Allen S. Maller

Were there kosher clay Female Figurines in Judah during the Biblical Period? YES!

Israeli Archeologist Dr.Aaron Greener asks “What Are Clay Female Figurines Doing in Judah during the Biblical Period?” My non-archeologist answer is; they represent kosher El Shadai and Shekinah female concepts of the Divine Asexual One of Israel.

According to Dr.Aaron Greener [a Ph.D. in archaeology from Bar-Ilan University] there are thousands of terra-cotta figurines dating to the First Temple Period that have been found at archaeological sites located in the biblical Kingdom of Judah, including Jerusalem.

The figurines fall into two main categories: Human Figurines – Female Judahite Pillar Figurines (JPF’s) form the vast majority among anthropomorphic figurines. These stand about 6 inches tall and are often clutching their breasts. Male figurines, other than the horse riders were rare in Judah. The majority of clay figurines were zoomorphic animal figures.

Their production and use Dr. Greener states, seem to have stopped after the Babylonian conquest and destruction of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE. In all excavations in biblical Judah the quantity of the zoomorphic figurines is greater than that of the anthropomorphic ones, but the female Judahite Pillar Figurines (JPF’s) have traditionally received more attention. Their identity and function are the focus of ongoing debates in archaeology and biblical studies.

The figurines are almost always found broken and discovered in secondary contexts—in refuse or fill contexts (i.e., not in their original place of use). They contain no distinguishing marks – of individual, mortal, divine identity, age, or status – which might assist in identification and interpretation.

In the 1930s, prominent scholar William Foxwell Albright identified the female figurines with the Canaanite goddess Astarte (Hebrew ʻAštōreṯ); a foreign, non-Judahite goddess of fertility, sexuality, and war that was adopted from the Phoenicians. This identification remained popular for several decades.

Recently, some scholars now believe that the figurines do not represent a specific goddess, but rather human women (in a generic form) which were used as votive figurines. Many different theories have been suggested over the years regarding the function and symbolism of JPFs.

I believe the female human JPFs represent pregnant women who pray to El Shadai and the Shekinah for a healthy birth; and a successful breast nursing experience. Given the world wide very high rates of maternal and infant deaths that were normal until the 19th century; one can feel the relief felt when the JPFs were finally smashed at the end of the suckling period.

This practice must go back to the beginning of religious consciousness because the intelligent minds of Homo Sapiens knew the dangers of childbirth. Infant mortality rates in most tribes were more than one in four and the maternal death rate for every four births was more than one in ten.

Pregnancy was highly desired and birth anxiously awaited. Pregnant women naturally sought the physical help of their mothers and grandmothers who in turn sought the spiritual help of their now departed mothers and grandmothers.

Among the earliest Gods were birth Goddesses. Small stone figures of very pregnant birth Goddesses, often referred to as “Venus” figures, go back 30-35,000 years. They are the first examples of iconic religion. The worship of spirits within natural phenomena does not need iconic representation. But birth and nursing rarely took place in the open or in public.

The birth Goddess needed to be present in some tangible way in order to ease the anxiety of women in labor. Even today in some African countries the maternal mortality rate is 3% per birth. A woman who gave birth to 8 children had a one in four chance of dying from giving birth.

Any band would benefit even if the presence of Goddesses reduced that mortality rate by only 5%. Carvings in wood of birth Goddesses probably preceded stone statues by many millennia and may have originated 50-100,000 years ago.

Infant mortality during the first 2-3 years was 30-40%. After that it dropped to almost current rates. With the development of clay ceramics in the last 10-15,000 years one could make an image that would be used from the time when the belly swelled until nursing ended and then shattered so that each child had its own JPF.

The Torah tells us that not until the generation of the Exodus was the one God YHVH known as the lawgiver of sacred scripture. “I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai but I did not let myself be known to them by my name YHVH.” (Exodus 6:3)

El Shadai is the God of the breast or the chest. This signifies the divine spirit within each individual, and/or the maternal nurturing mystical soul that is invoked in most Indian and some East Asian religions; the mystical religions of inner enlightenment and personal rebirth or escape from the corruption of the material world.

This was an advance beyond invoking spirits and the hierarchy of sky Gods or some remote high God. However, YHVH is a God of history and society; a God of human society’s spiritual and moral growth. YHVH isn’t fully realized until Israel’s covenant with the Divine lawgiver, who is the source of Western society’s ethics and morality.

But the God of Breasts/El Shadai was still very important for pregnant and nursing mothers until torwards the end of the First Temple. These images were considered to be kosher and not to be idols; just as the name of El Shadai was not considered a foreign God; but both the name El Shadai and the JPFs died out by the end of the First Temple.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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