In previous weeks, Doug has mentioned that Kings was likely written in retrospect, during the Babylonian exile. We don’t know a lot about WHY it was written, but it seems that Israel is remembering the grand ole days of their amazing Temple and life before the exile. And perhaps hoping about how things could be again. But again, since this story of Israel’s history of Kings and Temples is repeated no less than three times in the Old Testament, its probably good if we try to understand why it is important to the overall narrative. How do details about Solomon’s Temple construction help us to better understand the larger story of the bible?
I have a couple of ideas. In previous weeks when we read through the Temple and palace construction, we noticed a verse that talked about a part of the structure they called the “sea”. This sounds odd to modern ears, calling part of a building the ‘sea’, so it raised questions. We talked about how the ancients viewed the three main parts of the Temple; most Holy place, inner court and outer court, as corresponding to the three cosmic regions, Heaven, Earth and Sea. What I’ll add to that now is that, to ancient Hebrews, these three areas of the Temple, that they called heaven, earth and sea, also corresponded to God, Jews and
Gentiles. You can see this reflected in the slide here, where the cleansing bath in the outer court of the Temple is called “the Sea”.
So the Holy of Holies was the inner most part of the Temple where God’s presence resided and where the priests, mediators of the covenant could go. Its called heaven (Hebrews 8:5, Hebrews 9:23-25). The inner court, was where the Jews worshiped, it’s called earth. And the outer court, where the Gentiles could worship, was called the sea (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 5.215-37).1
Ancients, like Jewish historian Josephus, and other Rabbis, interpreted the three main parts of the temple as corresponding to the three main parts featured in the Genesis 1 creation story where God creates the heaven, earth and sea. They’re called the same thing.
So, the Question that this raises is; how are these related? Do the “heaven, earth and sea” elements of Genesis 1, correspond similarly to the God, Jew and non-Jew elements of the “heaven, earth and sea” in the Temple structure? Are they using the same symbolism? If so, In the beginning, God created what? The physcial universe? The world of God’s Covenant, Jews and Gentiles?
Is the Temple symbolism in the Temple reflecting HOW the ancients understood Genesis 1? —– If this symbolism is consistent, then it may SOLVE some age-old problems with a common assumption that Genesis 1 is about the creation of the physical universe in 7 days.
Perhaps this Temple structure is a big ancient clue about HOW Ancient Near Eastern ears understood their creation story and heard terms like “heaven, earth and sea” even in the Genesis creation account.
Perhaps they heard it as describing the beginning of God’s PEOPLE, not planets. So the question this Temple symbolism begs, is a very important one: In the beginning, God created what? The physical world or the Covenant world?
These two ways of answering this question represent two main categories of how to understand Genesis 1. One way of thinking is that Genesis is a story primarily about the physical creation of planets and things. That there is a 1-1 correspondence between the 7 (or 6) days of creation and the physical universe around us. This view is called CONCORDISM.
Another view is that Genesis 1 is not at all about physical creation, but that it is about the creation of God’s PEOPLE, Israel. That it was the story of the creation of PEOPLE – NOT PLANETS. This view is called NON-CONCORDISM.
1 Footnote: A later text ascribed to Rabbi Pinhas ben Ya’ir, explains, “The Tabernacle (Temple) was made to correspond to the creation of the world…The house of the Holy of Holies was made to correspond to the highest heaven. The outer Holy House was made to correspond to the earth. And the courtyard was made to correspond to the sea.” (Bacher, Ag. Tan. ii, ch.18, on R. Pinhas ben Ya’ir; Patai, Man and Temple, pp. 108-109. Quoted from Jerusalem and the Early Jesus Movement, Kyu Sam Han). There is also an allusion to Solomon’s Temple being the earthly representative of the heavenly abode in Ps 78.69. For detailed argument see G. Buchanan Gray, Sacrifice in the Old Testament, Oxford, 1925). R. Pinhas ben Ya’ir is a late second century famous Jewish Rabbi and scholar who wrote in the Talmud.
Non-concordist cultures were the norm in the Ancient Near East. We don’t even really see a concordist-physical creation theology fleshed out in Christianity until Augustine, in the 400’s. The ancient Greeks, for example, assumed a creator God made everything. And they made altars to the unnamed God of creation, as we see Paul talking about in Acts 17.
BUT every nation-state had their own creation story. And they viewed their nation’s creation story as being about the creation of their city, their laws and their people. Plato and Aristotle write about this. They viewed their creation story and ours as local, national, and non-physical. We see this same non-concordist view reflected in ancient Mesopotamian creation and law accounts like the Hammurabi Code.
Here is what I mean. If I said, “In the beginning George Washington said, ‘Let there be 50 stars’ and there were 50 stars, and those stars lit up the whole world’” What am I talking about? The creation of the universe or the USA? And how did you know that? Because YOU are culturally literate regarding how THESE cosmic symbols and how our cultural references are used. Well, we have reason to believe that the ancients spoke of the creation of their nation or “world” like that too.
A non-concordist sees the the first chapters of Genesis as being about the creation of PEOPLE, not planets. And it sees consistency between the symbolism used in Genesis 1 and the symbolism used in the construction of Solomon’s Temple – as well as how these ideas are repeated throughout the Bible narrative.
(To Be Continued Tomorrow and in the Next Several Posts…)