Who Really Destroyed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem?

Renowned biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman suggests we got it wrong all along: that the real culprits weren’t the Babylonians

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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The Queen of Sheba before the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, by Salomon de Bray (1597-1664)
The Queen of Sheba before the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, by Salomon de Bray (1597-1664)Credit: Frans Hals Museum, Wikimedia Commons
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

As has been well-known for millennia, in either 587 or 586 B.C.E., the forces of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylonia, served a deadly blow to the small and rebellious Kingdom of Judah. They wiped it off the map, deported large swathes of its population, and destroyed its holy temple, the Temple of Solomon.

Or not. This, says renowned biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman, a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and author of the best-selling book “Who Wrote the Bible?” may have been a case of mistaken identity. The Babylonians may have destroyed Judah and kicked out its populace, but they did not destroy the temple. The culprits were the Edomites, a small kingdom in the southern Transjordan, he posits.

In a short article published in Academia, "The Destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple," Friedman suggests that the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple were two separate events, which a biblical scribe collapsed into one and thus led us all to misplace the blame.

At first glance this seems unlikely. The Hebrew Bible explicitly states no less than three times that the Babylonians burned down the Temple when they took the city:

Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, [came] unto Jerusalem, and he burnt the house of the Lord, and the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem, and every great man’s house burnt he with fire” (2 Kings 25:8-9 KJV; and very similarly stated in Jeremiah 52:12-13 and 2 Chronicles 36:19).

But, Friedman argues, these accounts are likely erroneous. The Book of Jeremiah relates that a few months after the Babylonians took Jerusalem, Ishmael son of Nethaniah, the same man who killed the Babylonian-appointed governor of Judah Gedaliah, killed 80 men from Nablus and Shiloh “having their beards shaven, and their clothes rent, and having cut themselves, with offerings and incense in their hand, to bring them to the house of the Lord” (Jeremiah 41:5; KJV).

Layers of JerusalemCredit: Ariel David

How could the Babylonians have burnt down the Temple, if it was still standing and receiving offerings?

Friedman points out that while it is true that the above-mentioned passages state that the Babylonians destroyed the Temple upon capturing the city, a fourth account of these events does not say the Temple was destroyed when describing the capture of Jerusalem. In this fourth report, which was incorporated into or used as the base for the three others, the Babylonians “burned the king’s house, and the houses of the people, with fire, and brake down the walls of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 39:8; KJV). Not a word about the Temple being destroyed.

Of course, the fact that the Temple was destroyed is an irrefutable historical fact. It is just that Friedman believes it took place a little later, in a separate event, and that when the historian who wrote the account that underlies the accounts in 2 Kings 25, Jeremiah 52, and 2 Chronicles 36, described the traumatic events of those years, he simply conflated the fall of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple into one event.

Friedman argues that while the Babylonians did destroy much of Jerusalem when they occupied the city, the Temple remained intact and thus could still be a pilgrimage destination for the unfortunate victims of Ishmael son of Nethaniah. But shortly after, when exactly and under what circumstances he does not know, the Edomites came to Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.

The children of Edom

Friedman’s evidence for this Edomite attack on the Temple is based on three passages:

* The ire of the Judean exiles towards the “the children of Edom” expressed in the famous “Rivers of Babylon” psalm, for calling out “Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof” on the “day of Jerusalem” (Psalm 137:7; KJV);

* The prophet Obadiah’s tirade against the Edomites, in which he promises their complete annihilation by God for their “violence against thy brother Jacob” (Obadiah 1:10);

* And most explicitly, the leader of the Judean exiles, Zerubbabel’s words to King Darius of Persia: “You also vowed to build the temple, which the Edomites burned when Judea was laid waste by the Chaldeans [the Babylonians]” (1 Esdras 4:45; RSV).

Digging up early JerusalemCredit: Ariel David

This is a novel and intriguing reconstruction of the events, but is it true?

Probably not. Friedman acknowledges that each of the three textual “problems” he based his arguments on – the lack of mention of the Temple in Jeremiah 39, the pilgrimage to the supposedly already destroyed Temple in Jeremiah 41, and the mysterious anger at the Edomites in Obadiah, Psalm 137, and 1 Esdras 4 – have other solutions. However, he argues that because his solution solves all three together, rather than come up with a different solution for each problem, it is superior: “Three enigmas with a host of proposed solutions, or a single explanation for all three. We should favor the most parsimonious solution.”

Friedman’s solution may be parsimonious, but is it likely?

Perhaps we can believe that the Babylonians destroyed the palace and the houses of the people but left the Temple intact. But are we to believe that the author of Jeremiah 39 expressed this by simply mentioning what buildings they did destroy, without explicitly stating that they left the Temple standing? That seems like something he would have mentioned.

It is more likely that the text did originally mention the destruction of the Temple and that the text was simply corrupted in one of the many times it was copied. The most likely solution is that this is a case of haplology, a very common scribal error in which a copyist’s eye skips from one word to an identical word later in text and thus inadvertently erases the words in between.

In this case, the repeated word might be “the house”: “burned the house of [the Lord, the house of] the king’s, and the houses of the people, with fire, and brake down the walls of Jerusalem.” In the original Hebrew this error would only have caused seven letters to be lost.

Babylon, in Iraq, March 2021Credit: Hadi Mizban,AP

Another explanation is that what appears in the extant text as “the houses of the people” was originally “the house of the people” – that is what the ancient translator of the verse into Greek saw before him – and that “house of the people” was an otherwise unknown name of the Temple.

And say that indeed the Babylonians left the Temple standing, the author of Jeremiah 39 did not mention this fact explicitly, and the Temple was indeed destroyed later: are we to believe that the Author of II Kings 25 would have erroneously attributed the Temple’s destruction to the Babylonian Nebuzaradan, despite the fact that he must have lived only a short while after the events, considering that the last event he mentions in his history is the release of King Jeconiah from captivity (2 Kings 25:27-30) and not, say, the murder of Nebuchadnezzar II’s son and heir in 560 B.C.E or the fall of Babylonia altogether in 539 B.C.E?

And say the author of this narrative in 2 Kings did for some reason absolve the Edomites of their responsibility for the destruction of the Temple, how is it that no mention of this is recorded in the Hebrew Bible and we only learn of this in the very late and historically dubious 1 Esdras? If the author of Psalm 137 was angry at the Edomites for destroying the Temple, why would he not mention this crime, and instead just mention that they clamored for its destruction?

And if Obadiah was excoriating the Edomites for destroying the Temple, why did he not mention that they did this, instead accusing them of taking the side of the “strangers” and “foreigners” who “carried away captive his forces...entered into his gates, and cast lots upon Jerusalem… as one of them” (1:11), of rejoicing “over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction” and (1:12), of entering “into the gate of my people in the day of their calamity,” of looking “on their affliction in the day of their calamity,” of laying “hands on their substance in the day of their calamity” (1:13), and of standing “in the crossway to cut off those of his that did escape” (1:14)?

If indeed, the Edomites destroyed the Temple, these allegations seem quite petty. What Obadiah and Psalm 137 are accusing the Edomites of doing is not attacking Jerusalem and destroying its Temple; rather the Edomites are attacked for taking part in the destruction of Jerusalem as auxiliaries to the Babylonian army, of helping the Babylonian “strangers” rather than standing on the side of their “brothers.”

Reconstruction of Babylon's Ishtar Gate, at the Museum of the Ancient East in BerlinCredit: Markus Schreiber,AP

The House of the Lord

That the Edomites were vassals of the Babylonians and were required to provide soldiers to assist in the campaign against Judah is not only possible but plausible. And that the Judeans would have resented this betrayal greatly is certain.

In the end, what Friedman’s theory stands on is that story in Jeremiah 41 about the murder of the pilgrims on their way to “the house of the Lord.” There is nothing in this story to support its historicity and as it stands it seems that it was only intended to further blacken the reputation of Gedaliah’s murderer. Did Ishmael son of Nethaniah really kill 80 people for no apparent reason? Maybe? Were they actually on their way to the Temple? Who knows?

But even if we do think this story does prove that people went to present offerings at “the House of the Lord” after Jerusalem was taken by the Babylonians, there are very good explanations for this. Perhaps, after the destruction, people continued to present sacrifices at the site of the destroyed Temple? Or perhaps the “house of the Lord” in question wasn’t the temple in Jerusalem at all but rather a different temple, say the temple recently uncovered by archaeologists in Motza, just 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Jerusalem.

Either way, this story is not enough for us to simply overturn the clear and explicit report of 2 Kings 25 that the Babylonians did in fact destroy the Temple.

Asked what he thought of these difficulties, Friedman graciously responded at some length. In brief, he says that the evidence from silence drawn upon here, the lack of mention of the Edomite destruction of the Temple in Psalm 137 and Obadiah, is less convincing than the evidence of silence he drew on, the fact that Jeremiah 41 does not mention the destruction of the Temple, since the former is poetic speech and the latter is prose.

Poets and prophets, he explained, use “image and allusion” and don’t spell out the details of what they are writing about in the same way that writers of prose do. As for the unreliability of 1 Esdras, he does not think its lateness is a problem. The author of this book, he says, may have used ancient and historically accurate sources, which have not come down to us. He also rejects the possibility that the pilgrims in the Gedaliah story would have offered sacrifices on the site of the destroyed Temple, since this would be “a direct violation of the law in Deuteronomy and the dedication speech of Solomon in 1 Kings 8.”

City of David excavations, JerusalemCredit: Ariel David

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