Solomon’s Temple on the Jerusalem Temple Mount was likely not the only site of centralized worship in the Holy Land region of Judah, according to research newly published in the Biblical Archaeology Review by a team of archaeologists from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority.
A massive Iron Age II temple complex, which stood from around 900 BCE until circa the early sixth century BCE, is currently being excavated at Tel Motza, just seven kilometers (four miles) northwest of ancient Jerusalem’s City of David. First discovered in 2012, the Motza temple is contemporaneous with the First Temple in Jerusalem and uses the same architectural plan.
It would have been about two-thirds the size of the First Temple and was likely built by similar builders who came to the region from Syria in the north, as described in the Bible, the IAA’s Shua Kisilevitz told The Times of Israel on Monday.
Due to Motza’s proximity to the First Temple in Jerusalem, the excavation’s principal researchers, Kisilevitz and Prof. Oded Lipschits of TAU’s Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology, hypothesize that this separate cultic site would have been approved by the administration of the Jerusalem “main branch.”
“You could not have built a major monumental temple so close to Jerusalem without it being sanctioned by the ruling polity,” said Kisilevitz. The fact that the temple at Motza functioned in parallel with the larger Jerusalem site means that it was “probably under the auspices of Jerusalem,” she said, which is a really different way of conceiving of religious practices during the era of the legendary United Monarchy and beyond.
Kisilevitz said that while the entire perimeter of Motza’s cultic structure has yet to be uncovered, the excavations have so far yielded every indication of a parallel worship center.
“It’s almost like a checklist for what we’d expect to find — though of course we would like to see more — but it’s more than what has been found so far in the region,” Kisilevitz said.
She noted the temple’s east-west orientation and a layout that consists of a courtyard and a large rectangular building. This blueprint was developed in the Near East in the third millennium BCE and is found at other cultic centers in the region, including the Jerusalem Temple and ‘Ain Dara and Tell Ta‘yinat in Syria.
An altar found in the Motza courtyard positioned directly in front of the building’s entrance is another check on Kisilevitz’s list. “A temple is not a place that worshipers entered; rather, they gathered in the courtyard. That’s where we expect to see remains of activity,” she said.
Among the other remains of worship activity are a stone-built offering table, and “a whole lot of artifacts,” including figurines, cult stands, and chalices, which would have both been brought by the penitents and been the “furniture” of the temple.
Another telling clue is a nearby refuse pit, where the team discovered bone and pottery remains. Kisilevitz explained that it was used in a similar way that Jews today use a geniza for sacred texts.
“Anything that you use in a temple, the animals or the vessels, is imbued with religious symbolism and becomes sacred on its own when used in religious rituals. So they can’t be discarded; rather are deposited in the sacred terminus,” she said.
The four figurines discovered at the site — two human-like and two horses — may indicate that the temple was used for worshiping a variety of gods, not just Yahweh as in Jerusalem.
Kisilevitz noted that the Bible records two religious reforms enacted by King Hezekiah and King Josiah, and said wryly that the fact that there were two is very telling about the widespread cultic practices that were being forbidden. According to the biblical account, the kings consolidated worship practices to the Jerusalem temple and eliminated cultic activity beyond its boundaries.
She maintained the figurines — or idols — were not necessarily worshiped, but rather were mediators between the petitioner and his deity or deities.
“We have to think about things within their contexts… In the ancient Near East, temples were literal houses of the gods,” she said. So along with food, drink, and vessel offerings, these figurines were “a way of reminding the god that you were there and put in a request,” she laughed.
It is still unclear, she said, when the Judahites eliminated polytheism and Yahweh became the main deity.
“If we were to transport ourselves to Judah in the 8th century,” she said, we would be struck by the hugely different ways in which the people then worshiped compared to today.
What future excavations may uncover
The floor plan of the Motza temple is not fully clear, as parts of the walls are still covered. The archaeologists hope to uncover more in the upcoming 2020 and 2021 spring seasons, with a team of 50 participants, including staff and students from Tel Aviv University, Charles University (Prague) in the Czech Republic, Universität Osnabrück in Germany and UCLA in the United States, according to the TAU press release.
Among the other lingering questions the team hopes to unearth is when its use as a cultic site halted.
“Until when it was in use is a key issue,” said Kisilevitz. The researchers are very interested to know whether it could have continued as a temple after the reforms instituted by King Josiah in circa 640–609 BCE. “Unfortunately, we do not yet have an answer,” she said.
According to the excavation’s website, there have been numerous surveys at the site, primarily salvage excavations ahead of a new road to Jerusalem, in 1993, 2002, 2003, and 2012–2013. During these excavations, archaeologists discovered that this fertile area was first settled some 9,000 years ago, and there was an almost continual presence there until today.
According to the website, it is “situated towards the bottom of a slope on a saddle encompassed by springs and expansive agricultural lands, and dominating the gateway to Jerusalem along the ancient road leading from the lowlands (Coastal Plain and Shephelah) into the central hill country. The Soreq and Moẓa/Arza valleys converge at the base of the slope and form a wide basin known for its fertile soil and seasonal water flow.”
The large number of artifacts dating to the Iron Age II (10th to 6th centuries BCE) during these earlier excavations allowed archaeologists to identify the site as biblical Moẓah, which is noted in the Book of Joshua 18 as a city in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin.
In 2009, archaeologists Zvi Greenhut and Alon De Groot called the site “a royal granary specializing in grain storage, which supplied its products first and foremost to Jerusalem,” based on the discovery of dozens of silos and two storage buildings. Thanks to the wealth attained through the grain, the residents of Motza were apparently affluent enough to build and maintain their own temple.
They were not alone in their extra-Jerusalem cultic activity — remains of idols were found in excavations in Beit Shemesh, and earlier digs have found a small 8th century BCE worship center in the Arad border garrison, as well as apparently cultic rooms in Lachish.
Until this Motza discovery, there have been no known large-scale, purpose-built temples in the region of Judah outside of Jerusalem, but Kisilevitz doesn’t think it will be the last.
“Definitely there is cultic activity going on throughout the region. I think at some point we will find more temples,” she said. The people of the time were clearly conducting “cultic acts,” she said, hypothesizing that every settlement would have had some kind of center, depending upon its size and resources.
The Motza temple, however, gives proof to the idea of such worship being approved by the Jerusalem priestly classes.
“Despite the biblical narratives describing Hezekiah’s and Josiah’s reforms, there were sanctioned temples in Judah in addition to the official temple in Jerusalem,” said Lipschits in a TAU press release. “Our discoveries thus far have fundamentally changed the way we understand the religious practices of Judahites.”