Hezekiah failed to eradicate all cult practices, researchers claim

Recent archaeological discoveries ‘fundamentally changed’ understanding of Judean religious customs.

Horse Figurine. (photo credit: CLARA AMIT ISRAELI ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
Horse Figurine.
(photo credit: CLARA AMIT ISRAELI ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
The Bible says that in the centuries after the Israelites entered the Land of Israel, many if not all Israelites turned their backs on the God of their Fathers for long periods of time, reverting to idol worship, creating altars and adopting pagan practices.
Kings Hezekiah and Josiah, however, implemented religious reforms, consolidating worship practices to the Temple in Jerusalem and eliminating cult activity beyond its boundaries, Kings 2 says.
“In the third year of King Hoshea son of Elah of Israel, Hezekiah son of King Ahaz of Judah became king... He did what was pleasing to the Lord, just as his father David had done. He abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post,” reads Kings 2, 18:1-4 (translation from Sefaria.org).
Now, research conducted by Tel Aviv University and Antiquities Authority archaeologists has shed new light on these cult practices, thanks to excavations conducted last year at the site of a monumental temple uncovered in Tel Motza in 2012.
Aerial photo of the temple at the end of the 2013 excavation. Credit: SkyView, Israel Antiquities AuthorityAerial photo of the temple at the end of the 2013 excavation. Credit: SkyView, Israel Antiquities Authority
“Could a monumental temple really exist in the heart of Judah, outside Jerusalem? Did Jerusalem know about it?” wrote the article’s coauthors, PhD student Shua Kisilevitz and Prof. Oded Lipschits of Tel Aviv University. “If so, could this other temple possibly have been part of the Judahite administrative system?
“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,” the researchers claim.
Located 6 km. outside Jerusalem, the site has been identified with the Israelite city of Motza, mentioned in Joshua as an administrative center and royal granary within the territory of the Tribe of Benjamin.
Cult stand with a pair of sphinxes or lions in low relief; the heads were not preserved (Photo Credit: CLARA AMIT ISRAELI ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)Cult stand with a pair of sphinxes or lions in low relief; the heads were not preserved (Photo Credit: CLARA AMIT ISRAELI ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
Motza’s expedition project, whose findings were published in the January/February 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, aimed to deepen archaeologists’ understanding of both the Tel Motza temple complex built around the late 10th or early 9th century BCE bearing resemblance to the Temple built by King Solomon, and a more ancient structure that has only been partially revealed.
The archaeologists explained that their research clearly points out “that the temple at Motza conformed to ancient Near Eastern religious conventions and traditions and biblical depictions of cult places throughout the land. It has become clear that temples such as the one at Motza not only could but also must have existed throughout most of the Iron II period as part of the official, royally sanctioned religious construct.”
Human-shaped figurine heads (Photo Credit: CLARA AMIT ISRAELI ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)Human-shaped figurine heads (Photo Credit: CLARA AMIT ISRAELI ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
Among other things, numerous cult artifacts were unearthed at the site, including human and animal shaped figurines modeled after lions, horses and sphinxes, as well as architectural remains such as an altar and a pit filled with animal bones – mostly sheep and goats – ashes and pottery shards, explained a TAU press release.
“Our discoveries thus far have fundamentally changed the way we understand the religious practices of Judahites,” stated Lipschits.
According to the article, Motza likely became a spiritual center due to its economic significance.
“The link between religion and economy has been well established in the ancient Near East, including at the Jerusalem Temple. But the economic component of ancient temples is more than just the collection of taxes, safeguarding of wealth and distribution of aid. A link between economic subsistence, production and the development of religious elites during the Iron IIA period has been suggested at several sites,” reads the article.
As pointed out in the study, however, many questions remain open.
“All we know so far is that when it was constructed, the Motza temple was likely the undertaking of a local group, but by the Iron IIB period, it was clearly under Judahite rule and must therefore have been royally sanctioned by the realm. The rest remains to be discovered,” the archaeologists wrote in their conclusion.
Perhaps some answers will emerge from the next round of excavation next spring, which will see the participation of staff and students from Tel Aviv University, Charles University (Prague) in the Czech Republic, Universität Osnabrück in Germany and UCLA in the United States.