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The Destruction and Reconstruction of the Temple

The second temple, built on the site of the destroyed first temple, became the center of the Jewish community in the Persian period.

Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the time of Herod. The Israel Museum

The Jerusalem temple said to have been built by Solomon was destroyed in 587/586 B.C.E., when the Babylonians captured the city, torched it, and exiled the Judean leadership to Babylon. Second Kings describes the final days:

“In the fifth month … Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He burned the house of the Lord, the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down.” (2Kgs 25:8-9)

This event marked a turning point in Israelite history because it spelled the end of an autonomous or even semiautonomous Judean state. It initiated a period, usually called the exilic period, that came to an end in the biblical record when King Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonian empire in 539 B.C.E., subsumed that empire under his own rule, and permitted Judeans to return to the land and rebuild the temple (see Ezra 1).

The prophetic books of Haggai and Zechariah portray these prophets as urging the leaders and the people to rebuild the temple. Ezra 1-6 depicts their successful efforts to do so, despite opposition from some “peoples of the land” whose identity is not always clear. Most scholars date the actual completion of the restored temple to 516/515 B.C.E.

Ezra 3 depicts the beginning of the restoration, with the building of the altar and setting the temple foundations. According to Ezra 4, however, enemies interfered by reporting to the Persian king that the builders were a rebellious people. After these and other delays, the temple was completed in 516/515 B.C.E, during the time of the Persian king Darius (525-486 B.C.E.).

The Hebrew Bible does not describe the rebuilt temple, although Ezra 6:3 says that “its height shall be sixty cubits and its width sixty cubits.” The emphasis falls on its placement, that is, that it should be installed precisely at the place of the first temple. Ezra 3 contrasts this new edifice with its predecessor: “many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy” (Ezra 3:12; see also Hag 2:3, which notes that the restored temple is less grand than the former one).

Whether or not it compared favorably to the first temple, the restored temple marked a new epoch; it signified the renewal of Jewish life after the devastation of exile. Moreover, it signaled a new role for the people themselves. Whereas the first temple was credited to Solomon and was built with forced labor, the second temple was the work of the people themselves. Although it came into being under Persian royal auspices (see Ezra 1:1-4), the actual builders were the Judeans (Ezra 1:5-6:14), who also unilaterally vowed to maintain it (Neh 10:32-39). In the absence of a monarchy, the second temple came to occupy a greater place in Judean life than did Solomon’s temple.

  • Tamara Cohn Eskenazi

    Tamara Cohn Eskenazi is professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Dr. Eskenazi is editor-in-chief of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, winner of the 2008 Jewish Book of the Year Award, and co-author (with T. Frymer-Kensky) of the JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth, winner of the Jewish Book Council Award in Women’s Studies in 2012. She is completing the Anchor Bible commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah.