Beneath a huge bridge on the main road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, just past a huge subdivision called Mevaseret Zion and less than four miles northwest of the Old City, one can find the remains of an ancient temple that may have been used to worship both Yahweh and other gods.
The site — first discovered during salvage operations prior to highway construction and recently revisited — was in a fertile and well-watered basin that contains remains going back to the pre-pottery Neolithic period. The shrine was probably built in early Iron Age II — about 900 BCE — and remained in use until the late 6th century, after the Hebrews’ return from the exile. The worship center was not only contemporaneous with the temple in Jerusalem, then, but survived the temple-busting reforms of both King Hezekiah and King Josiah (2 Kings 18, 23; 2 Chronicles 29-31, 34-35), even though it functioned right under the royal court’s nose.
How could this be?
Archaeologists assume that the site, known as Tel Motza, must have been under the control of a local chieftain who cooperated with the kings of Judah, but was not under their direct control. A number of granaries and storage buildings at the site indicate that it was a prosperous agricultural area: the temple may have been built in an attempt to ensure continued prosperity. The temple at Tel Motza helps to disprove a popular misconception that Israel and/or Judah were ever totally unified kingdoms: the Hebrews always lived cheek by jowl with a variety of other ethnic groups generically known as “Canaanites.”
If there had not been a ready availability of options for worshiping other gods, the biblical prophets would not have continually railed against the Hebrew people for choosing to worship local gods that went by names such as Ba’al (a Semitic word that means “lord”) and Asherah (a female deity often represented by trees or wooden poles). Ba’al was thought of as a weather god, typically depicted in images with an upraised thunder club in his right hand and a lightning spear in his left. Asherah represented fertility. Many people apparently felt closer to such depictions of the gods than to Yahweh, who was proclaimed to be above all gods.
The temple at Tel Motza would have been about the same size as Solomon’s temple, though not as elaborate. Like other temples from the period, it was oriented east to west and consisted of a large ceremonial area and a smaller “holy of holies” at the back. At Tel Motza, the most sacred space was elevated and paved with stones.
The temple courtyard featured a large altar made of unworked stones, about 4.5 feet square. Adjacent to it was a pit containing ash, pottery sherds, and the bones of animals typically used for sacrifices. A rectangular stone podium was apparently used as an offering table: an assortment of cultic figurines and ritual objects were found buried around it, probably indicating that they were ritually broken and buried when they went out of use.
It should come as no surprise that the ancients had options when it came to worship, as do we. The motivation to expend enormous energy on a large temple with walls ranging from three to five feet thick suggests a deep belief in a power beyond human effort, and a desire to communicate with the divine.
Whether their worship was directed to Yahweh or to Baal, the ancients looked beyond human achievement to seek the blessings of a higher power. As we ponder the landscape of our own times, especially the flood of incivility and distrust that marks much public debate, the need to rise beyond self-centered pettiness and aspire to a higher level of living in keeping with Jesus’ teachings should be more than apparent.
We’re not lacking in the modern equivalent of temples: opportunities for faithful worship that honors God’s love over human power are abundant. Taking part would do us good.
[For further reading, recent stories about the Motza temple include this one from Biblical Archaeology Review, and this one from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The excavation is ongoing and welcomes volunteers: see telmoza.org.]
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.