First Temple by Dan Pioske

The First Temple is one of the most famous buildings of the ancient world and also one of the most mysterious. The temple’s fame stems from the prominence it is accorded within a large number of biblical texts. These passages describe the temple as the sanctuary of Yahweh, the God of Israel, who is said to dwell within it (e.g., 1Kgs 8:11, 1Kgs 8:29; Isa 6:1). The mystery the temple poses to us today is that no trace of the structure has been unearthed in Jerusalem. This dearth of archaeological evidence is due to the fact that the building would have been located on the Temple Mount; excavations are not allowed in this area because the site is holy to both Muslims and Jews. For this reason, our understanding of the temple’s history, function, and appearance depends on how the sanctuary is depicted in the Bible and, indirectly, how other, contemporary temples were constructed by neighboring peoples in the Iron Age period (ca. 1175–586 BCE).

Who built the First Temple and what did it look like?

According to the Bible (1Kgs 6:37-38, 2Chr 3:2), Solomon built the First Temple between the fourth and eleventh years of his reign (ca. 950 BCE) at a site in the more elevated northern precinct of Jerusalem that David, his father, had purchased (2Sam 24:24, 2Chr 3:1). The description of the sanctuary provided in 1Kgs 6-7 indicates that the temple was constructed of unhewn stone. It had three sections that were laid out on a rectangular plan with an east-west axis. These consisted of a forecourt (ulām) with two large bronze pillars named Jachin and Boaz (1Kgs 7:15-22) at its entrance; a spacious central room (hekāl) that included a golden incense altar, table, and lamps; and an inner sanctuary, or Holy of Holies (debir), where two immense cherubs (winged feline creatures with human faces) flanked the ark of the covenant, forming a throne where God’s glory was said to be present (1Kgs 6:19, 1Kgs 6:23; 1Kgs 8:11; Ps 99:1). The temple also contained rich furnishings and decorations composed of cherubs, date palms, and blooming flowers (1Kgs 6:29). These symbols are reminiscent of the cherubs who guarded the entrance to the Tree of Life (Gen 3:24). It may be that the temple was designed to evoke images of the garden of Eden, a space that connected heaven and earth.

What’s also interesting about the First Temple is that it appears to be patterned on an architectural style found among peoples (the Phoenicians) that resided along the coastal areas in what is today Lebanon and Syria. The Bible states that Solomon contracted craftsmen from the Phoenician city of Tyre to build the temple and imported raw materials, such as cedar and cypress, from this same region (1Kgs 5:1-17). A series of Iron Age temples unearthed from various ancient cities in this area, such as at Tell Tayinat, ‘Ain Dara, and Aleppo, also have similar building plans and features. Thus, despite having no archaeological evidence of the First Temple in Jerusalem, temples do exist elsewhere from neighboring regions that help unravel the mystery as to how this structure may have appeared. 

What happened to the First Temple and where are its contents now?

The First Temple would have stood alongside the royal palace in Jerusalem for nearly four hundred years. In 586 BCE, the Babylonian army burned the temple down after conquering Jerusalem (2Kgs 25:8-9; Jer 52:12-13). Between the time the First Temple is said to have been built by Solomon and its destruction, however, a number of changes to the sanctuary are described in the Bible, some portrayed as necessary improvements and others as violations to its sanctity. These include extensive renovations to the temple during the reign of Joash in the late ninth century BCE (2Kgs 12:1-16) and Josiah in the late seventh century BCE (2Kgs 23:4-14) that are viewed in a positive light by the biblical writers. But these renovations also include the decisions by Ahaz (ca. 735–715 BCE; 2Kgs 16:10-18) and his grandson Manasseh (ca. 697–642 BCE; 2Kgs 21:3-5) to incorporate foreign religious objects and practices into the temple, which are, in turn, condemned.

The fate of those items that were in the temple at the time of its ruin are unknown and has provoked speculation across the ages. The Bible states that the Babylonian army seized any objects of value from the sanctuary and broke them down for easier transport, including the great bronze pillars that had marked the entrance to the temple (2Kgs 25:13-17). It is possible that other items were carried away to Babylon as well. Around 515 BCE the Second Temple was built atop the location where the First Temple once stood. 

Dan Pioske, "First Temple", n.p. [cited 23 Jul 2019]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/first-temple

Contributors

pioske-dan

Dan Pioske
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Georgia Southern University

Dan Pioske is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia Southern University. He is the author of David’s Jerusalem: Between Memory and History (Routledge, 2015) and Memory in a Time of Prose: Studies in Epistemology, Hebrew Scribalism, and the Biblical Past (Oxford, 2018). 

According to biblical tradition King Solomon built Israel’s first temple in Jerusalem, and it stood until its destruction in 586 BCE.

Did you know…?

  • According to the Bible, the area of the First Temple was roughly 165 feet long by 85 feet wide (or a little less than half the size of an American football field).
  • The Bible states that to the right of the entrance of the temple there stood a large bronze “Sea,” or a giant vat that could hold up to 12,000 gallons of liquid. The vat rested on twelve bronze bulls positioned by threes according to the directions of the compass.
  • In 2Chr 3, the First Temple is said to be located on Mount Moriah where, according to Gen 22:2, Abraham brought Isaac to be offered as a sacrifice.
  • Only the high priest could enter into the Holy of Holies and only on one day of the year (Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement).
  • One of the closest parallels to the First Temple is a sanctuary unearthed at ‘Ain Dara in northern Syria, where giant footsteps, carved into the ground, are found leading into the building, suggesting that the god (who was about 65 feet tall) physically walked through its doors before being enthroned in the sanctuary.
  • In Isa 6, the prophet has a vision in which God sits enthroned “high and lofty” in the temple, with the hem of God’s robe filling the sanctuary (Isa 6:1).
  • The Babylonians make no mention of the fate of the temple’s contents when brought to Babylon, including the ark of the covenant that is said to have been located in the Holy of Holies.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

The stage of development during which humans used iron weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 1200 to 500 B.C.E.

The site in Jerusalem of the First and Second Temples, according to the Bible.

1Kgs 8:11

11so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.

1Kgs 8:29

29that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your serv ... View more

Isa 6:1

A Vision of God in the Temple
1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.

related to cats

an open court in front of a building

The innermost part of the tabernacle/temple, which housed the ark of the covenant and the presence of God; only the high priest was allowed to enter it, and then only on the annual day of purgation (Yom Kippur).

not cut

1Kgs 6:37-38

37In the fourth year the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid, in the month of Ziv.38In the eleventh year, in the month of Bul, which is the eighth mont ... View more

2Chr 3:2

2He began to build on the second day of the second month of the fourth year of his reign.

2Sam 24:24

24But the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will buy them from you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” So Dav ... View more

2Chr 3:1

Solomon Builds the Temple
1Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David, at the pl ... View more

1Kgs 6-7

Solomon Builds the Temple
1In the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Isr ... View more

1Kgs 7:15-22

15He cast two pillars of bronze. Eighteen cubits was the height of the one, and a cord of twelve cubits would encircle it; the second pillar was the same.16He a ... View more

1Kgs 6:19

19The inner sanctuary he prepared in the innermost part of the house, to set there the ark of the covenant of the Lord.

1Kgs 6:23

The Furnishings of the Temple
23In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high.

1Kgs 8:11

11so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.

Ps 99:1

Praise to God for His Holiness
1The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!

1Kgs 6:29

29He carved the walls of the house all around about with carved engravings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms.

Gen 3:24

24He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

1Kgs 5:1-17

Preparations and Materials for the Temple
1 Now King Hiram of Tyre sent his servants to Solomon, when he heard that they had anointed him king in place of his f ... View more

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

2Kgs 25:8-9

8In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyg ... View more

Jer 52:12-13

12In the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month—which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan the captain of the bodygua ... View more

2Kgs 12:1-16

The Temple Repaired
1In the seventh year of Jehu, Jehoash began to reign; he reigned forty years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Zibiah of Beer-sheba.2Jehoa ... View more

2Kgs 23:4-14

4The king commanded the high priest Hilkiah, the priests of the second order, and the guardians of the threshold, to bring out of the temple of the Lord all the ... View more

2Kgs 16:10-18

10When King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria, he saw the altar that was at Damascus. King Ahaz sent to the priest Uriah a model of ... View more

2Kgs 21:3-5

3For he rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he erected altars for Baal, made a sacred pole, as King Ahab of Israel had done, worship ... View more

2Kgs 25:13-17

13The bronze pillars that were in the house of the Lord, as well as the stands and the bronze sea that were in the house of the Lord, the Chaldeans broke in pie ... View more

Reconciliation between God and a person, often brought about by sacrifice or reparation.

Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.

2Chr 3

Solomon Builds the Temple
1Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David, at the pl ... View more

Gen 22:2

2He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that ... View more

Isa 6

A Vision of God in the Temple
1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. ... View more

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