Many people in the world today are unaware of the splendor and wealth of ancient Israel. In fact, since the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70, Israel has been scattered among the nations in lowliness and obscurity. Only in our own generation (since 1948) has this ancient people been re-established as a modest nation occupying her ancestral lands. Renewed and expanded archaeological studies in the holy land are, however, calling attention to the dramatic history of these, Abraham's descendants through his son Isaac, today as never before.
The purpose of this essay is to describe briefly the wealth of ancient Israel associated with the mystery of the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the temples built in Jerusalem. Because the Temple Mount in Jerusalem contains many subterranean chambers now filled with debris, archaeologists and Bible students have asked if it is possible that temple treasures may have been hidden beneath the rock prior to the times of invasion and destruction of Jerusalem by foreign invaders. The principle reference on this subject is the Bible since few other historical records or trustworthy traditional accounts remain.
Although the exact date of the Jewish exodus from Egypt is still in dispute, the books of Exodus and Numbers indicate that approximately 600,000 able-bodied men over age 20 (plus women and children) made the 40-year journey from the Nile Delta, then finally up the East side of the Jordan. During their wilderness wanderings the people of Israel received the Ten Commandments and detailed laws, regulations and instructions delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai. Moses was also instructed to construct a large portable tabernacle, or tent, entrusted to the care of the priests of Aaron. A detailed description of this tabernacle is given in Exodus 25-30. The Tabernacle was built by free-will offerings donated by the people in such generous amounts that more than enough materials were available.
The materials assembled for the tabernacle are described in detail in Exodus 35-38 and summarized in Exodus 38:21-30. The total quantity of gold collected was approximately one ton; of silver, 3-3/4 tons; and of bronze, 2-1/2 tons. At today's prices gold is approximately $500 per troy ounce, or $6000 per pound, or $12,000,000 per ton. Silver currently is priced around $12 per troy ounce, or $144 per pound, which is $288,000 per ton. Hence, the gold and silver used in the Tabernacle of Moses would be worth over $13 million today. Exodus 12:35 states that the Jews were given gold, silver, and ornaments by the Egyptians at the time of the departure from Egypt. The golden lampstand in the tabernacle weighed a talent and would today be worth a half million dollars for its gold alone. A replica of this menorah is now being crafted at the Temple Institute in Jerusalem.
The Old Testament gives some details about the movement of the tabernacle, Ark, and holy vessels after the conquest (Ref 1). The Ark of Covenant was located at Shiloh for many years presumably in a house, tent, or temple constructed for it there (Judges 18:31, I Samuel 1:39, 3:3; Judges 21:19). At some later period the Ark was moved to Bethel on the Benjamite border during the war with Gibeah (Judges 20:26-27). The Ark was then held by the Philistines for seven months. After being recaptured it was located for 20 years at Kiriath-jearim. King Saul generally neglected the Ark (I Chronicles 13:3) but David brought it to Jerusalem about 1003 BC (II Samuel 6; I Chronicles 13:15). The Ark was given temporary shelter in Jerusalem before being installed in the first temple built by King David's son, the illustrious Solomon. Despite a temporary removal by apostate king Manasseh, (II Chronicles 33:7; 35:3), the Ark is thought by many to have remained in the holy of holies of the first temple until the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B. C. by Nebuchadnezzar. The post-exilic temple apparently contained no Ark, according to Josephus (The Wars of the Jews, Book Five).
The apocryphal book of II Maccabees (2:1-8) says that the prophet Jeremiah hid the Ark and the golden altar of incense in a cave on Mt. Nebo before the Babylonian exile. Jeremiah was taken to Tahpanhes in Egypt by a remnant of the Jews after the fall of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 42:1-43:7) , so it is conceivable that he secured the Ark in a cave on the way. Others say it is more likely that the Ark would be hidden under the Temple Mount or elsewhere in Jerusalem than on Mt. Nebo, which is about 40 miles East of Jerusalem. Perhaps the Ark perished in the flames when the temple was sacked and burned. Controversy over the fate of the Ark has been renewed in our time (Ref. 2).
It is known that most or all of the holy vessels of gold and silver from the tabernacle were with the Ark when it was brought from the city of David to the first temple by Solomon (I Kings 8:4). Although David desired to build a permanent house of God in Jerusalem, his son Solomon built the first temple. The plans were those of David, and David amassed the materials (I Chronicles 28:1-19; II Chronicles 2-4; I Kings 6-7). These materials included 100,000 talents (Ref. 3) of gold and 1,000,000 talents of silver, (I Chron. 29). From his own private fortune David also gave 3,000 talents of gold and 7,000 talents of high grade silver. This is an enormous quantity of gold and silver by any standard: 100,000 talents of gold = 3750 tons, value today = $45 billion; 1,000,000 talents of silver = 37,500 tons, value today = $10.8 billion. In round numbers, the wealth of the first temple was about $56 billion.
In addition to all the gold and silver, great quantities of bronze, cedar, iron, and precious stones were contributed. The most holy place of Solomon's temple was lined with cedar from Lebanon and covered with 600 talents of gold. This gold plating alone, about 540,000 troy ounces, would be worth about $270 million today. The doors of the temple were also covered with gold plates. During this period of Israel's history, Solomon's income was 666 talents of gold per annum or about 600,000 troy ounces, worth $300 million today. During the reign of Solomon "silver was as common as stone" in Jerusalem, (I Kings 10:27). Solomon made 200 massive shields each 300 shekels in weight to hang on the walls of his palace. His ivory throne was overlaid with gold. "So King Solomon exceeded all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom" (II Kings 10:23). The splendor of Solomon's kingdom brought him recognition and fame that attracted much foreign attention. For example, during her visit "to test Solomon with hard questions" the Queen of Sheba brought Solomon 120 talents of gold, ($54,000,000), "and a very great store of spices and precious stones," (I Kings 10; II Chronicles 9).
In their commentary on the Old Testament Keil and Delitzsch call attention to the large quantities of gold and silver taken in Asia by Alexander the Great: 2,600 talents of gold and 600 talents of silver from Damascus, 50,000 talents of gold and 40,000 talents of uncoined gold and silver from Susa and from Persepolis 120,000 talents of gold. (The ruins of Persepolis are located just north of Shiraz in Iran). Thus, though the quantities are very high they are not unreasonable compared to the wealth of other surrounding ancient kingdoms.
A cube of gold weighing 3750 tons would measure about 6 meters (19.68 ft) on a side, and 37,500 tons of silver in a single cube would be about 16 meters (52.48 ft) on a side. The total amount of gold mined and stockpiled in the entire world up to the present time totals about 88,000 tons (Ref. 4). If this gold were collected together its volume would be that of a cube 16.5 m (54 feet) on a side. It is estimated that only about 40,000 tons of gold remains in the earth yet to be mined. South Africa's gold production today is about 950 tons per annum. The Soviet Union produces about 550 tons, Canada 70 tons, and the United States about 40 tons. The total world production of gold is about 1,850 tons annually.
The temple of Solomon required 7-1/2 years to construct and the efforts of about 180,000 laborers, (I Kings 7:13, 5:6, 13, 14; II Chronicles 2:17-18). Great quantities of local stone and imported cedar wood were used. The wealth of the first temple was immediately plundered after the death of Solomon. During the reign of Solomon's son Rehoboam, Shishak (Sheshonk), King of Egypt, raided Jerusalem about 925 BC and "took away treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king's house; he took away everything. He also took away the shields of gold (500 in number, worth about $36 million) which Solomon had made..." (II Chronicles 12:1-12). According to Second Chronicles 12, Shishak's army numbered 60,000 horsemen and 1200 chariots. If each man carried back 100 pounds of booty, this is only 3000 tons total of gold and silver. However, the people that were with him were "without number," the "Lubim, the Sukkim, and the Ethiopians." These people may also have carried off much gold and silver. It seems reasonable that some gold and silver remained in the temple after Shishak's raids. Probably gold would have been taken in preference to silver.
After Solomon's death the kingdom of Israel continued to deteriorate in strength except for occasional revivals, until the time of the Babylonian captivity in 586 BC During the revivals of Joash, (II Chronicles 24), and Josiah, (II Kings 22), generous contributions were made by the citizenry for repairs and refurbishing of the temple. Except for these revivals much of the wealth of the temple appears to have been confiscated to pay national expenses and tributes to threatening foreign powers. Asa depleted the temple treasures by sending "all" that was left of the silver and gold to Ben-hadad, king of Syria, to buy his help against Baasha, king of Israel (I Kings 15:18, 19).
A new plundering took place during the reign of Ahaziah when Jehoash, king of Israel carried off to Samaria "all" the gold and silver in the temple and the palace, (II Kings 14:14). Ahaz went even further than any of his predecessors in sacrilege, for, besides robbing the temple and palace of their treasures to secure the aid of the king of Assyria, he removed the brazen altar from its time-honored site, and also the bases and ornaments of the lavers, and the oxen from under the bronze sea (II Kings 16:10-17).
Hezekiah paid tribute to Sennacherib, king of Assyria, 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold, "and Hezekiah gave him 'all' the silver that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasures of the king's house. At that time Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord and from the doorposts which Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid, and gave it to the king of Assyria," (II Kings 18:13-16). Later Hezekiah foolishly received the emissaries of the king of Babylon and showed them his remaining state treasures: "Hezekiah...showed them all the house of the precious things, the silver and the gold and the spices, and the precious ointment and all the house of his armor, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his domain that Hezekiah did not show them," (II Kings 20:12-13). The wealth of the temple at the time of Hezekiah was evidently more than enough to incite the covetousness of the king of Babylon so that he hastened to capture Jerusalem after his emissaries brought him the news of the great wealth there.
The fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC was accompanied by terrible destruction and much loss of life. "And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and of his friends, all these he (Nebuchadnezzar) brought to Babylon. And they burned the house of God, and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels," (II Chronicles 36:18,19). A parallel account in II Kings 25 describes the seized vessels of the house of the Lord as including pots, snuffers, dishes for incense, firepans, bowls, etc. It is possible that some of the wealth of the temple and some of the treasures of the king's house was hidden under the temple mount though this is mostly speculation. If anything was hidden it would most likely have been the Ark of the Covenant which was of great sacred importance. The Scripture suggests that everything of value was carried off to Babylon. During the captivity some of the stolen sacred gold and silver vessels from Jerusalem's temple were used by Belshazzar on the night of his infamous feast when handwriting appeared on the wall of his palace indicating that judgment from God had fallen upon him, (Daniel 5). At the end of the 70-year captivity in Babylon the returning Jews were allowed to carry back at least some of these gold and silver sacred objects to Jerusalem, (Ezra 1:5-10). The list of returned items included 1000 basins of gold, 1000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 30 bowls of gold, 2410 bowls of silver, and other vessels of gold and silver totaling 5,469 in number.
The total number of Jews returning from this captivity was 42,360, plus 7,337 servants and 200 singers. There were 736 horses, 245 mules, 435 camels and 6720 asses in their convoy, (Ezra 2:64-67). The returning exiles set about rebuilding the temple and the walls. The second temple was modest compared to that of Solomon and was completed in 515 BC Details are given in the Books of Nehemiah and Ezra. Nevertheless, the second temple contained significant quantities of gold and silver which appears to have generally increased during the life of the temple.
Historically, the next records come to us from the time of the Maccabees. An account of the plundering of the temple by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 170 BC, is given in 1 Maccabees 1:20ff and also was described by Josephus. At that time the temple contained at least an altar of incense made of gold, the table of shewbread, the lampstands, many cups, bowls, and incense holders, crowns and gold plating at the wall where the cherubim had been in days of old. Antiochus also took the "hidden treasures" of the temple site. In three days' time he murdered 40,000 Jews and led an equal number as captives. He then desecrated the temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar.
The total wealth of the Second Temple was always small compared to the greatness of the First Temple though there were many changes made during the 400 years following the closing of the canon of the Old Testament. The Roman ruler Herod decided to completely rebuild and enlarge the Second Temple beginning in his 18th year of reign (c20 BC). Herod employed 10,000 workmen and 1,000 wagons. The size of the temple area was increased from 17 to 34 acres by excavations in the north and by the building of great retaining walls rising 450 ft from the Kidron Valley in the southeast. Within this area, now measuring 351 yards on the north side, 512 on the east, 536 on the west, and 309 on the south, rose the temple with its Corinthian columns of bronze, its different courts and gates and gleaming, spacious cloisters. The buildings and walls we built were extensive and massive. It was in this enlarged Second Temple built by Herod that Jesus was dedicated, and where he later taught and cast out the money-changers on two separate occasions.
The second temple treasury did benefit from a great influx of gold and silver from all lands contributed by worshippers. Cicero wrote of great influxes of gold to Jerusalem during his lifetime. Gifts other than gold or silver coins were sold and their value given to the treasury. Another large source of revenue was profit made from the sale of the meat offerings which were prepared by the Levites and sold every day to the offerers. By far the largest sum was probably derived from the half-shekel of temple tribute which was required of every male Israelite of age, including proselytes and slaves. The total sum of gold and silver contributed annually at the time of Jesus has been estimated to have been of the order of $500,000 per year. A large fraction of this wealth no doubt accumulated year after year over the lifetime of the second temple, (515 B. C. to 70 A. D.). There were numerous temple expenses but the evidence suggests that the bulk of the income was stored up year after year.
Thus, the Roman plunder could well have been worth tens of millions of dollars. The pillaging of the temple, its total destruction and the burning of Jerusalem with terrible suffering and loss of life occurred in 70 AD under the Roman General Titus (Josephus, Wars of the Jews). Tradition has it that the intense flames of the temple fire melted the gold and silver of the temple so that it ran between the cracks of the rocks. Roman soldiers then totally dismantled the temple stone by stone to extract the gold, (see Matthew 24:1-2). No one seems to know with certainty if any of the vessels or sacred objects from Herod's temple were hidden in subterranean passageways during the long siege of Titus. Most everything of value was most likely carried off to Rome.
The overall impression from all the biblical accounts and from tradition is that the various plunderings of Jerusalem's temples were always thorough and total. While no gold or silver may be buried underneath the temple mount, objects of priceless archaeological, historical, and religious significance may lie there. Jeremiah the prophet may have suggested that the Ark, however, has been permanently lost, (Jeremiah 3:16), or at least that it will cease to be of great significance when Messiah comes.
The Old Testament tells of the yet future restoration of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem when Messiah comes, and a still greater future glory for Israel than that attained during the times of David and Solomon, (Micah 4:1-4; Zechariah 8; Zephaniah 3:14-20). The tombs of some of the major kings of Israel may yet be found in the City of David adjacent to the temple mount now being excavated by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. An interesting reference to these royal tombs is found in Ezekiel, Chapter 43. Of course, the historical, cultural, and religious significance of any new archaeological finds in and around Jerusalem cannot be measured in terms of gold or silver.
1. A map of the movements of the Ark during this time period is given in the Encyclopedia Judaica, 1972 Edition.
2. Other traditions concerning the fate of the Ark are listed in the Encyclopedia Judaica, 1972 Edition. One interesting legend claims that the Ark was taken by the Queen of Sheba to Ethiopia where it is supposed to have remained to this day in a church in Aksum. This legend has recently been researched and reported in great detail by Graham Hancock in his intriguing book The Sign and the Seal, Crown Books, New York 1992.
3. The talent varied between 28.8 and 30.27 kg, which is 66 to 75 lbs. The shekel was 11.23 gms or 0.403 ounces. In this paper I have taken one talent to be 75 pounds and 12 troy ounces equal to one pound. The ton I have used is the ordinary English ton, 2000 lbs.
4. Worth $1.056 trillion.
1. Mazar, Benjamin, The Mountain of the Lord, Doubleday Publishing, New York (1975).
2. Yadin, Yigael, Jerusalem Revealed, Yale University Press, London (1976).
3. Kenyon, Kathleen M., Digging Up Jerusalem, London (1974).
3. Landay, Jerry M., Silent Cities, Sacred Stones, McCall Books, New York (1971).
4. Keil, C. F., and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. III, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, reprinted October 1978.
6. Ironside, H. A., The Four Hundred Silent Years, Loizeaux Brothers, Neptune, New Jersey, (1914).
7. Herzog, Chaim and Gichon, Mordechai, Battles of the Bible, Random House, New York, (1978).
8. Gulston, Charles, Jerusalem, Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan, (1978).
8. Edersheim, Alfred, The Temple, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, ( 1979).
9. Landay, Jerry M., Dome of the Rock, Newsweek Publishing, New York (1972).
The Treasures of the House of the Lord by Lambert Dolphin
Web Pages: http://ldolphin.org/
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July 1981, revised November 1992.