In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, God descends on Mount Sinai in fire, smoke, earthquake, thunder, and the noise of horns, and proclaims the Ten Commandments, including the prohibition against having other gods.
This prohibition assumes that other gods do exist; God just wants exclusive worship. A few years ago I wrote an essay on this commandment and three Psalms that say all other gods are all inferior and subordinate to the God of Israel. You can read it here: Yitro & Psalms 29, 82, & 97: Greater Than Other Gods.
Other gods have been on my mind during our stay near the palace the Roman emperor Diocletian built in Split, Croatia. I walk past the Temple of Jupiter, built around 300 C.E. for Diocletian’s top god and metaphorical “father”, and converted in the 6th century into a Christian baptistery. I’ve seen Split’s cathedral, which was once the emperor’s mausoleum; the Catholic art here is less gory than in many cathedrals, but the man on the cross still strikes me as an “other god” who has nothing to do with the God of Jews.
And in the eastern cellars of Diocletian’s Palace, I’ve seen both five-branched menorahs and the letters “BAL” carved into wall stones.
The menorah described in Exodus 25:32-28 has seven branches and seven lamps, like the one looted from the temple in Jerusalem and sculpted on the 1st-century Arch of Titus in Rome, and like the ones decorating 4th-century clay lamps from farther north on the Dalmatian coast.
But the four menorah carvings in Diocletian’s cellars have only five branches. Archaeologists have also found a relief of a five-branched menorah from a 4th-century sarcophagus in the Roman ruins of Salona nearby.
The mystery about the number of branches is still unsolved, as well as the date and purpose of the menorahs scratched into the stones of two wide corridors in Diocletian’s cellars. One theory is that they date to the 7th century, when the city of Salona to the north was captured by Avars and Slavs. Both Jews and Christians fled and moved into the shell of Diocletian’s Palace, where they occupied the rooms that were still standing and also built stone houses of their own. Some of the cellars were used as warehouses, and the marks on the walls might have identified the owners of various sections of storage space.
Another theory is that some of the stone blocks in the eastern cellar walls came from Roman buildings erected on the shore before Diocletian started building his retirement palace in the 290’s. The site Diocletian chose for his palace complex sloped down to the sea, so he built the cellars under the south end to create a level ground floor for the entirety of the fortification (and to raise his own living quarters well above water level). Other remnants of earlier Roman structures have been found in the cellars. Could the menorahs have been scratched into the wall stones of a previous building to indicate ownership by Roman Jews?
Either way, it disconcerts me to see the menorah carvings interspersed with the carved Roman letters “BAL” in the same cellar hall.1
In Hebrew, baal (בַּעַל) = owner, lord, husband. Local gods were called the baal of ____, with the blank filled in by a place name. For example, in the book of Bemidbar/Numbers, the Israelites go to feasts for Baal Pe-or.2 Occasionally the Torah calls God baal, as in poetic passages comparing the Israelites to a bride and God to a husband. But usually a baal is a foreign god, the kind that the Israelites are forbidden to serve.
The Hebrew Bible reports widespread worship of two foreign gods in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 7th century B.C.E.: Baal and Asherah.3 Were there Roman Jews five or six centuries later who still worshiped both the God of Israel and Baal? Did the same people carve both symbols into the stones?
Probably not. Although Jews living with Romans might well have learned the Roman alphabet, they would have used Hebrew letters for anything related to their own community. Even if they wanted to add words to their menorah carvings, and chose the word baal to confirm that they were the baalim, the owners, of that hall, they had no reason to use an alien alphabet.
Furthermore, the letters BAL are carved more deeply into the stone than the menorahs, implying a different carver or a different technique. And why does one BAL have its letters reversed? Why is there another motif, a circle within a circle, in several of the eastern cellars?
I still hope to find out why the menorahs in Diocletian’s cellars have five branches. A similar five-branch menorah carving was discovered in in Jerusalem during an excavation of an ancient drainage ditch in 2011. Maybe by now the stone will be in a museum, and I can see it and read more about it than I could find on-line. We fly to Israel only two weeks from now.
- The corridor labeled 17E by archaeologists.
- Numbers 25:1-3.
- 1 Kings 18:18-21, in which Elijah challenges the worship of two gods that Queen Jezebel imported from Phoenicia. The worship of either Baal or Asherah is also mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.