Did Solomon’s temple contain a seven-branched lampstand known as a menorah? Most people answer this question with an automatic “of course.”
But the Biblical text is not so clear. The Bible describes the building of the Temple itself in great detail (1 Kings 6–7). The furnishings of the Temple are also described in somewhat less detail, including ten “lampstands of pure gold, five on the south (or right) side and five on the north (or left) side of the inner shrine [of the Temple]” (1 Kings 7:49). But no mention is made of branches, let alone seven branches, on lampstands. The only detail of the Solomonic lampstands that the Temple texts in 1 Kings provides is a possible reference to their “flowers and lamps.”
One reason the Solomonic Temple or First Temple is so often assumed to have contained a seven-branched menorah is that when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. it most assuredly contained a seven-branched menorah. We are all familiar with the famous bas-relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting the captured artifacts from the Jewish Temple which Titus had destroyed, including a beautiful seven-branched menorah.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, depictions of the building (or its facade) as well as its sacred artifacts became common.a Representations of the sacred Ark, which had supposedly held the tablets of the law as well as the seven-branched menorah, abound in post-Destruction Jewish art. When the Temple was gone, these sacred creations of early Jewish art preserved, in a symbolic way, the emotional reassurance of God’s involvement with the children of Israel that the sanctuary on the Temple Mount had previously provided. Depictions of the menorah are found on clay oil lamps, on gold glass, on seals, on coins, on amulets and on synagogue lintels, mosaics and chancel screens. The menorah was incised on sarcophagi and was painted, carved and drawn on tomb walls. Indeed, it became the most popular symbol of Judaism in the post-Destruction period.
No wonder ancient scholars as well as modern ones often assumed that the Solomonic Temple too contained a menorah similar in appearance to the one which, according to the Arch of Titus and the account in Josephus, was carried off by the Romans.
Interestingly enough, there are only a few depictions of the Second Temple menorah prior to 70 A.D.b The best-known examples are the menorahs on Maccabean coins struck by Antigonus (40–37 B.C.). In the last few years, Professor Nachman Avigad of Hebrew University uncovered a menorah incised on a limestone wall opposite the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. This example, too, predates the destruction of the Temple, probably by somewhat less than a century. But there are few other examples of menorah depictions which were created while the Temple still stood in Jerusalem.1
That the Second Temple, as rebuilt by King Herod beginning in about 20 B.C. (JosephusAntiquities XV:389), contained a menorah is clear. The sources are silent, however, concerning the Second Temple as it was built—or re-built by the Judeans on their return from the Babylonian exile under the famous Edict of Cyrus (Ezra 1:3, 2 Chronicles 36:23).c Of this, however, we can be sure: The impoverished and diminished community of the Judean Restoration in the late sixth century B.C. did not have resources comparable in any way to those available to King Solomon at the height of Israelite imperial expansion (see Ezra 3:12).d
Although the Bible does not describe a lampstand in the Second Temple as restored by the Judeans in the early Persian period and although the Bible does not specify that the ten lampstands in Solomon’s Temple had branches, the Bible elsewhere does describe a seven-branched menorah in great detail. This is the menorah which was housed in the portable Tabernacle which accompanied the Israelites on their desert wanderings and during their early settlement in the Promised Land. The description is found in Exodus:
“And you shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The base and the shaft of the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its cups, its capitals, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it; and there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it, and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; three cups made like almonds, each with capital and flower, on one branch, and three cups made like almonds, each with capital and flower, on the other branch—so for the six branches going out of the lampstand: and on the lampstand itself four cups made like almonds, each with their capitals and flowers, and a capital of one piece with it under each pair of the six branches going out from the lampstand. Their capitals and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it one piece of hammered work of pure gold. And you shall make the seven lamps for it; and the lamps shall be set up so as to give light upon the space in front of it. Its snuffers and their trays shall be of pure gold. Of a talent of pure gold shall it be made, with all these utensils. And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.”
Until World War II, this passage would likely have been regarded as irrelevant to a consideration of whether there was a menorah in Solomon’s Temple. That is because this description, as well as the other instructions for building and furnishing the Tabernacle of Israel’s desert wanderings, was attributed to a late-exilic or post-exilic priestly hand (the so-called P source, variously dated to the sixth or fifth century B.C.), or perhaps somewhat earlier, to the late pre-exilic period.
Post-war Biblical scholarship, however, has established the great antiquity of many of the priestly traditions.e Even though the final form of the Priestly tradition may not have been established until after the exiles returned from Babylonia, it nevertheless records many authentic features of an organized pre-monarchic religious cultus reaching back to the Mosaic era.
The tribal organization of the Priestly portions of the Pentateuch would seem to be meaningless after the subsequent Solomonic redistricting of the land. Yet they are used by the Priestly compiler. The military atmosphere and language of encampment is most suitable to the pre-monarchic era. The concept of Levitic and priestly guard duty has been shown by Jacob Milgrom to reach back to the earliest tribal memories of a guarded cultic shrine in the wilderness.
The very notion of a portable shrine, with an anti-icon or aniconic tradition, a “tabernacling” God,f and a sacrificial cult, has been established by Frank Cross to be a genuine product of Mosaic Yahwism. More specifically, many of the cultic terms and practices associated with that shrine are archaic and can best be related to extra-Biblical data dating to the Late Bronze Age rather than to the late Iron Age or Persian Period. Speiser, Hurwitz and Milgrom, among others, have worked out many of these specific instances. For example, the term for “linen” (ses) used more than thirty times in the Priestly source is geographically related to Egypt and is clearly a term pre-dating the exile; during the exile an equivalent term (bus) became widely used. Thus the Priestly usage of this Egyptianism bespeaks the ancient traditions of the Tabernacle texts.
There are also reasons related to the description of the Tabernacle menorah itself which suggest its Mosaic origin. By Mosaic origins I am referring to the archaeological period of the Late Bronze II (or LB II), 1400 to 1200. This period includes the Exodus and Wilderness Wanderings, when proto-Israelite groups were coalescing into a national entity immediately after the Egyptian sojourn of at least a portion of them.
Consider, for example, the basic structural shape of the Tabernacle menorah—not the branches but rather the central stand which supports the seven branches. All we are told of this is that “the base and the shaft of the lampstand shall be made of hammered work.” “Base and shaft” is a mis-translation. It gives the impression of two distinct parts—one a base and the other a shaft or central stem. In fact, there is only a single structural element. The words usually translated “base and shaft” constitute a rhetorical device frequently used in the Bible and known as a hendiadys. A hendiadys consists of two Hebrew nouns connected by the particle (usually translated “and”), which, however, are rendered correctly in English as a noun and an adjective (without the particle), one modifying the other. Thus, if the Hebrew consisted of two names connected by “and”, as in “cups and gold”, it should be translated “golden cups.”
Unfortunately, “base and shaft” has not been recognized, even in modern translations, as the hendiadys that it is. It should be translated as “base-forming shaft” or “thickened shaft”, with the word for base modifying the word for shaft.
This suggestion is supported by a close look at the Hebrew word used here for “base”, yerakh. It derives from an anatomical term meaning “thigh” or the thickened part of the leg. As an adjective modifying shaft or stem, it depicts a shaft which is not of uniform diameter throughout its height. In its lower portion, at least, it flares out like the thickened part of the leg. With these considerations, the phrase could be better translated as “flaring shaft” or, even more accurately, “a shaft that flares at the bottom.”
Archaeology provides abundant evidence that cultic stands with this shape—a cylindrical shaft that flares out at the bottom to provide added support—is extremely common throughout the ancient Near East for two thousand years. It is found from Egypt to Sumer, as well as in the Aegean. Many examples also come from Palestine. While most are ceramic, the iconographic evidence from cylinder seals, stone reliefs, and wall paintings often depict metal stands as well; some stone examples have also been found. These cultic stands were used for a variety of purposes—to support incense bowls, libation vessels, offering tables, sacred ritual objects, as well as saucer oil lamps.
The critical archaeological fact, however, is that, while these cultic stands have a long and conservative history, they do not appear past the Iron Age. During that period, three-legged metal stands became the vogue,g so that by the time of the Exile, the cylindrical stands had virtually disappeared. The cylindrical stands with flaring lower portions which had survived nearly unchanged for over two millennia, had been replaced by an Aegean-inspired metallic tripod.
Thus the Priestly compiler who (in the late sixth or fifth century) recorded in its final form the Exodus description of the Tabernacle menorah drew on an authentic pre-monarchic tradition which was ancient even then. At the time that the Priestly work was completed, the kind of Tabernacle lampstand he described was no longer in use.
Another element which strongly suggests an authentic pre-monarchic core to the description of the seven-branched Tabernacle menorah in Exodus is its “Egyptian connections.” If the description of the seven-branched tabernacle menorah in Exodus were the work of an exilic or post-exilic mind retrojecting into the past, it would not contain such “deep” contacts with Egyptian culture. That the Exodus tabernacle description does reflect Egyptian cultural affinities suggests an authenticity that would be hard for an exilic writer to imitate.
For example, the term zahav tahor which is translated “pure gold,” is used in the Exodus texts to describe material from which the seven-branched Tabernacle menorah was crafted. In the description found in 1 Kings of the lampstands and other temple vessels from Solomon’s temple the term zahav sagur is used. This is also translated “pure gold.” But there is a difference.
Zahav tahor, the Tabernacle gold, appears to refer to gold of the requisite purity that was obtained by “washing;” that is, it was panned. Pure nuggets were obtained either in this way or the ore was broken down naturally and the nuggets were released and retrieved in the same way as panning. This type of naturally refined gold was secured from Egypt or Nubia.
Zahav sagur, the gold of the Solomonic menorahs—seems to be the exact equivalent of an Akkadian term, burasu sakru or sagru. The precise meaning of this kind of gold escapes us, though it is likely that it designates its geographical origin. There is a Sagur River that is a tributary of the Euphrates River. Thus zahav sagur could mean gold from the Sagur, just as Klondike Gold or Rheingold designate the geographical source of the gold. Zahav sagur thus indicates a northern origin of the required gold, as would be expected given the general Tyrian influence that the account in the first book of Kings of Solomon’s Temple explicitly describes.
That the gold for the Tabernacle menorah came from Egypt, the source par excellence for gold in the ancient world, but the gold for the Solomonic lampstands came from the northeast, strongly supports the authenticity of the Exodus description of the Tabernacle menorah and indicates that the original description was produced shortly after the Egyptian experience of the Israelites. The Biblical tradition that the Israelite refugees from Pharaoh’s work camps brought gold with them, as the most transportable kind of resource, likewise suggests this. (See Exodus 3:21–22, Exodus 12:35; Psalm 105:37.)
The botanical details of the Tabernacle menorah also suggest an Egyptian origin. Egyptian art characteristically renders plant life in architectural forms, like the lotus and papyrus capitals on columns of buildings. At the ends of the six branches on the Tabernacle menorah were “capitals and flowers.”h This is another hendiadys: One word has an adjectival value and modifies the other. The words should be translated something like “floral capital” or “architectural flower” or “architectonic flower.”
Other botanical elements in the Tabernacle menorah reinforce the Egyptian core to the description. Even the Hebrew word for “branch” or “shaft” (kaneh) reflects a Biblical awareness of the Nile valley’s botanical scene, of the flourishing of the cane plant in the Egyptian marshes. In Isaiah 19:6, we read that “the branches of Egypt’s Nile will diminish and dry up, reeds (kaneh) and rushes will rot away.” The word for the Nile’s reeds and the menorah’s shaft and branches is the same.
Archaeology enables us to place the floral architectonic element of the Tabernacle lampstand quite specifically in the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.), the archaeological period which includes, towards its end (LB IIB), the Exodus wanderings.
For most of its history the typical cultic stand was very simple and undecorated. When decoration occurred it was rarely more than a narrow convex ring or molding, placed either at about the center of the stand (the narrowest point if the stand flared outward toward the top as well as at the bottom) or at the very top of the stand as a kind of support for whatever was to be set upon it. Toward the end of the Late Bronze Age, however, this kind of ring molding develops into a much more elaborate decorative element, resembling a series (usually three or four) of downward-turned floral capitals. Moreover, this development occurs in the Aegeo-Egypto-Canaanite area in particular. It is found on certain stands in Palestine beginning in the Late Bronze II period when Egypt was a dominant political and economic power and when trade between the Syro-Palestinian area and the Cyprus-Aegean area flourished.
This shift in Late Bronze Age cultic stands from the earlier simple, functional devices (albeit with a flaring base) to an object which has absorbed architectural elements is reflected in the complex Tabernacle menorah described in the Exodus texts, and confirms an authentic Late Bronze core to the description.
Of course, the most obvious botanical element in the seven-branched Tabernacle menorah is the form of the object itself—the tree of life. The tree form is a common motif in ancient Near Eastern art. It usually represents the divine presence in its function as the source of life-giving fertility or eternal life. As depicted in cultic scenes on the monuments and seals of the ancient Near East, the tree is usually stylized. The stylization of these trees varies from place to place and from time to time. The general shape and the number of branches also varies. In the Late Bronze II period, however, the six-branch-plus-central-axis combination becomes especially prominent. Thus, this aspect of the menorah’s overall form—or morphology—also points towards a time period which authenticates the pre-Solomonic existence of a lampstand with branches in the Israelite tabernacle cult.
In short, the details of the Tabernacle menorah’s form, as well as its decoration, can be identified with iconographic and archaeological analogues that converge at the end of the Late Bronze Age. A period of Egyptian hegemony or contact seems to underlie or precede the Hebraic conception. The authenticity of a pre-Monarchic menorah dating back to the early post-Exodus period is thus almost certainly affirmed.
Yet, if our analysis has shown that a seven-branched menorah was in fact used in Israel’s pre-monarchic cult, this does not necessarily mean that a seven-branched menorah was fabricated for Solomon’s Temple. My own belief is that Solomon’s Temple probably did not have a seven-branched menorah, despite the availability of prototypes in Israel’s earlier cult and despite the fact that at the time of its destruction the Second Temple also had a seven-branched menorah. This likelihood stems from a variety of considerations.
To begin with, although arguments from silence are not always cogent, the fact that the 1 Kings account of the lampstands in Solomon’s Temple does not refer to branches cannot be ignored. The brief description, as noted above, mentions only “flowers and lamps.” If “branches” were a prominent aspect of these ten Solomonic lampstands, it is difficult to imagine that their presence would be unnoted in the text. Certainly the Tabernacle account describes the branches in detail, for the pre-Solomonic shrine. And for the Second Temple or Herodian Temple, the ancient Jewish sources, both artistic and literary, feature the branches of the menorah. In light of this, the absence of a reference to branches is peculiar to the 1 Kings passage and must be taken seriously as reflecting their absence from the Solomonic artifacts.
Next, the presence of a branched lampstand in Israel’s prior cultic apparatus (during the Tabernacle period) does not automatically mean it was included in the subsequent Solomonic sacred structure. Changes were inevitably and characteristically introduced when a solid stone building in the capital city of Jerusalem replaced the portable shrine of earlier days. The Bible is quite straight forward in informing us that Solomon had ten lampstands. If there could be a change from one to ten (and then ultimately back to one again), there could likewise be a change from branched to un-branched (and then ultimately back to branched again in the Second Temple).
The functional aspect of these ten lampstands of Solomon’s Temple predominates over the cultic or decorative. The light-giving power of ten stands was evidently important in the much larger Solomonic building. In addition, the need for the symbolic allusion to God’s unseen presence in the form of the branched menorah (suggesting a tree of life) was obviated by the presence of other botanical forms. Abundant botanical carvings decorated the cedar paneling (1 Kings 6:15, 18, 29) and cypress doors of the first Jerusalem Temple (1 Kings 6:34–35) and there was perhaps a garden or grove within the Temple precincts (cf. Psalm 52:8, “I am like a green olive tree in the house of God”) much like the sacred or living trees in the old Patriarchal shrines (e.g. Genesis 12:6–7 and 21:33; cf. Joshua 24:16, “The oak in the sanctuary of the Lord.”).
Furthermore, the Solomonic building clearly utilized materials and techniques and styles of Syria-Palestine. Zechariah’s temple vision (Zechariah 4) can perhaps tell us what this meant in terms of lampstands. Zechariah’s vision predates the establishment of the Second Temple and thus reflects a memory of the First Temple period while anticipating the plans for the Restoration building.
The single lampstand of the Temple in Zechariah’s vision is a stand—whether it is cylindrical or tripodal cannot be determined—clearly surmounted by an elaboration of the kind of Syro-Palestinian, or Canaanite, saucer lamp typically found in cultic contexts. Zechariah’s description makes no mention of branches, however, and thus provides a clue that the Solomonic stands, probably cylindrical in accordance with Iron Age archaeological evidence, were non-branched stands surmounted by a clay saucer lamp. This use of lamps with stands is limited to cultic contexts in the Iron Age and would be what one would expect in a Syro-Palestinian shrine of the Iron Age, which is what Solomon’s Temple was.
Zechariah’s vision also indicates that the First Temple lamp surmounting each of the ten stands, although not branched, may well have been seven-spouted. The seven spouts would have been created by seven pinches in the saucer lamp. Each pinch would accommodate a separate wick. This kind of lamp is found sporadically in the ruins of Canaanite shrines of the Iron Age and in occasional Bronze Age precursors. Such seven-spouted lamps, set on cylindrical stands, are what would be expected, on archaeological evidence, in a Jerusalem shrine of the Iron II period, which is the period of Solomon’s Temple.
Despite substantial refurbishings throughout its long history, the Solomonic sanctuary was never seriously damaged or thoroughly pillaged until the fall of Jerusalem in 587/6 B.C. Then, following more than a half century of ruin and exile, an impoverished Judean community began to re-establish its national shrine. Searching its priestly archives for the “blueprint” for such a building project, so that it would follow in the mold of the ancient Yahwistic shrine in which God’s presence had been manifest, the post-exilic community no doubt utilized the detailed descriptions of the Tabernacle texts.
Thus the Second Temple menorah both at its inception and in its successive Maccabean and Herodian renderings, ironically bore closer resemblance to, though not identity with, its most ancient antecedent, the branched menorah of the Mosaic era, than to the ten golden stands of the Solomonic Temple.