From its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, archaeology in the “lands of the Bible” has focused understandably on the topic of religion, especially the religion of ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible. Yet only since about 1970 has archaeology “come of age” as a mature, independent, multidisciplinary inquiry, capable of contributing positively to our understanding of the reality of ancient religion and its role in sociocultural life. This article will highlight the major developments in the discussion of the archaeological data and their significance since about 1970.

Traditional Studies.

Since the beginning of modern critical biblical scholarship in the mid-nineteenth century, there have been hundreds of attempts to write a comprehensive account of religion in ancient Israel. Most have relied exclusively on the biblical texts and have ended up as Old Testament theologies. Others have taken a broader, comparative “history of religions” approach. Until the 1970s, however, all of these works assumed that the biblical texts constituted the “primary” data. The unfortunate result of the inquiry so restricted was that most histories of Israelite religion (and histories in general) were little more than paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible. That was true of works all the way from right to left. The great themes were generally (1) monotheism, presumably the norm from Mosaic times onward; (2) the Jerusalem temple, priesthood, and covenant law as the center; (3) the biblical text as the ultimate authority; and (4) the uniqueness of Israelite religion.

Even those few works that were archaeologically informed described the ideal portrait of the biblical writers, seeking to confirm it as the reality by using the scant and unreliable archaeological discoveries of the time. All that has changed with the flood of light that archaeology has brought to bear on the sacred page.

The Archaeological Revolution.

Beginning in the 1970s, American-style “biblical archaeology” underwent a revolution in both theory and field methods. In so doing it transformed itself from a largely amateur branch of archaeology, driven by a parochial theological agenda, into a mature, independent, secular, professional discipline, in both Israel and the United States. It is the progress of the newer “Syro–Palestinian” (or now sometimes “Levantine”) archaeology that has brought about sweeping changes in the approach to ancient Israelite religion. Although not yet widely appreciated, the archaeological data, not the textual data, are the primary, and indeed only, source for finding a new external witness by which to evaluate the received tradition.

The archaeological discoveries bearing on religion and cult of the first generation or so are too numerous even to list, much less evaluate. They consist first of several temples, sanctuaries, and shrines, both public and private, from the Iron Age, ca. 1200–600 B.C.E. Notable among them are early Israelite (Iron I) cult places at Hazor and the “bull site” in the tribal territory of Ephraim, both clearly reflecting earlier Canaanite traditions. For the period of the Monarchy (Iron II) we have a large cultic complex at Dan, with a “high place” (bamah), a gate shrine at Tell el-Farʿah North (biblical Tirzeh), a full-fledged temple at Arad, and a desert sanctuary with many Hebrew graffiti at Kuntillet ʾAjrûd in the Sinai (all flourishing particularly in the ninth–eighth centuries B.C.E.).

In addition to monumental architecture at the latter sites, we have small-scale cultic installations more likely to have had a village or family clientele. These include a tenth-century B.C.E. village shrine at Taanach, with a range of cultic paraphernalia from molds for making female figurines to terra-cotta incense stands with elaborate iconographic motifs; small “cult rooms” at Samaria, Lachish, and elsewhere (ninth–eighth centuries B.C.E.); cave 1 in Jerusalem, with an array of animal and human figurines and other cultic paraphernalia (seventh century B.C.E.); and household shrines at Hazor, Megiddo, Beersheba, and elsewhere (mostly eighth–seventh centuries B.C.E.). Khirbet Qeiyafa, a Judean fort of the early tenth century B.C.E., has produced stone altars with decidedly “un-Israelite” iconographic motifs. Tel Rehov, presumably an Israelite site, has a series of exotic offering stands and other cult paraphernalia that have no parallels elsewhere. Archaeology is full of surprises, yet it cannot be ignored.

Among the small finds of cultic significance, we have numerous examples of altars; massebot (standing stones); terra-cotta offering stands; naoi (temple models); various ceramic cult vessels such as votives, offering vessels, kernoi (“trick vessels,” usually a ceramic ring with small cups attached to the rim), rattles, and the like; and particularly hundreds of female “fertility figurines.” While summaries of the data are fundamental to any further inquiry, most are more descriptive than explanatory; that is, they are particularizing rather than generalizing. They focus rather narrowly on the specifics of the archaeological data and their significance for ancient Israelite religious practices as the “material correlates of behavior.” But they do not generally reflect much on belief systems in a broader sociological context, much less employ cross-cultural comparisons or more sophisticated social and anthropological theory. Most are content to compare ancient religion with Canaanite religion. A few studies invoke Colin Renfrew’s widely influential works on archaeology and religions. This suggests a sort of “trait-list” approach to defining cult, emphasizing the role of symbol and setting the whole in a larger sociocultural context.

Religion and Cult, Bronze and Iron Age

Overview of the Arad temple. Baker Photo Archive

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Numerous studies specifically on the goddess Asherah in Canaanite and Israelite religion have made considerable use of archaeological data. Several feminist studies have illuminated the large role of women in Israelite religion, dominated as it was by family practices. Biblical terminology in relation to material culture and mortuary practices has been discussed in detail.

Meanwhile, Old Testament scholars (mostly Protestant Christians) have pursued their own treatments of ancient Israelite religion. None of these works, however, dominated by modern systematic theological interests and searching for a “center,” has made much more than a passing reference to archaeological data. Even the best of such works do not go beyond the text in attempting to illuminate actual religious practices in ancient Israel, at least those of the majority.

A New Paradigm.

The proliferation of data from more diversified and more precise archaeological strategies has brought about more revolutionary changes in approach to the study of ancient Israelite religion than textual studies. In contrast to the assumptions of traditional text-based approaches, the emphasis is quite different.

The first difference is that the study of material culture, not texts, takes precedence for providing the primary evidence. There are many reasons for this shift. The biblical texts are relatively late, rather than being eyewitness accounts. They are highly selective, productions of the literati, elitist by nature, and further compromised by an overriding didactic purpose. The biblical writers give us at best an ideal portrait—what Israelite beliefs and practices should have been, and would have been, had their orthodox views prevailed beyond court and priestly circles. Finally, the corpus of biblical texts is limited, static; the canon is closed. And after more than 2,000 years of the most determined and imaginative interpretation, it can be argued that there is little more useful information to be gained from poring further over the text.

Religion and Cult, Bronze and Iron Age

Overview of the Tel Dan temple. Kim Walton

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Archaeological artifacts, in comparison with texts, are more “primary”—more diverse, more comprehensive, and more objective. They are also more primary in the sense of being closer to the events, the facts, and less subject to centuries of editing and interpretation. A few biblical scholars have come to appreciate archaeological data as a primary source for history writing.

One cannot wrest from the literature more than it contains. One needs to get behind the long literary tradition enshrined in the text in its final form to the long-lost world that produced that literature. That is what archaeology, and archaeology alone, is poised to do. Further illumination will come only by reconstructing the context of the text.

Archaeology is all about material culture and context, about discerning the “meaning of things” in both a larger temporal and a social setting. A particularly promising trend is seen in the fact that several archaeological theorists have suggested “reading” artifacts like texts, with something of the same hermeneutical (interpretive) principles. This approach began in 1986 with Ian Hodder’s Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology. Hodder employed a word play: archaeology as context, that is, with (con-) text. As he put it, we must get “at the inside of events” (p. 125) using archaeological data alongside texts, employing the particular language of each. That means learning the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of things—writing history from things. That call has been taken up by other postprocessual and “cognitive” archaeologists.

The second new emphasis coming from archaeology’s increasing influence on the study of Israelite religion is that more attention is being paid to social context—culture in its broadest sense. Religious beliefs and practices do not occur in isolation, as though somehow separate and distinct from the “secular” world. Nor can they be properly appreciated either by personal functionalist or determinist paradigms, on the one hand, or by “idealist” notions, on the other hand, as though ideology were everything. The focus on religion and social structure does not necessarily eschew particularist historical explanations (“historicism”), but it builds upon these to move toward generalizations that will have more universal relevance. Israelite religion is thus no longer seen as a literary tradition, essentially the theological formulations of the writers of the Hebrew Bible, much less as “unique” in the ancient Near-Eastern environment.

A third new emphasis is related, namely, a focus not merely on event but, rather, on process, on evolution. Ancient Israel’s religion was not handed down de novo to Moses at Mount Sinai; it evolved from Canaanite religion in a complex, centuries-long process of socioeconomic, political, and cultural change. Religion is thus seen as dynamic, rather than frozen in orthodox proclamation; as practice, rather than dogma. The result is a new understanding of the formation and function of religious traditions in ancient Israel and especially in their transformation in postexilic Judaism.

Growing out of these emphases is an appreciation of the diversity of beliefs and practices in ancient Israelite religions (now in the plural). The “center” that Old Testament theology had sought, the “unity of the Bible,” does not exist, not even among the late protagonists of monotheism, in the “Yahweh alone” movement. There is no “religious establishment,” not even in court and temple circles in Jerusalem, which were never truly representative of the people. There is no real “orthodoxy,” not even orthopraxy.

Religion and Cult, Bronze and Iron Age

Entrance to the ʾAin Dara temple, Syria. Courtesy of Kathryn Hooge

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A final emphasis grows out of all of these, a new perspective on what can be called (with some reservations) “folk religion.” This is the religion of the mostly rural families, who were, after all, the backbone of ancient Israelite society—not book religion but the religion of hearth and home. Not surprisingly, it is now common to delineate the roles of women in ancient Israelite society, probably the real ritual experts. The Sinai covenant, the Jerusalem temple, the priestly establishment, the growth of the canon, the written Torah and law—these played a very small role in the lives of ordinary people in ancient Israel, especially as most people were illiterate. Nor did monotheism play a role, at least before late in the Monarchy (if even then). There may have been what Albertz (1994) called “poly-Yahwisms” (p. 207), or henotheism; but from beginning to end ancient Israelite religion in practice was polytheistic, as Canaanite religion had been. As for “aniconism” in Israelite religion, that too is a myth. Local and family cults centered on the rhythm of the changing seasons; on the power of nature; on placating the deities with sacrifices, rituals, and magic; on various fertility rites that would guarantee the future; on rites of passage that celebrated the essence of life; above all, on survival, on heritage, in a mysterious and perilous world.

A wealth of archaeological data has illuminated all these practices, as well as something of the belief systems that they enshrine. Needless to say, these were hardly synonymous with the theoretical constructs of the Hebrew Bible. It would not be too much to say that the real religions of ancient Israel consisted of everything the biblical writers condemned (otherwise, why the proscriptions?).

Case Studies: Temples.

Thus far this article has dealt with trends in archaeological research, more with theory than with specific results that might illuminate ancient Israelite religion. The discussion might also imply that the progress archaeology has made to date is adequate, a “success story.” A few case studies may help to see how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

Kuntillet ʾAjrûd.

At the macro-level, first is the site of Kuntillet ʾAjrûd, an eighth-century B.C.E. fortress-cum-shrine in the eastern Sinai desert along the ancient caravan routes. Excavated in 1978 by Zeʿev Meshel, it remains only partially described, especially the unique corpus of Hebrew inscriptions. The center of the isolated hilltop complex is a large rectangular casemate (double) walled fort (Building A), with an open courtyard and corner towers. It resembles a number of other Negev forts of the time, notably Arad (which also has a shrine or temple). Entering from the east, one passes through an offset outer wall, then between two long and narrow flanking rooms, each with plastered walls, benches, and rear niches (favissae). This is clearly a gate-shrine. The plaster wall inscriptions, essentially graffiti, and those on votive offerings (a large stone bowl) and on several large storage jars nearby contain references to at least four deities in a context of blessing: El, Yahweh, Baal, and Asherah. The storage jars also have painted scenes depicting many iconographic motifs as well as what appears to be the Egyptian good luck deity Bes. One scene depicts a seated, half-nude female, who in all likelihood represents the goddess Asherah.

Yet despite these indisputable cultic motifs, several scholars have regarded Kuntillet ʾAjrûd as merely a fort, a sort of caravan stopover station, or even a scribal school. Inscriptions mentioning “Yahweh and his Asherah” have been interpreted as referring only to a tree-like symbol of the goddess since the Hebrew term can refer to both. And few are willing to see Asherah in the seated female figure (who then is she?). These scholarly controversies among both archaeologists and biblicists obscure the fact that the Kuntillet ʾAjrûd finds are potentially revolutionary in their implications for the study of ancient Israelite religion.


A second cultic site that illustrates the problems of archaeological excavation, publication, and interpretation is Tel Dan, on the Syrian border. Here, Avraham Biran has excavated an entire cult complex, including a gate-shrine, a monumental stone platform (a bamah, or “high place”; see 1 Kgs 12:30–31), a small tripartite temple (the biblical liškāh?), an olive-pressing installation, large and small horned altars, offering stands and other ceramic cult vessels, a bronze scepter head, metal votives, and both female and male figurines. The full appreciation of the Dan cult center has been hampered by poor stratigraphic excavations, controversial dates, and above all scant publications. Yet here again there is an extraordinary witness to the variety of actual Israelite beliefs and practices, not of the syncretistic or “pagan” practices that the biblical writers condemn but of typical Israelite religion.


A final site to consider as a cautionary tale is Arad. Here, there is an actual full-fledged Israelite temple, of tripartite style like the biblical description of the Jerusalem temple. Ostraca mention the “temple (bayit) of Yahweh,” naming priestly officials of families, some of which are known to us from the Hebrew Bible. A rough stone altar in the central court conforms to biblical requirements, and at its base were found offering plates with a Hebrew abbreviation, probably to be read “sacred for the priests.” In the inner sanctum of the temple (the biblical debîr), against the back wall, stood two large standing stones (massebot) commemorating the presence of two deities. These (and a third) were later carefully laid down and buried under the floor, either in the eighth or seventh century B.C.E. (the reforms of Hezekiah or Josiah?).

Clearly, the Arad temple is an astonishing discovery—precisely what the biblical writers in their defense of Jerusalem orthodoxy forbade (but again why, unless such temples actually existed?). Yet faulty excavation, the lack of any pertinent analysis of sediments, and the absence of any but scant preliminary reports have left Arad the subject of endless controversy.

The Solomonic Temple.

For most readers, the real temple in ancient Israel must have been Solomon’s fabled temple in Jerusalem. Yet this “temple” was more a private priestly and royal chapel than a place of large-scale public religious practices. Furthermore, because of the wholesale destruction of the Temple Mount by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and its replacement by the Islamic Dome of the Rock in the seventh century C.E., no archaeological excavations have taken place, nor will they. The only possible surviving relic of the temple might be an ivory scepter head. But the tantalizing Hebrew inscription reading “sacred for the priests of the House (i.e., “temple”) of…ah” [perhaps “Yahweh”] is probably a modern forgery.

Despite the lack of firsthand archaeological evidence for the Jerusalem temple, we do possess extensive data from parallel, roughly contemporary Phoenician and Aramean temples. The tripartite plan of the temple in the biblical description (1 Kgs 6–8) finds close parallels in numerous earlier Late Bronze–Age monumental temples. But the closest comparisons in both plan and furnishings come from ninth–eighth centuries B.C.E. temples at Tell Taiyinat and ʾAin Darʾa in Syria. The latter, in particular, illustrates several dozen features of the temple described in the Bible. These include the tripartite plan and its dimensions, the two columns at the entrance, the side galleries (ambulatories), the recessed windows, the cherubim, and many of the decorative motifs. Elsewhere we have evidence for the ashlar masonry; the alternate courses of stone and timbers; the portable bronze braziers for heat and light; and iconographic motifs such as chains, networks, flowers like lilies, pomegranates, trees, and lions.

Religion and Cult, Bronze and Iron Age

Inscription from the fortress of Kuntillet Ajrud. Zev Radovan/

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Skeptics, like the biblical revisionists, have asserted that the so-called Solomonic temple is a fiction created by much later biblical writers. Yet these parallels, plus the fact that nearly all of the obscure technical terms in 1 Kings 6–8 can now be explained, suggest that such a temple did exist from the early days of the Monarchy and that it was well known to the biblical writers (even in its altered form in the seventh century B.C.E. or so). Nevertheless, all the evidence indicates that this temple and its priesthood were more symbols of the state than representative of the people, most of whom would never have seen it.

Small Finds.

At the level of individual finds, more than 1,000 “Judean pillar base” figurines, small terra-cotta female figurines, have been discovered (plus hundreds of other Iron-Age figurines). They are often called “fertility figurines” because they depict a nude female en face, modeled in the round, with no genitalia but with prominent breasts. They are found in all sorts of contexts, often not in situ and not necessarily in supposedly cultic contexts. They are confined almost exclusively to Judah and are well dated to the eighth–seventh centuries B.C.E. Formerly called “Astarte” figurines, they are more commonly regarded as related somehow to the better-known Iron-Age goddess Asherah, the old mother goddess of Bronze-Age Canaan.

Despite what seems an obvious emphasis on female sexuality and reproduction, these figurines have been variously interpreted as toys, as simply representations of humans, as votives or “stand-ins” for the worshipper in a cultic context, or as full-fledged depictions of the great goddess herself. If archaeologists are conflicted, biblicists have been largely oblivious, assuming that since these figurines are nowhere mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, either by name or by inference, they cannot have been significant for ancient Israelite belief and practice. Perhaps they were not to the biblical writers, but certainly they were to the masses of ordinary individuals, both women and men, for whom “fertility”—plenty and survival—was the essence of religion.

Why is it that socioanthropological models, finally borrowed by archaeologists, have not brought more clarity, more agreement, to the discussion of these ubiquitous female figurines? A look at theory might help. First, the interpretation of all archaeological artifacts must begin with the recognition that they are symbols: embodied ideas, metaphors that point beyond themselves to an external reality. There is no need to embrace faddish styles of structuralism or semiotics to grasp that fact. The Judean pillar base figurines refer to some conception of reality, of human experience, that ought to be accessible to us moderns. This is obvious to most observers, notwithstanding the postmodernist conceit that neither things nor texts refer to anything beyond themselves, that all claims to knowledge are only “social constructs.”

Second is the supposition that the “meaning” of things lies not in some philosophical speculation but in inferences that lead to the intention of the makers and users (that is also true of texts). To apprehend that intention, wherever possible, is to discover the “truth of things.” Artifacts are understood only by seeing beyond their symbolic function to the original purpose that they embody. It is manifestly true that meaning is not self-evident, not objective; in some sense it is assigned, even only if it makes sense, if it is in accord with what one knows of the universal, timeless human condition. Such arguments can never offer proof in the sense that the natural sciences can. But, like good historians, one can arrive at the “balance of probability.”

How would such hermeneutical principles, even if somewhat ad hoc, help an understanding of the Judean pillar base figurines? First, they can be approached on the basis of cross-cultural comparisons, which easily show that they are unique and must therefore have something to do with Israelite (or Judean) religion, that artifacts, like texts, may have multiple voices (multivocality) due to our own subjectivity. Nevertheless, some assignments of meaning are better than others because they come closer to the original intent of the makers, and reasonable assurance can result from the employment of the usual archaeological arguments, based on empirical evidence; analogy (comparison); inferences; coherence; and, more often than acknowledged, referential self-knowledge (i.e., common sense). In the end, the argument is persuasive on the basis of ethnicity. Yet, on the basis of analogy, it is clear that when compared with similar figurines in a class of objects that extends back to the Paleolithic, they are somehow bound up with a concern for human reproduction. That is an inference, of course; but it is coherent and persuasive. We may have disposed of the “toy” theory, but can we decide between the figurines as human representation (votives) or divine representations (Asherah herself)?

The few archaeologists who have been influenced by explicit socioanthropological theories might have tried to resolve this problem by appealing to the more modest, pragmatic, interpretive approaches of the twenty-first century. If the ultimate truth about the figurines cannot be known, perhaps it can be ascertain how they functioned as symbols, particularly in their larger social context. Unfortunately, such knowledge does not seem to be available. Most figurines are not found in primary context, so it can only be speculated that they were used somehow to aid women in conception, safe childbirth, and the ability to nurse and nourish infants through the most critical stage of life. Whether votives or images of the goddess, they could have served those functions equally.

It is in this apparently inescapable ambiguity that one is reminded how complex religion is, how intractable, how resistant to rational analysis. Archaeology may, therefore, have to be content with description, thick or thin, rather than with “cause,” with ultimate explanation. But that is true as well of the interpretation of the biblical texts. Both disciplines are art, not science.

Comparative Religion: Canaanite and Other Backgrounds.

It is commonly accepted that Israelite religion was an outgrowth of Late Bronze–Age Canaanite religion and that until the end of the Monarchy it shared many characteristic beliefs and practices, despite the protests of Yahwistic parties, of “book religion.” Numerous useful comparative studies of Canaanite religion have appeared, but few have incorporated the archaeological data that are taken here as primary. Again texts, however tendentious, have trumped material culture remains and the light they might have shed.

Israelite religion and its physical manifestations, public or private, neither were unique nor appeared de novo. Already noted were the Canaanite antecedents to architecture and some of the furniture of the Solomonic temple. In addition, there is ample evidence from Canaanite texts, like those from fourteenth- to thirteenth-century B.C.E. Ugarit, of such familiar institutions as food and animal sacrifice, votive offerings, communal feasting, magic, burial rites, and various priestly functions. All these were adopted by the later Israelites, some with little or no innovations. All that differed in many cases was the absence of the iconography of many gods, but even so polytheism prevailed until very late.

Not only the religions of Israel’s predecessors but also those of its Iron-Age neighbors have been studied. The religions of Ammon and Moab in Transjordan, generally related, have gradually been illuminated by archaeological discoveries. The Philistine cult, long obscured, has been brought to light by some spectacular discoveries, and it turns out to be sui generis. Improved knowledge of other religions in the larger Iron-Age Levantine world in which Israel forged its destiny can only add to a more comprehensive picture, one that does justice to continuity, shared features as well as those that may be truly distinctive.


It is obvious that in the period since 1970 archaeology has revolutionized the understanding of ancient Israelite religion in all its diversity and dynamism. Yet the revolution has scarcely begun. In particular, the following may be expected in the future.

  • 1. Better field methods, capable of creating a precise and reliable database, must be employed. And those data must be integrated promptly and fully published, so as to be accessible to nonspecialists. Religion is too important to be entrusted to archaeological technicians, some of whom are either uninterested in the topic or hostile to it. It is a fact that very few archaeologists (especially Israelis) have undertaken major studies of Israelite or other religions in ancient Palestine. This may be a reaction to earlier generations’ obsession with “cult,” but that is no excuse.
  • 2. Twenty-first-century scientific and analytical techniques (“archeometrics”) enable analysts for the first time to wring far more information from sedimentary and use deposits in cultic installations. One can and therefore must specify what food and drink offerings were made and how, which animals were sacrificed and how, and what use makes an artifact “cultic.” If these techniques had been available heretofore (some were), the cultic sites discussed here would have long since produced a consensus of opinion, as well as positive results for elucidating the Israelite cult.
  • 3. Religion is multifaceted, so to be comprehended religious phenomena must be confronted by multidisciplinary strategies. Virtually every discipline has a contribution to make: history and comparative religion, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, behavioral psychology, cognitive sciences, semiotics, art history, and still others. It is not only analytical and quantitative results from these ancillary disciplines that count. Even more fundamental is the robust theory that these disciplines can contribute to archaeological interpretation.

One cannot escape epistemology: unless there is some concept of knowledge and how it is attained, one does not know what one is doing, nor will anyone else. Unfortunately, archaeologists have traditionally ignored epistemology and hermeneutics. No wonder that other archaeologists ignore the subfield, despite its enviable database. Either archaeology as a discipline develops its own body of theory, or it must learn to adopt appropriate theories from other disciplines, and in a timely fashion, without the usual “epistemic delay.” Without interpretive theory—a body of guiding principles—we are mere technicians, amassing information but not generating real data.


It is clear that archaeological data can provide an independent, external witness attesting to the reality of the ancient Israelite cult in all its diversity, sometimes corroborating but other times correcting the biblical texts. That contribution has been substantial in the years since the 1970s, and as archaeology advances in method and theory, in the future that contribution may be even more revolutionary. Yet, as Jonathan Z. Smith (2002) says, “much theoretical work remains to be done: a theory of discourse and translation and a more adequate theory of religion to govern interpretation” (p. 9).



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William G. Dever