Solomon’s temple and other ancient temples (1 Chronicles 29)

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Illustration: Solomon’s temple

Temples were the first monumental structures ever erected in the ancient world. Viewed as the abode of deity and, frequently, as in Israel’s case, called “the house of God” (cf. 1 Kings 9:1), a temple was designed to function as a royal palace for the gods. No other institution of ancient Israel enjoyed the prominence of the Jerusalem temple. It was the heart of the nation’s religious life, as well as the emblem of dynastic rule under Yahweh (2 Samuel 7:13-14). This temple might be described symbolically as the architecture in the service of declaring God’s kingship on Earth.

Most temples were constructed on heights, to be accorded physical prominence in accordance with their social eminence. Accordingly, Solomon’s temple was erected on the highest point of Jerusalem (Psalm 121:1, 122:4), the mount was identified as Moriah, thought by many to have been the place at which Abraham had been called to offer up his only son (2 Chronicles 3:1).

Since there are no archaeological remains of Solomon’s temple following the Babylonian destruction of 586 B.C. and Herod’s extensive building projects on the site of the temple mount in the first century A.D., its figurative reconstruction is dependent upon the testimony of the Bible (1 Kings 6-7, 2 Chronicles 2-4) and the analogy of other temples contemporary to it. Solomon hired Phoenician artisans to engineer and build the Jerusalem temple (2 Chronicles 2:11-14). Its architectural design reflects the long-room, tripartite temple plan typical of Syro-Phoenician construction (1 Kings 6:2-10), the closest parallels of which are the temples of Ain Dara (tenth – ninth centuries B.C.) an Tell Tayinat (eighth century B.C.) in northern Syria.

The tri partite plan consisted of three courts representing an inward movement from least sacred to most sacred space. The outer court served as the site of the sacrificial altar. The temple was entered from the east through a porch supported by two pillars. Tell Tyinat’s monumental columns featured a pair of lions for their bases, while Israel’s 82,3 m bronze pillars bore names: Jakin and Boaz (1 Kings 7:21). The forecourt opened into a main hall, at the back of which stood the innermost sanctuary. Multi-storied side chambers, used as storerooms for offerings and tribute, sometimes surrounded the structure (1 Kings 6:5-10). The Jerusalem temple complex was about 50,3 m long by 25 m wide.

Quarried rock, hewn in rectangular blocks, or ashlars, was dressed off site. Every stone was cut in advance so as to fit together perfectly: “No hammer, chisel or any other iron tool was heard at the temple site while it was being built” (1 Kings 6:7) The interior was panelled in cedar wood from Lebanon (1 Kings 6:18) and the inner sanctuary overlaid with gold from ceiling to floor and adorned with two 4,6 m tall, freestanding cherubim carved of olive wood and overlaid with gold (1 Kings 6:20-28). Their outstretched wings spanned the room, creating the seat of a colossal throne (Psalm 99:1, Ezekiel 10:1-19).

The decorative motifs of Solomon’s temple were symbols of fertility and abundance: Palmettes and blooming flowers were carved into the cedar panelling and embellished with gold; pomegranate and gourd wreaths were fashioned onto the bronze column capitals (top, ornamental pieces of the columns; cf. the leafed structure of a Corinthian column), and buds and calyxes formed the cups of the ten golden lampstands. These were designed to recall the paradisiacal garden of God’s first dwelling place with humanity (Genesis 2:8-9), as were the gold and precious stones adorning the temple’s interior (Genesis 2:12, 2 Chronicles 3:6). The furniture was modelled after that of the tabernacle, only on a grander scale (1 Kings 7:23-50).

The inner sanctuary (“Most Holy Place”) is the point at which Solomon’s temple departs from its ancient Near Eastern counterparts. Whereas other sanctuary niches housed the god’s idol in order to represent the deity’s presence, the Israelite temple contained no image of God. The ark of the covenant alone served as a symbol of Yahweh’s enthronement over Hs people. The temple was Yahweh’s palace on Earth, the Holy Place His audience hall and the Most Holy Place His throne room.


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