On our third day in Jerusalem, we spent the morning at the Temple. Rather than being just one building, the Temple is a complex with multiple structures that comprise this sacred space. These structures give us different windows into the history and religious significance of what’s arguably the most contested piece of religious real estate in the world. In today’s reflection, I want to look through three of these windows with you.
Window 1 — The Dome of Rock
When King David was making plans to construct the Temple, he chose Mount Moriah as the location. This spot was (and is) deeply sacred because it is where Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac. The rock on which Abraham built the altar is referred to as the Foundation Stone or the Noble Rock. When King Solomon built the Temple, it was on this stone that he placed the Ark of the Covenant. Around the stone was constructed the Holy of Holies. After Solomon’s Temple had been destroyed and the Second Temple constructed, another Holy of Holies was built over the rock, though by that time the Ark had been lost.
Because of the rock’s connection to Abraham, it is honored by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Currently, the area of the Temple where the rock is housed is under the administration of an Islamic trust of the Jordanian government. The structure over the rock is known as the Dome of the Rock and is one of the most holy sites in the world for Muslims. Because the space is sacred, visitors are required to dress modestly when they visit. When I arrived, I quickly realized that I had not dressed modestly enough when one of the attendants told me my shorts were too short. My shorts were at my knee, not covering it — which was what is required. So, I was given a covering for my legs while I was on the mount. I was happy to oblige; plus, my legs were protected from the sun!
Window 2 — The Western (aka “Wailing”) Wall
Another iconic spot at the Temple is the Western (aka “Wailing”) Wall. When the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD, everything was leveled. The Holy of Holies, the rooms, the courts, the columns, the arches. Everything. In the years after the Temple’s destruction, rabbis would say that all the gates to heaven had been closed, except one: “The Gate of Tears.” So Jews would gather at the base of the western wall of the Temple and wail, cry out, and pray to God.
Over the centuries, the walls of the Temple have been rebuilt. If you look closely at the picture, you’ll see that the stones at the bottom of the wall are larger than the ones toward the top. The first few rows of stones are original to the Temple of Jesus’ day. But the higher up you get, the stones come from later rebuilding efforts.
I took an opportunity to pray at the wall. Like countless others, I wrote my prayer on a small piece of paper and tucked it in between the stones. Being at the Western Wall was an incredibly moving spiritual experience. I was surrounded by so many children of God’s covenant who were studying, praying, talking, debating, and celebrating. The mood at the wall had a buzz of excitement.
Window 3 — The Southern Steps
Located at the Southern wall of the Temple, the Southern Steps are the ones people would have walked up on their way into the Temple in Jesus’ day. Two things to notice about the Southern Steps: First, the steps are rough and uneven. If you don’t pay attention when you walk, you’ll likely trip. Worn down by who knows how many feet, these stones hold the memories of the generations of people seeking to draw closer to God. Walking these rough steps is a reminder that we need not rush when seeking the Divine. God is not in a hurry, and we shouldn’t be either. Second, if you look closely at the picture, behind the man (my friend Bobby), there are darker colored stones in the shape of an arch. This arch would’ve been open in Jesus’ day and through it people would’ve entered and exited the Temple.
Our group spent about an hour on the Southern Steps, and I loved every minute of it. Why were the steps so significant? Well, it has to do with the nature of archeological research in the Holy Land and its connection to the stories of Scripture. Archaeologists do their best to identify what happened where in ancient history. But at the end of the day, much of what we think we know is often a matter of probability, not certainty. “We think this is where this or that happened . . . ” is a phrase you’ll hear a lot in the Holy Land. Now, these aren’t just guesses pulled out of thin air. There are good reasons to accept some locations as highly probable, but probable is the key word. The Southern Steps, though, are ones on which Jesus surely would’ve walked. I can imagine Jesus in deep conversation with his disciples and missing a step and stubbing his toe. I can imagine the disciples sitting on the steps to catch their breath after a long walk. Steps are so ordinary, so common. And here I was walking the steps where Jesus would’ve walked.
“Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple.”Luke 21:37-38
Then, after exploring the Temple complex in the morning, our group enjoyed a fantastic lunch in the Armenian Quarter. It was a great day!