Israeli archaeologists uncover ancient temple just outside Jerusalem
A large ritual structure has been discovered in excavations near Motza, only 5 kilometers from the Temple Mount; the findings shed light about the days of the Israelite Monarchy and the ritual cult in the Holy Temple.
Israeli archaeologists believe they have discovered an ancient temple in Tel Motza that operated alongside Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
The findings of the excavations, which are being carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority due to the upgrading of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, are likely to change what we know about the days of the Israelite Monarchy and the ritual cult in the Temple on the Temple Mount.
The Bible emphasizes the exclusive nature of the Temple in Jerusalem for Jewish ritual during the period of the monarchy. And in fact, archaeologists have had great difficulty finding buildings or objects related to ritual that date back to this period at sites identified as Israelite.
Tel Motza, at the entrance to Jerusalem, was excavated during the 1990s and the early 2000s. Today it is clear that the site was an important Iron Age settlement. The excavators propose identifying it with the settlement “Mozah,” which is mentioned in the biblical Book of Joshua. A public building, a storage building and silos were found at the site, among other things. The researchers say that Motza may have been used as a kind of wheat storehouse for Jerusalem, which was run by officials sent from the capital.
In the past year, excavations have been conducted in the area in preparation for a change in the route of Highway No. 1, and the construction of a bridge and a tunnel that will shorten the road to Jerusalem.
In the excavation, archaeologists Anna Eirikh, Dr. Hamadi Khalaily and Shua Kisilevitz found a large building containing clear elements of ritual use, dated to the 9th century BCE. The massive building has a wide entrance facing east. Eirikh said that this conforms to the tradition of temple construction in the ancient Near East: The rays of the sun rising in the east would have first illuminated the object placed inside the temple, symbolizing the divine presence within.
A cache of ritual objects made from pottery found near the building included tiny figurines of men and animals, mainly farm animals. The researchers believe the ritual of figurines was influenced by the Philistine coastal culture in the Land of Israel during that period. An analysis of the animal bones found at the site indicated that they belonged only to kosher animals – cows, goats, sheep and deer – most of them young and with signs of having been cut, which strengthens the theory that they were brought as sacrifices.
The sacred vessels and the statuettes are rare finds in the archeological research of the period. Before Motza, such items were found only at Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Lakhish region. The researchers believe that these objects were used for domestic rituals, but finding a bimah (platform from which the Torah is read) or a public temple building is very rare. The only building outside Jerusalem identified with certainty as a temple was excavated by Yohanan Aharoni in Arad in the 1950s.
Now the Antiquities Authority is indicating that there was another temple, whose discovery in Motza of all places, near Jerusalem, raises further questions about the status of the central Temple. “We’re talking about a settlement in the very heart of the Kingdom of Judea within walking distance of the Temple, and we’re finding vestiges of a temple and an altar and sacred vessels," an Antiquities Authority official said. "That’s very surprising, and we have nothing to compare it with.”
In terms of biblical chronology, the building was apparently in use after the period of David and Solomon and in the time of the kingdom of Judea, and its use may have been discontinued with the ritual reform attributed to the kings Hezekiah and Josiah in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. The reform banned worship of God outside of Jerusalem.
“There has been nothing like it in the archaeology of the Land of Israel until now,” says Prof. Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University’s Department of Archaeology, who also visited the site. “It’s not one room; it’s a large complex with lots of animal bones all around. We have to recall that Arad is a two-day walk from Jerusalem. I assume that the population in the Negev needed a site for their ritual cult, but Motza is five kilometers from Jerusalem. Why did they need another temple?”
Prof. Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University attributes less importance to the finds. “We have additional evidence of the existence of ritual cult sites in Judea up to the end of the eighth century BCE – in Arad, Be’er Sheva and Lakhish. But we can also learn of it from the biblical text, which is constantly demanding a centralization of the ritual cult. That’s the best testament to the fact that there were other such sites.”