“Mount Moriah: Some Personal Reflections,” Ensign, Sept. 1980, 59
Special Issue: Old Testament
Some Personal Reflections
I have always loved the story of Abraham and Isaac and have pondered it many times. One of the questions that it always raised was why the Lord chose a particular mountain for the sacrifice of Isaac, even though it required the elderly Abraham and his son to take a difficult three-day journey. Why not someplace nearer Beersheba, where the family resided at the time?
This question, always at the back of my mind when I reread the account, moved up a little when my wife, Focha, and I first toured the Holy Land in 1968, and returned on subsequent visits. We visited a mount in Jerusalem where we were told the magnificent temple of Solomon once stood, later replaced by the temple of Herod. The site is now occupied by the Moslem mosque, the Dome of the Rock, with its inlaid tile and golden cupola.
Like the Jews, Moslems, and other Christians visiting it, we removed our shoes before entering. Inside, we found that the center of interest was not the building itself but an enormous rock, fifty feet or so in diameter, over which the mosque is built. With quickened interest, we heard our guide say that on this very rock Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac and that later it was the site of the temple’s Holy of Holies.
Back in our hotel room, we turned eagerly to the scriptures to see if they offered any confirmation. We found that Solomon constructed the temple on “mount Moriah” over the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (see 2 Chr. 3:1; 2 Sam. 24:16–25; 1 Chr. 21:15–30). We already knew from the Abraham story that the Lord had required him to make his three-day journey with Isaac into the “land of Moriah” to reach the mountain that the Lord would designate (see Gen. 22:1–14).
Was it the same mountain? We looked further and found that Flavius Josephus, a Jewish leader involved in Judah’s rebellion against Rome in A.D. 66–70, says that it was the same (see his Antiquities of the Jews, bk. 1, ch. 13, sect. 2). Even though his writings were frequently based on tradition, they are regarded with increasing respect today among scholars, including Professor Benjamin Mazar of Hebrew University whose archaeological and historic studies of Mount Moriah interested us deeply. Mazar accepts without question the fact that the land of Moriah is the mountain upon which the temple was subsequently built (see Mountain of the Lord, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1975, p. 41).
We found that we had to rethink our mental picture of what a “mount” was. Although Moriah has been called “hill,” “mount,” and “mountain,” it is only a few hundred feet above the floor of the adjacent valleys and is less than a mile and half long from one end to the other. It is dwarfed by some of its neighbors, including the Mount of Olives.
We also found that the mountain has been given several names. Abraham himself, after Isaac’s life was spared, called the mount “Jehovah-jireh,” meaning, “in the mount of the Lord it shall be seen” (Gen. 22:14). That name had always raised another question for us: what was “it”? Professor Mazar suggests that an alternative translation would be “Jehovah” (see Mountain of the Lord, pp. 11, 96). Was Abraham telling us that Jehovah would come to this mountain?
We found this translation very meaningful. We know from modern revelation that the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem is one of the events preceding the Second Coming, an event linked to the restoration of the city’s beauty and grandeur and to “the word of the Lord” going forth again from that holy city (see History of the Church, 5:337; Isa. 2:3). Surely Abraham felt the revelation of God’s power as his intention to sacrifice his son was accepted on Mount Moriah. Surely the Lord’s visit to his temple in Jerusalem at the time of his Second Coming will be another way of fulfilling the significance of “Jehovah-jireh.”
And, even more significantly, the New Testament witnesses to the crucifixion and resurrection of our Savior on that mountain.
As we read the Abraham story again in light of Christ’s own sacrifice, we felt the force of the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob’s testimony that Abraham’s act was “a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son” (Jacob 4:5). Another modern scripture, the book of Moses, suggested that Abraham may have even understood the parallel in the action he was performing since Adam knew that sacrifice was a “similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father” (Moses 5:7) and surely passed that revealed knowledge on to his righteous descendants. Abraham himself talked with the Lord face to face and had foreknowledge of his mission on earth (see Abr. 2:8; Abr. 3:11; John 8:56).
When we began looking for them, details seemed to pop out of the story of parallels between the Crucifixion and the Abraham-Isaac story. The sacrificial animal that ransomed Isaac was, like Isaac himself, male. Isaac, like Christ, is called an “only son,” and modern revelation repeats the description (see D&C 101:4). The Apostle Paul actually calls Isaac an “only begotten son,” as does Josephus, even though both writers knew of the existence of Abraham’s oldest son, Ishmael (see Heb. 11:17; Josephus, bk. 1, ch. 13, sect. 1).
But these parallels raised another question for us. Where, exactly, did the crucifixion take place? Was it truly on the same mount? And to this question, unfortunately, we don’t have an exact answer. No eyewitness recorded the exact location in the Gospels. But in A.D. 335, the Emperor Constantine ordered a huge basilica raised over the spot that his mother, Helena, announced was the location of the original tomb. Some accounts also credit her with discovering the place of the crucifixion only a few yards away. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which we also visited, replaced Constantine’s original building and claims to cover both the tomb and the crucifixion sites.
Naturally, Helena’s decision was only as accurate as the information she received; and many reputable scholars have challenged these traditional locations. However, we were far more interested in a talk given by President Harold B. Lee at Easter 1972, when he explained the impressions he had felt when he visited the place as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles some years before. He and his companions made it a habit, before visiting a site, to pray “that the Lord would deafen our ears to what the guide said about historical places but make us keenly sensitive to the spiritual feelings so that we would know by impression, rather than by hearing, where the sacred spots were.” As they visited the traditional site of the crucifixion and holy sepulchre, “we felt none of the spiritual significance that we had felt at other places” (I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year, 10 Dec. 1958, pp. 5, 8).
Some may feel inclined to regard these spiritual impressions with skepticism, but Focha and I were extremely interested in President Lee’s report, especially when we learned that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not on Mount Moriah but is separated from it by the Tyropoeon Valley, so disguised by leveling, destruction, and reconstruction that it hardly looks like a valley today.
We searched further and found that scholars had asked themselves the same question. As early as 1842, a German scholar, Otto Thenius of Dresden, maintained that the Crucifixion probably took place outside Jerusalem’s north wall near a rocky knoll known as Jeremiah’s Grotto which stands at the summit of the hill sloping north from the temple mount.
In 1883, the renowned British general, Charles Gordon, decided that Thenius’s scholarship was correct and found another fascinating bit of evidence to support locating the Crucifixion on the northern end of the hill. The Lord instructed Moses to slaughter the sacrificial animals on the north side of the tabernacle altar (Lev. 1:11). Why the north side? Gordon reasoned that the north side of the altar, both the altar of the tabernacle and the altar of the temple, would point northward in the direction of the place where he and Thenius believed the Crucifixion occurred (John/Wilkinson, Jerusalem as Jesus Knew It, London: Thames and Hudson, 1978, p. 198). This hill today bears the name of Gordon’s Calvary, and is also called Golgotha, an Aramaic word meaning “skull,” possibly because the contour of the crest looks something like a skull and possibly because Jewish tradition associates it with the ancient “place of stoning” where capital offenders were executed by Jewish law. A Christian tradition asserts that Stephen was stoned here.
These two reasons were less conclusive in our minds, however, than the fact that the place meets scriptural requirements. It is “nigh unto the city” (John 19:20), “without the gate” (Heb. 13:12), possibly near a road or highway since “they that passed by reviled him” (Matt. 27:39), and visible from a distance since the women that followed “stood afar off, beholding these things” (Luke 23:49).
The clue in Hebrews and the Mosaic requirement that executions take place outside the city walls led us on a search for the location of the old walls. We found archaeological reports that the site lies just outside the city which stood at the time of Christ, but within another wall which was constructed a few years after the time of Christ. The location would have been discredited if the evidence had shown the later wall was standing at the time of the crucifixion.
General Gordon, convinced that he had found Calvary, was very interested in a tomb within a hundred yards of Gordon’s Calvary that had been accidentally discovered and cleared of debris in 1867. In 1883 when Gordon saw it, he wrote enthusiastically to friends in England who raised funds to purchase the property. It is known today as the Garden Tomb from John’s account: “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein never man yet laid” (John 19:41).
Like General Gordon, we were excited that the tomb in the garden fit the scriptural requirements. It was hewn out of stone (see Luke 23:53); it was large enough for several persons to stand inside (see Luke 24:1–4); it was “nigh at hand” to the place of the crucifixion (see John 19:42); and it would require a “great stone” to seal the entrance (see Matt. 27:60; Mark 15:46; Mark 16:4). A track suitable for rolling a large stone runs in front of this tomb’s door, a peculiarity shared with only a few other tombs in Jerusalem.
When we visited the Garden Tomb on our first and subsequent visits to the Holy Land, we were impressed. The simple outdoor setting seemed very appropriate. We resonated with President Lee’s own response to this tomb: “There was something that seemed to impress us as we stood there that this was the holiest place of all” (I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked, p. 5).
Our own memories came back as an echo of confirmation when we read the Church News account of President Lee’s second visit to the Garden Tomb in the fall of 1972, this time as president of the Church. He said: “As we walked those streets where Jesus walked, we went to the place where the greatest event ever took place.
“Outside of the wall of the city was a high hill. Here was a tomb. This was the tomb where they laid Jesus. There was a feeling there that’s hard to explain. …
“There was a weakness in me as I stood in that place. I had never experienced it before. It seemed as though I had been there before. I was feeling spiritually that I had talked with the Lord” (Church News, 17 Mar. 1973, p. 3).
Our quest for Mount Moriah and its connection with the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Second Coming, resulted in more than the mere satisfaction of our curiosity. We developed a greater appreciation for the eternal and unchanging nature of the things of God. We found harmony and consistency in the truths revealed by ancient and modern prophets. We were humbled by the spiritual impressions of President Harold B. Lee and stimulated intellectually by the research of historians, archaeologists, and scripturalists. But most important of all, we saw that all of them testify of Jesus, the Messiah.