Mount Moriah is mentioned twice in the Old Testament. In Genesis 22:2, God told Abraham to take his son Isaac to the land of Moriah, and offer him as a sacrifice on one of the mountains there. Moriah was a general area in the vicinity of what would later be Jerusalem. In 2 Chronicles 3:1, the location is defined for us as the site where Solomon built the first Temple. David was instructed by the Lord to buy the site on Mt. Moriah after the mistake David had made in taking a census. In his contrition David was to build an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. Ornan tried to give the property to David, but he insisted on buying it for full price of 600 shekels of gold. At that time the Tabernacle of the Lord was in Gibeon, and David desired to move the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. This property was the hill just outside the original city of Jerusalem that David had made his capital. David desired to build “a house to the name of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 22:7-8) to replace the Tabernacle with a permanent house of the Lord. The word of the Lord came to David saying, “you shall not build a house to My name because you have shed so much blood”, but your son Solomon shall build it. Therefore David dedicated the hill he bought from Ornan as the future site of the permanent house of the Lord, and David began to accumulate all the building materials for Solomon. After charging Solomon with this sacred task, David told Solomon, “Now set your heart and your soul to seek the Lord; arise and build the sanctuary of the Lord, so that you can bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord into the house that is to be built for the name of the Lord.”(1 Chron.22:19). In 2 Chronicles 3:1, we are told Solomon built the house of the Lord on Mt Moriah which was the site of the threshing floor that David bought from Ornan. This was the first Temple in Jerusalem which replaced the old Tabernacle that Moses had used in the wilderness. It was dedicated about 950 BC. The ceremony dedicating the Temple was awesome according to 2 Chron.7:1-3, “Now when Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the house…All the sons of Israel seeing the fire come down, bowed down to the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshipped and gave praise to the Lord…” Israel offered a sacrifice of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep at the dedication.
The first Temple period was ended in 586 BC when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took Jerusalem after a long siege. The Babylonians destroyed the city and the Temple after looting it of all its valuables. The survivors of Jerusalem were taken in captivity to Babylon. About 539 BC the Persians conquered Babylon, and Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. The Second Temple was rebuilt on Mt. Moriah in the same location as the first by Zerubbabel. The foundation was laid in 530 BC, but was not completed until 515 BC according to the book of Ezra.
Alexander the Great conquered Persia, the Middle East, and Egypt between 333 and 331 BC. His plan was to “Hellenize” the world, which meant to bring the Greek language, culture, philosophy, and religion wherever he went. After he died in 323 BC, four of his generals split up his kingdom. General Seleucus took Syria, Lebanon, Samaria, and Israel. Greek kings ruled Israel until 164 BC. In 167, the Greek king Antiochus issued decrees in Judea forbidding Jewish religious practice. A priest named Mattathias and his five sons led a revolt against Antiochus. Mattathias died, but his son Judah Maccabee led an army of Jewish patriots to victory over the Greek Seleucids. Maccabee entered Jerusalem triumphantly and cleansed the Temple which had been shut down and desecrated. He literally turned the lights back on. The Maccabees founded the Hasmonean royal dynasty and established Jewish rule in Israel for about a hundred years.
In 67 BC there was civil war in Judea, and Rome took advantage of the situation. General Pompey smashed the Hasmonean forces in 63 BC and Rome gained control of Jerusalem. In Rome, a power struggle developed between Pompey and Julius Caesar which Caesar won. He appointed an Idumean governor to watch over Judea named Herod. It is interesting that Herod’s father was an Edomite and his mother was an Arab, but he converted to Judaism to appease the Jews that he would rule over. The Parthians (Persians) soon backed the old Hasmonean family in a revolt against Herod. Herod fled to Rome for help. In 40 BC, the Roman Senate made Herod the King of Judea, and gave him two Roman legions led by Mark Antony to recapture Jerusalem in 37 BC. From then on Herod ruled as sole ruler which was a big promotion from governor, because now Herod got to keep the tax money.
The Temple Mount
Herod became known as Herod the Great because of his amazing engineering and building projects. He built many amazing palaces and fortresses, and had an incredible talent for changing the landscape. His greatest accomplishment was the Temple Mount project. For 500 years the Second Temple had stood in Jerusalem, but it was run down, unimpressive, and small. In 20 BC, Herod undertook the rebuilding of the Second Temple. He desired the approval of the Jews and he wanted something magnificent as his legacy. The Jewish priesthood required Herod to quarry all the stones required for the project before the destruction of the old structure could begin. The sacrificial rituals of the Temple were continued for the entire time of construction, so they continued to call it the Second Temple even after the new one was built. Herod employed 1000 Levitical priests as masons and carpenters.
Mount Moriah was the site of the Temple, and it was a typical plateau with a declining slope from north to south. Herod’s plan was to turn this sloping mountain top into a giant rectangular flat platform. He dug a trench around the entire mountain, and laid stone bricks in it, thus building up a retaining wall all the way around. Part of the mount was built up and part was carved down. Another hill to the north was added by filling up the area in between with landfill. Giant underground arches were built to support the Temple Mount in the areas that were built up. The southern wall was made the grand entrance. Recent digs have found many ceremonial baths where worshippers were first purified by ritual bathing. The Temple buildings themselves were made of imported white marble which gleamed brightly in the sun. The gates and the doors were bronze. The Western Wall or Wailing Wall is currently the only visible section of the four retaining walls built by Herod. Herod created a huge flat platform of over 45 acres upon which the Temple was constructed. Herod’s Temple was one of the largest construction projects of the first century BC, and was considered one of the “wonders of the world” at the time. It took 2-3 years to build a functional Temple, but work continued on various parts of the different buildings for 80 years.
During the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was primarily a tourist city that revolved around this great Temple. It was the destination for thousands of pilgrims every year. All Jewish males were required to attend the three main festivals of the Mosaic Law in which the priests and the Temple played the central role. Jews from around the Mediterranean Sea would arrive by boat at the port of Jaffa, then caravan for 2-3 days to Jerusalem. Once lodging was secured, the pilgrims would purchase a sacrificial animal. The pilgrim would approach the southern entrance, then visit the ceremonial baths to purify himself. He then entered the Huldah gates ascending three stories of stairs and emerge into the Court of the Gentiles which was the outer part of the Temple Mount. There he was met by a bazaar of vendors, souvenirs, animals for sale, food, and currency changers. Priests were everywhere directing and advising pilgrims on their sacrifices. Around the sides of the Temple Mount were many Porticoes providing shade, meeting places, and seating where tourists could observe all the events. It was in these areas that teachers would hold court, and debates over the Law were held. This was where Jesus had many of His teaching sessions, as well as many heated discussions with the Pharisees. Inside another wall was the Court of the women where both Jewish men and women could enter, then within that was another area where only Jewish men could go. Within that was the Priest’s area where they performed the sacrifices. The Temple building itself consisted of a room containing all the holy vessels like the Menorah, incense altar, and table of showbread. On the other side of a very thick dividing curtain was the Holy of Holies—the chamber where the Ark of the Covenant had originally been (it disappeared during the Babylonian Captivity). Isn’t it a wonderful coincidence that this great attraction preceded Christ?
Jesus’ First Visit
It was in the remodeled and enlarged Temple of Herod where the baby Jesus was taken in Luke 2:21-39. According to Moses, every first born male was to be dedicated to the Lord, and his parents would offer a sacrifice, therefore Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the Temple to be dedicated. Amazingly a succession of witnesses recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah. The Holy Spirit directed Simeon to Jesus and revealed to him that this was the Lord’s Christ. Simeon praised God as he identified Jesus and revealed by the Holy Spirit that Jesus would be the Savior of the whole world, “A light of Revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel.” Then as they proceeded into the Temple the witnesses to Jesus continued to pile up as a prophetess named Anna who spent all her time in the Temple fasting and praying as she was looking for the Messiah, approached them. She also recognized Jesus by the Holy Spirit, and spoke of Him to all the people there who were looking for redemption. The testimony of Simeon and Anna confirmed seven different prophecies concerning Jesus’ birth. Men called Herod “the Great” for his great accomplishments, but isn’t it amazing that God had this great plan for the amazing Temple to be completed just before the only One who is truly great came on the scene. The world’s focus is on men like Herod, but ours is on Jesus.