BEFORE THE TEMPLE
Four thousand years ago the stony outcrop near the top of a mountain may have already been a holy place for the Canaanites, a people often mentioned in the Bible, some of whom lived in an area west of the River Jordan that would eventually become ancient Israel.
There are places on earth that are thought of as sacred spaces, and this mountaintop was a sacred space in ancient times. What is a sacred space? Just as today you might feel closer to God or a higher power in a building of worship or camping out in a forest of tall trees, from the beginning of civilization, people have experienced those same strong emotions. There were places — some majestic like mountains, some more intimate like a hidden bubbling spring — where men, women, and children felt as if they were close to something larger than themselves and outside their everyday experiences.
Altars or temples were often built to mark these spots. And when a community was invaded by a new tribe or civilization, its holy sites were often appropriated by the newcomers. Archaeologists believe this particular rocky place was sacred to those who worshipped the Canaanite god Baal. But the first time it is written about is in the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.
Abraham is revered among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. We meet him in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. In the ancient world people usually prayed to many gods, but Abraham, tradition tells us, believed that there was only one God. God found Abraham and they made a promise to each other — also known as a covenant. Abraham would accept the Lord as his God and, in return, the Lord would provide him with his own land — the land of Canaan — and make him the father of many nations. But as the story is told in the Book of Genesis, the Lord later made a startling request of Abraham. He was to take his son Isaac, and find a particular mountain of God's choosing, in an area called Moriah. There, Abraham was to slay Isaac and then make him a burnt offering to the Lord. Without question, Abraham took Isaac to the mountain, tied him to a pyre of wood, and was about to kill him with his knife when an angel appeared and stayed his hand. God was now assured of Abraham's submission to His will. Abraham then spied a ram in a nearby thicket and captured it to use as an offering in place of his son.
This unsettling, even horrific story and its meaning have been discussed and debated for thousands of years. Jews and Christians call the tale "The Binding of Isaac." Muslims, who revere another of Abraham's sons, Ishmael, as the father of the Arab people, believe that Ishmael was the son to be sacrificed. Few who hear this story ever forget it, and because the story is remembered, so is the place where it happened, which traditions tell us is the rocky outcrop that would later become the site of the Temple Mount.
Is any of this true? Other than in religious books like the Bible and the Quran, there is no mention in recorded history of the man named Abraham. Archaeology is silent on whether any or none of this happened. But millions around the world have believed and continue to believe that the accounts in the Bible are of actual events. Others may not take the stories as fact, but still find them to have power and meaning.
Religious scholars place the time of the writing of Abraham's story about 1,800 years before the birth of Jesus, almost 4,000 years ago. Other stories in the Book of Genesis continue the family tales. Isaac had his own sons, one of whom was Jacob. During an arduous journey, Jacob laid his head down on a rock and dreamed of wrestling with an angel, which convinced him he was in a sacred place. Though the name of the location is not mentioned, that holy place, where an angel appeared, also became associated through legend with the rocky top of Mount Moriah.
Bible stories and archaeology began to merge when a town grew up around the mountain range of which Moriah was a part — Jerusalem. Bits of pottery and tombs dating back 5,000 years have been found in the area south of the oldest parts of today's Jerusalem. It was then just a settlement, though archaeology shows that there were actual towns in Canaan. One still in existence today is Jericho. But those towns were closer either to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea or to desert trade routes. The area that would become Jerusalem sat at the crest of the low range of mountains located between the fertile coastal area and the hot Judaean desert. It was not a particularly easy place to defend, a disadvantage at a time when local tribes were constantly fighting with one another.
But one thing this settlement did have was water, the Gihon Spring, and being so close to the desert, a water source was important. In recent years, archaeologists have found huge stones dating from about 1,800 years before the time of Jesus. These stones are believed to be from fortifications that guarded the precious water source from marauders. A tunnel with steps leading down to the spring dates to these same ancient times and can still be seen in Jerusalem today.
With water came people. Fourteen hundred years before the Common Era (which begins with the birth of Jesus), Jerusalem was a city. Pieces of clay cuneiform tablets, an early form of writing, show the ruler of Jerusalem writing to the Egyptian pharaoh asking for his help in putting down an uprising. (We don't have the return "mail," so we don't know if help was given or not.) Excavations have shown that from 1400 to 1200 BCE, Jerusalem was growing, with houses built on stone terraces and walls that may have been as high as thirty-three feet protecting the city.
Though archaeology gives us glimpses of the city during this period, the Bible does not mention Jerusalem. It is telling other stories about the descendants of Abraham — the people who would come to be known as Israelites, Hebrews, or Jews. When there was a drought in Canaan, the Israelites were forced to leave and travel to Egypt in search of food. There they prospered at first, but eventually their numbers grew to the point where the Egyptians became alarmed. Though these descendants of Abraham had once been welcomed in Egypt, now they were enslaved. To cut their numbers, Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler, ordered that all male babies born to Hebrew families be drowned in the River Nile. But one baby was saved by Pharaoh's daughter, and she named him Moses. Though Moses was raised as an Egyptian, he killed an Egyptian overseer he found whipping an Israelite slave. Moses had to flee for his life into the desert, where, according to the Bible, God appeared to him and told him to return to Egypt and tell Pharaoh, "Let my people go!" When Pharaoh refused to free the Israelites, Moses unleashed plagues on Egypt, culminating in the deaths of Egypt's firstborn sons. At last, Pharaoh was ready to allow the slaves their freedom. This story, known as the Exodus, is still memorialized during the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Once the Jews were free, as the biblical narrative describes, they wandered in the desert. Then, as the story continues, Moses climbed to the top of a mountain, communed with God, and descended holding stone tablets inscribed with a set of laws that his people were to live by: the Ten Commandments.
According to the Bible story, God told Moses he wanted a worthy home for these holy tablets. They were to be kept in an ark (a box, or chest) fashioned of wood from the acacia tree and then covered with gold. The size of this ark was given in biblical measurements called cubits. No one today is exactly sure how big a cubit was, but scholars think the box was about four feet long by two and a half feet wide, and almost three feet high. Two cherubim, a kind of angel, decorated the ark, one at each end, their wings touching across the ark's lid. These creatures are not the soft baby angels we think of today when we hear the word cherub, but fierce protectors, devoted to the Lord.
The ark, however, was more than just a box or chest to hold the tablets. The Jewish people believed it held the power of God. Because of this, their armies often carried it into battle by holding it on long poles that fit through golden rings on the sides of the ark.
Since the ark held the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, and because obeying the commandments was another promise (or covenant) between God and the Jewish people, the ark came to be called the Ark of the Covenant. Does that name sound familiar? Many people today recognize it from the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. Over the centuries, legends, books, and — more recently — movies have grown up around the ark and its mystical powers. But fanciful tales hardly do justice to the reverence the Jewish people felt for the ark and its contents, and the important role it played in Jewish life. One psalm (a psalm is a sacred song or prayer) called it God's might, "the ark of Your strength."
That psalm is said to have been written by another famous biblical figure, King David. And it is with David that Mount Moriah and its rocky top come back into the story.
Biblical scholars put the birth of David around 1040 BCE. Bible writings (and later commentary in the Muslim holy book, the Quran) were once the only source of information about David. But in 1993 archaeologists working in northern Israel discovered an inscribed stone, called a stele, that mentioned "the house of David." This was the first time a reference to David had been found outside religious writings. That stele, which most scholars agree is referencing a royal dynasty that began with David, is now on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
There are many heroes and villains in the Bible, but few of them seem as real and as human as King David. He was a superb warrior, a devoted friend, and a canny ruler. He was also a musician and a poet; another beautiful psalm attributed to David begins, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." But he was also ruthless. The Bible tells the story of how King David once sent a soldier to be killed in battle so that he could have the soldier's wife.
David first appears in the Bible as a shepherd boy, but he made his reputation at the court of King Saul, the first king of Israel. There, as a young man, he volunteered to take on one of the Philistine enemies, a giant named Goliath. In the dramatic Bible story, David and Goliath met in the Valley of Elah and with one stone from his slingshot, David felled Goliath and became a hero.
After Saul's death, David, now king, was able to unite the southern country where he lived, Judah (source of the word Jew), and the northern country of Israel, making them one kingdom. It was to be called Israel and its people Israelites. David then decided to put the capital city in a place almost directly in between the two former factions. David's eyes turned to Jerusalem.
It didn't bother a warrior like David that Jerusalem was already inhabited by a tribe called the Jebusites. It had everything he wanted: location, a water supply in the Gihon Spring, and a link to his ancestors Abraham and Jacob. The Jebusites were sure that they could defend their well-fortified city. They jeered at the Israelites, telling them, "Even the blind and the lame could turn you away!"
Unfortunately for the Jebusites, not even their army could withstand the Israelite soldiers. In about 1000 BCE, after a fierce fight, David made the city of Jerusalem his own.
What was Jerusalem like? Historians estimate that it was then a city of perhaps 2,000 people. It had military buildings, a palace for its king, and houses for the local population. Rather than killing those people off, as often happened when a city was conquered, it seems the Israelites moved in alongside the Jebusites, who had their own gods.
But David wanted to make sure that the God of Israel had preeminence. One of the first things he did when he captured Jerusalem was to bring the Ark of the Covenant to its new home. The ark had been lodged in a town about ten miles from Jerusalem. Now David prepared a tent-shrine for the ark at the Gihon Spring, and, according to the biblical story, he led the procession as the sacred object was carried into Jerusalem. Wearing only a linen garment, the exuberant David danced and whirled in front of the ark as it entered the city amid much music and rejoicing.
Before long though, David had a realization. "Here I am, living in a house of cedar," he told the prophet Nathan, "while the ark of God remains in a tent."
David and Nathan agreed that David should build a temple for the ark. However, according to the Bible, God said through his prophet Nathan that he did not want David to be the one to build the temple because he had shed too much blood. That job would have to wait for the right time and the right person.
The honor would go to David's son Solomon.CHAPTER 2
If David was disappointed that the Lord would not allow him to build a temple, the Bible doesn't mention it. What the Bible does say is that David took an active part in overseeing the preparations for construction while he was still alive.
The Bible describes how David went to the Jebusite king who had ruled over the city before it was taken by the Israelites and asked for the land atop the sacred mountain. Over the thousands of years since Abraham's time, Mount Moriah had taken on another name and was more commonly called Mount Zion. The king, who perhaps felt lucky to have been left alive after the battle, offered David this place as a gift, but David insisted on paying him fifty pieces of silver.
Then, according to the Bible, David busied himself drawing the plans for the temple, under the direction of God. He asked Hiram, king of Tyre, for cedarwood, and he gathered stone and stonecutters, gold, silver, and artisans to erect and beautify the building. Before David died — scholars place this event in biblical history in about 970 BCE — he entrusted his son Solomon with beginning the construction.
Solomon is another biblical figure who seems larger than life. He ruled over the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and under his reign the country became more powerful, with a strong army to protect it. Known far and wide for his wisdom, Solomon was often brought knotty problems to solve. The most famous was one concerning two women who each claimed the same baby as her own. How would Solomon decide who was telling the truth? After some thought, Solomon suggested cutting the child in two, giving each mother half. One woman was satisfied with this solution. The other was horrified. "Take him!" she cried. This declaration told Solomon all he needed to know. The real mother loved her child so much that she would hand him over to an impostor to save his life.
Solomon might have been best known for his wisdom, but he did not turn away from extravagance. His palace was filled with riches and decorated with the most opulent of luxuries, and it is reported in the Bible that he had hundreds of wives. Though Solomon's time was thousands of years ago, he has lived on in legends, literature, movies, music, and even manga.
The temple is said to have taken seven years to finish and to have been completed in the eleventh year of Solomon's reign, approximately 959 BCE. It was a magnificent structure, at least according to biblical descriptions. The temple itself was part of an enclosed compound that also housed Solomon's lavish palace. The long, narrow temple building was not particularly large. Because the biblical description is given in cubits, estimates of the size vary, but the dimensions of the temple are suggested to have been about a hundred and eighty feet long, ninety feet wide, and fifty feet high. It was surrounded by a courtyard and had three parts: a porch, a main hall, and a small, secluded area: the Holy of Holies.
Several unusual objects stood in the courtyard. A huge basin of water resting on twelve bronze cattle was important symbolically, as were so many things in the temple. Some scholars think the water was a reminder of the chaos from which God formed the universe. Others think it represented the flowing waters of the Garden of Eden. It may also have been a symbol of the tranquil water of the world to come. The courtyard was probably as far into the temple as ordinary people were allowed to come, and it was there that they would have brought sacrifices to the Lord. If you were a priest or a member of royalty, you could have moved into the porch and the main hall.
The porch's entrance was flanked by two tall bronze pillars decorated with carved lilies and pomegranates. Two doors, made of juniper wood and decorated with angels and flowers, protected a long hall, twice as long as the porch. The hall housed two large golden candlesticks; a golden table for showbread, a flatbread meant as an offering to the Lord; and an incense altar of gold- plated cedar. The walls, also featuring flower carvings, were covered in gold.