: and he did to them according to all the acts that he had done in Bethel. 20 And he slew all the priests of the high places, that were there, upon the altars: and he burnt men’s bones upon them: and returned to Jerusalem.

    So Josiah did destroy a lot of pagan sites in the Northern Kingdom after all.

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