Solomon Builds the Temple

Solomon Builds the Temple

Solomon doubled the size of Jerusalem by extending the city northwards from the Ophel hill to include Mount Zion where he embarked on an ambitious construction programme on Araunah’s old estate. He built a vast palace complex (1 Kings 7–8) which included a massive palace for himself complete with a huge harem for the 700 princesses and 300 concubines who were the gifts of foreign rulers, and he built a grand palace for his Egyptian wife. He also built a cedar-panelled armoury called the House of the Forest of Lebanon, a treasury, a judgement hall containing his magnificent ivory throne, and on the ancient threshing floor he built the Temple.

Building the Temple was a fantastic under taking, according to the Bible (1 Kings 5–8). It tells of Solomon raising a levy of 30,000 Israelites who were divided in to groups of 10,000, each group working in shifts, cutting wood in Lebanon for a month then working for two months in Jerusalem. Additionally 80,000 men were sent into the mountains to quarry stone for the foundations of the Temple and another 70,000 porters carried it down to Jerusalem, with 3300 supervisors over seeing operations. There is no need to take these numbers literally; they are meant to express the magnificence of Solomon and his works.

Construction of the Temple began in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign and took seven years and five months in all, that is from the spring of about 958 BC to the autumn of about 951 BC before the rainy season set in. We are told in the Book of Kings that in plan the Temple was a rectangle oriented east and west and measuring 60 cubits in length, 20 cubits in width, and 30 cubits in height (2 Chronicles 3:4 says it was 120 cubits high, but that is an impossible figure probably indicating a corrupt text). A cubit is the length of a man’s arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, which is generally taken to be about half a yard or half a metre, so the Temple of Solomon was about 30 yards long,10 yards wide and 15 yards high.

The purpose of temples in the ancient world was to provide a dwelling place for the god, and so just like all other temples in the East the architectural plan of Solomon’s Temple was based on that of an ordinary house. The Temple was divided in to three chambers which became more private, more intimate, more holy the farther inwards one progressed. The outermost chamber was the ulam or the porch, an entrance hall rather like the porch or narthex of a church. Beyond this was the hekal where cult objects were kept, including a gold altar, ten candelabra, various lamps, goblets, cups, knives, basins and braziers. The hekal led directly into the debir, a windowless chamber 20 cubits long, wide and high, that is a perfect cube. This was the Holy of Holies, closed by folding doors, where Yahweh, who had declared that he would ‘dwell in the thick darkness’ (1 Kings 8:12) was symbolised by the Ark of the Covenant. Flanked by two huge statues of golden cherubim, the Ark resided at this spot untouched by human hands for over three hundred years, as contact with such a powerfully sacred object without taking the proper precautions caused immediate death (1 Chronicles 13:10).

Yet for such a celebrated building the Temple was hardly of any size at all, being only about a third as long and half as wide as the Parthenon built atop the Acropolis in Athens five hundred years later. Indeed Solomon’s own palace, at 100 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high, was four times the size of the Temple and took a good deal longer to build. But then what was most impressive about the Temple, apart from its sanctity, were its costly and finely worked materials and decorations, and for these Solomon relied on his friend and ally King Hiram of Tyre.