Basalt Stele decorated with a bull's head from Bethsaida, 8th c. BCE. (photo courtesy of Israel Museum)

Basalt Stele decorated with a bull’s head from Bethsaida, 8th c. BCE. (photo courtesy of Israel Museum)

It’s easy to walk past the gray-brown slab of basalt in the Israel Museum’s archaeology wing and pay it no heed. (I confess to have done so numerous times; the silver amulets bearing ancient renditions of the priestly blessing garner far more attention.) But etched into the monumental stele’s pocked surface is a mysterious figure central to understanding the significance of the lunar god in ancient Canaan and the origins of the Jewish veneration of the new moon.

The nearly four-foot-tall volcanic stone is marked with a striking bull-headed figure whose powerful gaze bores through the viewer. Its horns bend inward like the sliver of a day-old moon. Beneath its massive skull stands a vertical line transected by two downward facing curves which appear to be limbs. Girt at its midsection is a sword of a style typical of the period (examples of which are found in display cases just feet away). At its right hip sits a tiny rosette believed to represent the four phases of the moon.

What deity it represents, or in fact what the figure is at all, remains the subject of scholarly debate.

Discovery

The bull stele once stood atop an altar situated at the entrance to the ancient city of Geshur, the capital of an eponymous kingdom. It was one of several Aramaean kingdoms that ruled southern Syria and bordered the Israelites. Like the Israelites to the south, the Geshurites spoke a Semitic tongue, likely a blend of Aramaic and Hebrew.

The Iron Age city, which sits on a slight rise a mile north of the Sea of Galilee at a site called Bethsaida, was excavated by archaeologists in 1996. Rami Arav of University of Nebraska Omaha, who headed the dig, explained that the stele was found buried beneath more than 12 feet of debris — the remains of a three-story-high gatehouse that dominated the entry to the capital. The ruined gatehouse was the largest and best preserved of its kind, and within its courtyard were two altars and five steles. Scholars postulate that the altars were akin to those referred to as ”high places of the gates” in II Kings 23.

The bull stele from Bethsaida, as found by archaeologists in 1996. (photo credit: Rami Arav)

The bull stele from Bethsaida, as found by archaeologists in 1996. (photo credit: Rami Arav)

“The two high places were situated in niches made in the two towers that flanked the entrance,” Arav said. One of the high places had two steps leading onto a raised platform. The bull stele was found at its base, broken to bits and overturned.

Though almost postmodern in style, the stele found at Bethsaida dates back to the 8th century BCE, the end of an era in which the Levant was ruled by a constellation of minor kingdoms including Judea, Israel, the Philistine cities and the trans-Jordanian kingdoms of Ammon and Moab. At the time of the stele’s creation, Geshur was one of several satellite states of the Syrian kingdom of Aram. During the kingdom’s heyday in the ninth and eighth centuries it was a key player in the Canaanite balance of power and controlled the eastern banks of the Sea of Galilee and a key east-west trade route. According to the biblical account, King David married Maachah, the daughter of King Talmai of Geshur, forging a political alliance between Israel and its stronger neighbor. In 732 BCE, Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III embarked on a campaign of conquest and destruction in Canaan. Bethsaida, like many cities in the southern Levant, was put to the sword. The stele was smashed and cast down in ruin.

“The feeling that we all had at the time is that we [were] kind of flying in a time capsule to that year [732 BCE] and witnessing the destruction and the result of the war,” Arav said of his team’s discovery of the stele during the ’96 expedition. “It was a thrilling moment to everyone in the expedition.”

Bull and moon

The Baal stele from Ugarit, currently displayed in the Louvre. (photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Baal stele from Ugarit, currently displayed in the Louvre. (photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Strolling through the Israel Museum’s Iron Age gallery, Eran Arie, the newly instated curator of Iron Age and Persian Period Archaeology, discourses on the bull’s prominence in the ancient Near East. Until the invention of the steam engine, the bull was the most powerful force man could harness and was integral to prosperity in agrarian society, he explained.

In much of the ancient Levant, the bull was associated with storm deities, like the Canaanite Baal, or his Syrian cognate Hadad. A 15th century stele from Ugarit, in northwestern Syria, for example, shows a thunderbolt-wielding Baal adorned with bull horns.

Arie points out a veritable herd of terra cotta and metal bovines inhabiting the hall’s vitrines. One enchanting artifact just across the gallery from the Bethsaida stele, a seven-inch-long bronze bull statue, attests to the religious significance of the animal to the Canaanites and Israelites. Found at Dothan in northern Samaria, it dates from the 13th century and represents the fecundity brought by the seasonal rains.

“It is a symbol both of power and fertility,” wrote Israeli archaeologist Amihai Mazar in an article describing the piece. “Sometimes the bull appears as a cult object itself, for example, as a young striding god to be worshipped as the symbol of the deity.”

Stylized horns also protrude from the corners of hewn stone altars commonplace throughout Canaan and Israel during this period. The horns “may symbolize strength, as of a bull, understood as political or religious authority,” posits Dr. Elizabeth Bloch-Smith of St. Joseph’s University, an archaeologist involved in the excavations at the coastal site of Dor. As with the Bethsaida stele, horned altars were desecrated by smashing the horn — as is the case with the majority found in excavations.

A 12th century bull statue from Dothan at the Israel Museum (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion)

A 12th century bull statue from Dothan at the Israel Museum (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion)

So the god depicted on the stele was an incarnation of Baal? It’s not as clearcut as that, Arie admits. The bull’s head on the Bethsaida stele is surmounted by horns forming a clearly defined crescent moon, suggesting it may represent a lunar deity.

Although the storm god reigned supreme among the Arameans, as the Syrian kingdom fell under Assyrian influence, the moon god — particularly the new moon — found increased significance in the Aramean and Israelite pantheons, Swiss Near East expert Othmar Keel said.

Keel enumerated over 100 depictions of the Near Eastern god represented by the crescent moon affixed atop a pole in his exhaustive work “Goddesses and Trees, New Moon and Yahweh.” Nearly exact copies of the Bethsaida stele have been found at sites in Syria and southern Turkey — a staff topped by a bull’s head whose horns form the crescent moon.

Scholars point to a lengthy tradition of theriomorphic — generally bovine — depictions of the moon god Sin-Nanna in Mesopotamian cultures. To the ancient Mesopotamians, the “horns of a bull or cow were seen to match the pointed curve of the waxing and waning crescents so exactly that the powers of the one were attributed to the other, each gaining the other’s potency as well as their own,” writes Jules Cashford in her book “The Moon: Myth and Image.”

Tallay Ornan of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations argues that Bethsaida stele intentionally conflates the bull and moon imagery in order to symbolize both deities.

“These deities share not only the image of the bull, but also roles associated with fertility and regeneration,” she writes, citing millennia of precedence in Mesopotamian and Levantine art.

As for the Israelites and Judeans, she wrote in an email, seals unearthed at Jerusalem’s City of David indicate that moon god worship intensified in Israel and Judea under Assyrian domination during the period of the Bethsaida stele and after its destruction. It is precisely during this time period — the late First Temple Era — under Aramean and Assyrian influence, that Israel and Judah began venerating the new moon, Keel said in an email, a fairly extra-biblical tradition that was bestowed with quasi-holiness in an otherwise season-driven calendar.

The Jewish lunar month — Rosh Hodesh – traditionally begins with the sighting of the first sliver of the waxing moon and religious time governed ritual observance of Judaism’s many holidays. The book of Numbers instructs the Israelites to celebrate the new moon with the sacrifice of “two young bullocks, and one ram, seven he-lambs of the first year without blemish.”

“Stimulated by the Assyro-Aramaean influence, the cult of the new moon received its theological dignity partly from the growing importance of the moon-related calendar,” Keel wrote in “Goddesses and Trees.”

The Talmud, codified centuries later, discusses in exhaustive detail the byzantine process of verifying eyewitness sighting of the new moon and the consequent declaration of the commencement of the new month. So much importance was attached to the new moon’s sighting that, as Tractate Rosh Hashanah details: “The rabbis taught [if the witnesses say], ‘We have seen the reflection [of the moon] in the water, or through a metal mirror, or in the clouds,’ their testimony is not to be accepted.”

The significance of the cryptic bull-headed moon god looming in Israel Museum’s galleries remains a subject of heated scholarly debate — not everyone is convinced of Keel’s thesis — but vestiges of its worship may persevere in modern Judaism. Whether true or not, the lunar calendar and celebration of the new moon in today’s liturgy harks back to the age preserved in the Bethsaida stele.