Temple Mount PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Temple Mount
First Temple
Second Temple
Red Heifer
We enter the Haram al-Sharif through the Mughrabi gate (No. 7 in the photo below). Beneath us, unseen, stacked vaults descend to the bottom of a valley that runs north-south through today's Old City. To our north, dominated by the Dome of the Rock, is a higher platform, most of which is built directly on a broad, level stretch of bedrock. In other words, the top of the hill has the form of a plateau.

The photo shows the central and southern parts of the Haram as seen from the east, with indications of places on the ancient Temple Mount:


By enlarging the map on the right, you can get a better idea of the natural hill beneath the two platforms.

The lower platform on which we stand corresponds in height to the level of the outer court in Herod's Temple. (Jacobson , p. 60.) It was on this level that Jesus upset the tables of the money-changers (Luke 19:45-46 ).

E.P. Sanders (pp. 113-114) has imagined what it was like for a Jewish family visiting the Temple. I shall follow his description, putting my additions in parentheses. First, they have money set aside for the pilgrimage: this is the "second tithe" (the first went to the priests). It amounts to a tenth of the year's produce. It is for their own use, but it must be spent in Jerusalem. Let us suppose a set of circumstances: during the year, the wife had a child; she went to her uncle's funeral; the husband cheated a neighbor financially. They cannot, under such conditions, enter the Temple. The woman became impure by giving birth, so she must wait the requisite period (40 days for a son, 80 for a daughter), then take a ritual bath. But she also has corpse impurity. Its removal takes seven days.

We'll suppose a priest comes to her village and sprinkles her on the third and seventh days with the requisite mixture of water and ash. As for the man, he has repaid his neighbor and added a fifth. Under these conditions, and provided the wife isn't menstruating, they may take a ritual bath and enter the sacred precinct.

They go, then, toward Jerusalem. Surrounded by higher hills, as reflected in Psalm 125:2 , the city and its temple come into view quite suddenly, arousing awe. The family sings Psalm 122. If they see the temple from the Mount of Olives in the morning, it blazes like the sun:

It was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun's own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white. ( War   V 5.6)

Having found lodging or set up camp, the exemplary family members immerse in a public ritual bath and abstain from sex that night. The next day is not yet the festival itself. It is a day when people bring private offerings. In order to buy sacrificial animals, they must have acceptable coinage, namely, Tyrian shekels. Although these have the image of a god named Melqart, they are the coins the priests demand (Mishnah, Berakhot 8.7). Their silver content is over 90%. If you arrive with any other coinage, you have to exchange it for the Tyrian. Hence, the moneychangers.

Outside, the family buys a ram for the man's guilt offering and a lamb as a thank offering. Then they approach from the south end, as most pilgrims do. (This is the traditional direction to come from, harking back to Solomon's Temple, when the Jerusalemites lived south of the building.) They go through one of the Hulda Gates and find themselves in a tunnel that leads beneath the Royal Portico and up onto the lower platform. 

Sanders here has them turn into the Royal Portico, which occupied the south end of the platform, and buy two unblemished doves for the woman's offering after childbirth. (Yet they might have brought them in from outside.) Now they proceed across the court to a balustrade, called the soreg, passing inscriptions warning Gentiles not to go closer on pain of death. One of these inscriptions has been found complete; there is also a fragment of another.
Our imagined family goes past the soreg and ascends the 14 steps. They are not yet at the level of today's upper platform. Not being priests, they head to the right. The woman enters the Court of Women through a gate in the southern protective wall, but here she need not ascend steps, because this far east the level inside is the same (and lower than today's upper platform). She gives her birds to a Levite, explaining that they are for a childbirth. Then she ascends perhaps to a gallery, from which she can watch what the Levite does with them.

Her husband goes around the protective wall to the east and then through its eastern gate. He goes straight through the Court of Women, climbing fifteen steps to another gate. These steps, writes Josephus, were "shallower than the five at the other gates." ( Jewish War V 188-212 [5.3].) They would have brought him to the higher level, corresponding to that of the upper platform today. He enters through the gate to the Court of Israel.

Continuing with Sanders' account: The man finds a Levite, who takes the lamb and holds it. He brings the ram to a priest, puts his hands on its head, confesses what he did, and explains that he has made restitution to the person he wronged. He and a Levite then lift the animal partly over the parapet dividing the Court of Priests from that of Israel. Josephus says this parapet was eighteen inches high.  (The Mishnah puts it at 4.5 feet! Had its authors ever tried lifting an animal?!) The priest places a basin beneath its throat (to collect the blood, which he will pour around the base of the altar). The man pulls back the head of the ram and slits its carotid arteries.

Sanders comments:

[S]laughter was not an everyday experience. Many people ate fowl once a week, but red meat only a few times a year. Slaughter of a quadruped...was a special occasion: it was anticipated, the senses were sharpened, and the quick flood of blood evoked an emotional response.... The act was surrounded by mystery and awe, and in this respect the Jerusalem temple outdid its pagan counterparts. The days of purification in advance..., the majesty of the setting, the physical actions -- selecting fat, unblemished victims, seeing them inspected by experts, walking with them to within a few yards of the flaming altar, handing them over, laying hands on the head,confessing... dedicating the animal, slitting its throat, or even just holding it -- these guaranteed the meaningfulness and awesomeness of the moment. ( Sanders , pp. 114-116.)

After pouring the blood at the altar, the priest takes the ram away to butcher. The man takes the lamb from the Levite. Another priest comes with a basin, and they slaughter the lamb. Meanwhile, the woman's Levite has found a priest to sacrifice the two birds.

Perhaps ten minutes later, says Sanders, the priest who had taken the lamb, which was a thank offering, brings the meat back. The man waves its breast before the altar, then hands it together with the right thigh to the priest. He leaves with the rest of the meat, meeting his wife, who has been watching from the gallery. They go to the campsite and join their friends for the feast.