Iconography in Ancient Israel (Part 1)


Disclaimers: (1) This article makes use of common conclusions made by secular scholars about the history of ancient Israel which do not always follow a literal reading of the Old Testament.  You are free to agree or disagree with these assumptions as you see fit, for the substance of what is being argued does not depend entirely on their veracity. (2) The name “Yahweh” has been used here as the academically acceptable form of the name of Israel’s God, and “Yahwism” is used as the name of the ancient Israelite faith in Yahweh. (3) The word “cult” describes any religious system practiced by a particular culture and not as many of its modern associations with fanatically religious fringe groups. (4) “Iconography” is used here as in academia to describe religious imagery of any culture, not merely that of Eastern Christianity.

“You shall not make for yourself a sculpted image – of any likeness of the that which is in the sky above or on the earth below or in the water under the earth.” – Deut. 5:8

The prominence of the Second Commandment has been the touchstone by which Christian iconography has been judged throughout history.  It was the basis for the Byzantine iconoclastic periods of 726 – 787 and 814 – 842 as well as iconoclastic movements today such as those found in certain corners of Protestantism. Indeed, many Protestant objections to Eastern Orthodoxy begin and end with a rejection of the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the production and veneration of sacred images based upon the Second Commandment.

Idolatry in its various forms could be called “the sin” of the Old Testament. Israel’s history can be told from the perspective of the rejection of pagan idolatry and the struggle to adhere to a strict Yahwistic monotheism, a struggle that was not completed until after the Babylonian Exile when the Deuteronomistic laws were fully enacted by the Holy Prophet Ezra and those who followed him. Yet, even through and after this struggle, ancient Israelites and Jews used sacred images in a variety of ways to adorn the Temple and their synagogues. 

In the following series of posts, we will examine the history of iconography in ancient Israel and Judah in order to examine in depth the way that ancient Israelites and Jews understood the image within their faith. To begin, we will discuss two specific concepts, the struggle to establish Yahwistic monotheism, and the struggle for an appropriate iconography for the Yahwistic faith.

The Struggle Against Pagan Polytheism

The Ancient Israelites shared a culture that we could broadly call “Canaanite,” even though certain distinctive Israelite elements can be found.  Most scholars today would say that the Israelites came from the Canaanites, after the late Bronze Age lowland economy collapsed forcing migration into the highlands. This new highland community began to form a distinctive society along with a distinctive language, cultural identity, and religion. These Israelites spoke Hebrew, a Canaanite language, used various literary forms found in other parts of the West Semitic world, and often portrayed their God, Yahweh, with language commonly associated with the Canaanite storm god Baal (c.f. Psalm 18, 29).  It is no surprise, then, that we would find the Israelites strongly attracted to Canaanite religion, including its various forms of iconography. 

In the South, the ubiquitous pull of the Egyptian religion with its grand iconographic tradition ensnared many Israelites as seen in the famous ostraca of Kuntillet Ajrud, a site excavated in the northeast corner of the Sinai Peninsula.  The potsherds feature drawn images of the Egyptian god Bes along with Hebrew text reading “I have blessed you in the name of Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.”  In this example, both the Egyptian (Bes) and the Canaanite (Asherah) gods combine with Israelite Yahwism to form a broader pantheon encompassing the entire western half of the ancient Near East. It is important to note that in this example, Yahweh is not pictured, which indicates that, even with widespread syncretism in Palestine, the taboo on depicting the image of Yahweh remained in force.

Kuntilet Ajrud Ostracon
Kuntilet Ajrud Ostracon

Examples like the Kuntillet Ajrud ostracon visually demonstrate exactly what the Old Testament tells us was going on – widespread idolatry practiced by God’s people. Such idolatry was primarily opposed from the center of the Yahwistic cult in Jerusalem, where the exclusive worship of Yahweh was promoted as the religion of the unified kingdom of David and the righteous successors of the southern kingdom of Judah. 

It is important to understand that this exclusive worship of Yahweh in the Jerusalem temple was as much a political policy of David and Solomon as it was a religious one. A unified kingdom of the Twelve Tribes of Israel ought to have a unified cult of the national deity controlled from the capital, as in that period, religion and royal ideology were often so closely linked as to be indistinguishable. When Solomon’s sons Rehoboam and Jeroboam squabbled over the succession of the kingdom, it was precisely the location of the central and exclusive shrine of Yahweh in the Southern Kingdom that prompted Jeroboam to establish alternate Yahwistic shrines at Dan and Bethel in the Northern Kingdom, and in this we discover a profound theological truth – orthodoxy is directly correlated to unity.  The fragmentation of the political unity of David’s Kingdom was reflected by a corresponding theological fragmentation. Similarly, the unity of the Orthodox Church, expressed by the unity of the primatial bishops of each local church, is the primary guarantor of theological unity. Within this unity, outlying heresy can be detected and removed by the greater unity of the Church, and in this unity the Holy Spirit “leads” the Church “into all truth” (John 16:13).

Cherubim and Golden Calves

The theological fragmentation of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms was reflected by a difference in the iconography of each kingdom’s Yahwistic cult. The Southern kingdom maintained the iconography of the cherubim, visualized as a hybrid winged creature and prominently found in various forms all over the ancient Near East from Egypt to Persia. It is important to note that the cherub was not unique to ancient Israelites or to biblical revelation. Images of hybrid, winged creatures first appear in the Middle Bronze Age II, but become more prominent in the Egyptian New Kingdom. The example below appears from the Megiddo Ivories and date from the time of Rameses III (1186/7-1155/6 BCE). 

Cherubic throne of an Egyptian prince
Cherubic throne of an Egyptian prince

The image features a prince seated upon a throne of cherubim, hybrid creatures with the face of a man, the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the tail of an ox, the very same animals featured in the biblical descriptions of cherubim and the four living creatures of Ezekiel, which comprise, essentially, each part of the cherub separated out into a distinct creature (1:4ff). The concept of the cherubic throne was then applied to the biblical Ark of the Covenant, which featured on its lid a cherubic throne called the Mercy Seat (Heb. kapporeṯ, Gr. ἱλαστήριον). This structure was later referred to in 1 Chron. 28:18 as the Chariot Throne (Heb. merkāḇāh, Gr. ἅρμα). It was thus understood that Yahweh invisibly sat upon the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant as his throne, which we can understand by one of Yahweh’s more expanded epithets, “Yahweh of Hosts (armies) Who Sits upon the Cherubim” (2 Sam. 4:4, 6:2; Is. 37:16, c.f. Psalm 80:1, 99:1).

We find this theme expounded in the Psalms, e.g. 18:10, “He rode upon the cherubim and flew; / He rode on the wings of the wind.”  Also Psalm 132:8 (c.f. 2 Chron. 6:41) “Arise O Yahweh to Your resting place, You and the ark of Your might (LXX holiness).” Here we find a psalm perhaps used as a processional hymn, therefore we might imagine the scene unfolding as the priests carried the ark in procession and ascended the steps to the temple to return the ark to the Holy of Holies. 

The image of a hybrid winged creature was also prominent in Assyria, where colossal statues of lamassu were built to flank the entrances of temples and the throne rooms of royal palaces. Such colossal statues of cherubim were featured in the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple as described in 1 Kings 6:23-28, where Solomon constructed two olive wood cherubim overlaid with gold that fill the Holy of Holies with their wings stretched out from the walls to the tip of the other cherub.

Lamassu from the court of Sargon II of Assyria
Lamassu from the court of Sargon II of Assyria

For whatever reason, the ancient Near Eastern image of the hybrid winged creature was accepted in the Israelite cult of Yahweh, and was not seen to violate the taboo on iconographic depictions of Yahweh. They served as the base and guardians of Yahweh’s throne in the Jerusalem temple and were featured in poetic descriptions of Yahweh flying upon them as he arrives to rescue his servant, David. 

As iconography, the cherub became associated with the Jerusalem temple as well as the Zadokite priesthood which served it, but there was a separate iconography associated with the Yahwistic shrines erected in the north, the Golden Calf. Iconography featuring the bull, an animal associated with fertility and military prowess, can be found from The Late Bronze Age. We find early examples such as the thirteenth century ivory carvings from Lachish and Megiddo as well as an Iron Age I bronze figurine of a bull found east of Dothan (just north of Shechem), which may symbolize the god El, the storm god Hadad-Baal, or, less likely, even Yahweh.[1] In Ugaritic sources, El (or īlū) is often referred to as “the Bull, El.” As the Canaanite god El became taken over by Yahweh in Israelite society, it is probable that the bull also became associated with Yahweh in the minds of many Israelites. 

Bronze Bull Figurine
Bronze Bull Figurine

Like the bull, the golden calves which Jeroboam established at Dan and Bethel may have been a symbol of Yahweh or may have been directly identified as an image of him, though less likely, as with the cherubim, they may have served as pedestals upon which Yahweh would invisibly sit. As the bull or calf was associated with the Northern Kingdom of Israel, it would also have been associated with its Aaronide priesthood. Thus, both the calf and Aaron, at some point in time, become associated with the Northern idolatry, an identification that may have led to the surprisingly negative portrayal of Aaron in the book of Exodus in the golden calf incident (ch. 32).  If the golden calf was merely a pedestal for Yahweh, It would not have been likely that the golden calves were directly identified as being Yahweh, so the charge of idolatry made by the biblical sources would then be construed as propagandistic. Nevertheless, the bull or golden calf iconography was rejected by the Jerusalem cult as being illegitimate and idolatrous. 

Theological Conclusions

As we have seen in both cases, the cherub and the bull derive from pagan, polytheistic sources, but the cherub alone becomes acceptable iconography in the biblical tradition which follows the Southern, Judaean point of view. Nevertheless, in both cases the taboo about depicting the image of Yahweh was maintained, though other creatures were freely depicted either as symbols of Yahweh or as his pedestal. 

So, what are we to make of all of this?

Speaking theologically now, I offer the possibility that the cherub iconography may have been more acceptable to God because it was already understood as being a supernatural creature and not a common creature such as the bull or calf. Cherubim were more easily understood as parts of the divine court and servants of Yahweh rather than being direct symbols of him; that is to say, bulls cannot be servants of Yahweh in the same way that a supernatural cherub can. The bull would be more easily understood as a symbol of Yahweh or as a direct image of him thus becoming idolatrous worship. 

We now come to a very important principle in Orthodox Christian iconography, namely that creaturely symbolism is not canonically employed to represent the hypostatic God in any way. The common exception to this may be the lamb as a symbol of Christ, which is used as such by St. John in the Revelation. Visual depictions of Christ as a lamb are common in the West but were prohibited by the Quinisext Ecumenical Council. The reason for this is that God has appeared immediately to mankind through the incarnation of the Son as a real human being thus abrogating the need for symbols to depict the invisible God. God became a human being in the person of the incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ, and is thus able to be depicted as such. He is not properly a lamb or any other such animal, so he is not to be depicted in that way. Though we make depictions of of the incarnate Jesus Christ, we do not make symbols of any of the hypostases of the Holy Trinity. What then of the Holy Spirit as a dove? This is properly not a symbol, for the Gospel of Luke declares that the Spirit descended in the form (εἴδος) of a dove (3:22) and was neither symbolized by a dove nor was a real dove. We might, then, call this sort of iconography an eidos icon, for they depict a visual form that is different than the invisible reality. Other icons of this type would be any “Angel of the Lord” icons from the Old Testament or St. Andrei Rublev’s depiction of the Holy Trinity as three angels. The Hypostases of the Holy Trinity are not angels per se, though they did appear in the form (eidos) of angels to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18.

Orthodox Christian iconography may contain many symbols of various kinds, but a direct symbolization of the hypostases of the Holy Trinity is canonically forbidden. Other aspects of God may be symbolized by angels, as indicated above, but the direct depiction of the hypostases of the Holy Trinity except for the incarnate Logos must be observed. The cherubic iconography of southern Judah follows this principle by using images of supernatural (i.e., angelic) servants of God, while the rejected bull iconography of the North was much more apt to be understood either as a symbol of Yahweh or directly identified with him.

In Part 2 of this series, we will discuss the iconographic language of Jewish apocalyptic literature and how it affected Christian iconography in rather unique ways.

[1] Keel, Othmar and Christoph Uehlinger. Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992., 118

Eric Jobe

About Eric Jobe

Eric Jobe earned his Ph.D. in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He specializes in Hebrew poetry, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Second Temple Judaism. He is also an instructor of Bible and biblical languages for the St. Macrina Orthodox Institute.



  1. Ive waited patiently for a new O&H article and Eric Jobe has hit on a subject of great fascinationto me. I do hope this series will feature a discussion of the iconography found at excavated synagogues, and will also touch on the origins of iconoclasm in Judaism and Christianity.

    My first question is this: given that the Samaritans consider themselves to be the heirs of the Northern Kingdom, is their any evidence of Smaaritans retaining use of imagery associated with the Golden Calf into the New Testament era? If the Samaeitans are the descendants of the ten Northern tribes, and it is known their Cohen family possesses the Y chromosome in abundance, what accounts for the cultural similarity one sees between modern Samaritans and the Jews? It is known there exists Islamic influence in the modern Samaritan liturgy, but epthere exists a clear pre-Islamic substrate visible in those prayers such as the Shema, and those which refer to Yahweh as King of the Universe.

    1. William, yes, I will deal with the excavated synagogues in part 3 (presumably). As for the origins of “iconoclasm” we first have to talk about “aniconism.” For ancient Israelites, the origin of such is obscure. There were other ancient Near Eastern cults that were aniconic, so it is not an isolated phenomenon. It seems to be rooted in the concept of taboo, which I have used in the post to describe the aniconism of the Yahwist cult.

      Unfortunately, I am not well versed on Samaritan history or genetics, but I am not aware of any bull/calf imagery used in their religious services. As for pre-Islamic substrates, again, that is out of my area of expertise.

      1. If I might venture a related question, to what extent to you see Israel as a result of interaction between Egyptian, Aramaic and Canaanite influences, and how does that advise their iconography?

        1. It is common among scholars to see Israel as developing from the Canaanites, so their basic cultural makeup is Canaanite. But, they very quickly work very hard to establish a separate identity from the Canaanites, even to the extent of violent conflict with them (i.e. the Conquest of Joshua). So, they are very interested in being different than the Canaanites, a desire that drives much of the Hebrew Bible. Egyptian influence would have been more prominent before Israel became a distinct entity in Palestine. By the time the New Kingdom begins to wane, Israel is at its hay-day, and Egypt never again exerts too much influence. From that point, it is Mesopotamian and Persian influence that makes indelible marks on the Jews. As far as the Aramaeans were concerned, they were too decentralized to make any real difference, and Israel and Judah were at war with them almost perpetually, excluding much cultural influence. What similarities are there are inherited from the broader West Semitic culture from which they both descend.

          1. Eric,

            Could you elaborate, however briefly, on the Exodus from Egypt, and how Israel’s sojourn in Egypt resulted in Egyptian influence on Israel? As well, when you say “Israel develop[ed] from the Canaanites” do you mean post-Exodus? Or, do you mean prior to the 12 sons of Jacob going down into Egypt? How does Israel develop from the Canaanites, in view of their military entrance into Canaan after the Exodus?

            Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding.

          2. Most scholars would see Israel as being composed of two groups, one of which resulted from Canaanite migrations from the lowland cities into highland settlements. This group ultimately developed a distinct identity from the lowland Canaanite groups and became known as “Israel.” The second was a group of escaped slaves who came up out of Egypt and migrated into the southern hill country of Judah. They encountered Yahwistic worship, perhaps in Midian, and brought it into Palestine, where it mixed with and ultimately came to dominate the El worship of the “Israelite” highlanders who were already there. Eventually, these two groups merged into one, created a common identity, culture, and origin mythology. Now, this is merely a scenario that scholars have put forth in an effort to make some sense out of the extra-biblical historical and archaeological data. It is, in my opinion, plausible and preferable to outright rejecting any concept of the Exodus and migration into Palestine that you find among some scholars. The problem is, the Exodus narrative as well as Joshua’s Conquest, as it exists in the Bible, find little historical or archaeological support in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age. Without going into too much detail here, I just want to reiterate that I am trying to find middle way that allows for the kernel of the Biblical narrative to be true, i.e. some Exodus event actually happened though on a much smaller scale, as well as one which accounts for the lack of corroborating evidence outside of the Bible.

            So, in other words, the 12 sons of Jacob going to Egypt is not likely historical or at least unprovable from corroborating evidence. The slavery of Asiatics in Egypt was much more likely the result of Egyptians taking prisoners of war throughout their conflicts with Mitani and Hattusha in the New Kingdom period. I realize that saying that any part of the Bible is not historical may be scandalous to some, but it something we must be prepared to do unless we are to reject the entire enterprise of historical and archaeological study. But, even if some events in the Old Testament are not historical, they still have profound theological meaning, and serve, as it were, as verbal icons. Take for example, the icon of Pentecost, which features St. Paul in the Upper Room with the other Apostles, something that we know from Acts was not historically accurate. There may be many things in the Old Testament “verbal icons” that historical, but nonetheless tell a theological narrative of great value. I also try to give the benefit of the doubt to the Bible and allow for a kernel of the events depicted therein to be historically true.

  2. If I might venture a personal question, do you believe in the existence of seraphim and cherubim, and that God guided the Israelites in accepting this iconography while rejecting the golden calf? Also does any of this bear relevance to Johns vision of the four animals in the apocalypse, with the winged man/bull associated with St. Luke?

    1. I definitely do believe in the existence of the angelic hosts, though it is important to understand that they are the “bodiless powers,” so they do not have material form. They are pure spirit, pure mind, pure energy, and they are only depicted in the form or eidos of a man or a hybrid winged creature. That these powers appeared to the prophets in the form of the mythological creature should not make us believe that they are in fact such creatures. They only appear as such in order to condescend to our weak, material natures.

      The four living creatures of the Revelation are directly related to the cherubim, and I will discuss that in detail in the next post.

  3. Eric, on the subject of archaeological evidence, is it not inconceivable that the devil could manipulate or destroy undiscovered artifacts in order to obscure the veracity of the Bible? Consider how St. Anthony was tempted,by silver and gold discs and other riches as he crossed the desert. Note that I am not saying archaeology is worthless, merely that froma purely acheostian theological standpoint we might perhaps remember that God may allow the devil to falsify such evidence, so that our believe in our Lord might be based purely on faith and not as a blind axiom. Thoughts?

    1. Is it conceivable, feasible? I would say no, it’s not. If it were, our entire faith in the Bible would be based upon the belief that the devil was intentionally obscuring the natural world to make it appear that the Bible was untrue. This is no different than many young earth creationists who propose that God intentionally made the earth to look like it’s 4.4 billion years old, even though it is supposed to be about 7000 years old. It just becomes absurd and beyond any rational thinking. It’s madness! While St. Anthony might have been tempted by the devil, we cannot think that the entire physical world is a complete phantasm created by the devil. Science, history, archaeology, medicine, all human knowledge – it can’t be just a demonic deception, otherwise our entire epistemology breaks down into complete skepticism.

      Christ the Logos who was incarnate of the Virgin Mary – He is *the* definitive revelation of God, and the Bible is a witness to this. Let’s not lose that focus. If we try to bend natural science, history, and archaeology just to fit our preconceived notions of what the Bible *should* mean, then we lose sight of the Incarnate Logos who created the world and all that is in it, even as it appears to us today.

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