The scriptural imagery and concepts of temples can be traced back to ancient Sumeria, at least a millennium before the Exodus, and to some of the earliest manuscripts of written language. The existence of these concepts in Sumeria does not imply that they originated there. Ancient Israelite ideals of temple worship correspond more closely to those of early Sumeria than to their contemporary neighbors, suggesting that both Israelite and Sumerian ideas of temple may go back to an even older common source.
Temple as the House of God
The Sumerian word for temple, e2, means a house. Sumerologist John Hayes wrote:
"Sumerian has no special word for 'temple'; rather, it uses the word e2, 'house,' because the temple was envisaged as the dwelling place of the god...The temple complex constituted the largest and most visible set of buildings in any Sumerian city."
Sumerology pioneer Thorkild Jacobsen observed:
"The Sumerian and Akkadian words for temple are the usual words for house (e' = bi^tum)... like a human dwelling, the temple was the place where the owner could be found. Presence among the houses of the human community was visible assurance that the God was present and available and that he - as a hymn to the moon god expressed it - 'among the (creatures) in whom his breath of life has settled down in a holy abode.'"
The Hebrew Beth-el ("house of god") is cognate to the Sumerian temple names designated as e2-[divine name], i.e. house of [divine name]. The term "pure house" was used to refer to Sumerian temples.
The Mountain of the Lord
Many Latter-day Saints are familiar with Micah's prophecy referring to modern temples:
But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it. And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."
The Sumerians held that before the creation of the world, the Gods lived on the "Holy Mound," the ostensible precursor of the Greek Mount Olympus. Sumerologist Black and colleagues observe:
"At the beginning of The debate between Sheep and Grain we are taken back to a time before agriculture, when the gods dwelt together on the Holy Mound, created by An, the supreme diety. In Enki and the world order it is Enki who is the creative force, ordering, naming, and allocating responsibility for different aspects of human endeavour to the various gods."
The Akkadian and Assyrian word for temple, ekurru comes from the Sumerian e-kur, "house-mountain." The temple was a place of revelation and the bond between heaven and earth. Black wrote:
"In Sumerian cosmology, Enlil's sactuary Dur-an-ki was conceptualized as the bond between heaven and earth - which is what the name itself signified. Its great stepped tower, still prominent in the desert landscape today, must have been a dominant, awe-inspiring landmark in ancient times...Enlil himself often carries the sobriquet Great Mountain, while E-kur literally means 'mountain house.'...The mountain in question is presumably none other than the artificially constructed ziggurat tower, a development of the temple on platform of the late fourth millennium."
Although the term e-kur ("mountain house") was used most specifically for the temple of Enlil, the holiest shrine of Sumeria, the association between temples and mountains dates to the earliest days and was not limited to a single shrine. Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, an early Sumerian epic featuring Enmerkar, first king of Uruk and ostensible inventor of the cuneiform writing system, refers to the temple of An, God of the heavens, supreme being, and father of the gods:
"[Let them] build [for my sake] the holy mountain in Unug! A temple [descended] from heaven - your place of worship, the shrine Eana - let [Aratta] built that!"
A mountain house or temple was a great, high, and exalted abode and a place of knowledge. Mountain symbolism was understood to represent a firm and unshakeable foundation, strength, intelligence, and grandeur, as we see in the epic of Sargon's rise to power: "[Sargon] came into the palace, firmly founded like a great mountain."
Names and Symbolism of Sumerian Temples
Sumerian temple names reflected traits or attributes attributed to the Gods. Jacobsen wrote:
"There are number of other instances of identity between Temple and god expressed in their names: E'-kur, "house mountain (kur)," of the god Enlil, also called Kur-Gal, "great mountain (kur)," E'-babbar, "house rising sun (babbar,") of the sun God Utu, also called "rising son"; E'-g~is^-nu5-g_a'l, "house causing light (g~is^-nu5) of the moon god."
Specific Sumerian temple names and their meanings given by Black and colleagues include the following:
Amas^-e-kug: The goddess Inana's temple in Kisiga, literally 'Pure sheepfold.'
E-ana: The goddess Inana's temple in Unug, literally 'House of heaven.'
E-babbar the sun god Utu's temple in Larsa, literally 'Shining house.'
E-Enger: Another name for E-abzu, Enki's temple in Eridug, literally 'House of fresh water.'
E-mud-kura: A shrine in the E-kis^-nug~al temple of Nanna in Urim, literally 'House, creator of the mountains.'
E-namtila: The god Enlil's sactuary in his temple E-kur in Nibru, literally 'House of life.'
E-sikil: A temple of the goddess Inana in Kis^, literally 'Pure house.'
E-s^ag-h_ula: The goddess Inana's temple in Kazallu, literally 'House of a joyful heart.'"
E-s^ara: The goddess Inana's temple in Adab, literally 'House of the universe.'
Es^-mah_ the god Nuska's temple in Nibru, literally 'Exalted house.'
H_al-an-kug: Another name for the god Enki's temple E-Enger in Eridug, literally 'Holy secret of heaven.'
H_ursag~-galama: The god Enlil's sanctuary on the ziggurat of his temple in Nibru, literally 'Skilfully built mountain.'
H_ursag~-kalama: A temple of the goddess Inana in Kis^, literally 'Mountain of the Land.'
Virtually all of these names and concepts - "mountain of the Lord," "house of heaven," "pure house," "house causing light," "house of the sun," "pure sheepfold," "house of fresh water," "house of life," "house of a joyful heart," "house of the universe," "exalted house," "holy secret of heaven," and so forth, are either explicitly or implicitly associated with modern LDS temples. These concepts parallel ancient Israelite ideals, such as the proclamation of Solomon upon completion of the Jerusalem temple: "I have built you [Jehovah] an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever."
Divine Revelation Needed to Build a Temple
Scriptures teach that temples are built by the Lord's command, and not by the will of men. The Lord commanded King David of Israel not to build a temple, but commissioned the work to his son Solomon. Furthermore, the details of temple construction - including the tabernacle of Moses, the temple of Solomon, Ezekiel's vision of the heavenly temple, and the Kirtland temple - were revealed according to divine revelation.
The Sumerians before them believed that divine command was needed to build or rebuild a temple, and that the details of construction had to be revealed by the gods. The Sumerian king Gudea of Lagash (ca. 2144-2124 BC) sought revelation before rebuilding a temple that had fallen into ruin. The god Ningirsu, with the blessing of Enlil, revealed his intentions to Gudea in a dream. Jacobsen wrote:
"In view of this identity of god and temple it is not surprising that the ruler Gudea, before attempting a [temple] rebuilding, realized that he needed an authoritative revelation by the god of his innermost nature before he could know what was the proper thing in shaping the bricks or that - when he was granted such a revelation - he impressed the god's thunderbird form on the bricks."
Gudea may be considered an early type of Solomon, extolled for his wisdom and chosen by the gods to build the temple. Enlil revealed: "It is by him [Gudea] that the building of the holy house is to be done...Using his wisdom, the ruler [Gudea] will achieve great things." The full details of temple construction were divinely revealed:
"On that day, in a noctural vision Gudea saw his master, lord Ning~irsu. Ning~irsu spoke to him of his house, of its building. He showed him an E-ninnu with full grandeur."
Crafts of Temple Construction
Just as Solomon mobilized precious resources of distant lands, from the cedars of Lebanon to ivory, for the construction of the Jerusalem temple, the temple building practices of the ancient Sumerians before him had resulted in considerable proliferation of craftsmanship as the Sumerians brought their very best before the gods:
"In spite of the fact that Sumer was destitute of metal and stone and poor in timber, the craftsman of Sumer were among the most highly skilled in the ancient world, although it is not improbable that, at least originally, many of them came from foreign parts to practice their skills in connection with the construction of temples."
Punishment for Temple Desecration
Building a temple without divine permission, or desecrating a temple, led to severe divine punishment. The fall of Agade (Akkad/Biblical Accad) during the reign of Naram-Suen, son of Sargon the great, is attributed to the desecration of the temple, an affront to the gods which brought about severe punishment:
"Naram-Suen...consulted the sacrificial omens twice in succession with the same result: 'the omen had nothing to say about the building of the temple'."
Naram-Suen was angered and plundered the temple E-kur (house-mountain), the shrine of Enlil and holiest temple of Sumeria. As a result, Agade was cursed and destroyed:
"Naram-Suen saw in a nocturnal vision that Enlil would not let the kingdom of Agade occupy a pleasant, lasting residence, that he would make its future altogether unfavourable, that he would make its temples shake and would scatter its treasures."
Blessings of Temple Worship
The Sumerians believed that great blessings accrued from temple building. The God Ning~irsu told Gudea of Lagash:
"When you, true shepherd Gudea, really set to work for me on my house, the foremost house of all lands...I will call up to heaven for humid winds so that plenty comes down to you from heaven and the land will thrive under your reign in abundance. Laying the foundations of my temple will bring immediate abundance: the great fields will grow rich for you, the levees and ditches will be full to the brim for you, the water will rise for you to heights never reached by water before. Under you more oil than ever will be poured and more wool than ever will be weighed in Sumer."
Similar blessings come from attendance at modern temples, as cited in the dedication prayer of the Kirtland Temple:
That thy glory may rest down upon thy people, and upon this thy house, which we now dedicate to thee, that it may be sanctified and consecrated to be holy, and that thy holy presence may be continually in this house;
And that all people who shall enter upon the threshold of the Lord’s house may feel thy power, and feel constrained to acknowledge that thou hast sanctified it, and that it is thy house, a place of thy holiness.
And do thou grant, Holy Father, that all those who shall worship in this house may be taught words of wisdom out of the best books, and that they may seek learning even by study, and also by faith, as thou hast said;
And that they may grow up in thee, and receive a fulness of the Holy Ghost, and be organized according to thy laws, and be prepared to obtain every needful thing;
And that this house may be a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of glory and of God, even thy house;
And when thy people transgress, any of them, they may speedily repent and return unto thee, and find favor in thy sight, and be restored to the blessings which thou hast ordained to be poured out upon those who shall reverence thee in thy house.
And we ask thee, Holy Father, that thy servants may go forth from this house armed with thy power, and that thy name may be upon them, and thy glory be round about them, and thine angels have charge over them;
And from this place they may bear exceedingly great and glorious tidings, in truth, unto the ends of the earth, that they may know that this is thy work, and that thou hast put forth thy hand, to fulfill that which thou hast spoken by the mouths of the prophets, concerning the last days.