Reflections on “Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel” by Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger

In Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel, Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger provide a thorough discussion of the history of Judean and Israelian religion through the lens of iconography. In particular, they focus on seals because they are “more or less public artifacts and can thus serve as a sensitive seismograph to detect subtle shifts in religious history” (10). Why their approach ultimately yields results that are similar to the Hebrew Bible, the positions and arguments for the history of the region end up being very nuanced.

It covers the Middle Bronze Age IIB up to the Persian period. Although such an early starting date may be questionable for some it is the point at which “we can deal with a cultural continuum in Palestine that extends all the way to the time of the emergence of the Hebrew Bible” (17). Notably, though, he is against using too much Ugaritic material because of the geographic and chronological distance. Even so, the Middle Bronze Age IIB is assuredly chronologically distant from Iron Age Palestine. Subsequently, the logic as to why he is against the use of material from Mari, Ebla, and Ugarit becomes questionable.

As for the volume itself, it is, without a doubt, one of the most important volumes for any Hebrew Bible scholar. The history of religion which it reconstructs is based on dated, material evidence, whereas the Hebrew Bible is a bit more problematic. For this reason, all Hebrew Bible scholars should have a working knowledge of Palestinian iconography. For, as Keel discusses in the introduction, iconography is part of the constellation of symbols which is presented in mythic form. The jobs of the scholar is to describe these symbols. Therefore, by having a working knowledge of iconography, one has access to the symbols within ancient images, which may impact how history is constructed and texts are analyzed.

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