Is that a 3,000-year-old picture of god, his penis and his wife depicted by early Jews at Kuntillet Ajrud?
More than four decades after its excavation wound down, a small hill in the Sinai Desert continues to bedevil archaeologists. The extraordinary discoveries made at Kuntillet Ajrud, an otherwise nondescript slope in the northern Sinai, seem to undermine one of the foundations of Judaism as we know it.
Then, it seems, “the Lord our God” wasn’t “one God.” He may have even had a wife, going by the completely unique “portrait” of the Jewish deity that archaeologists found at the site, which may well be the only existing depiction of YHWH.
Kuntillet Ajrud got its name, meaning “the isolated hill of the water sources,” from wells at the foot of the hill. It is a remote spot in the heart of the desert, far from any town or or trade route. But for a short time around 3,000 years ago, it served as a small way station.
Dozens of drawings and inscriptions, resembling nothing whatever found anywhere else in our region, survived from that period, which seems to have lasted no longer than two or three decades. Egypt gained the artifacts with the peace treaty with Israel 25 years ago, but the release of the report on the excavation six years ago and a book about the site two years ago have kept the argument over the exceptional findings from the hill in Sinai alive.
The hill lies 50 kilometers south of Kadesh Barnea and 15 kilometers west of the ancient Darb el-Ghazza route, which led from Gaza to the Read Sea’s Gulf of Eilat. Its unique qualities were first noticed in 1870 by the British explorer Edward Palmer who discovered a fragment of a clay jar, a pithos, marked with the Hebrew letter aleph.
Later, in 1902, a Czech orientalist and explorer, Alois Musil, was attacked by local Bedouins who claimed that he was defiling a holy site. Exploration would only resume in 1975, by the Tel Aviv University archaeologist Ze’ev Meshel, as part of a collaboration between the university and the Israel Exploration Society.
The excavation showed that Kuntillat Ajrud was what’s called a “single-layer site,” meaning, it had been occupied for just one period, which the excavators dated to the late ninth century or early eighth century B.C.E.
Meshel estimated that it had been occupied very briefy, 25 years at most. Structure-wise, the excavators only found two fairly simple, unimpressive structures. The wonder lay in the drawings and inscriptions.