Tallay Ornan’s important book, The triumph of the symbol: Pictorial representation of deities in Mesopotamia and the biblical image ban, is now available as a PDF for free download. Here’s the abstract:
This book analyzes the history of Mesopotamian imagery from the mid-second to mid-first millennium BCE. It demonstrates that in spite of rich textual evidence, which grants the Mesopotamian gods and goddesses an anthropomorphic form, there was a clear abstention in various media from visualizing the gods in such a form. True, divine human-shaped cultic images existed in Mesopotamian temples. But as a rule, non-anthropomorphic visual agents such as inanimate objects, animals or fantastic hybrids replaced these figures when they were portrayed outside of their sacred enclosures. This tendency reached its peak in first-millennium Babylonia and Assyria. The removal of the Mesopotamian human-shaped deity from pictorial renderings resembles the Biblical agenda not only in its avoidance of displaying a divine image but also in the implied dual perception of the divine: according to the Bible and the Assyro-Babylonian concept the divine was conceived as having a human form; yet in both cases anthropomorphism was also concealed or rejected, though to a different degree. In the present book, this dual approach toward the divine image is considered as a reflection of two associated rather than contradictory religious worldviews. The plausible consolidation of the relevant Biblical accounts just before the Babylonian Exile or, more probably within the Exile – in both cases during a period of strong Assyrian and Babylonian hegemony – points to a direct correspondence between comparable religious phenomena. It is suggested that far from their homeland and in the absence of a temple for their god, the Judahite deportees adopted and intensified the Mesopotamian avoidance of anthropomorphic pictorial portrayals of deities. While the Babylonian representations remained confined to temples, the exiles would have turned a cultic reality – i.e., the non-written Babylonian custom – into a written, articulated law that explicitly forbade the pictorial representation of God.