Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Daily Bible Reading - February 17 - The Symbolic Significance of the Tabernacle/Temple

A few years ago I was asked to contribute a chapter to a festschrift in honor of Phil Roberts which focused on the Book of Psalms. My chapter was on the temple symbolism in Psalms, and part of my chapter focused on the symbolic significance of the tabernacle/temple. Since today's reading concluded the account of the construction of the tabernacle, I thought I would include an excerpt from that chapter.

To the Jews the temple represented heaven itself, the world as a whole, and the Garden of Eden.
Temple as Heaven. As Exodus suggests (Ex. 25:9), and Hebrews confirms (Heb. 8:5; 9:24), the model of the tabernacle was heaven itself. And when God filled the tabernacle with His glory, it became a “little replica of heaven” (Poythress 15), “the place where heaven and earth intersected” (Westerholm 764; see Isa. 6:1 for a good illustration of this). Psalm 150:1 suggests this same understanding:
“Praise the LORD!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.”

The Book of Psalms continually refers to the temple as the “dwelling place” of God.
For the LORD has chosen Zion;
he has desired it for his dwelling place:
“This is my resting place forever;
here I will dwell, for I have desired it” (Ps. 132:13-14; also 43:3; 135:21).

The tabernacle (Ex. 25:17-21; 26:31), the Solomonic temple (1 Kings 6:23-28; 6:29; 6:31-32), and Ezekiel’s temple (Ezek. 41:18-20) were all heavily decorated with cherubim, a sign that these structures were “a symbolic representation of God’s heavenly dwelling” (Enns 512). Israel believed that God was enthroned in the temple (Ps. 9:11), “enthroned upon the cherubim” of the ark of the covenant (Ps. 80:1; 99:1). In fact the Bible portrays the ark as the footstool of God’s heavenly throne. When David explained to Israel that he would not build the temple, he said, “I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD and for the footstool of our God, and I made preparations for building” (1 Chron. 28:2). This language is also found in the Book of Psalms.

The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
Exalt the LORD our God;
worship at his footstool!
Holy is he! (Ps. 99:1, 5; see also Ps. 132:7-8).

Of course, the Israelites understood that God did not reside in their temple in the same way that the pagans believed their gods did. Solomon acknowledged at the dedication of the temple that “the highest heaven” could not contain God (1 Kings 8:27). But the Israelites did believe that God had granted them a special sense of His presence in the temple, one that they longed to enjoy by going there to worship.

One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple (Ps. 27:4; see Murphy 39 for more discussion of this point).

The Temple as the Cosmos. The Jews also believed that the temple represented heaven and earth, the cosmos as a whole.[i] Part of the basis for this belief was the color scheme of the curtains and veils in the tabernacle: blue, purple, and scarlet, which was associated with the color of the sun-streaked sky (Beale 38).[ii] The temple also had many “earthy” decorations, such as the lampstand decorated with branches and blossoms and flowers,[iii] engravings of palm trees and open flowers, and pomegranate-circled pillars (Ex. 25:33-34; 1 Kings 6:29; 7:15-22). This symbolism is especially apparent in Solomon’s enhancement of the laver, turning it into a “sea” decorated like “the flower of a lily” (1 Kings 7:23-26; see Poythress 23).[iv] Psalm 78 makes the connection between the temple and cosmos explicit: “He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which he has founded forever” (Ps. 78:69; see other possible translations in Tate 283).

In the narratives describing the construction of the tabernacle and temple there are many echoes of the creation account in Genesis. As Peter Enns has pointed out (509), in Exodus 25-31 there are seven specific commands of God to build parts of the tabernacle, similar to the seven commands of God in Genesis 1 (“let there be…”). And just as the Sabbath is instituted at the end of creation in Genesis, the Sabbath command is reiterated after the instructions for the tabernacle are given (Ex. 31:12-17). Similarly, Solomon’s temple was completed in seven years (1 Kings 6:38), and his temple was closely connected to the concept of rest (1 Kings 5:4-5). Thus, the temple is a “a divine act of creation, parallel to the creation of heaven and earth” (Menn 18; see also Enns 546; Levenson 288-289).

The Temple as Eden. Given the fact that the Bible portrays the temple as the dwelling of God, and a new creation by God, a further comparison suggests itself: the temple as a new Eden, the dwelling of God at the beginning of His creation. There are many similarities between the temple and Eden[v]:
  • Both were located on a mountain. The temple was built on Mount Zion. Eden, Ezekiel suggests, was on “the holy mountain of God” (Ezek. 28:14, 16).
  • Both had eastern entrances (Gen. 3:24; Ezek. 43:4).
  • Both were guarded by cherubim (Gen. 3:24; 1 Kings 6:23-28; Ezek. 41:18-19).
  • Both had rivers. “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers” (Gen. 2:10). “It may be no accident that the only stream which flowed from Mount Zion…bore the name Gihon,” one of the rivers named in Genesis 2:13 (Roberts, “The Story” 67).
  • Both were known for precious stones. Genesis 2:11-12 mentions the presence of gold, bdellium, and onyx in connection with the environs of Eden, many of the same elements used in the construction of the temple (1 Chron. 29:2).
  • Both were full of plants and animals. God “planted a garden in Eden” (Gen. 2:8), and gave Adam the responsibility of naming the animals (Gen. 2:19-20). As we have already seen, the temple was decorated by engravings of trees and plants (1 Kings 6:29-35). In addition to the bronze sea and its floral designs, Solomon also built ten smaller basins and stands of bronze, decorated with “cherubim, lions, and palm trees, according to the space of each, with wreaths all around” (1 Kings 7:36).
  • And, most significantly, both were dwelling places of God with man (Gen. 3:8).[vi] Read in light of Genesis 2, all of the references in the Book of Psalms to God dwelling in the temple, or man going to dwell with God in the temple, take on a new significance.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
And you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
In your light do we see light (Ps. 36:7-9).

Both Kidner (147) and Wilson (593) connect the “river of your delights” with the Edenic river. Similarly, Psalm 46:4 says, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High” (Ps. 46:4). By describing the temple in this way, Mount Zion is pictured as “a veritable reembodiment of the primeval garden of God” (Roberts 685). And as such, “the Temple offers the person who enters it to worship an opportunity to rise from a fallen world, to partake in the Garden of Eden” (Levenson 288-289).[vii]

Heaven on earth – a new creation – Eden reborn. This is what the temple meant to the Jews. It is no wonder the Israelites longed to be in the courts of God. “The presence of God that suffuses the psalms is intimately connected with Zion and the Temple – this is holy space” (Murphy 55).

[i] For extensive citations from rabbinical sources, see Beale 45-48.
[ii] Josephus associated the different veils of the tabernacle with the four elements, and said that “blue is fit to signify the air” (Antiquities 2.183).
[iii] Many commentators also connect the seven lights of the lampstand with the sun, moon and five visible planets of the time of Israel (see Beale 34-35; Walton 148; Poythress 16).
[iv] It seems likely that the three-fold division of the temple symbolized the three parts of the cosmos: the land and sea (the court); the visible heavens (the Holy Place); and the invisible habitation of God (the Most Holy Place). This was Josephus’s view (Antiquities 3.181). See Beale 32-33 for more detail.
[v] I am following Roberts, “The Story” 66-68; Beale 74-75; Poythress 19; Wenham 61; Waltke 85.
[vi] It is possible that the three-compartment arrangement of the temple is parallel to three compartments of Genesis 2: the land and sea; the garden; and Eden itself (see Beale 74-75).
[vii] Levenson also points out that since in the arrangement of the Jewish Bible Genesis is the first book and Second Chronicles (see especially 35:23) is the last, that the OT from beginning to end is a story about the temple (295).

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