Ancient Near Eastern Iconography

As a growing sub-discipline within biblical studies, ancient Near Eastern iconography describes and interprets the pictorial remains of ancient cultures. It focuses on the development of visual themes and motifs throughout the material culture of the region and tries to establish their possible relationships with the cultural and religious history of the ancient world, thus helping to bridge the gap between archaeology and biblical studies.

Othmar Keel, professor emeritus at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and often called the “Father of Iconography,” published his groundbreaking work, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms, in 1972 in German, and contributed to the establishment of the Fribourg School of ANE Iconography. Several exegetical studies followed that recognized the abundance of archaeological remains of miniature art from Syro-Palestine (e.g., seals and amulets). More recent publications have moved from mere biblical theme-oriented studies toward a primary concern for the iconographic evidence as such and its consequential bearing on the religious history of ancient Israel. Thus, the attempt is now to reconstruct the religious conceptual world of Israel through pictorial material. The Fribourg School has produced some important reference works such as the Corpus der Stempelsiegel-Amulette aus Palästina/Israel of which four volumes (as well as an introductory volume) have been published so far.

Iconographic images range from enormous stone reliefs (such as the ones found at the Mortuary Temple at Medinet Habu near Thebes on the Nile dating to the thirteenth century BC and depicting Ramses III fighting the Sea People), stelae (such as the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from the ninth century BC that shows the Israelite king Jehu bowing before the Assyrian king offering tribute), figurines (e.g., the numerous smiting Ba‘al bronze figurines discovered in various sites throughout Syro-Palestine that portray the Canaanite god with a club in his raised right hand and a shield in the other, dating to the Late Bronze Age), to cylinder and stamp seals, the most frequent iconographic medium spanning the entire chronological and geographic width of the ancient Near East (such as the famous seal of Shema, servant of Jeroboam, depicting a striding lion as a royal emblem).

The study of iconographic materials employs methodological procedures comparable to the hermeneutical process that guides the process of biblical interpretation. We can sum up the interpretative process in three steps: (1) pre-iconographic description. The art historian or archaeologist focuses on the object bearing the image and studies it in light of their previous experience working with such items. (2) Then the expert does an iconographic analysis that incorporates his or her knowledge of ancient literary sources and the history of similar objects for comparative purposes. (3) Finally, the scholar forms an iconological analysis/interpretation based on broad knowledge and understanding of cultural systems and symbols that seeks to establish the meaning of the symbols themselves. During the interpretation process, the interpreter divides each image into its various components that together, and in a contextual relationship, constitute the image and its meaning. The important compositional elements of an image are the motif, the scene, and the decoration, all of which interact with each other.

Only after we have understood the image in its own right can we attempt to compare it to literary sources such as the biblical text. Just as the study of words in contemporary ancient languages may help us understand a Hebrew word, such a comparison of an iconographic image may reveal that it reveals a variety of relationships between the biblical text and its surrounding thought-world: (1) A text can directly refer to a specific ancient image, as for example the description of Chaldean soldiers in Ezekiel 23:14; (2) Pictorial representations can help illuminate a text. For example, depiction of Mesopotamian religious figures might give us some suggestion of what the four living creatures in Ezekiel 1 might have looked like to the prophet; (3) A text and an image can independently refer to a common subject matter such as the rewarding of an official as seen in several New Kingdom Egyptian tomb paintings (cf. Gen. 41:41, 42).

Generally, scholars have treated pictorial remains from the ancient Near East as illustrations of texts or approached them from art-historical perspectives, but they have seldom taken into consideration their potential when it comes to reconstructing ancient religio-cultural history. A stele found in a clear Iron Age I archaeological context near the gate at Bethsaida (Figure 1) showing a semi-abstract image of an anthropomorphic figure with a sword and a bovine head that has been identified as a moon-deity, may actually tell us a great deal about problematic cultic practices during OT times at the city gate that eventually motivated religious reforms such as mentioned in 2 Kings 23:8: “He broke down the shrines at the gates” (NIV).

Figure 1: Bethsaida-stele

Scholars have a growing awareness that the authors of the OT wrote in a socio-cultural context that was full of images and that such images have had an impact on the biblical text just as the words of ancient languages shaped the way the authors expressed their thoughts. A simple example may be found in Psalm 65:9 in which we encounter a somewhat enigmatic reference to the peleg ’elohim, “canal of God,” which can be interpreted as a conduit of water flowing down from the heavenly realm to the earth, an iconographic motif well-known from Middle-Assyrian and Middle-Babylonian times. Figure 2 shows a Kassite cylinder-seal with an inscription dating it to the fourteenth century BC. On it, the water-god Ea, surrounded by lush vegetation, holds in each hand a vase from which streams of water flow down into receptacles on the ground.

Figure 2: Kassite cylinder-seal

Finally, certain iconographic motif groups prevalent throughout the ancient world demonstrate various aspects of the ancient worldview. A good example is the Master or Mistress of the Animals. This iconographic motif of a god/goddess or human hero seizing and subduing with each hand an animal (Figure 3) thematically points to the dominion of the human over the animal sphere, an aspect of reality that the ancients sometimes associated with destructive and demonic forces. However, the imagery is often ambiguous in the sense that it may express not only dominion but also protection and stewardship–characteristics that one also sees in the biblical account (Gen. 1:26; 2:15; Prov. 12:10; Isa. 40:11).

Figure 3: Persian cylinder-seal


Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel.

Keel, “Iconography and the Bible,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 358-374.

Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms.

Klingbeil, Yahweh Fighting from Heaven. God as a Warrior and as God of Heaven in the Hebrew Psalter and Ancient Near Eastern Iconography.