Updated: Jul 13
In January of 1990, the Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) published an article called Prize Find … Pomegranate Scepters and Incense Stand in a Priest's Grave. The article was about a beautifully carved ivory pomegranate with the inscription, "Belonging to the House of Yahweh, Holy to Priests." It was believed to have come from the Jerusalem Temple constructed by King Solomon. The Article queried about how the pomegranate was used. Several suggestions were given. One suggestion was that it was the head of a scepter. Other ideas was that it was perhaps a part of a cultic box, or a decoration on an altar or an ornament elsewhere in the temple.
Three scepters in total were found at Tel-Nami, a site eight miles south of Haifa on the Mediterranean coast. Thought to be a fishing village, the site is situated on a stretch of land between the sea on one side and what were swamps on the other. The land had been settled first in the second millennium before Christ (B.C.). and resettled in the 14th century B.C.. There were at least two destructions before its final abandonment sometime around 1200 B.C.
In 1986, under sand dunes on the coast, the Tel-Nami burial grounds were discovered. In was at this cemetery that the unexpected finds were extracted and taken to the Israel museum where they were put on display. In a robbed grave archeologists found an Ivory scepter rod about seven inches long with beautifully decorated incisions along the side.
In an adjacent untouched grave was also two bronze scepters complete with heads on the skeleton of a priest. These scepters were thirteen inches long. The heads were pomegranate and a pomegranate or poppy seed pod. It is clear that the scepters had cultic significance, but exactly how is uncertain. One suggestion was that these scepters were used in a sacrificial rite and was the symbol of bounty. Additionally, earrings in the form of pomegranate blossoms were found in the grave; proving the importance of pomegranate to the cult buried in the grave.
Also found at Tel-Nami, were bronze incense burners. One of these burners had a four-foot stand with three bells attached to the top. It is believed that the bells represent either pomegranate or poppy seed pods. A possible answer to the mystery of the lamps can be seen in Egyptian reliefs. In them, we can observe the depiction of the siege of a Canaanite city in the time of Seti I or Rameses II (1290 B.C). One can actually see a cultic event happening. A bearded man holds an incense lamp to the heavens. It seems as if he is calling out to the Deity with desperate pleas to save their lives and their city from the Egyptian onslaught. It was hoped or perhaps expected that the sweet scent of incense emanating from the lamp would appeal to the nostrils of the Divine One.
On the relief, children are also being held over the edge of the city walls. This may indicate child sacrifice to appease the Deity. Child sacrifice was not uncommon in this part of the world at this time in history. However, it may be premature to suggest that child sacrifice occurred at Tel-Nami; but it is clear that the pomegranate scepters and bronze incense stands were used in some religious ritual. It should also be noted that another temple was discovered at Tel-Nami, about 300 feet from the cemetery; providing additional information about the ancient peoples who lived here in what was probably an important international port in the second millennium B.C..
So what do we take away from Tel-Nami?
The great lesson here is understanding the importance of ritual in religion. It is the natural things in life which were used to praise and seek favour from the God or Gods that they worshipped. Something as simple as pomegranate and poppy seed pods were held in high esteem. We can only assume that their life must have been just as simple. The length that they would go to seek help from the Deity could only be matched by their incredible sense of religious zeal. Though there is a massive difference between the burning of the incense lamp and child sacrifice. The relationship between the different religions in the Holy Land is interesting. It seems the Hebrew Covenant with God is a contract for the ages and the bond between the Deity and the Tel-Nami religion seems to be more immediate and self-serving. Yet at the same time, the Hebrews took the scepter and the lamp, as in the case of the Temple of King Solomon, and gave it equal honour. This shows that most faiths, certainly at this place in time, would be inclined to include the natural things in life like the pomegranate and the poppy seed pod as a means and way to express their relationship with a Divine Being.
This Post was originally presented as a Paper for the Undergraduate Religious Studies Course Introduction to Old Testament Literature - The Rev. Dr. R. Rhys Williams - Professor, College of Cape Breton and published on October 2nd, 1992.
This Paper was essentially a review of Michael Artzy's Biblical Archaeology Review Article: Pomegranate Scepters and Incense Stand 'With Pomegranates Found in Priest' s Grave. Vol. 16 No. 1 (Jan. / Feb. 1990), pp.48-51. Revised publication on July 6th, 2023.
© Dr. Charles Warner 2023