I recently came across an unexpected article by Ariel David (@arieldavid1980) entitled The Real Ark of the Covenant May Have Housed Pagan Gods. The article, published on Haaretz a little more than a year ago, reports on the digs that are currently being conducted at Kiriath Jearim, an ancient city located approximately 10 km west of Jerusalem. Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein is leading the excavation in collaboration with Thomas Römer of College the France. These are two of the most respected scholars in the field of Ancient Israel.
This article initially caught my interest because of the topic, but as it turned out, it also gives further credence to my research on the origin of the Abrahamic faith.
Let’s be clear: Nobody is expecting to find the remains of the Ark in this ancient city. The primary objective is to see if it is possible to corroborate Römer’s hypothesis suggesting that the Ark stayed longer at Kiriath Jearim than what the Bible suggests.
So far, the digs have revealed the presence of an important pagan cultic site and this is the reason Römer believes the Ark might have contained statues representing Yahweh and Asherah rather than the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
We learn from the Bible that this city was affiliated with Baal worship at an earlier date. In fact, the city was renamed from Kiriath-Baal, in order to erase the memory of the ancient Baal cult after Joshua’s military campaign took possession of the land. As David writes:
“There are hints of the rivalry between Judah and Israel in the fact that the Book of Joshua repeatedly mentions that Kiriath Jearim, which means ‘Town of Forests’ in Hebrew, was also known as Kiriath Baal or Baalah, linking it to the worship of the Canaanite god Baal – something akin to anathema for the biblical scribes of Josiah’s time. The dual name is also mentioned in 1 Chronicles 13:6: ‘David and all Israel went to Baalah of Judah (Kiriath Jearim) to bring up from there the ark of God the Lord’.”
It makes sense for Römer to suggest that the statue of Yahweh was in the Ark. After all, this is the Ark of the Lord. But how about Asherah? Most likely because of the close association of the city with Baalah (“Mistress” or “Consort” of Baal in Hebrew). Indeed, if the Ark was used as part of a pagan cult at Kiriath Jearim, it would make sense to expect such a coexistence. In fact, evidence that Asherah was also perceived as Yahweh‘s consort was previously found at Kuntillet Ajrud.
Now, recall that in The Covenant, I argue that Abraham was a historical figure who made a covenant with a mortal overlord. After his death, I argue that this overlord was deified and worshipped as Baal Berith (“Lord of Covenant” in Hebrew). One of the bold suggestions that I derived from this premise is that Yahweh is not a new deity, but simply the name given to the compounded deity combining the qualities of Baal and Asherah (I offer the complete etymological explanation for the origin of the tetragrammaton YHWH in my book).
Everything suggests that the people of Kiriath Jearim could have been the witness of this critical transition. Indeed, if Baal and Asherah had nothing to do with Yahweh, why would these people care to worship the Ark of the Covenant in the first place? I believe that this story confirms that two religious factions fought for the Ark: On the one hand, the people of Kiriath Jearim who were attached to the ancient tradition of Baal and Asherah, and on the other, the people of Jerusalem who wanted to worship the compounded deity Yahweh. By suggesting that the Ark might have contained pagan gods, Finkelstein and Römer are contributing – albeit unknowingly – to solidify the hypothesis presented in my book that Yahweh came as a natural evolution of Baal and Asherah.
Certainly, the idea that the Ark of Covenant could have been used to keep statues of “pagan gods” won’t be a popular one among believers. But to be honest, even scholars remain perplex as to the possible connections that existed between Baal, Asherah and Yahweh, despite the overwhelming indicators pointing towards a natural evolution, rather than a radical substitution (see my post entitled Missing the obvious). This is why I am excited to find Römer closing in on the same conclusion, despite a very different deduction logic. It gives me hope that scholars will eventually start considering my work seriously.
Post-scriptum: This article got me thinking about the two cherubs that are on the Ark; a detail that I had never considered before (Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber offers a good review of the possible functions of these two cherubs in this excellent article.) If one accepts the arguments that I offer in my book, which suggests that Baal and Asherah are not only the god and goddess of Israel, but that they are also the divinized begetter of Isaac, who took part in the covenant by giving the land to Abraham’s descendants, why would the two cherubs facing each other not represent the earthly and divine couple (see my post entitled Sarah, mother goddess of Israel), ancestors of Israel and wardens of the Covenant for posterity?