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Israel may be the most studied archeological site in the world, but discoveries keep coming

Archeologists have found a temple, smaller than Solomon’s Temple, in Tel Moza, about 4 miles outside of Jerusalem.

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An artist’s rendering of Solomon’s Temple

Stephen L Chamberlain, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Archaeologically speaking, the land of Israel is the most intensively studied place in the world. Yet it still yields surprising discoveries at a rapid pace.

Consider, for example, the site of Tel Moza, located slightly less than 4 miles northwest of Jerusalem in a fertile agricultural area of the Soreq Valley. 

In 2012, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority discovered a temple there that had functioned from its construction around 900 B.C. until its abandonment sometime in the early sixth century B.C. (roughly the time of the Babylonian conquest). Although the Bible says that the only Judean temple at the time was in Jerusalem, a smaller but still quite large temple — 33 feet wide and nearly 60 feet long — apparently existed in the very heart of Judah, not far from Solomon’s much grander structure. 

As Shua Kisilevitz and Oded Lipschits, of the prestigious program in Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel Aviv University, say in “Another Temple in Judah! The Tale of Tel Moẓa” from the Biblical Archaeology Review: “It has become clear that temples such as the one at Moza not only could but also must have existed throughout most of the Iron II period as part of the official, royally sanctioned religious construct. Indeed, the temple at Moza is not an anomaly at all. ... Simply put: Despite the biblical narratives describing Hezekiah’s and Josiah’s reforms, there were sanctioned temples in Judah in addition to the official temple in Jerusalem.”

This should be of interest to readers of the Book of Mormon, in which the zealously devout Nephi constructs a temple shortly after the arrival of his people in the New World (2 Nephi 5:16). The objection that no pious ancient Jew would have built a temple outside of Jerusalem has now long since been neutralized.

But Tel Moza’s revelations are not exhausted.

In “The Face of Yahweh?” in the current issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review, Yosef Garfinkel, the Yigael Yadin Professor of the Archaeology of Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, reports on the discovery of three male figurine heads — two at Tel Moza and a third (approximately 2 inches tall) at his own dig site of Khirbet Qeiyafa, roughly 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem — dating to the 10th and ninth centuries before Christ. He compares them to two similar clay heads now in the possession of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that seem to come from the same period, though their provenance is uncertain.

“The combination of archaeological contexts, time periods, geographic distribution, iconography, Ugaritic texts, and the biblical tradition,” Garfinkel writes, “indicates that these figurines represent a male god — but which god?”

Two horse figurines were found near the clay heads at Tel Moza and, citing a closely comparable object from the collection of the late Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan, Garfinkel argues that Tel Moza’s heads originally belonged to riders on horseback. He points out that the Canaanite god Baal is described in various Ugaritic texts as the “rider of the heavens” or “rider of the clouds,” a phrase that is picked up and applied to Jehovah or Yahweh in Psalm 68:4. (Compare Psalm 45:4; Deuteronomy 33:26; Isaiah 19:1). In Habakkuk 3:8, furthermore, Yahweh is described as riding upon a horse.

On the basis of this and other reasoning, Garfinkel contends that the three clay heads from Tel Moza and Khirbet Qeiyafa — and two others from the Moshe Dayan collection — are images of God, of Yahweh or Jehovah, depicted in anthropomorphic or human form.

Moreover, he suggests, the Tel Moza heads were probably connected with the temple there. Worshippers at the shrine of Shiloh and, thereafter, at Jerusalem, were said to come “before the Lord,” which, in Hebrew, literally reads as “face of Yahweh.” (See, for example, 1 Samuel 1:22-23; Deuteronomy 16:16; Isaiah 1:12.). They may, Garfinkel writes, have symbolically come into his presence, metaphorically beholding God’s face in a meeting of earth and heaven.

If he’s right, this would give new and specific meaning to the priestly blessing that Aaron and his descendants were commanded to bestow at the tabernacle and its successor-structures:

“The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)

See “Another Temple in Judah! The Tale of Tel Moẓa,” by Shua Kisilevitz and Oded Lipschits, Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2020, pages 40-49 (subscription required); and “The Face of Yahweh?” by Yosef Garfinkel, Biblical Archaeology Review, Fall 2020, pages 30-33.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.