Ancient Architectural Models—2 Kings 21:1-9

During the Iron Age (1200–586 BC) local centers of worship, including household shrines, were common. In order to identify religious centers archaeologists, look for artifacts, such as clay cultic vessels, figurines, and architectural models. Although architectural models were primarily made of clay, some were also fashioned from bronze, wood, limestone, and basalt, and they have turned up in nearly every archaeological excavation in Israel and Jordan, as well as such places as Cyprus, Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Rome. They appeared as early as the Neolithic period and their production seems to have continued in numerous cultures up through modern times. The architectural models, which include model shrines and cult stands, became a prominent characteristic of Iron Age worship practices in the southern Levant.

Archeologists recognize architectural models by their overall appearance, usually that of a cylindrical or globular receptacle, or a rectangular or squared box that resembles miniature structures such as idealized houses or temples. Scholars, however, do not fully understand their intended purpose or use. Their multiple stories, porches, doorways and windows, flanking columns, and painted features are clearly architectural elements. Their roofs may be rounded or flat, topped by an incense bowl or horned altar or may be completely absent. Some structures are plain with simple openings, while others have extensive applied, incised, or painted iconography in the form of figurines, composite beings, decorative architectural elements, and various symbols. Each one is unique, however, indicating the individualized nature of the objects. Even though such models do resemble buildings or temples, they do not necessarily replicate actual structures. Rather, it was the sacredness endowed upon such models that gave them their importance. They may have also helped to perpetuate the existence of various religious sites as well as encouraged the devotion of those who possessed or dedicated the models.

While the artifacts by themselves tell little about how people used them, depictions found on seal impressions, reliefs, and paintings shed light on their intended purpose. Cylindrical stands are well attested in Egypt and Mesopotamia where they often appear before a seated deity or king as a receptacle for libations or various offerings of food. Babylonia cylinder seals depict house-shaped (rectangular or square) shrines or stands that seem to be involved in rituals related to agriculture. Unfortunately, archaeologists have not yet found any ancient textual source discussing the creation or use of such model shrines. Furthermore, how surrounding cultures may have used them does not mean that Israelites, if they did have them, may have employed them in the same way. However, the Bible does mention incense stands and warns against offering incense on altars, a practice widely used in Egypt and the Levant. The book of Exodus (see Ex. 30:9 and 37:25) has numerous references to incense and the burning of such on altars made of wood and gold. Although it is unlikely that the incense was burned directly on the stand but was usually burned in an offering bowl. As larger cult stands and altars were often used for libations, offerings, and the burning of offerings and incense, we can infer that the writers of the Old Testament were familiar with architectural models as well. The Bible frequently mentions the worship of Ba’al and Asherah, gods to whom such architectural models were often dedicated, as a practice that God fervently opposed as religious prostitution. Second Kings 21:1-9 condemns Manasseh, king of Judah, for his worship practices involving foreign gods.


DeVries, “Cult Stands: A Bewildering Variety of Shapes and Sizes,” 26-33, 36, 37.

Moorey, Ancient near Eastern Terracottas: With a Catalogue of the Collection in the Ashmolean Museum.

Muller, Les “Maquettes Architecturales” Du Proche-Orient Ancien : Mésopotamie, Syrie, Palestine Du Iiie Au Milieu Du Ier Millénaire Av. J.-C.

Van der Toorn, “The Use of Images in Israel and the Ancient near East,” 45-62.