Monotheism, Ancient Religions, and Idolatry

Lesson Objectives: In this unit, students will learn about the difference between the ancient Israelites and their polytheistic neighbors. They will discuss the centrality of the first and second commandments to ancient and contemporary Judaism and will learn about other religions’ ritual objects, idols, and gods. During this unit’s hands-on project, students will learn about how ancient communities signed documents by creating their own cylinder seals.

Guiding Thematic Questions:

  • What are some similarities and differences between the founding mythology of different religious traditions from the ancient Middle East?
  • In what ways is monotheism an important aspect of Jewish identity and practice?
  • How are magic and religion related?

Historical Context:

  • There were many religions in the Ancient Middle East. Most of these religions were Polytheistic in nature, meaning multiple gods were worshipped. Some well known polytheistic pantheons include the Sumerian gods, Egyptian gods, ancient Greek and Roman pantheon, and Norse pantheon. 
  • Israelites were set apart from their neighbors by their religious practices. Ancient Israelite religion, however, was originally polytheistic, worshipping deities including El, Baal, Asherah, and Astarte. As their beliefs evolved, they became increasingly opposed to the worship of other gods and, at the beginning of the Babylonian captivity, a group of priests and scribes established the practice of monotheism– the conception of a singular Jewish God– as essential to Judaism.
  • Cylinder seals could function as a person’s signature and were highly personalized, often containing images of what the person was closely associated with, scenes that they found important or even their name. Most seals seem to have had a hole through their center so that they might be worn on a necklace to make them more readily accessible.

Fun Facts:

  • In many polytheistic religions, deities were connected with animals. This is why votive statues and amulets often depict an animal in dedication to a specific god or goddess so as to bring the favor of that god to the person who owns it.
  • According to 1 Kings 11:5, one of King Solomon’s wives followed Astarte, a goddess of war and love in ancient Phonecian and Canaanite cultures. Depicted on the cylinder seal in this unit is Astarte entering the underworld.

Object Images:

Pendant in shape of calf
3rd millennium BCE
Quartz (Aventurine)
1.5” wide
Carlos Museum, Emory University

Cylinder Seal and roll-out impression: Astarte entering the underworld
2000-1600 BCE
Quartz (Jasper)
1.5” tall
Carlos Museum, Emory University

Incantation Bowl
600-651 CE
7” diameter
Carlos Museum, Emory University

Classroom Discussion Questions:

What are cylinder seals used for?

Why is practicing magic forbidden in Judaism?

What is the importance of the first commandment?

What are some of the traditions and practices used to worship God in Judaism?

Project: Cylinder Seals


  • clay
  • toothpick or other carving implement
  • string (optional)
  • play-dough/wet clay


  1. choose a symbol of Judaism, a family image, or another identifier for your cylinder seal. you can also choose more generic patterns for the design
  2. roll the clay into a cylindrical shape and carve your design with a toothpick or other implement. remember that the seal should be backwards so that when it’s rolled onto the clay it comes out facing the right way. you may poke a hole through the seal for threading a string through once it’s dried
  3. bake the clay in an oven according to instructions
  4. you may thread a piece of string through the seal if desired
  5. once dried, you can press the seal into wet clay to reveal your design