When the editor of BAR asked me to write an article on Israelite incense stands, I knew that limiting the article to incense stands would make the task almost impossible. Many of the stands he would want me to include—once thought by scholars to be incense stands—were not used for incense at all.
But that wasn’t the only problem: The subject could hardly be confined to the Israelites. Often we can’t be sure whether some of these stands were used by Israelites or by some other ancient Near Eastern people. More important, the use of these stands was so widespread throughout the ancient Near East that it would be foolish to try to understand them apart from this broader context comprising many diverse cultures.
I thought of defining the subject more broadly as cult stands. “Cult” has an unfortunate connotation for many people, but to scholars it carries no pejorative baggage. It refers simply to religion; a cultic function is a religious function. So how about making the subject of the article religious stands or offering stands? Well, some of these stands may have been used for nonreligious purposes:1 Some of the incense burners were probably used for cosmetic purposes, to give women a lovely odor—the perfumery of their day.
So I was left without a very clearly defined topic.