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