The costly cult statue was stolen by Antiochos IV Epiphanes (175 – 164 BC) when he plundered the temple in Jerusalem in 169 BC

Nineveh, ancient statue
Nineveh, ancient statue

on his return from his second Egyptian campaign: Josephus CA II, 7. The cult statue was clearly never replaced, so that from then on, Yahweh was worshipped without a statue.

The contact with Hellenistic philosophy that was critical of animal cults was probably the reason why the cult statue was never replaced.



In the Yahweh temple in Jerusalem, Yahweh was worshipped as a cult statue in the form of a costly donkey bust. Josephus writes:

Nineveh, ancient city wall
Nineveh, ancient city wall

“In the temple in Jerusalem, as Apion impudently asserts, the Jews set up a donkey’s head; they pray to it and address their entire worship to it (CA II, 7). Tacitus reports that the Jews set up the holy image of a donkey in the Holy of Holies in their temple (Histories V, 4).

The same accusation was made against the Christians in the 3rd century AD: Minicius Felix writes in his dialogue Octavian (28, 7) that the Christians consecrated a donkey’s head. A well-known caricature from the 2nd/3rd century AD on the Palatine (now Rome, Antiquarium Palatin Inv. 381403) shows a soldier standing below a crucified man with a donkey’s head. The inscription reads: Alexaminos praying to his god.

The Gospels describe Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey colt, cheered by the crowd: Matt. 21:1ff; cf. Zech. 9:9. In the Old Testament, the prophet Balaam rides on a donkey mare with visionary powers: Num. 22:23ff. Since animal gods were worshipped all over the Middle East, the principle of the simplest explanation (Occam’s razor) makes it very plausible that the Jews did the same.


II  2  Yahweh and the donkey cult

The traditional master narrative about Yahweh states:
Yahweh was the God of the Jews from ancient times; he was worshipped

Assur, arched gateway, reconstruction
Assur, arched gateway, reconstruction

as the one God in pre-Hellenistic Israel. Echoes of polytheistic ideas can be explained by the fact that the Jews came into contact with heathen gods in the world around them. Heathen ideas of God influenced the story of Balaam and the donkey (Num. 22:33ff).

My theses about Yahweh:
The Jewish idea of God in pre-Hellenistic times is very similar to that of their ancient eastern environment. The Jews honoured Yahweh (also Yahu or Yao) as their main God, and other gods alongside him.

The Jews in Elephantine in Egypt worshipped a trio of gods, Yahu, Anath-Bethel and ‘shm-Bethel. That was not a sign of the decline of former monotheism; it was the typical form of the Jewish religion.