The concept of a temple is foreign to most people today, even for those who practice religion. One cannot go far in America without spotting a church steeple or a sign for a place of worship, but churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship serve completely different functions and occupy completely different spaces in our culture. To the vast majority of modern people, temples are nothing more than architectural relics of ancient superstition.
I would argue, however, that we are far less removed from those “ancient superstitions” than we realize. Temples still sit at the center of our cities and call us to a different kind of worship than what we offer at church. Though they look different than their ancient counterparts, they largely serve the same role—and even house the same gods. Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, and agnostics gather in them side-by-side.
How can this be? What is a temple in the first place? And what exactly is it we’re all worshiping?
I hope to help unpack these questions, especially for Christians. One of the most central themes in all of Scripture is that of temple. From beginning to end, the God of heaven and earth is active in creating a holy, peaceful paradise where he can dwell with his creation. For a brief period of time in redemptive history, the temple in Jerusalem was the focus of this divine presence—lasting from about 959-586BC and then from 515BC to the advent of Christ. However, temple imagery expands well before and beyond the building in Jerusalem. In fact, the New Testament claims that now the people of God, Christians, are themselves God’s temple. So in asking “What is a temple?” Christians are really asking “What am I?” To answer that question, we have to know our Bibles.
This will be the first post in a short series on temples. We will start by defining what a temple is in a general sense and then focusing in on the typical ancient Near Eastern (ANE) temple’s form and function. This will set the stage to understand what the Old Testament meant when it describes the temple of the Lord.
Temple as Sacred Place
The temple is not a concept unique to ancient Israel. Many cultures across all of human history have constructed temples with similar features and functions. In general, the temple is a sacred space. With respect to the divine, the temple is the local center of divine presence. With respect to humanity, the temple is the place which grounds a people’s being and orders their cosmos. In other words, it is the place where one learns and lives out identity and where one sees and experiences what the world is supposed to be like. The temple is the sacred place that models sanctuary.
American phenomenologist Belden C. Lane offers four axioms to characterize sacred space (Lane 19) First, sacred place is not chosen, it chooses. Worshippers do not select the the location where they will encounter the holy; the holy reveals itself on its own terms. Not every mountain and hill top in the ancient Near East was sacred. Second, sacred place is an ordinary place, ritually made extraordinary. The encounter with the holy leads the worshipper to ritual practice and regular return. Cultic habituation and reenactment solidify the sacred space and honor the encounter with the holy. Third, sacred place can be tied upon without being entered. Not all who come to the sacred place experience the noumena or encounter the holy. What is deemed sacred to some may be profane to others, or even unholy. Fourth, the impulse of a sacred place is both centripetal and centrifugal, local and universal. The holy draws the worshipper into the sacred place, calling them out from ordinary space. One is regularly called to return to sacred place to be reoriented, and just as regularly sent out from sacred place “with an awareness that God is never confined to a single locale.” (Lane 19) The sacred place becomes the worshipper’s axis mundi, the center of the world, which orders all reality. Sacred place orients the worshipper and imbues the rest of the world with meaning and direction.
Temples are the architectural and ritual embodiment of axis mundi. The location of a temple’s construction is significant. Temples were often built upon the top of a hill or mountain, as mountain summits approached the heavens where the gods were said to dwell. Temples were also constructed at the headwaters of rivers or beside or on top of natural springs, which were a source of life. Whatever it may be, the location of a temple first begins as sacred place—an ordinary location made extraordinary because it is the meeting place of the holy. In the ancient Near east, the temple is the “home” of the god. In Hebrew, בַּ֫יִת is used for home in a generic sense, palace when in reference to a king, and temple when in reference to a deity. The same is true across many cultures.
Temple Construction and Operation
The very form of the building communicates its significance. Ancient Near Eastern temples commonly featured stages of accessibility, from outer courts to inner courts to the temple building itself with a larger outer chamber and smaller inner chamber. The further one went into the temple the closer one came to the holy. At the heart of the complex, within the inner chamber of the temple, sat the image of the god. The image was the deity’s physical manifestation which mediated worship and revelation for the priests. (Walton 114-16) It was the deity’s real presence with its people.
The temple complex itself was built with a specific orientation. Most commonly, ANE temples were built with their main entrances on the east. The furnishings of the temple also carry sacred significance. The typical ANE temple featured common floral motifs such as open lily flowers, palm trees and leaves, pomegranates, and other fruit trees and bushes, signifying the temple mirrored the heavenly paradise where the holy dwelt beyond the material world. Finally, because the temple was the house of the holy, it was to be guarded from those who did not consider it sacred or who would defile it by their uncleanness. The architecture of many ANE temples included carvings of imposing beasts—eagles, human-headed lions, other chimeric creatures, or divine warriors—upon the lintels of the temple’s entrances.
The temple cult enacted rituals in line with the sacred place. After its construction, the temple had to be consecrated. Temples featured guards who would fulfill the same role as the motific guardians carved into the temple. Most importantly, the temple was staffed by priests. The temple was primarily a place of service to the God. Though worship occurred at temples, this was not their primary function. The god who was said to dwell in the temple demanded offerings from its worshippers, which would be ceremonially offered by the priests. G. Ernest Wright notes:
“The rites of worship carried on in a temple by specially ordained priests took the form of ministrations to the physical needs which a god was believed to have: that is, food (sacrifices and offerings), drink (oblations), incense, etc. Man’s duty was to supply divine wants, and in return for the service thus rendered, he could hope for divine rewards.” (Wright 66)
In all this, the temple was established as a place of “rest” for the deity, and consequently for the worshippers as well. John H. Walton explains “rest concerns most importantly the achievement of stability, security, and order. The deity can rest in his/her temple because the threat of chaos has been dispelled. The deity then takes his/her place in the ordered, controlled cosmos with the leisure of enjoying her/her estate.” (Walton 114) Thus, the establishment of cosmos (ordered reality) is first for the deity. Out of the god’s rest, its human subjects also experience rest. This is the meaning of sanctuary: the divine and human dwelling together in harmony.
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The next post will compare and contrast ancient Israel’s temple with other the broader ancient Near Eastern notion and use of temples, as well as begin to unpack the biblical theological theme of temple in Genesis.
Lane, Belden C. Landscapes of the Sacred. Expanded Edition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.
Wright, G. Ernest, “The Significance of the Temple in the Ancient Near East, Part III: The Temple in Palestine-Syria.” The Biblical Archeologist, 7, no. 4 (December 1944): 65-77. https://search-ebscohost-com.rts.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLA0001365457&site=ehost-live.