Surprised by a Pagan Temple Discovered Near Solomon’s? Not If You Read the Bible

Tel Motza hosted a pagan shrine displaying a Canaanite deity—a find characterized as ‘surprising.’ Here’s why it’s not.
Aerial photo of the temple at Motza at the end of the 2013 excavation. (P. Partouche, SkyView)
P. Partouche, SkyView

“A fragment of what may be a depiction of an ancient Canaanite deity has been found in seemingly the most unthinkable place: a Judahite shrine near Jerusalem from the time of King Solomon’s fabled temple,” reported Haaretz on a new discovery at Tel Motza, a site barely 6 kilometers away from Jerusalem (emphasis added throughout). The discovery constituted a large stone block in secondary use, which appears to depict the legs of a Canaanite storm god—theorized to be part of a larger original statue of the god that was given pride of place in this Motza temple site.

Complete stele featuring Baal with a stride apparently paralleling the relief fragment at Tel Motza (Syria, 14th century B.C.E.)
Public Domain

The article continued to explain that the discovery provides evidence “confirming the long-standing suspicion that, in the First Temple period, starting 3,000 years ago, the religion of the ancient Israelites was very different …. The Israelites apparently didn’t confine their adoration to Yahweh but worshiped a pantheon of gods, including the infamous Baal.” As such, the discovery was hailed by another Haaretz journalist as a “surprise.” The article went on: “To be clear, this is not the first time that researchers found evidence showing that the Israelite belief system in the First Temple period was very different from its description in the Bible.”

Were you surprised by this discovery? Not if you read your Bible.

Solomon’s Temple(s)

The report describes the new discovery as “additional evidence of the fact that the ancient population of Judah was more similar to other neighboring Levantine peoples than a face-value reading of the Bible lets on. They likely shared most of the beliefs and customs of the local Canaanite culture,” citing one of the excavation directors.

Is this “very different” from what the biblical account “lets on”? Let’s see what the Bible has to say about King Solomon’s time period—the same period in which the Motza temple was built—during the 10th century b.c.e., following his building of the temple in Jerusalem. If you don’t read your Bible, brace yourself—you may be surprised.

Now king Solomon loved many foreign women, besides the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; of the nations concerning which the Lord said unto the children of Israel: ‘Ye shall not go among them, neither shall they come among you; for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods’ …. For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods ….

For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the detestation of the Ammonites. And Solomon did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, and went not fully after the Lord, as did David his father. Then did Solomon build a high place for Chemosh the detestation of Moab, in the mount that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech the detestation of the children of Ammon. And so did he for all his foreign wives, who offered and sacrificed unto their gods. (1 Kings 11:1-8)

Parallel temples. 1. and 2. Ta’yinat, 3. Motza, 4. Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, 5. Ain Dara
Garfinkel Y, Mumcuoglu M.

Surprised? This was Solomon, during the 10th century b.c.e., building temples to pagan gods in the territory directly around the holy temple in Jerusalem!

To quote again from the article: “The [Motza] shrine is one of a handful of temples from the Iron Age that have been uncovered in the Levant and which were built roughly at the same time as the temple of Solomon—in the 10th century b.c.e. if one goes by the biblical chronology.” Exactly. And as quoted from the Motza excavation director herself: “Everybody must have known it [the Motza temple]. It could not have existed if it was not considered legitimate and approved by the rulers in Jerusalem.” Again, precisely.

And if Solomon’s bout of pagan shrine-building is surprising, wait until you read what happened after Solomon’s reign!

The Bible: Story of (Dis)obedience

The Bible describes Solomon’s rebellion as the direct cause of the split between the kingdom of Israel in the north and Judah in the south at the end of the 10th century b.c.e.—punishment from God for his rebellion. And what does the Bible say following this separation? It says that all subsequent kings of Israel—19 in total—were “evil in the sight of the Lord,” as well as the vast majority of the kings of Judah! It was for this very reason that both kingdoms were conquered and taken into captivity: first, the kingdom of Israel by Assyria at the end of the eighth century b.c.e.; later, the kingdom of Judah by Babylon at the start of the sixth century b.c.e. (by virtue of the fact that they had roughly half a dozen “righteous” kings).

Even then, when there was the rare righteous ruler of Judah, the Bible takes pains to describe the rebellion of the people at large and their continuation of sacrifices at “high places” outside of the commanded sole place of worship: Jerusalem. In fact, such pagan shrines were so ubiquitous, they were built “on every high hill, and under every leafy tree”! (1 Kings 14:22-23).

“Ishbaal ben Beda” inscription, from Khirbet Qeiyafa (10th century B.C.E.); the prevalence of pagan worship can be seen even in certain names found in the Bible and archaeology, which often feature the “Baal” element.
Tal Rogovsky

Psalm 106 condemns the widespread paganism: “[They] mingled themselves with the nations, And learned their works; And they served their idols … they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan …” (verses 35-38). Again, to quote Haaretz: The Israelites were “more similar to other neighboring Levantine peoples than a face-value reading of the Bible lets on. They likely shared most of the beliefs and customs of the local Canaanite culture.”

More similar to surrounding nations than the Bible lets on?

2 Kings 17 is a summary of the religious situation in the northern kingdom of Israel: “they followed idols, became idolaters, and went after the nations who were all around them …” (verse 15; New King James Version). As for the southern kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem in particular, the Prophet Ezekiel records an even more dire assessment: “Thus saith the Lord God: This is Jerusalem! … she hath rebelled against Mine ordinances in doing wickedness more than the nations, and against My statutes more than the countries that are round about her …” (Ezekiel 5:5-6).

The Haaretz piece continued to describe how the creation of the Canaanite deity “[flew] in the face of the most basic tenets of Judaism as listed in the first and second commandments: the embrace of monotheism and the ban on making graven images.” True. It also notes the archaeological evidence for the early Israelite worship of “Asherah, who was believed thought [sic] to be God’s wife.”

But if you’re surprised that such a graven image ended up in a temple 6 kilometers from Solomon’s temple, as well as the worship of a “wife” of God named “Asherah,” wait until you read what the Bible says. “And he [Manasseh, king of Judah] set the graven image of Asherah, that he had made, in the house of which the Lord said to David and to Solomon his son: ‘In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, will I put My name for ever” (2 Kings 21:7; see also 2 Chronicles 33:4). Forget about 6 kilometers from Jerusalem’s temple—King Manasseh put a “graven image” of the Canaanite Asherah deity directly in Solomon’s temple itself!

Hebrew text from Kuntillet Ajrud, reconstructed to read “… will give Yahweh of Yemen [Teman] and his Asherah …”
Pashute

The article continues, “[T]he settlement at Motza must have been part of the kingdom of Judah, and its temple should reflect the official religious beliefs promoted by the Davidic dynasty.” It’s an unfortunate dig at King David, the “man after God’s own heart”—but the discovery confirms the biblical account—that such pagan temples were established and promoted by ensuing kings in his dynasty!

In fact, the Bible describes that it was only briefly during the reigns of two of the righteous kings of Judah—Hezekiah and Josiah—that worship at forbidden “high places” around Jerusalem and Judah—shrines such as Tel Motza—was officially stopped! And as for the Israelite worship of Baal, the likely deity found at Tel Motza, 1 Kings 19:18 records that during the days of the great Prophet Elijah, there were only “seven thousand in Israel … which have not bowed unto Baal”!

The takeaway? The Bible is not the story of dutiful obedience to the “one true God”—precisely the opposite.

Evidence Against the Bible—or Just the Opposite?

This tenor comes up in archaeology reporting repeatedly. It came up in July of this year with the “surprise” discovery of piglet remains in eighth century b.c.e. Jerusalem—presented in several channels as evidence against the existence of biblical kosher laws. (Guess what? The Prophet Isaiah himself condemned the consumption of pork occurring in Jerusalem specifically during the eighth century.) A similar subject came up in May: A new study revealing the degree to which the biblical Israelites consumed unclean fish, highlighted as evidence, again, against the early existence of these biblical kosher laws. Yet reporting on the subject failed to point out how at certain points in biblical Jewish history, direct evidence from one of the researchers indicates Jews as early as King David’s time were refraining from eating non-kosher fish.

The Jerusalem piglet skeleton, in situ
Oscar Bejerano | Israel Antiquities Authority

Looking at this rationally, is a prevalence of murder evidence against the existence of laws prohibiting murder? Of course not—it’s a logical fallacy. But that doesn’t dampen enthusiasm to “prove the Bible wrong.”

Again in July, reports highlighted the discovery of a First Temple period wall in Jerusalem that was found found still standing after the Babylonian destruction around 586 b.c.e. This too was presented as evidence against the Bible’s account of the destruction of Jerusalem. Hardly; rather, it proves evidence against a certain interpretation of an English translation of the original Hebrew text, of which the discovery most certainly does not contradict.

The exposed section of Jerusalem’s wall
Koby Harati | City of David

In another case last year, a Haaretz piece pointed to archaeological discoveries related to King Manasseh, characterizing them as “the latest case in which the biblical narrative does not match up with the archaeological record.” The Bible, wrote the author, “consigns [Manasseh] to the dustbin of history in less than a chapter (2 Kings 21).” Archaeological discoveries, the author wrote, instead demonstrate a time of building programs and prosperity in Judah, as well as a connection to the Assyrian Empire.

What was overlooked in the article, however, was that Manasseh is in fact described in two chapters of the Bible—and the second passage, 2 Chronicles 33, does describe these very building programs and relations with Assyria.

This fresh round of reporting on Tel Motza is also only a rehash of the same last year, after much of the temple itself was revealed. To quote a article published by the excavators in Biblical Archaeology Review: “What is a temple doing at Tel Motza during this period, when the Bible says the only temple in Judah was in Jerusalem?” (emphasis mine). Following this, the Daily Mail headlined: “Iron Age Temple Discovered at Tel Motza Near Jerusalem Calls Into Question the Biblical Claim That Solomon’s Temple Was the Only Temple in the Ancient Kingdom of Judah.” Biblical claim? Solomon’s temple the only temple? As we have covered, this is most certainly not what the Bible “claims”—precisely the opposite.

And that’s another thing: What about these “claims” about what the Bible says? Where is the scriptural evidence to back it up? If the Bible “claims” it, why not just quote it?

But here again last year, what was not emphasized was the correlation of the Motza finds with the Bible—including an interesting potential connection to an account of the deeds of King Asa. For more information about that, read Brent Nagtegaal’s larger Watch Jerusalem piece “Uncovering the Truth,” using the discourse surrounding Tel Motza as a study on how to filter the “fake news” that finds its way into the interpretation of and reporting on biblical archaeology.

In his summary of the Tel Motza temple discovery and reporting in 2020, Brent concluded his article as follows: “In the case of the Motza temple, have the excavators made a discovery that ‘fundamentally changed the way we understand the religious practices of Judahites’? Maybe it has for them, but not for those who read the Bible.

When reading about a new archaeological discovery, we cannot casually accept the media’s interpretation, especially if it discredits the Bible. Don’t take for granted that the experts are always right. Always check the actual facts, and consider them objectively alongside a thorough reading of the biblical text. When we take this approach, we will often be surprised to learn that many of the discoveries that supposedly “disprove the Bible” actually do the opposite.

“Surprised” indeed.

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