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Iron Age Religion

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At the beginning of the Iron Age, religious rituals continued in much the same form as in the Late Bronze Age.

At Beth Shean, the so-called "temple of Astarte" contained decorated ceramic stands, probably used to support bowls in which offerings were placed and incense was burned. The meaning of the images on these stands, such as snakes and birds, remains uncertain, though they are known elsewhere in the ancient Near East.

The religious worship of the Iron Age nations of Israel and Judah was distinguished by the monotheistic worship of Yahweh. Beginning in the 10th century BCE, the "temple of Solomon" in Jerusalem became the central place for the worship of Yahweh. Solomon's temple is known only from the Bible, and its traditional location is beneath the Haram esh-Sharif (site of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam).

The description of the temple in 1 Kings 6-8 suggests a building like Iron Age temples excavated in northern Syria at 'Ain Dara and Tell Taiynat. The temple consisted of an ulam, or vestibule, in which stood two bronze ceremonial pillars. The ulam led to a large "house" flanked by lower storerooms (yasia), on three sides. In a courtyard before the temple stood the sacrificial altar. The temple is described as containing many splendid gold objects and the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark is described in Exodus 37 as constructed from acacia wood with gold inlay, and measured 4 x 2.5 x 2.5 feet. It reportedly contained the stone tablets with the ten commandments, a golden urn with manna and the rod of Aaron, brother of Moses. The Ark was a symbol of the covenant the Israelites made with Yahweh.

There is some evidence that the Israelite peoples were influenced by Canaanite religion. In the kingdom of Judah, during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, female figures with a molded head, prominent breasts and a cylindrical body are found in many archaeological contexts.

These female figurines are associated with domestic religious rituals. They may represent the goddess Asherah and were used, especially by women, in a "popular" form of worship distinct from the official worship of Yahweh. Some scholars have proposed that these figurines were dedicated by women desiring to be pregnant or nursing children. Thus, they were not worshiped as symbols of divinity, but rather were symbolic representations of female fertility which, through "sympathetic magic," would endow these benefits directly to women. As in the case of the plaque figurines, such identifications are difficult to make with any real confidence.

The biblical prophets, such as Elijah, Amos and Jeremiah, are characterized as religious leaders admonishing the populace of Israel and Judah to abandon the worship of other gods beside Yahweh. These exhortations were often received with resistance from the local population:

. . . and the women said: "Indeed we will go on making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her; do you think we made cakes for her, marked with her image, and poured out libations to her without our husbands being involved?"

Jeremiah 44:19

In 586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, destroyed Solomon's temple and deported much of Judah's leadership to captivity in Babylon. The trauma of this event is well-represented in the Bible and later Jewish tradition. The transformation of Judaism and Jewish identity that occurs in the Exile is in many ways an adaptation to life without a temple.




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