Ancient Place of Worship Found Near Jerusalem Challenges Assumptions About First Temple

At least the same size as Solomon’s Temple and resembling that structure’s description in the Bible, Motza temple was used for worship of both Yahweh and idols

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The temple site at Tel Motza.
The temple site at Tel Motza.Credit: Pascal Partouche / Skyview
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

An ancient temple outside of Jerusalem and from the same period as the First Temple challenges long-held ideas about worship and government in Judea during the Iron Age II period, say archaeologists who recently renewed excavations at Tel Motza.

The structure was uncovered in 2012 during rescue digs carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority ahead of roadwork in the area.

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The current excavation, carried out by the IAA and the archaeology department at Tel Aviv University, is the foundation for an article in the January/February 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Written by Oded Lipschits and Shua Kisilevitz, the article is based on the findings of Hamoudi Khalaily, Anna Eirikh and Kisilevitz from research that they launched about a decade ago.

The temple at Tel Motza was first found in the 1990s by Zvi Greenhut, now the head of the IAA’s Artifacts Treatment and Conservation Department. At least the same size as Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and resembling that structure’s description in the Bible, the Motza temple was apparently used for parallel worship of both Yahweh and idols.

The Motza temple is one of just a few from the period to be uncovered, and the only one in the Jerusalem hills. No remains from Solomon’s Temple have ever been found. The presumption is that it was destroyed completely and buried during the huge project of building the Second Temple, in Herod’s time. Yet the temple found in Motza is very reminiscent of other temples in the early Near East, and it matches biblical descriptions of Solomon’s Temple.

Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Anna Ririkh displays a clay figurine uncovered in Tel Motza, 2012.Credit: AFP

The archaeologists found a sacrificial altar in the Motza temple, with an offering table for sacrifices but also cult vessels and artifacts, including two human figurines and two horse figurines.

The size of the building, about 12 by 20 meters, is similar to the temple described in 1 Kings, as is the architectural plan. 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 cultic center was built on top of a granary. Lipschits sees this as an explanation for the construction process. “Some local ruler builds a place to store farm products and in a second stage he establishes a temple at the same site. They have a community of 100 to 150 families and the local chieftain built them a temple. More or less the same thing was done in Jerusalem by a local chieftain after he also sought to establish his rule. Both these communities exist in parallel. The regime in Jerusalem widens its influence to encompass new population groups, but the temple in Motza continues to exist,” Lipschits says.

Lipschits says the kingdom of Judea was not a centralized kingdom but built alliances between the king in Jerusalem and local rulers. Motza, according to the theory, had a relatively strong ruler who managed to maintain religious independence from Jerusalem.

One of the interesting questions the Motza temple raises is how it survived the religious reforms that Kings Hezekiah and Josiah led in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C.E. Under these reforms, according to the Bible, worship sites that competed with Jerusalem were prohibited, and many local temples were destroyed. Researchers have found the remains of temples thought to have been destroyed under these reforms in Tel Arad and Tel Be’er Sheva. Lipschits believes that the reason for this is that both Arad and Be’er Sheva had military forts directly subordinate to the king while Motza had a community where the king could not impose his will.

A human figurine found at Tel Motza.Credit: Carla Amit / IAA
Horse figurine found at Tel Motza.Credit: Carla Amit / IAA

And still, the Motza temple raises some complex questions. Not only was it very close to the temple in Jerusalem, just 5 kilometers away, but it survived and continue to function apparently without disruption not only after the reforms but even after the destruction of the First Temple. The Motza temple was presumably abandoned, without being destroyed, during the period of the return to Zion after the Babylonian exile, in the sixth century B.C.E.

The temple survived beneath the giant Highway 1 Bridge. The Israel Antiquities Authority promises to develop the antiquities found for visitors to view. “The site is the heart of prehistoric settlement in the Jerusalem area,” Yuval Baruch, director of the IAI’s Jerusalem district, says. “Here’s the landscape was shaped by people some 10,000 years ago and there are finds from every period through to the Arab village of Colonia [Qalunya] and the Jewish towns of Motza and Beit Telma. The Israel Antiquities Authority has raised the budget to rehabilitate the place and we believe that Tel Motza should be linked up with a metropolitan park surrounding Jerusalem.”

Artifact from Tel Motza.Credit: Carla Amit / IAA
Horse figurine from Tel Motza.Credit: Carla Amit / IAA

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