Restore the Northwest Semitic Altar: On Using Archaeology in Jewish Practice

Tel Gezer | CC via Wikimedia Commons


It happens frequently when I go to a new synagogue now. Someone gives a dvar Torah or a talk on the Torah portion, and uses a verse to talk about how different Jews were from all their surrounding peoples. Or there is a discussion of an Israel trip, in which the (justice-obstructing) magic of the Ir David will be toured. And before I can catch myself, I’ll bring up some fun facts. It might be the fact that the purity laws in Tazria are suspiciously parallel to those of the Assyrians. Or that the Ir David is pretty typical of Northwest Semitic post-Bronze Age sites, and certainly not important enough to justify the destruction of Silwan and Islamic archaeological sites within it. Or perhaps that the linguistic evidence in Genesis indicates that the Persian Empire might have had some influence on the visual aesthetics of worship – for example, the relevant materials in the breastplate.

And people stare at me like I’m crazy.

See, your loyal correspondent spent four years studying at the University of Chicago. This school is famous for its nerdy tendencies, particularly in the social sciences, but is also the world center for something else: the study of the Ancient Near East. Throughout college – in fact, from freshman orientation right up until graduation,I was surrounded by the study of Assyrian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Egyptian, and Levantine (modern-day Israel and Palestine) archaeologies.

This environment shifted my Jewish worldview significantly.

I came into college with an understanding that the Scripture had been changed and influenced by man over the centuries – in short, the standard view of the Conservative movement (which is nowhere close to dead). But I was also convinced that Jewish exceptionalism was real and absolute, and that ancient Jewry was always in stark contrast to its manifold pagan neighbors. It was, in my opinion, somewhat offensive to suggest that we were, in many ways, not really that unlike every other Near Eastern deity-cult in the Iron Age.

With this mindset, I registered for my very first class in college: a historical overview of the Assyrian Empire. The course itself was incredible on its own: a head-first dive into the heady world of what arguably was one of the first great empires. But what stood out was the examination of Assyria’s relationship to Biblical Judea. Instead of considering Assyria as the Evil Empire,we were pushed to examine Judea’s dependence on and cultural influence from Ashur and Nineveh. The Jews were not wholly independent,rather, they took parts of high culture and intellectual practice from the vaunted empire next door. And, of course, there were the eerie parallels: Assyrian contract curses and the admonitions of Leviticus 26, the common use of Aramaic, and the strange similarities between the Solomonic Temple and the temple at Tell Tayinat. The final punch came when we began to discuss archaeological practice in the 19th century–and the upset that was caused in Victorian Britain when Assyrian archaeological records were found to contradict the Book of Kings. Assyriology and, more broadly, archaeological practice, opened up a new window to examine the Bible – and to trace its influences.

My Judaism was changed forever.

And so began my traipsing around the field of Ancient Near Eastern archaeology – mostly for fun, but partly for the (Side note: my academic interests are significantly more modern.) Thus I read, and learned some fascinating things. For example, did you know that:

  1. Second Isaiah is the first monotheist in the Bible, and emerged from a non-monotheistic context? Some scholars argue that Isaiah 43 comprises the first statement of monotheism in the Bible, and that prior theology was not completely monotheistic. That is to say, other gods were recognized.
  2. …the structure of the traveling tabernacle is essentially identical to every other Northwest Semitic altar structure we have on record? Since Exodus and Leviticus were probably written sometime after the start of the Davidic dynasty, the best comparisons are probably done with comparable structures in the Assyrian sphere of influence.
  3. …the Tanakh essentially contains appropriated myths from polytheistic cultures? Psalms contains the cycle of and the Song of the Sea probably was influenced by the Babylonian combat myth. In some cases, the appropriation is exact: much of the Book of Proverbs is directly sourced from Ancient Egyptian religious texts such as the Instruction of Amenemope.

(*This makes us all Ba’al worshippers in a way. I make as few apologies for the heresy in this piece as literalists do for their equally heretical craft.)

And as I continued, I became more and more fascinated. Soon, archaeological side-notes were part of my divrei Torah, and a chunk of my fun-reading over breaks comprised Biblical archaeology on JStor. The pride in “first monotheists forever” turned into an appreciation of how Judaism evolved from monolatry to monotheism.By senior year, I responded to nationalist archaeology in a heady mixture of quotes from the SAA database’s translated tablets and Doge.

One would think all of this reading made my faith weaker, but in fact, it made my faith stronger. Suddenly, it seemed, I understood so much of the Torah much more clearly – and the same went for Jewish ritual. No longer was Birkat Kohanim a strange and otherworldly experience, but merely the continuation of Near Eastern practices from thousands of years ago. These clarifications also pushed me to value God – distant, unknowable, and incomprehensible as He is – much more highly in my Jewish practice. Since I understood so much of the ritual to come from elsewhere, it allowed me to think about what God meant in my own thought process, and thus, what rituals brought me closer. It also allowed me to distinguish what was my faith – daily prayer, kashrut, striving for chesed– and what was inculcated exceptionalism and “easy understanding” – say, exceptionalism and the feeling of chosen-ness.

One would ask what my Judaism is based on, if I question the text so readily. From where do I derive my sense of obligation or my desire to practice? I answer that Judaism is so much more than a “then and now”: we have thousands of years of tradition to draw from, dozens of schools of theological thought, and a sense of continuity that goes beyond simple text alone. When I do Judaism, I still feel part of something spectacular. When I practice something such as kashrut, it still imbues my life with meaning – even though I know that Leviticus was only codified in the Persian period.

I think my experience is illustrative of the potential uses of Near Eastern Studies in Judaism. In a context where archaeology is politicized and incorrectly used for nationalist purposes, and in which Jewish children are taught more of feel-good exceptionalism than of God’s majesty, modern archaeology offers a potential path back to the Faith. Not only would we have another avenue to leave the rut of jingoistic ra-ra nationalism, but we would also have a better understanding of Scripture itself. That said, one does not have to use my preferred translation of one blessing of the Amidah:

“Restore [differently] our Northwest Semitic Altar, as was typical of the time, so that we may serve You…”

The author would like to thank Douglas Graebner for his assistance in finding free versions of source material for this article, as well as discussing the findings at Yazılıkaya with him at 1:30am.


Jonathan P. Katz is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago.

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