Photo by David Harris/Collection Israel Museum

This molten calf was discovered by chance on a high ridge near Mt. Ebal, in northern Samaria. Subsequent excavations revealed what the excavator, Amihai Mazar, identified as a hilltop cult site—a biblical bamah, or “high place”—dating to the 12th century B.C.E., when Israel was emerging in Canaan. Measuring 5 inches tall by 7 inches long, this bronze is the largest figurine of a calf ever found in the Levant. Its empty eyesockets probably once held inlays of glass or semiprecious stones. The small hump on its back, above the forelegs, identifies this as a Zebu bull (Bos indicus), a species that originated in India but was present in the Near East as early as the fourth millennium B.C.E.

The bull motif is common in Near Eastern iconography as a symbol of power and fertility. This figurine may have been a votive offering, but its relatively large size suggested to the excavator that this bull, like the Golden Calf of Exodus, may have been worshiped publicly as a deity. The Bible describes various periods when the Israelites and their leaders drifted away from devotion to YHWH alone and worshiped such idols.