blue balloon with a stylized window in its center consisting of four panes in the colors red, green, yellow, and blue—right, you got it: the virtual start button of the operating system running on the vast majority of this planet’s computers.
Five bars in ascending lengths from left to right, hopefully all five of them illuminated—right, you got it again: connectivity, wireless and otherwise.
An apple with a bite chewed out of its right side—I should probably stop here lest I’d be suspected of product placement in the Adventist Review
This is an exercise not in answering computer trivia but in recognizing the power of the icon. Our lives seem to be increasingly governed by small abstract images, blinking and glowing in vivid colors that communicate to us what to do, where to go, when to push, and what to expect after we have pushed. The old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” holds increasingly true as our lives become more and more iconized. Whenever it is necessary to communicate complexities, a picture often effectively reduces the effort.
Temples, Stelae, and City Gates
Communication through images is not just an invention of twenty-first-century society, however—a society increasingly unable to express itself in written language through words and full sentences. (When did you last send a handwritten letter to a friend?) Iconic communication was already in vogue when the Old Testament was written. Ancient Near Eastern iconography is the study of pictorial remains from the time of the Bible and its environment, and there are many pictures that can be found on all kinds of archaeological objects. There are huge monumental reliefs such as the ones found on the walls of the mortuary temple of Ramses III (twelfth century B.C.) in Medinet Habu near Thebes on the river Nile in Egypt (Figure 1). These picture-like sculptures show the pharaoh’s battles against the Sea People or Philistines who had arrived on the shores of Egypt from the Aegean islands in search of greener pastures.
The Egyptian pharaoh successfully expelled the Philistines from his country, and they moved on and settled along the coast of Palestine, setting the stage for a 300-year conflict with the Israelites—all carefully recorded in the Bible. On the relief one cannot help noticing the disproportional size of the pharaoh compared to everybody else in the images. The (not so) subliminal message is clear: Ramses is far superior to his enemies. He has divine-like features and the blessings from his gods that set him apart from the rest of the war-waging sea of humanity around him.
Then there are images on stelae and statues such as the famous Black Obelisk, housed in the British Museum, on which Jehu, king of Israel, is depicted as paying tribute to the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, king of Assyria during the ninth century B.C. (Figure 2). Again, one can perceive a clear political and ideological message behind the image: the Assyrian king, accompanied by a winged sun disk, a symbol of the highest Assyrian god Shamash, is far superior to his subjects, and his superiority is divinely ordained and blessed by his god.
But beyond the political and ideological realms, there is also the religious dimension, and the study of ancient Near Eastern images provides a unique window into the religious belief systems that surrounded Israel during the time of the Old Testament. Against these belief systems the prophets and kings (at least some of them) fought their spiritual and physical battles. A basalt stele found in an eighth-century B.C. archaeological context near the gate at Bethsaida (Figure 3) shows a semiabstract image of an anthropomorphic figure with a sword and a bovine head that has been identified as a moondeity. This may actually tell us a great deal about problematic cultic practices of Old Testament times at the city gate that motivated religious reforms like the one mentioned in the brief information provided in 2 Kings 23:8: “He [Josiah] broke down the shrines at the gates.”1
The most fascinating images from a religious perspective, however, can be found on so-called miniature art objects, including ancient Near Eastern cylinder and stamp seals, small figurines, amulets, and plaques. They show up abundantly in excavations in Israel and its neighboring countries and were important personal possessions often passed on as heirlooms from one generation to the next. Actually, in terms of size, they resemble the small icons mentioned at the beginning of this article that seem to govern our modern forms of communication. Ancient Near Eastern stamp seals are usually less than an inch in size, often made from semi-precious stones and incised with minute details. These create an intricate image that frequently consists of either a personal name, an image, or a combination of both. They were worn mostly around the neck on a string and used to sign documents or authenticate the owner of the seal. Sometimes they were just used as amulets—good luck charms, we might say. Their inscriptions and iconographic motifs demonstrate how the ancient Israelites saw themselves in relationship to each other, but also in relationship to their God and, more sadly, to other gods.
One of the most well known is the seal of Shema, which was found in 1904 in Megiddo during an excavation conducted by German archaeologist Gottlieb Schumacher (Figure 5). Unfortunately the original jasper seal was lost in transit to Istanbul, but fortunately a bronze cast had been made before it left Jerusalem, which today can be seen in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. The seal is about 1.5 inches (38 milimeters) long and 1 inch (24.5 milimeters) wide and shows a beautifully stylized majestic lion striding on a line, facing left, and roaring at an imaginary enemy. The lion motif is clearly part of royal iconography and brings to mind biblical texts such as Revelation 5:5, in which it appears as a messianic image: “Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.’ ” The inscription above and below the lion confirms the seal’s connection to the royal palace: “Belonging to Shema, servant of Jeroboam.” This Shema can be identified with a minister in the court of Jeroboam II who reigned over Israel in the eighth century B.C.
(2 Kings 14:23).
I’m sure that whenever Shema flashed his seal or used it to sign a document, no one doubted the royal authority he represented. Once sealed, a document could be opened only by somebody with the same or higher authority. Interestingly, Jesus is identified by the elders in Revelation 5:5 as the one who is worthy to open the seven seals of the prophetic scroll.
I know the power of such a government seal: while serving as missionaries in Bolivia, we received a diplomatic ID card on which the coat of arms of the Bolivian government was imprinted. Whenever and wherever I flashed this card, things began to happen very quickly.
From Physical to Literary Image
It is interesting to see how images can communicate complex and often abstract realities much more quickly than words. What about the Bible and its images? How can the study of ancient Near Eastern images and iconography help us know more about God’s Word or even more about God Himself? While we have an unconditional ban on images in the context of worshipping God (Ex. 20:4, 5), and while the religion of Old Testament Israel, and by extension our Christian religion as well, is mostly aniconic by divine command, the biblical text is nevertheless rich in imagery and full of literary images. Many of these images, however, are frequently difficult for twenty-first-century Christians to understand. These can be illuminated by real images from the ancient past.
Seal of Shema, servant of Jeroboam, found at Megiddo.
A good case study may be found in the image of God’s outstretched arm that is used mostly in reference to the Exodus from Egypt.2 Texts such as Deuteronomy 4:34 and others usually associate God’s outstretched arm with negative acts of judgment. This is a highly intentional gesture that appears to refer to God’s active involvement in judgment. The violent arm of God is not exactly a comfortable image of God, and we often shrink from the idea that God is directly executing judgment, be it on the “bad ones” (like Egypt) or the “good ones” (like Judah in Jeremiah 21:5). We frequently rationalize this imagery as really referring to God merely withdrawing His protection, but the biblical text is quite direct and explicit in the description of the divine action, and an outstretched arm is generally an intentional gesture. By looking at some iconographic evidence from the ancient Near East, we are able to achieve a more complete understanding of Yahweh’s outstretched arm.
In ancient Egyptian iconography we frequently find images of the violent arm of the pharaoh, especially from the time of the New Kingdom (sixteenth to eleventh centuries B.C.), which corresponds to the biblical period of the Exodus and conquest. Figure 6 is a scene on a relief, found in the eastern Nile-delta temple of Tell el-Retaba, which shows Ramses II (reigned 1279-1213 B.C.) holding a Semitic prisoner with outstretched arms, lifting the other arm in a striking gesture.3 Opposite the pharaoh is the Egyptian god Atum looking on approvingly. Similar motifs are also known from Israel, as a scarab from Beth Shean from the same time period demonstrates (Figure 7).4 These images show pharaohs and gods in the same striking position with the outstretched arm—usually in negative contexts. Could this be a comparative background to Yahweh’s outstretched arm in the Old Testament? Many interpreters think so.
From that same period or, more specifically, from the time of the so-called Amarna revolution under Amenhotep IV (reigned 1352-c. 1336 B.C.), we find an interesting set of images that communicate quite a different concept of the divine outstretched arm. The Egyptian god Aten, whose adoration not only motivated Amenhotep to change his name to Akhenaten, but also kicked off the biggest monotheistic reform in the history of ancient Egypt, is often shown with an outstretched arm in a positive context. Figure 8 shows a relief from the Amarna period on which the sun-disk representing the one and only god Aten extends its rays like arms toward Akhenaten, his wife, and one of his daughters. The arms end in hands, and two of these hands extend the Egyptian ankh, symbol of life, toward the noses of the king and the queen, who are in a worship position before the god. The interpretation of the image is clearly positive, and represents the life-giving blessings the pharaoh receives from his god.5 But back to Yahweh’s outstretched arm.
Interestingly, a number of biblical passages emphasize the positive character of Yahweh’s outstretched arm: He creates the heavens with an outstretched arm (Jer. 27:5; 32:17); the deeds of His outstretched arm are retold in order to evangelize foreigners who visit Israel (1 Kings 8:41-43; 2 Chron. 6:32, 33); His outstretched arm is a sign of His enduring love (Ps. 136:11, 12); and during the Exodus it is the means by which God accomplishes Israel’s redemption (Ex. 6:6). God’s outstretched arm provides both judgment and blessings, and we can take both from the hand of a merciful Redeemer. Job recognizes this truth in the rhetorical question he asks his wife: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:20, NASB).6
Ancient Near Eastern iconography can demonstrate that the writers of the Old Testament, as well as others around them, had an integrated image of the divine that allowed for both good and bad things coming toward them from God.
Both good and bad things still come our way today, but they come against the background of a theocentric worldview that shows God with an outstretched arm. He is always in absolute control of the lives of His children. These images provide an additional window through which we can look at the God of the Bible, a window that actually turns out to be much greater (not just bigger!) than the little icons that seem to monopolize our modern forms of reduced communication. As we look through the window of ancient Near Eastern iconography we gain a fresh vista of a God who has worked (and continues to work) powerfully among the nations on behalf of His people, including you and me.
1 Othmar Keel and Monika Bernett, Mond, Stier und Kult am Stadttor. Die Stele von Betsaida (et-Tell), OBO 161 (Fribourg: University Press / Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998).
2 Brent Strawn, “Yahweh’s Outstretched Arm Revisited Iconographically,” in Iconography and Biblical Studies. Proceedings of the Iconographic Sessions at the Joint EABS/SBL Conference, 22-26 July 2007, Vienna, Austria, AOAT 361, ed. Izaak J. de Hulster and Rüdiger Schmitt (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2009), pp. 163-211.
3 Ibid., fig. 3, p. 200.
4 Ibid., fig. 19, p. 208.
5 Ibid., fig. 7, p. 202.
6 Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Martin G. Klingbeil, D.Litt., is professor of Biblical Studies and Archaeology at Southern Adventist University, where he also serves as the associate director of the Institute of Archaeology. This article was published April 26, 2012.