The Temple of Solomon
As a general rule in the Bible, the closer one is to the beginning of the text the more fictitious the characters tend to be. So, for instance, Abraham never really lived but Moses did. More importantly, the narrative surrounding the actual historical figure is quite muddled by mythology and ethnicity. Seemingly unbeknownst to many, the truth is that about three and a half millennia ago, the native inhabitants of Jerusalem were the Canaanites. Their minor kingdoms were nestled between two major empires, that of Egypt and Mesopotamia. More to the point, some of those indigenous people were enslaved as prisoners of war by their Pharaonic neighbors to the south, but they were eventually set free by a rebel named Moses.
After that, the refugees made their way to the land of the Midianites, where the wandering band of nomadic Canaanites adopted a new god named Yahweh, thereby rejecting Baal and the old gods. Then, the prophet Moses and his followers returned to their old homeland with a new replacement culture, thus giving rise to the Judeans in the so-called “Promised Land”. As part of the iconoclastic zeitgeist of that paradigm shift toward a new way of life for the Jews, the reign of King David lasted from about 1010 BCE to 970 BCE. Note that this is the same David who slew the giant Philistine named Goliath. Also, take note of the relevant geography in the map below which shows the old boundaries for the kingdom of Judah and the surrounding territories.
To begin with, in one particular version of history, when the great warrior-king was on his deathbed, David’s seventeen sons were summoned to his bedside by his lover Bethsheba. There, she convinced David that his youngest son should become heir to the throne. So, when the boy became a teenager, Solomon was made the ruler of Judah. There, in the capital city of Jerusalem, the pampered prince inherited more than just a crown. His father had previously obtained the Ark of the Covenant which had been handed down from the time of Moses and had now been entrusted to him. This was all recorded and embellished by Solomon and his court scribes in the Old Testament.
Before he died, King David had planned to build the “First Temple” modeled after the Tabernacle in order to permanently house the Ark of the Covenant. Of course, although he had drawn up the plans himself, it was his son King Solomon who actually oversaw the construction, which began in the year 967 BCE. To do this, the dictatorial despot mainly used forced labor and oppressive taxation. Solomon also called in some favors from powerful people. For instance, the Bible describes how Hiram I of Tyre furnished King Solomon with cedar timbers for the Temple. Similarly, expert Phoenician craftsmen were employed en masse to help construct the monumental public works project.
Fortunately, King Solomon was a fabulously wealthy and wise ruler. This perfectly encapsulates the kind of character that he had. The thing is that his territory didn’t really contain precious metal mines, so he had to get them in a different way. In a bold and brilliant move on his part, knowing that the Edomites to the south needed to sell their bronze to the Israelites in the north, Solomon made them pay for safe passage through his kingdom. This is how Judah was able to amass a small fortune in order to finance the construction of the lavish Temple of Solomon, the inner walls of which were lined with pure gold.
Once it was built, the First Temple was principally dedicated to Yahweh. This is important to note because Yahweh and Asherah headed a pantheon of Judean deities that were being worshiped since the time of Moses. It seems that polytheism still had not yet given way to monotheism in the ways that theologians describe. Regardless, during the preliminary construction of the Temple of Solomon, a special inner room named the “Holy of Holies” was prepared to receive and house the Ark of the Covenant, as shown in the illustration below. Then, once a year, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, thus seeking atonement for his people.
Not surprisingly, the Temple was completed in 7 years, which has tremendous numerological significance, especially in Judaism. Moreover, at the unveiling of the Temple, Solomon led a massive assembly in prayer. He explained how the construction of the Temple represented a fulfillment of his Holy Father to his holy father. That is to say, God’s promise to David. Solomon then went on to dedicate the Temple as a place of prayer and reconciliation for the Judeans and for foreigners living in Judah. In conclusion, he highlighted the paradox that God who lives in Heaven cannot really be contained within a single building here on Earth. Still, the Temple of Solomon was meant to be Yahweh’s home away from home as it were.
With that being said, the Temple must have been something very special to witness in person. After all, right outside of the Temple of Solomon, the brazen altar of sacrifice was 20 cubits long, 20 cubits wide, and 10 cubits high, with a cubit being the length from the crook of the elbow to the tip of the middle finger or about one and a half feet. More importantly, that was where the sacrificial animals were given as burnt offerings. Along with this, on the southeast side of the Temple was the molten sea, which rested on the backs of twelve oxen, with three pointing in each of the cardinal directions. Water from the larger vessel was poured into ten bronze water basins on both sides of the Temple, which could then be wheeled around for the cleansing rituals that were conducted by the priests.
At the front of the Temple of Solomon were two large bronze pillars that flanked the porch, as shown in the image below. The tops of these were decorated with lily flower petals and pomegranates. The main doors of the Temple were made of two large bi-folding doors covered in gold with cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers. The priests, who represented Judah, were the only ones allowed into the innermost chambers. Once they went through the main doors they entered a large room, 40 cubits long, 20 cubits wide, and 30 cubits tall. The room was lit by ten large menorahs, five on each side of the room. They were kept constantly burning. There were also narrow windows on each side of the top of the room for ventilation and further illumination.
On the right side of the room was located the table of showbread, which had twelve large flat loaves. The priests ate and then replaced the showbread every Sabbath. Before entering the Holy of Holies, the High Priest passed through a veil woven from purple, red, blue, and white threads and embroidered with cherubim. The Holy of Holies was the shape of a perfect cube, being 20 cubits wide, long, and tall. It was overlaid with gold and decorated with cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers. At the heart of it all, two large cherubim flanked the Ark of the Covenant, which was in the center of the Holy of Holies, with their wings stretching all the way from one side of the room to the other.
As part of David and Solomon’s grand design, Palestine became pivotal in connecting Asia with Africa in antiquity. In no time at all, the Temple of Solomon became a major slaughterhouse and a vital part of Judah’s economy. As such, the ceremonial dedication of Solomon’s Temple was concluded with the sacrifice of thousands of heads of cattle in the year 960 BCE. The animals were ritualistically offered to Yahweh outside the Temple of Solomon, in the middle of the court that was in front of the House of the Lord. This was done because the altar inside wasn’t big enough for the offerings being made that day. The epic event lasted eight days and was attended by a great assembly that had gathered from the Entrance of Hamath to the Brook of Egypt.
From that glorious start all the way up until the bitter end, almost four centuries later, the Temple of Solomon stood as a testament to the purpose and power of Judaism. However, in the end, the Temple of Solomon was plundered by King Nebuchadnezzar II when the Neo-Babylonian Empire attacked Jerusalem during the reign of Jehoiachin in 598 BCE. Then, about a decade later, Nebuchadnezzar II again besieged the Holy City. After thirty months the Neo-Babylonians finally breached the city walls in 586 BCE, subsequently plundering and razing the Temple of Solomon in the process. Presumably, whatever remains of the once great Temple now lies under the Dome of the Rock on Mount Moriah, just waiting to be uncovered.