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Images and the Image-Ban in the Hebrew Bible and Israelite Religion

Ryan Bonfiglio
Emory University


The study of the Hebrew Bible and Israelite Religion has traditionally focused on the interpretation of written materials, whether in the form of ancient inscriptions, historical records, or Scripture itself. While texts certainly play an essential role in these and other aspects of biblical scholarship, images also are an important resource when it comes to studying the cultural and historical background of the Bible. The impulse to examine the relationship between the Bible and ancient art (or iconography) goes back at least to the 19th and early 20th centuries, at which time an influx of new archaeological discoveries gave scholars more access than ever before to ancient Near Eastern visual materials. Since that time, scholars have developed increasingly sophisticated ways of incorporating ancient images into religio-historical research. These new methods of study have helped to shed light on the interpretation of figurative language in the Hebrew Bible and the historical development of Israelite religion.

This thematic guide is designed with two purposes in view: (1) to provide a general introduction to how and why images contribute to the study of the Hebrew Bible and Israelite religion and (2) to highlight additional resources, many of which are available through OBSO, that can facilitate further study of this topic.

The following outline organizes the major issues covered in this thematic guide:

  1. 1. Images in the Ancient World
  2. a. Types of Images
  3. b. Use in Worship
  4. c. Images as Media
  5. 2. Images and the Image-Ban in the Hebrew Bible
  6. a. Overview of Terms and Perspectives
  7. b. The Image-Ban in Legal Texts and Historical Narratives
  8. c. Idol Parodies in Prophetic Literature
  9. 3. Images and the Study of Israelite Religion
  10. a. Biblical Iconography
  11. b. Israel's Aniconic Tradition
  12. c. The Search for Yahweh's Image
  13. 4. Resources for Further Research

1. Images in the Ancient World

Before turning to specific questions about images in the Hebrew Bible and Israelite religion, it will be necessary to provide some background information concerning the role, importance, and function of visual materials in the ancient world more broadly.

a. Types of Images

By far the most abundant type of image found in the archaeological record of Syria-Palestine and the rest of the ancient Near East are seal impressions. These impressions, which date back to the 8th millennium BCE, were made when an engraved seal was rolled or pressed into a receptor material, such as wet clay, wax, or soft metal. Despite their diminutive size (usually no more than 5–10 cm [2–4 in] in height), seals often bear brief inscriptions and elaborate artistic designs, including depictions of worship scenes, animals, vegetation, geometric designs, human figures, and divine symbols (figure 1). Seals were used in a variety of different contexts and in addition to conveying visual and verbal messages, they were used to indicate ownership or authorization. Perhaps the most well-known Syro-Palestinian seals are those that have been found on storage jars near Jerusalem during the late 8th and early 7th centuries. These seals bear the inscription lmlk ("for/belonging to the king") and often include images of winged disks, beetles, or a lion. While the primary purpose of these and other seals was to leave behind readable impressions, the seals themselves, which were made out of stones, ivory, or metal, were often drilled with a hole and worn as pendants or bracelets. Used in this way, seals could function as jewelry or apotropaic amulets.

Figure 1. A bronze cast of a Hebrew seal. The original, which is now lost, was found at Megiddo and dates to the 8th century BCE. The seal was approximately 3 cm [1.2 in] high and was made of jasper. The inscription reads: "Belonging to Shema, servant of Jeroboam." (After Coogan, 1998, plate 15)

Larger forms of art can be found on palace walls, exposed rock faces, and tomb facades. Due to their size, these images were able to display elaborate depictions of battles, worship scenes, royal processions, and other visual narratives. Some famous examples include the royal lion hunt reliefs from the Neo-Assyrian palaces at Nimrud and Nineveh (figure 2) and the tribute procession scenes found on the north and east stairways at the Persepolis Apadana. These and other forms of monumental art often reflect an intentionally designed artistic program that was commissioned by and carried out under the close supervision of the king and his royal officials. While these types of images can provide valuable historical information, they were not necessarily intended to offer a literalistic representation of past events. Rather, these images constitute highly symbolic and ideologically charged depictions that were intended to display a specific political and/or religious message.

Figure 2. Relief from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud, Mesopotamia. King Ashurnasirpal hunting lions, a lion leaping at the king's chariot. 223 x 89 cm (88 x 35 in). British Museum, London. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY)

Ancient images are also commonly found on stelas or freestanding stone monuments (figure 3). These objects typically include visual depictions of kings and/or symbols of deities. A variety of other material objects, including painted sarcophagi, cult stands, large boundary stones (kudurrus), and engraved coins, also frequently contain visual depictions. For instance, under Darius the Great, the Persian Empire introduced a series of coins that show the king in various combat poses. Though these coins were used as a form of currency, their primary purpose likely was to distribute throughout the empire a particular iconographic motif that highlights royal power and control. Also common in the ancient world were colossal statues of animals or hybrid creatures, which were placed near palace gates as a type of protective presence (figure 4).

Figure 3. Representation of Nabonidus (r. 556–539 BCE), last king of Babylonia. Size: 58 × 46 cm (23 × 18 in). Cyrus the Great (r. 558–529) defeated Babylon and captured Nabonidus in 539. (The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY)

Figure 4. Winged bull with a human head, guardian figure from the gate of the palace of Sargon II. Approx. 4 m x 4 m (13 x 13 ft). Dated to the second half of the 8th century BCE. Musée du Louvre, Paris. (Alinari/Art Resource, NY)

One of the most common subject matters of ANE (ancient Near East) art is the deity. In general, gods could be depicted in and through a variety of different representational forms, including animals (figure 5), hybrid or mixed creatures (Mischwesen), abstract symbols, or more typically, anthropomorphic figures. Anthropomorphic divine images were not typically identified on the basis of distinct facial features or bodily traits but rather the presence of certain associated symbols, such as a weapon, an attribute animal, and or a type of garment/headdress. In fact, anthropomorphic representations of deities are difficult to distinguish from human figures, though in the case of Mesopotamia art, gods are often signified through the presence of their horned crown. On the whole, anthropomorphic depictions of deities are best thought of as generic divine pictograms, not portraits of a specific god.

Figure 5. A silver-plated bronze bull (about 10 cm [4 in] high) with a pottery shrine. Found in the city of Ashkelon, 16th c. BCE. (Photograph by Carl Andrews, courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

b. Use in Worship

Divine images played a central role in the religious life and experience of most ANE cultures. In the context of temple worship, the deity was usually displayed through a life-sized anthropomorphic cult statue that was carved out of wood, overlaid with gold, silver, and previous stones, and fastened to a base (cf. Hab 2:18–19; Isa 30:22; 40:19–20; Jer 10:3–5). Only a few cult statues are extant in the archaeological record, likely because they were stolen or destroyed by invading armies or looters. However, textual evidence indicates that cult statues were prayed to, worshipped, consulted in divination, and used for apotropaic purposes. These divine images typically were kept in the dark recesses of a temple, accessible only to priests and other cultic personnel. Thus, even though seals and other visual artifacts were a common element in everyday life in the ancient Near East, most viewers would have encountered divine cult statues only on special occasions, such as when the divine image was displayed in public processions or brought into battle.

In the intellectual tradition of much of the ANE world, divine images were not perceived to be mere inanimate representations of the deity. Rather, they were thought to be the primary manifestation of the deity's power and presence on earth. As such, divine images were often treated as a type of living entity that was capable of embodying and even substituting for the real essence of the deity itself. In Mesopotamia, a cult statue became vivified or deified through special consecration rituals, known as "Washing of the Mouth" (mīs pî) and "Opening of the Mouth" (pīt pî). These elaborate ceremonies functioned as a type of cultic reenactment of the birth of the deity in heaven. Numerous aspects of the ceremony were designed to annul the earthly origins of the cult statue and to affirm that it was the product of the gods. The central goal of these rituals was to secure the statue's perfect purity and to "activate" its senses. One Akkadian text suggests that prior to the mouth-washing/opening ceremony, the cult image "cannot smell incense, cannot eat food nor drink water" (Sultantepe tablet STT 200:43–44). Thereafter, the cult statue ceases to be called an "image" (ṣalmu) and instead is addressed by the name of the deity it represents. Once set up in its rightful place in the temple, the cult statue is treated as if it were a living being—it is regularly bathed, fed, dressed, crowned, anointed, and prayed to. Similar practices are also attested in Egypt and were likely familiar to biblical authors, as is especially evident in the prophetic idol parodies (cf. 3.c).

c. Images as Media

While there is some evidence from Mesopotamian texts that ancient viewers contemplated certain aspects of an image's artistic design, craftsmanship, and beauty, ANE cultures did not have a clearly defined sense of the "fine arts" or even the creation of art "for art's sake." In fact, ancient images were not primarily produced for decorative purposes or aesthetic expression. Rather, visual data most commonly functioned as a vehicle of transmitting information, beliefs, and other forms of cultural knowledge. As an important component of a given culture's symbol system, images can function as a type of language, albeit one that expresses meaning through iconographic motifs, not words. Even though all images can be said to have a communicative capacity, the minor arts—i.e., seals, coins, amulets, etc.—especially seem to have functioned as a type of "mass media" in the ancient world. Due to their compact size and relative ease of production, the minor arts were adept at circulating messages across vast territories and through diverse segments of society. Central political powers were capable of distributing the minor arts—and with them, royal ideologies—to the peripheries of their empires by means of expansive trade networks. At the same time, local workshops adapted prominent iconographic motifs into unique regional styles or "visual dialects." In both cases, the iconographic content of the minor arts functioned as a type of language of communication that was able to transmit political and religious messages to broad audiences.

The importance of images as a language of communication is underscored even further when seen in light of research on literacy rates in the ancient world. This topic has generated considerable debate in biblical scholarship in recent years, and in many respects it is difficult to determine with any precision what percentage of the population was literate or what level of literacy the vast majority of people possessed. Nevertheless, a growing number of scholars think that literacy rates would have been relatively low in the ancient world and that texts would have played only a minor role in the everyday lives of most individuals. Quite the opposite is true with respect to images. Not only did visual materials far outnumber textual ones but there is evidence that images likely mattered more, and to more people, as a language of communication. As just one example, many administrative archives in the ancient Near East appear to be far more dependent on visual data than they are on textual data. This is especially true of the Persepolis Fortification archive from the late 6th century BCE. Many of the tablets in this archive contain iconographic seal impressions but no accompanying text. Furthermore, the vast majority of seals used on these tablets are anepigraphic. Even in cases where a given seal contains image and text, the seal is applied to the tablet in a way that clearly privileges the presentation of the iconographic design over the epigraphic inscription. Since similar trends are evident in other settings, it is possible to conclude that the ability to "read" images—i.e., visual literacy—played a critical role in communication in the ancient Near Eastern world.

2. Images and the Image-Ban in the Hebrew Bible

In contrast to most ancient Near Eastern religious and historical sources, the Hebrew Bible maintains a rather skeptical view of divine visual representations. This section offers an overview of biblical perspectives on the production and use of cult images in various contexts.

a. Overview of Terms and Perspectives

The Hebrew Bible uses a variety of different terms to refer to images. Perhaps the most general term is ṣelem and its Aramaic equivalent ṣĕlēm. This noun indicates a representation or a likeness, such as in references to humanity being made in the image of God (Gen 1:26; 9:6). This term can also be used to refer to a carved statue of a king (Dan 2–3), a metal figurine (1 Sam 6:5, 11), or even a wall relief (Ezek 23:14). Only in rare cases does ṣelem indicate an idol of a foreign god (2 Kgs 11:18; Amos 5:26; Ezek 7:20) and this term never appears in image-ban texts or prophetic idol parodies.

Several other terms are used more specifically for divine images or idols. In most cases, these terms are derived from roots that suggest the way in which the object was made or the material used in its manufacture. For instance, the nouns pesel and pāsîl are derived from a root meaning "to hew or carve" (psl) and likely refer to cult statues carved from wood or sculpted from stone. These nouns are typically translated as "idol" or "graven image," as is the case in the Second Commandment (cf. Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8). The nouns massēḵâ (Deut 27:15), nāsîḵ (Dan 11:8), and neseḵ (Isa 41:29; 48:5; Jer 10:14; 51:17) are all related to a root meaning "to pour or cast" and thus likely refer to molten images or statues cast from metal. The plural noun 'ăṣabbîm (Hos 4:17; 8:6; Zech 13:2) is typically translated as "idols" and is derived from a verb meaning "to shape or fashion." Other terms seem to indicate how an image represents its referent. The noun taḇnît can refer to either a copy or pattern of an object (Exod 25:9; Deut 4:16–18) while dĕmût (Ezek 1:5; Dan 10:16) and tĕmûnâ (Exod 20:4; Deut 4:16) often indicate "likeness" or "similitude." While some of these terms occasionally refer to different kinds of images, they are not always sharply or consistently differentiated in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, many of these terms are somewhat interchangeable and can be used in parallel with one another.

A variety of other nouns are typically translated as "idol" and seem to imply a negative theological evaluation of the object at hand. For instance, the plural noun gillulîm (Deut 29:17) calls to mind to two similar words that mean "dung" (gēl, Ezek 4:12; gālāl, 1 Kgs 14:10). Also used in reference to idols is the plural noun 'ĕlîlîm (Lev 26:1), which might be related to an adjective meaning "weak" ('ĕlîl). Sometimes an idol is directly referred to as an "abomination" (tô'ēḇâ, Isa 44:19) or a "detested thing" (šiqqûṣ, Ezek 20:7–8; Dan 11:31). In a similar fashion, idols are often described as being "worthless" (hebel, Jer 10:14–15), a "deception" (šeqer, Jer 51:17), or an "abominable image" (mipleṣet, 1 Kgs 15:13). Though its etymology is uncertain, the noun semel ("figure," Deut 4:16; "carved imaged," 2 Chron 33:7) is also used in association with idols.

Generally speaking, four different types of texts in the Hebrew Bible deal with cult images: (1) legal commandments that prohibit the production and use of divine images or idols (e.g., Exod 20:3–4, 23; 34:17; Lev 19:4; 26:1; Deut 4:14–16; 5:7–8; 27:15); (2) historical narratives in DtrH and ChrH that address cult reform (e.g., 2 Kgs 18; 22–23; 2 Chr 29–30; 34); (3) prophetic texts that focus on cult images in connection with non-Israelite religions and their gods (e.g., 1 Kgs 18); and (4) prophetic texts that develop a polemic against the creation and worship of cult images (e.g., Jer 10:3–15; Isa 40:18–29; 41:6–7; 44:9–22). While all of these texts display a negative view of divine representations or idols, it is not easy to precisely date the origins of these particular attitudes. Some scholars have attempted to trace the origins of these theological perspectives back to the time of the conquest while others regard it as a rather late development of the postexilic period. This wide variance of opinion is due in part to different conclusions regarding source-critical and redaction-critical questions. Although an extensive analysis of these materials is beyond the scope of this thematic guide, the next two sections briefly explore the literary development of the image-ban in legal texts and historical narratives (sections 1–3) as well as the meaning and rhetorical background of prophetic idol parodies (section 4).

b. The Image-Ban in Legal Texts and Historical Narratives

The most familiar articulation of the image-ban in the Hebrew Bible is found in the Second Commandment: "You shall not make for yourself an idol (pesel), whether in the form (tĕmûnâ) of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Deut 5:8; cf. Exod 20:4). However, most scholars agree that the ban on images developed through time and was not necessarily a fixture in earlier forms of Israelite religion. For instance, a few biblical texts suggest that certain types of images associated with the deity were at one point deemed to be legitimate. Judges 17–18 describes how Micah set up an idol of cast metal as well as an ephod and teraphim (17:4–5) in a shrine within his home. While it is uncertain if these materials were explicit depictions of Yahweh, neither Micah nor the Danites call into question their validity. In addition, the bulls that Jeroboam I set up in the shrines at Dan and Bethel (1 Kgs 12:28–33) were probably originally intended as pedestals for the invisible Yahweh much like the cherubim throne in the Jerusalem temple, which also functioned as an "empty-space" form of iconography. While Jeroboam's bulls were likely once accepted as a legitimate form of Yahweh-related iconography, they later came to be denounced as idols under Deuteronomistic reform. In these and other cases, it is often difficult to assess the early history of divine images in the Hebrew Bible since the biblical materials often reflect later theological perspectives.

In his detailed analysis of the literary growth and development of the image-ban in the Hebrew Bible, Christoph Dohmen (1987) [1985] suggests that the earliest stage of this prohibition focused on certain types of worship, not certain types of images. Dohmen thinks that this perspective underlies the original form of Exodus 20:23–24, which he reconstructs as: "Gods of silver and gods of gold you shall not make for yourself; an altar of earth you shall make for me." In Dohmen's perspective, the intent of this commandment was to establish a form of worship that centered around sacrifices and blood rites, not cult images. The next step in the image-ban development likely occurred during the 9th c. when a more intolerant form of monolatry was beginning to emerge especially through the Northern prophets Elijah and Elisha. At this stage, the demand for more exclusive devotion to Yahweh entailed a corresponding rejection of the worship of other gods along with their cult images (cf. 1 Kgs 18). Similarly, during the 8th c. Hosea suggests that the supremacy of Yahweh demands the rejection of all other gods (Hos 13:4). Part of Hosea's critique against religious syncretism is aimed against the use of idols ('ăṣabbîm, 4:17; 8:4; 13:2; 14:9). Rather than reflecting a bias against all divine images, Hosea's attack seems to grow out of the recognition that idols could easily be incorporated into the worship of other gods, thus effectively blurring the lines between the cult of Yahweh and the cult of Baal. This emphasis is intensified even further under the cultic reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, which not only insisted on the exclusivity of Yahweh but also on centralized worship. These reform movements resulted in the elimination of cult objects that were likely once accepted in cultic contexts, including the bronze serpent (nĕḥaš hannĕḥōšet, 2 Kgs 18:4), standing stones or pillars (maṣṣēbôt, 2 Kgs 23:14), and the sacred pole ('ăšērâ, 2 Kgs 23:15).

The classic formulation of the image-ban, which is expressed in the Second Commandment, likely emerged in or around the exilic period. However, in the Hebrew minor differences obtain between the versions found in Deuteronomy and Exodus. In Deuteronomy 5:8, the words "form of anything" are juxtaposed immediately next to "idol," whereas in Exodus 20:4 a conjunction is placed between these two elements. While most English translations render Deuteronomy 5:8 and Exodus 20:4 in the exact same way, the subtle difference between the two forms may have important interpretive implications. In Deuteronomy 5:8, there is only one direct object of the prohibition: "You shall not make for yourself an idol, that is, a form of anything." As a result, the plural pronouns in the next verse ("You shall not bow to them or worship them," v. 9) likely do not refer back to the singular object in v. 8, but rather the most proximate plural antecedent—namely, the "other gods" mentioned in v. 7. Thus, the grammar of Deuteronomy 5:7–9 implies that the prohibition against images was originally part of the prohibition against the worship of other gods. The combination of these two prohibitions is maintained in Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran traditions of numbering the Ten Commandments. However, the presence of the conjunction in Exod 20:4 produces two direct objects of the command: "You shall not make for yourself an idol or a form of anything." Grammatically speaking, the plural pronouns in Exodus 20:5 can thus naturally refer back to these images, not the other gods mentioned in Exodus 20:3. As a result, it is more evident in the Exodus version that the prohibitions against the worship of other gods and the prohibitions against making images are intended as two separate, even if related, commandments. With this distinction in place, Exodus 20:4 more clearly deals with inappropriate images of Yahweh, not images of foreign gods.

While an explicit ban on divine images likely first emerged as a special instance of prohibiting the worship of other gods, this commandment grew in scope and influence through the exilic and postexilic periods. For instance, in Leviticus 26:1, the commandment against worshipping other gods is subordinated to an overarching prohibition against various types of cult images: "You shall make for yourselves no idols ('ĕlîlîm) and erect no carved images (pesel) or pillars (maṣṣēbâ), and you shall not place figured stones ('eḇen maśkît) in your land, to worship at them; for I am the LORD your God." This prohibition might be expanded even further in Deuteronomy 4:16–18, where the people are told not to act corruptly by making an idol (pesel) in "the form of any figure" (tĕmûnaṯ kōl sāmel), including various types of "likeness" (taḇnît). In addition, certain earlier traditions might have been subsequently revised in light of the growing importance of the image-ban. The Golden Calf narrative of Exodus 32 was likely edited in order to put it in parallel with Deuteronomy 9 and to underscore that this incident constituted a violation of the image-ban (cf. Exod 32:31). However, even in its latest and most developed stages, the image-ban never targeted all artistic production, although this view is often perpetuated in both popular opinion and scholarly research.

On the whole, the Hebrew Bible does not clearly explain why divine images should be prohibited. One factor likely has to do with the emergence of monotheism. Since foreign gods were commonly worshipped through cult statues, divine images—even if they were intended to relate to Yahweh—could potentially lead to syncretistic or idolatrous practices. Another possibility is that in the biblical faith tradition there was a general preference for hearing over seeing. While the Hebrew Bible does use a verb meaning "to hear" (šm') in order to indicate faithful obedience, the privileging of word over image or spirit over matter is more likely the product of neo-Platonic philosophy or later Protestant polemics than it is biblical theology. Perhaps the most common explanation of the image-ban is that any representation of Yahweh would constitute a false image since Yahweh is inherently immaterial and invisible. This argument has been repeated by Christian theologians on many occasions even though the Hebrew Bible itself does not explicitly make this claim. For instance, Numbers 12:8 claims that Moses "beholds the form of the LORD" and similarly the elders of Israel are said to have "beheld God" in Exod 24:11. Isaiah has a vision of the LORD in the temple (Isa 6:1) and Ezekiel describes the appearance of God as "something that seemed like a human form" (Ezek 1:26). Deuteronomy 4:15–16 is often cited as proof that Yahweh has no visual form: "Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourself closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure . . . ". Yet even here, it is unclear whether the point is to assert that Yahweh has no form or rather to indicate that the Israelites did not see Yahweh's form on this particular occasion. As a result, it is more likely the case that divine images were problematic because they were thought to be either an incorrect representation of the deity (i.e., while God is visible, no human has seen him and thus they cannot know how to truly represent the divine form) or an inappropriate representation of the deity (i.e., they threaten to diminish God's transcendence and uniqueness by making his image widely available). In addition to these theological considerations, some scholars suggest the image-ban was motivated by complex sociological and political issues. In all probability, a variety of factors likely contributed to the origins and development of iconoclastic perspectives in the Hebrew Bible.

c. Idol Parodies in Prophetic Literature

Within prophetic literature, Jeremiah and Second Isaiah are well known for their polemical critique of idols (cf. Jer 10:1–16; Isa 40:18–20; 41:5–14; 44:6–22). Similar though less developed critiques are also evident in other prophetic texts (Hos 8:4–6; 13:2–3, Mic 5:12–13, and Hab 2:18–19) as well as several Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books (Bel and the Dragon, Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon 13–15). Though each of these texts have their own unique features, they all attempt to underscore Yahweh's incomparability by parodying aspects of idols, idol makers, and idol worship. For instance, the rhetoric of Jeremiah 10:1–16 hinges on a series of contrasts between Yahweh and human-made idols: while Yahweh establishes the world by his wisdom (v. 12), idols are stupid, foolish, and without knowledge (vv. 8, 14); Yahweh is the true and living God (v. 10), but idols cannot speak, walk, or do good and evil (v. 5); and whereas Yahweh is great and beyond compare (v. 6), idols are "worthless, a work of delusion" (v. 15). Likewise, Second Isaiah juxtaposes what idol-makers do with what Yahweh does: while idol-makers overlay (rq') a lifeless idol with gold (Isa 40:19), Yahweh spreads out (rq') the earth in creation (Isa 44:24); whereas the artisan chooses (bḥr) wood that will not rot for the production of the statue (Isa 40:20), it is Yahweh who chooses (bḥr) Israel as his offspring (Isa 41:8); and just as various artisans must assist ('zr) one another in the construction of an idol, Yahweh assists ('zr) his servant Israel (Isa 41:10). On the whole, the prophetic idol parodies likely are informed by legal texts that ban the production and use of cult images. In addition, many of the rhetorical arguments made in Jeremiah and Second Isaiah also seem to presuppose an awareness of specific beliefs about cult images that are found in other ancient Near Eastern religions.

On the one hand, biblical idol parodies often deride the previously discussed (cf. 1.b) belief that cult images were animate objects capable of manifesting the real presence and power of a deity. For instance, many aspects of the prophetic critique emphasize that idols are lifeless and impotent. Isa 44:18 asserts that idols "do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand" (cf. Ps 115:4–8). This argument seems to directly respond to the mouth-opening/washing ceremonies that are aimed at activating the senses of the cult image. Likewise, Jeremiah's argument that idols lack the ability walk (Jer 10:5) is in direct contrast to Mesopotamia texts that talk about the capture and return of the cult statue of Marduk in terms of the god willingly journeying away from and then returning back to his temple in Babylon. Habakkuk 2:19 claims that since "there is no breath" in the gold and silver with which idols are plated it is futile to say to the cult statue "Wake up!" or "Rouse yourself!" Once again this polemic stance seems to be aimed at ANE consecration ceremonies that enliven a deity's image by opening its mouth and eyes. The prophets also scoff at those would identify a god with its cult image. In Hos 14:4, the people swear: "We will say no more, 'Our God,' to the work of our hands." Likewise, Jeremiah 2:28 taunts the people by saying "But where are your gods that you made for yourself? Let them come, if they can save you, in your time of trouble." Second Isaiah uses the terms god ('ēl) and carved image (pesel) in parallel (44:15c) and then mocks those who believe they are worshipping a god through its image, saying "they do not know, nor do they comprehend" (44:18). In these cases, the idol parodies might overstate the extent to which ancient Near Eastern viewers identified a god with its cult statue. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, it was not believed that there was a simple, one-to-one correspondence between reality and representation. A deity could simultaneously be represented in multiple visual forms, and no single object could manifest the full essence of a deity. Nevertheless, historical and religious texts from Egypt and Mesopotamia often refer to cult images using the name of the god itself. In cultic settings, divine statues were treated as substitutes for the god and in the context of war, invading armies often captured and deported divine images in much the same way as they would an enemy combatant. In response to this popular view of the relationship between the deity and its image, the prophets continually reiterate that idols are nothing more than lifeless, inert objects with no connection to their God.

On the other hand, biblical idol parodies also attempt to undermine the common ancient Near Eastern notion that divine statues are produced through the joint initiative of both human and divine artisans. Mesopotamian texts affirm that it is the distinct prerogative of the gods to choose when, how, and by whom a divine statue was to be made, and as a result the creation of the image typically required consulting oracles. In the case of the cult image of Shamash, which had been destroyed by enemies, the statue could not be remade until the gods revealed to a priest a clay plaque that illustrated what the image was to look like. Furthermore, texts associated with the mouth-washing/opening ceremony claim that the god Igisigsig, the carpenter of Anum, searches the forest for the special tamarisk tree for the statue's wooden core and other craft-gods are said to participate in the construction of the image. While these ceremonies do not deny that cult statues are made on earth, they go to great lengths to downplay and eventually annul the role of the human artisans. For instance, at one point in the ceremony the hands of the artisans are symbolically cut off and their tools are thrown into a river. At that point, each artisan swears that they did not make the cult statue. By doing so, the statues are effectively disassociated from the earthly realm such that they can be "reborn" as the offspring of the gods. In sharp contrast, the prophets affirm the human origins of idols by emphasizing that they are "the work of artisans" (Hos 13:2) or "the work of your/their hands" (Mic 5:12; Isa 2:8; Jer 1:16). Jeremiah 10:1–16 makes a similar point by highlighting various aspects of the construction process, including how the statue is carved from tree (v. 3), plated with gold and silver and fastened to its base (v. 4), and clothed in blue and purple garments (v. 9). Likewise, Second Isaiah stresses the earthly manufacture of idols by employing a wide array of technical terms to describe idol makers, including artisan (ḥārāš; Isa 40:19), goldsmith (ṣōrēp; Isa 41:7), ironsmith (ḥārāš barzel; Isa 44:12), carpenter (ḥārāš 'ēṣîm; Isa 44:13), "one who smooths with a hammer" (maḥălîq paṭṭîš; Isa 41:7), and "one who strikes the anvil" (hôlem pā'am; Isa 41:7). Elsewhere in Second Isaiah, the prophet catalogues the various types of wood used in the construction process (44:14) only later to point out that this same wood could be used to fuel a fire for the mundane tasks of cooking food or keeping warm (44:15–16, 19). The overarching argument of these and other idol parodies is to demonstrate cult statues are mere earthy creations, no more linked to the heavenly realm than the raw materials from which they are made. Thus, of the person who falls down in worship before a block of wood or a sculpted stone, the prophet concludes: "a deluded mind has led him astray" (Isa 44:20).

3. Images and the Study of Israelite Religion

Whether it is through the analysis of a large corpus of images, a certain pictorial motif, or even an individual art object, an increasing number of biblical scholars are integrating visual evidence into various aspects of religio-historical research. This section briefly highlights three avenues of research that draw upon ancient images, indicating in each case how visual data contributes to new understandings of Israelite religion.

a. Biblical Iconography

Since the early 1970s a network of scholars in both Europe and North American have begun to develop a method of study known as "biblical iconography." In general, this interpretive approach seeks to understand figurative language in the Hebrew Bible in light of iconographic motifs found on various forms of ancient Near Eastern art. One of the seminal works in this area of research is Othmar Keel's The Symbolism of the Biblical World (1978) [1972]. In this volume, Keel explores how literary imagery in the Psalter might be related to or influenced by iconographic motifs found in ancient art objects. Keel was not the first to try to relate ANE art and the Hebrew Bible. Years before, scholars such as Hugo Gressman (Altorientalische Bilder zum Alten Testament, 1909) and James Pritchard (The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament, (1969) [1954]), utilized ancient images to illustrate biblical passages that featured similar themes, subject matters, or motifs. While Keel follows a similar trajectory, he offers a more rigorous approach that seeks to explore how ANE iconography can further inform our understanding of the conceptual background of the biblical world. As such, Keel organizes Symbolism around six recurring themes (e.g., the temple, the king, the worshipper before God, etc.) and for each theme he examines how data conveyed through iconographic motifs helps to illuminate the symbolic world that informs the meaning and significance of language in the psalms. For example, in his discussion of music and song in the Psalter and ANE iconography, Keel interprets the words of Psalm 22:3 ("Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel") in light of a Persepolis wall relief that shows the throne of the king being lifted up by 14 individuals, who, according to their distinctive dress and head coverings, represent the diverse peoples of the empire. Regarding the congruence of image and text, Keel concludes, "Just as the Persian king is enthroned on the loyalty of his subjects, so Yahweh is enthroned on the recognition and praise of Israel" (Keel: 1972, 351). In this and other instances, Keel contends that biblical scholars can gain greater awareness of the concepts that inform figurative language in the psalms by analyzing prominent themes in ANE iconography.

Since the publication of Symbolism, a growing network of scholars known as the "Fribourg School" (due to their connection to Keel at the University of Fribourg) have done much to further advance the methods and applications of biblical iconography. Two specific developments should be noted. First, in the past two decades, biblical scholars have established more sophisticated methodological techniques for studying the relationship between ANE art and the Hebrew Bible. On the one hand, when it comes to establishing which images and texts are related, early work in biblical iconography tended to compare small fragments of an image (say, a drawing of an archer from within a larger composition that depicts a battle scene) and isolated biblical phrases or verses. However, biblical scholars are now offering broader contextual analyses that attempt to establish points of similarity or congruence between ever-larger constellations of literary imagery and iconographic motifs. This perspective is especially evident in the work of Joel LeMon (2010b), who analyzes the congruency between a collection of ANE images associated with the winged sun disk and the complex literary descriptions of Yahweh's winged form found in six specific psalms.

On the other hand, in terms of explaining how a given image and text are related, biblical scholars no longer think that ANE images simply illustrates biblical scenes like drawings in a "picture Bible" or conversely, that biblical texts explicitly attempt to describe the appearance of certain art objects. Rather, scholars now imagine the correlation of image and text in terms of a more indirect relationship. For instance, biblical scholar Brent Strawn suggests that images and texts can function as dual "reflexes" of the same underlying message and ANE art historian Irene Winter emphasizes that images and texts should be understood as two independent, though parallel and reinforcing, vehicles of communication. One of the implications of this perspective is that ANE art should be studied on its own terms by using a full array of analytical tools, including well-established art historical principles, careful archaeological evaluation, and thoughtful reflection on visual theory. As a result of these developments in how scholars understand image-text congruence and image-text correlation, the biblical iconographic method has been able to more precisely characterize the relationship between ANE art and the Hebrew Bible.

Second, biblical scholars are now increasingly utilizing ANE iconography, especially in the form of the minor arts, as a primary resource for reconstructing the history of Israelite religion. In fact, some scholars have gone so far as to describe "text-alone" approaches to religio-historical research as working with a puzzle that is missing many of its pieces. From this vantage point, images constitute a valuable witness to the past, especially since they provide evidence of ideas or practices that are not explicitly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. As vehicles of communication, images function as a type of "guide fossil" for how ancient Israelites conceptualized the divine and negotiated other aspects of religious experience. One of the most important investigations of the role of images in Israelite religion is found in Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger's Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God (1998) [1992]. In this volume, Keel and Uehlinger draw on a collection of 8500 Syro-Palestinian stamp seals in order to reconstruct a diachronic survey of religious perspectives from Middle Bronze Age IIB through Iron Age III (ca. 1750–500 BCE). In addition to cataloguing prominent trends in glyptic materials, Keel and Uehlinger address how information gleaned from ancient art can further inform our understanding of various aspects of Israelite religion, including the development of monotheism, the presence of the goddess, the emergence of the image-ban, and the role of solar imagery and the asherah in Israelite worship. The next two sections more explicitly address two important—and somewhat controversial—topics involving the intersection of images and Israelite religion.

b. Israel's Aniconic Tradition

Based primarily on texts in the Hebrew Bible that ban the production and use of divine images (cf. 2.b), many scholars have long assumed that ancient Israelites took up a distinctly aniconic approach to religious worship. Yet how exactly do scholars define aniconism and to what extent does this concept accurately characterize the nature of Israelite religion?

In certain instances, aniconism is used in a general sense to refer to a culture or religion that lacks visual imagery entirely. When applied to Israelite religion, this definition implies that the Second Commandment and other image-ban texts restrict all artistic production among the Israelite people, and later, early Jewish and Christian communities. This perspective is evident as early as the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus in the 1st century CE and has persisted in many academic circles until quite recently. However prominent this understanding of aniconism has been, art historian David Freedberg claims that it is based on "a deep and persistent historiographic myth" that runs counter to what is known from both history and experience (Freedberg: 1989, 54). Freedberg demonstrates that even monotheistic religions, such as Judaism and Christianity, make use of certain types of visual materials. This is certainly true of Israelite religion as well. The archaeological record of Syria-Palestine makes it clear that images were used as a vehicle of communication in ancient Israel and that visual objects were often incorporated into various aspects of religious experience. For instance, the temple was adorned with ornate columns, latticework, precious metals, floral designs, and animal figures. The cherubim throne, an ark, a golden menorah, an altar, the table for the bread of Presence, basins, bowls, and various other instruments could be found within the walls of the sanctuary. The priests wore elaborately embroidered garments and the prophets describe spectacular visions of the deity and perform dramatic symbolic acts in public view. Thus, however the image-ban is defined and whenever it first emerged, many aspects of Israelite religion continued to be experienced with the eyes and absorbed through the senses.

In light of these observations, it is best to understand Israel's aniconic tradition as only pertaining to certain types of images, not the visual arts more broadly. For instance, in his book No Graven Image (1995), Tryvvge N. D. Mettinger defines aniconism in a way that attempts to delineate between acceptable and unacceptable ways of depicting the deity. Specifically, Mettinger claims that aniconism refers to a type of religion in which there are no iconic representations of the deity. Drawing on the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce, Mettinger describes an iconic representation as one that aims to capture, or copy, the deity's appearance in a naturalistic fashion, typically in anthropomorphic form. Images that are not iconic (i.e. "aniconic") represent the deity in a less direct fashion. These latter types of images typically take the form of either indexical signs that indicate their referent through causal associations or metonymic extensions (i.e., the empty cherubim thrones implies the presence of an enthroned deity) or conventional symbols that signify by means of a conventional code (i.e., the horned crown signifies divinity in Mesopotamian art). In Mettinger's estimation, these latter two types of images were permitted in most stages of Israelite history. Thus, rather than reflecting a general aversion to figurative imagery, Israelite aniconism is best understood as a strategy of replacement in which certain visual depictions of the deity are prohibited and/or destroyed in favor of rival iconographies. Put simply, Israelite aniconism is as much about the presence of some types of images as it is about the absence of others.

However, even this narrower definition of aniconism requires further qualification if it is to accurately describe the nature of Israelite worship. For one, Israel's aniconic tradition most likely developed over time, progressing from a nonexclusive preference for aniconic representations of Yahweh in the pre-exilic period (what Mettinger calls "de facto aniconism") to more explicit strictures that demanded an imageless cult in the exilic or postexilic period (i.e., "programmatic aniconism"). As a result, Israelite religion was never essentially or exclusively aniconic from a diachronic perspective. In addition, aniconic tendencies are not necessarily a unique characteristic of Israelite religion. Comparative research reveals that during certain time periods other East and West Semitic religious traditions relied on indexical and conventional signs to represent their gods. Thus, while Israel's predilection for aniconic images of their deity is certainly pronounced, it is not completely without precedent in the ancient world. Furthermore, it is important to note that aniconic preferences in certain forms of art do not always directly correlate with cultic practices. For instance, even though ancient Israel shows a clear preference for nonanthropomorphic imagery in glyptic (engraved) materials throughout much of the Iron Age, a variety of anthropomorphic objects, such as metal statuary and terracotta figurines, continued to be produced and used during this same time period. Since these latter objects are more likely to reflect developments in the cultic sphere, it is possible that ancient Israelites utilized iconic objects in religious practices even as they preferred aniconic depictions on seals and amulets. A similar phenomenon occurred in Iron Age Mesopotamia, where conventional symbols were widely used to represent deities on seals, standing stones, and wall reliefs while anthropomorphic cult statues continued to play a central role in the context of temple worship. Finally, even though iconic and aniconic images signify in different ways, it should be emphasized that aniconic art objects are no less material—and indeed no less visual—than iconic ones. Thus, no matter how the image-ban was understood, Israelite religion was never solely dependent on words and creeds. Rather, as is the case in many contemporary contexts, religion in ancient Israel was routinely expressed and mediated through images and visual culture.

c. The Search for Yahweh's Image

Arguably the most debated issue in the study of Israelite religion is whether (or perhaps when) ancient Israel had images of Yahweh. Numerous studies have attempted to evaluate both direct and indirect evidence for the existence of Yahweh's image during the pre-monarchic, monarchic, and even postexilic periods. While space prohibits an extensive review of even the most widely discussed evidence for Yahweh's image, it will be instructive to highlight several potentially compelling candidates in the search process.

The search for Yahweh's image traditionally has entailed the close analysis of diverse artifacts from Iron Age Syria-Palestine. For instance, scholars as Christoph Uehlinger and Theodore Lewis (1998) have recently looked for traces of Yahweh's image in a wide variety of artifacts, including male and female statuary, pillar figurines, goddess imagery, theriomorphic and zoomorphic representations, astral and solar imagery, cult stands, and standing stones (maṣṣēbôt). While many of these objects seem to have played an important role in the cultic sphere and at least a few of them are thought to be closely associated with the deity, it is not possible to establish that any of these objects were originally meant to depict Yahweh. One often discussed candidate comes from a drawing on a large storage jar from Kuntillet 'Ajrud, a late 9th/early 8th century site about 50 km (30 mi) south of Kadesh-barnea in the northern Sinai. One side of this object, which is known as Pithos A (figure 6), features two central figures, presumably a male and a female, flanked to the right by a figure playing the harp. A Hebrew inscription overlaps with the upper portion of the larger figure's headdress and reads in part "Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah." Understandably, the juxtaposition of text and image on this artifact has caused quite a stir, with some scholars reading the inscription as a type of identifying label or caption for the two central figures. As tantalizing as this possibility is, art historical and iconographic considerations suggest otherwise. Not only do many scholars agree that the two central creatures are best identified as Bes-like figures, but they also suggest that the image and inscription should be disassociated from one another since the latter was likely added at some later time. Another intriguing but ultimately unsuccessful candidate is the Munich terracotta (figure 7), which was acquired by Jörg Jeremias in 1990 at a Jerusalem antiquities market. Although Uehlinger is optimistic that this artifact might represent what Pithos A from Kuntillet 'Ajrud does not—an 8th century depiction of Yahweh and his Asherah—the damaged condition and overall lack of detail of this artifact makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions. In addition, ambiguities regarding certain objects' original function can further complicate the search for Yahweh's image. As one example, even though some ANE deities could be shown in theriomorphic form, it is possible that the animal figurines found in the archaeological record of Syria-Palestine were not utilized as images of Yahweh, but rather were presented to Yahweh as a votive offering or alternatively functioned as pedestals for the invisible deity (i.e., a form of empty-space aniconism). For all of these reasons, the material evidence for the existence of divine images in pre-exilic Israel is promising, but ultimately inconclusive from a strictly iconographic perspective.

Figure 6. Pithos A from Kuntillet'Ajrud, late 8th or early 9th century, northeastern Sinai. Approximately 20 cm (8 in) tall. After Coogan 1998:309.

Figure 7. Munich Terracotta, provenance unknown, likely late 8th or early 7th century Judah. Approximately 20 cm (8 in) tall. (After van der Toorn, 1997: 150, figure 61)

Nevertheless, this observation does not by itself prove that ancient Israel lacked divine images. In fact, in other ANE cultures, divine statues, which were often made from precious metals, were often the target of theft and looting and thus are only infrequently attested in the archaeological record. If a similar situation obtained in ancient Israel, then the absence of archaeological evidence of Yahweh's image should not necessarily be seen as evidence of its historical absence. In fact, some biblical scholars have attempted to infer the existence of Israelite divine images apart from concrete archaeological data. For instance, Karel van der Toorn reasons that while in Deuteronomy the ark is consistently described as a box which contains the covenant tablets (Deut 10:1, 5), at an earlier point in Israelite history the ark actually was used to store an image or symbol of Yahweh. Likewise, some scholars have suggested that the holy of holies in the Second Temple was not, as Josephus suggests (War 5.5.219), completely empty but rather was occupied by a divine image until the Hasmonean period at which point it was removed during the rededication of the temple. Though intriguing, these two suggestions remain largely unsubstantiated. Much of the same can be said of Herbert Niehr's view that certain expressions in the Hebrew Bible, such as references to seeing Yahweh's face, the procession of God into the sanctuary, and the enthronement of the deity in the temple, are most naturally understood as implying the existence of Yahweh's cult statue in ancient Israel (Niehr in van der Toorn: 1997). It is not necessarily the case that anthropomorphic language about God implies the existence of an anthropomorphic cult statuary. Still others have looked to Assyrian royal inscriptions and palace wall-reliefs for indirect evidence that the Israelites had divine images of Yahweh. In both written and pictorial accounts of Neo-Assyrian military campaigns, references are made to soldiers removing cult statuary as booty from Syro-Palestinian cities. Though it is certainly plausible that these materials bear witness to the existence of anthropomorphic divine images in Israel, one cannot fully rule out the possibility that the capture of cult statues was a stock element in the iconography of Assyrian conquest or a literary topos in Assyrian royal inscriptions. Thus, while ANE sources are surely important in the study of Israelite religion, even these materials do not provide decisive evidence for the existence of Yahweh's image.

Even though there is no definitive archaeological or iconographic evidence for the existence of Yahweh's image in ancient Israel, there is still some reason to believe that ancient Israelites encountered Yahweh in and through the visual arts. This possibility comes into view when one considers not only what ancient images looked like but also how they were responded to in certain situations. For instance, while few contemporary scholars would classify the ark as an image of Yahweh, it is nevertheless the case that ancient viewers often treated this object as a functional equivalent of a divine image. This is especially evident in 1 Samuel 4–6 where the ark seems to manifest the presence and power of Yahweh during the on-going conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines. In other texts in the Hebrew Bible, the ark appears to be an extension of Yahweh's essence or agency: it led the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings (Num 10:33); it was used as a war palladium (Num 14:44; 1 Sam 4:2–9); it entered the Jordan ahead of the Israelites and held back its waters (Josh 3:11); and it is displayed in cultic processions (2 Sam 6; 1 Kgs 8; Pss 24, 47, 68, 132). In these and other cases, the ark functions in many of the same ways as anthropomorphic divine images in other ANE cultures. This example demonstrates that an object's appearance does not necessarily tell the whole story about how it was thought to relate to the deity. As a result, determining whether or not a given object qualifies as an image of Yahweh not only entails iconographic and archaeological analyses, but also careful attention to how those objects were responded to and put to use by ancient viewers.

4. Resources for further research

  • Bahrani, Zainab. The Graven Image: Representation in Babylonia and Assyria. Archaeology, Culture, and Society series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
  • Black, Jeremy, Anthony Green, and Tessa Rickards, eds. Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.
  • Collon, Dominique. Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Coogan, Michael D., ed. The Oxford History of the Biblical World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Dick, Michael B. and Christopher Walker. Born in Heaven, Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1999.
  • Dohmen, Christoph. Das Bilderverbot: Seine Entstehung und seine Entwicklung im alten Testament. 2d ed. Bonner biblische Beiträge 62. Frankfurt am Mein: Athenäum, 1987 [1985].
  • Frankfort, Henri. The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956.
  • Freedberg, David. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
  • Goodenough, Erwin R. Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. 13 vols. Bollingen Series 37. New York: Pantheon, 1953–68.
  • Gressmann, Hugo. Altorientalische Bilder zum Alten Testament. 2d ed. Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1927 [1909].
  • Hendel, Ronald S. "The Social Origins of the Aniconic Tradition in Early Israel." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 50 (1988): 365–382.
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. "The Graven Image." In Ancient Israelite Religion, edited by Patrick D. Miller et al., pp. 15–32. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987.
  • Keel, Othmar, ed. Corpus der Stempelsiegel-Amulette aus Palästina/Israel: Von den Anfängen bis zur Perserzeit. 5 vols. Orbis biblicus et orientalis Series Archaeologica. Fribourg: University Press; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1995–present.
  • Keel, Othmar, ed. The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms. New York: Seabury, 1978 [1972].
  • Keel, Othmar and Christoph Uehlinger. Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998 [1992].
  • Kennedy, James M. "The Social Background of Early Israel's Rejection of Cultic Images." Biblical Theological Bulletin 17 (1987): 138–144.
  • LeMon, Joel. "Iconographic Approaches: The Iconic Structure of Psalm 17." Pages 143–68 in Method Matters. Edited by LeMon and Kent Harold Richards. Society of Biblical Literature Resources for Biblical Study 56. Boston: Brill, 2010a.
  • LeMon, Joel. Yahweh's Winged Form in the Psalms: Exploring Congruent Iconography and Texts. Orbis biblicus et orientalis 242. Fribourg: Academic Press; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2010b.
  • Lewis, Theodore S. "Divine Images and Aniconism in Ancient Israel." Journal of the American Oriental Society 118 (1998): 36–53.
  • Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. No Graven Image? Israelite Aniconism in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context. Coniectanea biblica: Old Testament Series 42. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1995.
  • Morgan, David, ed. Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. New York: Routledge, 2010.
  • Morgan, David, ed. Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Imagery. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  • Niehr, Herbert. "In Search of YHWH's Cult Statue." In The Image and the Book: Iconic Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of Book Religions in Israel and the Ancient Near East. Edited by Karel van der Toorn, pp. 73–95. Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 21. Leuven: Peters, 1997.
  • Ornan, Tallay. The Triumph of the Symbol: Pictorial Representation of Deities in Mesopotamia and the Biblical Image Ban. Oribus biblicus et orientalis 213. Fribourg: Academic Press; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2005.
  • Panofsky, Erwin. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. Reprinted edition. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1972 [1939].
  • Pritchard, James B. The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament. 2d ed. with suppl. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969 [1954].
  • Rollston, Chris A. Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.
  • Sass, Benjamin and Christoph Uehlinger, eds., Studies in the Iconography of Northwest Semitic Inscribed Seals. Orbis biblicus et orientalis 125. Fribourg: Academic Press; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1993.
  • Schroer, Silvia. Die Ikonographie Palästinas/Israels und der Alte Orient: Eine Religionsgeschichte in Bildern. 4 vols. Fribourg: Academic Press, 2005–2011.
  • Schroer, Silvia. In Israel gab es Bilder: Nachrichten von darstellender Kunst im Alten Testament. Orbis biblicus et orientalis 74. Göttingen: University Press; Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1987.
  • Strawn, Brent A. "'A World Under Control': Isaiah 60 and the Apadana Reliefs from Persepolis." In Approaching Yehud: New Approaches to the Study of the Persian Period, edited by Jon L. Berquist, pp. 85–116. Semeia Studies 50. Atlanta: SBL, 2007.
  • Strawn, Brent A. What Is Stronger than a Lion? Leonine Image and Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Orbis biblicus et orientalis 212. Göttingen: Academic Press; Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2005.
  • Toorn, Karel van der, ed. The Image and the Book: Iconic Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of Book Religion in Israel and the Ancient Near East. Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 21. Leuven: Peeters, 1997.
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