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Temples in the Hebrew Bible and in the Archaeological Record of Syria-Palestine

Michael J. Chan
Emory University


In the ancient Mediterranean, temples were at the very center of society. The same was true for ancient Israel. Temples were the residence of the deity, a source of societal blessing, and often centers of writing, learning, and political power. In what follows, we explore the topic of temples in the Hebrew Bible and in ancient Syria-Palestine.

But before engaging the topic directly, a few words are in order about how to use this electronic document. This study guide has a very practical but limited goal: it serves as a digital portal to a much broader collection of articles and resources related to temples in the Hebrew Bible and in Syria-Palestine. It is not a comprehensive article. And this is an important point to realize, because temples, of course, were found throughout the ancient Near East—in places like Mesopotamia and Egypt. These related geographical regions, however, will not be discussed here.

An outline of the study guide is provided for the reader's convenience:

  1. 1. Temples in the Hebrew Bible
    • a. Temple Defined
    • b. Precursors to the First Temple
    • c. The First Temple
    • d. The Temples of Jeroboam at Dan and Bethel
    • e. The First Temple and Josiah's Reforms
    • f. The Destruction of the First Temple
    • g. The Second Temple
    • h. Ezekiel's Visionary Temple (Ezekiel 40–48)
    • i. Temple Personnel
    • j. Psalms and the Temple

  2. 2. Temples in the Archaeological Record of Syria Palestine

  3. 3. Bibliography

Temples in the Hebrew Bible

Temple Defined

In the Hebrew Bible, a temple is often called a bayit ("house" see, e.g., 2 Sam 7:5–7, 13; 1 Kings 6–9, etc) or a hêkāl ("palace" or "temple"; see, e.g., Jer 7:4; 24:1; Hag 2:15, 18, etc.). The former is found in numerous Semitic languages (Ugaritic: bt, Phoenician: bt, Akkadian: bītu, etc.), as is the latter (e.g., Ugaritic: hkl, Phoenician: hkl, Akkadian: ekallu). Unlike bayit , hêkāl has its roots in Sumerian (Sumerian: é-gal, "big house"), a non-Semitic language used in Mesopotamia. Within the Hebrew Bible, hêkāl can be used to describe the temple complex as a whole (see, e.g., 2 Kgs 18:16; 23:4, etc.), or, in an even more limited way, the main room of the temple (see, e.g., 1 Kgs 6:5, 17, etc.). These terms are helpful starting places, for both rightly imply that a temple was a residence for a deity—a divine address, as it were.

The first part of this article discusses five temples from the Hebrew Bible: the First Temple (Solomon's Temple), the two rival northern temples established by Jeroboam, the Second Temple dedicated in 516 BCE, and the temple described in Ezekiel's vision (Ezekiel 40–48).

Precursors to Solomon's Temple

But, according to the Hebrew Bible, other cultic sites and complexes preceded these five temples. For instance, the mobile Tabernacle (see, e.g., Exodus 25–31, 35–40) was the center of worship from the time of Moses to the time of David. The inner-most part of the Tabernacle housed the famed Ark—often called the Ark of the Covenant—which David eventually relocated to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6), and which Solomon, in time, placed in the Temple (1 Kgs 6:19). The First Temple was, in many ways, a grander, more permanent version of the Tabernacle.

Whereas the Tabernacle and the Ark were mobile, there were numerous other physical religious sites where rituals took place. These sites include, but are not limited to, Shiloh, where the priesthood of Eli was centered, Shechem, and Dan.

The First Temple

According to the Hebrew Bible, the construction of the First Temple was undertaken by Solomon. This process is described in 1 Kings 6–7 and 2 Chronicles 2–5. While the historicity of these accounts is debatable, they do present the events in a manner that is consistent with other ancient Near Eastern temple-building narratives (see Hurowitz 1992). For instance, Solomon utilizes luxury materials from Lebanon (1 Kgs 5:20–28), a famous region of the Near East whose cedar was highly prized for royal and cultic building projects (see, e.g., Baal's temple-building narrative in KTU 1.4 VI 18–21). For other examples, see Hurowitz 1992. The architectural features of this temple—including its dimensions, layout, cultic implements, etc.—are also provided, sometimes in excruciating detail. For a discussion of the temple's architectural features, see the helpful article by John Lundquist in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. And for a discussion of the symbolism of the temple, see Bloch-Smith 1994.

But as noted above, there are two accounts of the building of Solomon's temple, one in 1 Kings and one in 2 Chronicles. How are they different? And why does the Hebrew Bible have two? The "Chronicler" (an academic term for the author(s) responsible for 1–2 Chronicles) has a very distinct view of both the temple and its building process. According to Steven Mckenzie in How to Read the Bible, four interests shape the Chronicler's history:

  1. 1. The idealization of the reigns of David and Solomon as the "golden age" of Israel and the presentation of the two men, especially Solomon, as model kings.

  2. 2. The central importance of the temple, its worship, and its personnel to the faith and life of Israel.

  3. 3. The unity of "all Israel" as Yahweh's chosen people.

  4. 4. The idea of immediate reward for righteousness or retribution for evildoing.

These interests deeply affected his retelling of the temple-building narrative. For example, he creates a number of speeches not found in either Samuel or Kings (1 Chronicles 22, 28, 29), in which David claims that Solomon was chosen to build the temple. David, moreover, seems to play a more active role in preparing for the construction of the temple than he does in 1 Kings. These speeches do not necessarily contradict the picture given in 1 Kings, then, but they do underscore Solomon's election by Yhwh and David's involvement in the actual construction of the temple. The Chronicler's emphasis on David, Solomon, and the First Temple probably tells us more about the Chronicler and his own time (the "Persian Period") than it does about the actual building of the First Temple, for which we have little to no archaeological evidence (see below).

The Temples of Jeroboam at Dan and Bethel

In order to consolidate his new break-away kingdom, Jeroboam set up golden calves at Dan and Bethel. Jacob had had a dream at Bethel, where he erected a stone and made a vow to Yhwh (Gen 28:10–22). And 1 Samuel 10:3 and Amos 5:5 indicate that, at some points in Israel's history, ritual activity occurred there. Little is known from the Hebrew Bible about the religious origins of the site of Dan. Judges 18:28–30 suggests that it was named after Dan, the ancestor of the Danites, and that it had some religious significance for the tribe. But other than these traditional fragments, which may not correspond to historical reality, we don't know much about the prehistory of these sites, and given the polemical nature of the narrative in 1 Kings 12 it is hard to know how much we can actually know about Jeroboam's temples. Taking the account at face value, Jeroboam established the golden calves as objects of veneration, created a new non-Levitical priesthood and established a rival pilgrimage feast of Tabernacles on the fifteenth day of the eighth month (see 1 Kgs 12:28–33).

The First Temple and Josiah's Reforms

According to both Chronicles and Kings, the First Temple also plays a prominent role during the reign of Josiah. In 622 BCE, Josiah enacted a number of reforms that, among other things, limited sacrificial worship to Jerusalem and attempted to remove foreign elements from the cult (see "Deuteronomy: Introduction; The Historical Context and Literary Background" [The Jewish Study Bible], along with 2 Kings 22–23; 2 Chronicles 34–35). This "Josianic reform" seems to take its cue from the laws of an earlier version of Deuteronomy. The reform, moreover, understands the unnamed "place which Yhwh your God will choose" (see, e.g., Deut 12:5) to be Jerusalem itself.

The Destruction of the First Temple

While the temple was stripped of valuables on several occasions (see, e.g., 1 Kgs 14:25–26; 15:16–21, etc.), the most devastating and decisive incident occurred in 587 BCE, when it was looted and destroyed by the Babylonians; see 2 Kgs 25:9–17; cf. Jer 52:12–23). According to the Hebrew Bible, Nebuzaradan—a servant of Nebuchadnezzar—burned the bêt Yhwh (the "House/Temple of Yhwh"), the bêt hammelek (the "House/Palace of the King") and all the batê yěrûšālaim ("houses of Jerusalem"): governmental, religious, and domestic life was annihilated in this devastating act of aggression. This event, then, not only marks the end of the First Temple, it also marks the end of the Judahite monarchy's reign from Jerusalem.

The Second Temple

When scholars speak of the "Second Temple," they are referring to the building project that was begun just after Cyrus II decreed that the Jews could return to Yehud and rebuild the Temple (see Ezra 1; 2 Chronicles 36) in 538 BCE. After a delay of some time, the temple was eventually completed ca. 516–515 BCE. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah played a significant role by encouraging the building process. But this Second Temple met with mixed reviews: some of the older generation who had seen the former temple, wept at the laying of the new foundation, while others shouted for joy (Ezra 3:12).

Around 20 BCE, Herod the Great, began a massive renovation of the Second Temple. The project wasn't completed, however, until around 64 CE by Agrippa II. These renovations did not interrupt the regular offerings or sacrifices. During Rome's suppression of the first Jewish Revolt, however, the newly renovated Second Temple became the object of imperial ire: only six years after its completion, in the summer of 70 CE, the soldiers of Titus burned the temple. Several years later, Rome assaulted the stronghold at Masada, where numerous Jewish rebels met their ends. The burning of the renovated Second Temple marks the end of the "Second Temple Period" and the beginning of the "classical rabbinic era."

Ezekiel's Visionary Temple

In Ezekiel 40–48 (see "Priesthood, Temples, and Sacrifice: Ezekiel" [The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies]), the prophet Ezekiel relates a dramatic vision in which he sees a temple that is inspired by the First Temple, in which he served as a priest. There are, however, many features in Ezekiel's vision that are not found in either the original temple or pentateuchal legislation. For one, a large stream flows out from the threshold of the Temple (Ezekiel 47). This stream, which Ezekiel himself enters, has life-giving properties. Moreover, the priesthood is given exclusively to the sons of Zadok (see Ezek 44:15). The Levites who "forsook Me" are not permitted to serve as priests (see Ezek 44:10–14). Other idiosyncrasies in the prophet's vision of worship in the restored Temple are even at odds with pentateuchal law, such as his regulations for the Passover. Ezekiel's Temple is clearly an ideal, one that was never concretized in reality, and these visionary and idealistic dynamics should be kept in mind when interpreting the vision.

Temple Personnel

Up to this point, I have refrained from directly addressing an important question: Who exactly gets to be a priest? The answer one receives depends on where one is reading in the Hebrew Bible. Different answers are given by P and the Chronicler, the book of Ezekiel, D (the deuteronomist), and J/E (the Jahwist and the Elohist). While some of these sources (e.g., J, E, D, and P) are now contested by scholars, I will continue to use them since scholarly literature related to the priesthood is normally framed in these terms. For textual citations substantiating the claims made below, see the linked articles and Menahem Haran's helpful work on temples and the priesthood (1985), which I draw on extensively here.

For P and Chronicles, only Aaron and his sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, are permitted to serve as priests. Aaron's family is part of the larger tribe of Levi. Levites who are not descended from Aaron's sons, however, are given a subordinate status—hence the distinction between the "priests and the Levites" (see, e.g., 1 Chr 15:14). This has more to do with their religious roles than with their tribal associations, since both sons of Aaron and Levites are, technically speaking, part of the tribe of Levi. The Levites guarded the temple and assisted by helping with tasks that were not immediately related to the altar. Ezekiel's understanding of the priesthood is similar to P's, except that, for him, the priesthood is limited to the sons of Zadok, who—not unproblematically—are in the lineage of Aaron (see 1 Chr 6:1–8, 49–53).

D, J, and E, however, have a very different view of the priesthood. According to these sources, there are no hierarchical divisions in the family of Levi, except those based on gender. All male members of the clan may be priests, as long as they are at a temple.

Jeroboam did not afford special status to Aaron's sons—or to any of the Levites for that matter. In fact, 1 Kings 13 polemically describes him as appointing anyone he wished (1 Kgs 13:33). Second Chronicles intensifies this description of Jeroboam by claiming that he explicitly excluded Levites from serving Yhwh (2 Chr 11:13–17).

Psalms and the Temple

Many if not most of the extant psalms probably played a role in ancient Israel and early Judaism's worship at the temple. Some texts suggest as much. Hannah, for instance offers a prayer to Yhwh after bringing Samuel to the byt Yhwh at Shiloh (see 1 Sam 2:1–10). In Chronicles, David commissions Levitical singers to praise Yhwh at the temple. Among their number was Asaph (1 Chr 16:4–5; cf. 1 Chronicles 25) to whom a collection of Psalms are attributed (Psalms 50, 7383). And since the time of Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932), form critics have explored how the form and content of psalms might provide clues as to the psalms' social settings (Sitze im Leben). The Songs of Ascents (see Psalms 120–134), for example, may have been by pilgrim songs, though this is a debated point. In short, form critics utilize a set of tools that help them hypothesize about how certain psalms or groups of psalms were used in particular religious settings.

Moving away from the social world of ancient Israel and into the literary world of the psalms themselves, the temple is frequently a topic of reflection. In Psalm 84, the poet yearns for the courts of Yhwh, and points out the happiness of those who inhabit Yhwh's house (Ps 84:3–5; cf. Pss 26:8; 27:4; 65:5). Psalm 15 asks, "Lord, who may sojourn in Your tent, who may dwell on Your holy mountain?" (v. 1, TNK). The temple is also a locus of fertility, abundance, and life (see, e.g., Pss 52:10; 92:13–15). Needless to say, a great deal more could be said about the temple in the Psalter, but from the following discussion it is abundantly clear that the temple and the Psalms are inextricably tied to one another.

Temples in the Archaeological Record of Syria Palestine

The substantial amount of evidence for temples in the Hebrew Bible might lead one to believe that an equally substantial amount of evidence is also available in archaeological sources. This assumption would be both correct and incorrect. On the one hand, temples, shrines, and other sacred places can be found throughout Syria-Palestine. On the other hand, there is very little evidence related directly to either the First Temple or to the Zerubbabel stage of the Second Temple. The two temples, in other words, are exclusively textual temples—attested to in the pages of the Hebrew Bible, but missing (as of yet) in the dirt of Syria-Palestine.

In spite of this unfortunate dearth of evidence for the First and Second Temples, archaeological finds related to other sacred places in and around Syria-Palestine are abundant. This evidence can, at times, provide indirect information about temples and religious sites and practices mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. In what follows, then, I will list a number of sites and finds related to temples or other sacred architecture. The list of sites is drawn, in part, from a helpful article on temples by Beth Alpert Nakhai in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. Sites that may be relevant but which lack corresponding articles on the Oxford Biblical Studies Online Website, however, are not included. Each site is organized alphabetically and includes a link to an entry where additional information can be found.


  • Bloch-Smith, Elizabeth. "'Who is the King of Glory?' Solomon's Temple and its Symbolism." Pages 18-31 in Scripture and Other Artifacts: Essays on the Bible and Archaeology in Honor of Philip J. King. Edited by Michael D. Coogan, J. Cheryl Exum, and Lawrence E. Stager. Louisville: Westminister, 1994.
  • Boda, Mark J. and Jamie Novotny, eds. From the Foundations to the Crenellations: Essays on Temple Building in the Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible. Münster: Ugarit Verlag, 2010.
  • Crawford, Harriet E.W. The Architecture of Iraq in the Third Millennium B.C. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1977.
  • Cross, F.M. "The Priestly Tabernacle and the Temple of Solomon." Pages 84-95 in From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
  • Day, John, ed. Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 422. London: T & T Clark, 2005.
  • Haran, Menahem. Temples and Temple Services in Ancient Israel. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1985.
  • Heinrich, Ernst. Die Tempel und Heiligtümer im Alten Mesopotamien: Typologie, Morphologie und Geschicte. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1982.
  • Hurowitz, V.A. I Have Built You an Exalted House: Temple Building in the Bible in Light of Mesopotamian and Northwest Semitic Writings. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 115/ Journal for the Study of the Old Testament/American Schools of Oriental Research Monographs 5. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.
  • Kraus, F.R. The Role of Temples from the Third Dynasty of Ur to the First Dynasty of Babylon. Monographs of the Ancient Near East 2. Malibu: Undena Publications, 1990.
  • Monson, John. "The 'Ain Dara Temple and the Jerusalem Temple." Pages 273-299 in Text, Artifact, and Image: Revealing Ancient Israelite Religion. Edited by Gary Beckman and Theodore J. Lewis. Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies, 2006.
  • VanderKam, James C. From Joshua to Caiaphas: High Priests after the Exile. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.
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