What Happened to the Canaanite Temples in David’s Time?

Isometric reconstruction of the Iron IB Southern Temple of Beth-Shean
Courtesy of Robert A. Mullins, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Before the Israelites arrived in Canaan, it was common for every ancient Canaanite town to feature its own temple for cultic practice. However, the Bible records that Israel’s “temple” worship was reserved for one sanctified location: first at the tabernacle, later at the temple in Jerusalem. Does archaeology corroborate this biblical claim?

For archaeologists and historians studying settlements in Canaan, the lack of a functioning temple can be used as a cultural marker to show Israelite control. This phenomenon of cities without temples is evident in the highland settlements of the Iron i period, where Israel retained control. But during the Iron iia period (the period generally associated with the united monarchy) something interesting happened: Towns further from the central highlands lacked temples.

Prof. Avraham Faust from Ben Gurion University drew attention to this change in his 2021 Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology article, explaining that during Iron iia, temples at major northern cities—such as Megiddo, Hazor, Beth-Shean, as well as Tel Qasile close to the Mediterranean coast—ceased to function (“The ‘United Monarchy’ on the Ground”).

Aerial photo of the EBA temple in Megiddo Area J
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition

Megiddo was a massive Canaanite city overlooking the Jezreel Valley. Archaeologists have dated Megiddo’s settlement to around 3000 b.c.e. A large temple structure, known as the “Great Temple,” was built around this time. It is the largest known structure of the time period for the Levant, measuring 335 square meters (3,600 square feet); it was 10 times larger than the average temple of the time. Excavators found a huge array of animal bones in two corridors of the temple—piled in some areas around 25-centimeters (10 inches) deep and covering a span of 46 meters (150 feet). This temple was destroyed and rebuilt in the late second millennium b.c.e. Over 17 temples were built on this site over the course of about 2,000 years–until the mid-12th century b.c.e. when the entire city suffered another destruction (possibly by Deborah and Barak).

The city underwent a massive reconstruction program in the mid-10th century, likely under Solomon (1 Kings 9:15), which included the construction of a monumental gatehouse, a palatial complex and administrative buildings. The massive cultic buildings, however, were never rebuilt. From the Early Bronze Age for 2,000 years, Megiddo never existed long without a temple. Clearly, worship was now centralized elsewhere.

The story of Hazor’s temples is quite similar. Tel Hazor is the largest tel in Israel, located 14 kilometers (almost 9 miles) north of the Sea of Galilee. It was also the largest Canaanite city of the second millennium b.c.e.: It was called “the head of all those [Canaanite] kingdoms” in Joshua 11:10. Several temples have been uncovered in Hazor. Between the 17th and 13th centuries b.c.e., four temples were constructed in one location—the fourth being the largest. Archaeology and the biblical text indicate that Hazor was burned by Joshua around 1400 b.c.e. and by Deborah in the mid-13th century b.c.e. (for more information, click here).

In the 10th century, Hazor was rebuilt as a major Israelite city. New constructions included a gatehouse (matching those at Megiddo and Gezer), massive casemate walls and other public structures. Yet no temple structures were built. In fact, the Israelites did not build anything on top of the sites where temples once stood. In “Hazor in the Ninth and Eighth Centuries B.C.E.,” Debora Sandhaus wrote, “The Israelite city developed around these ruins and always avoided building on top of them, possibly as a result of some sort of building ban on this location.” Such an important city would have surely boasted a grand temple complex unless cultic worship was centered elsewhere.

At Beth Shean, which is located on the route that connects the Jordan and Jezreel valleys, Prof. Amihai Mazar concluded that the series of Canaanite temples ended with a destruction in the Iron iia (10th century) and the entire purpose of the area in which they stood was changed. The 10th century introduced three imposing public buildings and an improved gatehouse structure–but no temple. Beth Shean is especially interesting because of archaeological evidence that Canaanites lived in the city alongside Israelites–and yet they did not have a temple to Canaanite gods. Professor Mazar wrote, “It may be assumed that … some Israelite families from the hill country settled in the city alongside the locals and that Israelite religious beliefs and ideology were slowly accepted by the local population ….”

Base of two central pillars discovered at Tel Qasile
Creative Commons

Tel Qasile (located within the modern city limits of Tel Aviv) was another site with a succession of temples that grew until it was captured by an Israelite polity. Following a destruction of the site in the early 10th century, “the temples were not rebuilt and there is only scant evidence for some ephemeral re-use of the area” (“The ‘United Monarchy’ on the Ground”).

What happened at these cultic sites during Iron iia? According to Professor Faust, it’s clear that the Israelites had taken over: “This was a major transformation, and it is important to stress that not only did it take place at the same time as so many other changes, but it also directs us toward the only society we know of that did not have temples in every settlement—the Israelite society.”

These templeless cities provide additional proof of the extent of the united monarchy during the 10th century b.c.e. They show that David’s territorial hold extended far beyond Jerusalem. He didn’t just rule over the southern highlands as a petty tribal chieftain; instead, his kingdom grew in size to engulf the Plain of Sharon (Tel Qasile), the Jezreel Valley (Megiddo), the northern valleys (Hazor) and the Jordan Valley (Beth Shean), destroying foreign temples as he went. A generation later, Solomon would raise many of these conquered cities to new heights through his construction programs, but he would not rebuild their temples.

Let the Stones Speak