Professor Yosef Garfinkel has studied Israeli archaeology for years.
But it’s a brand new discovery that has him the most excited.
In fact, he thinks it could be a key to understanding how the ancient Israelites viewed God.
Garfinkel has found a handful of small figurines scattered in multiple dig sites, including Tel Motza and Khirbet Qeiyafa, across what was once the ancient kingdom of Judah.
These figurines, dating to the 10th and 9th centuries BCE, depict various male faces that Garfinkel claims are “representations of the biblical Israelite God, Yahweh.”
“Yes, I think that people in ancient times believed these figurines to represent the face of Yahweh,” Garfinkel said.
It’s an intriguing theory, especially since the Old Testament is clear in prohibiting physical representations of God.
Garfinkel admitted as much, saying, “The kingdom of Judah was…based on two concepts—that there is only one [God] and not many, and that you shouldn’t make a statue, a graven image of [Him].”
In this way, Judah was radically different from the surrounding pagan nations.
But Garfinkel’s theory suggests that Israelite theology and actual spiritual practice were two different things.
The archaeologist wonders if, after all, the repeated Old Testament admonishments to stop worshipping household gods (Deut. 5:8-10, 7:25-26; 2 Kings 23:24) were spoken for a reason.
Garfinkel has based his theory on the fact that these figurines are different from many others of the time period.
While many figurines crafted during the 10th and 9th centuries are female depictions of false goddesses, Garfinkel described his miniature statues as clearly male.
The figurines, some of which have “indications of a beard,” depict different images of a face.
“With a flat top, the head has protruding eyes, ears, and a nose,” said Garfinkel, describing one of the statues.
“The eyes were made in two stages. They were first attached to the face as rounded blobs of clay and then punctured to create the iris.”
“Because the ears are pierced, the figure may have worn earrings. Around the top of the head is a circle of holes,” which could have been used to hold a representation of a crown or headdress.
Additionally, Garfinkel pointed to the fact that these male figurines have often been found in conjunction with depictions of horses.
According to most archaeologists, the pagan Canaanite tradition often depicted gods as seated figures holding scepters.
Garfinkel’s figurines, on the other hand, often depict variations of a strong horseman.
“[The image of a god riding a horse] is a totally different iconography, the horseman is something new,” Garfinkel asserted.
The archaeologist referenced Habakkuk 3:8, in which Yahweh is loosely described as a rider on a horse.
“Here we had Yahweh,” the professor suggested. “Every territory developed their own [way of describing gods].”
Since several of the statues were found together in a temple complex, not in a home, Garfinkel is convinced that they represent “the religion of the time” and Yahweh – the God of that religion—not household idols.
In other words, these statues could represent “the face of God” as the ancient Israelites imagined it.
Other archaeologists, however, have cautioned against jumping to such conclusions, referencing Biblical injunctions against graven images as well as other historical research surrounding that era.
Garfinkel admitted, “Like every discovery, some will accept [this theory] and some will reject [it].”
One team of archaeologists openly opposed Garfinkel’s theory, citing established knowledge about pagan and Israelite cultures throughout the area.
They asserted, “[Garfinkel’s] claim that these…figurines from Motza and Qeiyafa…‘create a new type of male figurine, with three of them seeming to represent a rider on a horse,’ overlooks their very obvious typological, stylistic, and technological divergence.”
“Although we cannot rule out the possibility that the human [figurines]…depicted gods,” they conceded, “they have no markings, symbols or attributes…that would identify them as divine figures.”
They also responded to Garfinkel’s view of Habakkuk 3:8, arguing that the verse is “a very late depiction of Yahweh.”
The archaeologists characterized Garfinkel’s theory as “pure sensationalism,” but have yet to prove what the figurines actually represent.
Regardless of the true story behind these tiny statues, Garfinkel is excited to bring the culture of ancient Israel to life through these discoveries.
“The kingdom of Judah left a great…contribution” to the ancient world and Garfinkle wants other archaeologists to take it seriously.
Stay tuned for more news in Biblical archaeology!