Temple Mount, Episode 1: Backstory
By Steve Schiller
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem has been a flashpoint of conflict between Jews and Muslims for more than 1300 years. Scarcely a holiday goes by without the Mount being at the center of violence. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
In the West, when stories like these are broken, we listen, we shake our head, and we go about watching football or surfing online for cute cat videos. OK, I don’t partake of that last part, but I’m guilty of the rest. In fact, many of us might think (because it’s too politically incorrect to say aloud), ‘another day, another bombing.’
Part of the problem is that it’s human nature for us to care more about our own lives and ignore the rest of the world. We could spend months debating that issue, and maybe we will at another time. But for now, let’s focus on another other issue –the media seem to focus on the violence only; they don’t typically give us the reasons behind it. In this day and age of blockbuster movies and their superhero backstories, maybe it would interest us to know how we got here.
I should mention the obvious: it’s impossible to chronicle the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the amount of space I have, so I’m going to focus on one particular aspect – the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. When I hear reports of the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, I ask myself if they’re all the same or if they are completely different structures. And why, if the Jews had built a temple and deem the area holy, do the Muslims consider the Mount to be the third holiest place in Islam? What drove them there in the first place?
To see how it all began, we must go back nearly 3,000 years. We will see how the Temple Mount first belonged to the Jews.
2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 recount the story of King David and his encounter with a Jebusite farmer named Araunah. Araunah owned land on Mount Moriah where he grew wheat and barley and his threshing floor dominated the summit. I can picture the encounter: farmer Araunah working his fields, minding his own business, and along came David accompanied by angels. After gulping a few times and bowing to the ground, he began a conversation with David. The Lord had directed David to build an altar to Him there. After rejecting Araunah’s offer to give him the land, David insisted on paying the farmer for it, and gave him 600 shekels (15 pounds) of gold.
On that threshing floor, David’s son Solomon built the First Temple circa 957 BC, which stood for 371 years. To put this timeframe in perspective, the United States has been a country for only 238 years, so it was well established. Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Solomon’s masterpiece in 586 BC. Persian ruler Cyrus the Great commissioned the building of a new temple in 538 BC and decreed that the exiled Jews should travel back to their homeland and begin construction.
The foundation for this second temple was laid on Mount Moriah two years later by God’s chosen foreman Zerubbabel, but interestingly a work stoppage dragged on for 16 years. Why the delay? The answer lies in a very early example of non-Jews frustrating Jewish authority at the Temple Mount. Natives who had been living in the area for years while the Jews were in captivity approached Zerubbabel and offered to help in the rebuilding project. They claimed to worship and offer sacrifices to the same God. Zerubbabel, with a decree from Cyrus and more importantly God’s blessing, told the natives that the remnant would build the Temple and that God was Israel’s God (Ezra 4:2-3). Thus began a campaign by the natives to halt building on two fronts: terror and politics. Sound familiar? (There goes my political incorrectness again.)
Materials to construct the Temple would have had to be imported from neighboring areas and native counselors, who had long administered the area, interfered. The new Jews on the block didn’t stand a chance of winning that battle. If red tape existed in 536 BC, the Jewish leaders would have struggled to dig themselves out from it.
Having just arrived in Jerusalem, the Jews had not yet built homes for themselves and therefore lived in the open country, vulnerable to attack. Based on the account in Ezra 4, the native rivals troubled and terrified the people of Judah, presumably harassing them on their way into town. Suddenly, building a home and defending your family took precedence over erecting a Temple with non-existent materials. After weeks and months, the “rebuilding fervor” waned and the Temple Project ground to a halt.
Cooler heads would prevail however (a decade and a half later), and in 516 BC construction was completed and the new Temple dedicated. Not as grand as Solomon’s shrine, this Second Temple stood virtually untouched for another five centuries. Many empires ruled Jerusalem and surrounding environs during that stretch, but the bottom line is: the Temple Mount once again belonged to the Jews.
Herod the Great remodeled and expanded the Mount in 19 BC, doubling the size of the complex to more than 35 acres. In AD 66, Jews protested and eventually attacked Roman citizens over – what else – too many taxes – a more violent Jerusalem tea party of sorts. The Romans retaliated by looting the Temple and killing thousands of Jews, which precipitated a full-blown uprising by the people. The resulting war lasted several years, but the devastating blow came in AD 70 when Roman general Titus laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and burning most of the town.
At the beginning of this article I asked the question: what drove the Muslims to the Temple Mount in the first place? In Episode 2 next week, we’ll explore the mysterious beginnings of Islam outside of Saudi Arabia, which includes a donkey with the face of a woman, a ride up to and back down from heaven, and an interesting interpretation of the term “al Aqsa.”
Steve Schiller is a producer with the Steel on Steel radio show, a weekly news magazine that gives you 90 minutes of solid news and commentary, much of which you will not hear elsewhere.