This is the second part in a short series on temples—what they are, why they matter to Christians, and how we’re still building them today. In our first part, we got a bird’s eye view of temples as sacred place. Temples are the architectural embodiments and ceremonial centerpoints of a culture’s cosmos, or ordered reality. The structure and decoration of a temple reflects the paradisal celestial dwelling place of the deity. The ritual services rendered at the temple meet the gods’ needs. In both ways, the temple is the established sanctuary of a culture, the place where humanity and the divine dwell together in harmony.
Though similar, not all temples are identical. Israel’s temple—and its very notion of temple—contrasts with those of other ancient Near Eastern civilizations in important ways. This second part will focus on what makes Israel’s temple unique and how the Bible develops the theme of temple starting in Genesis 1.
The Hebrew Bible gives descriptions of three distinct temples of the Lord. The first is Solomon’s temple, described in 1 Kings 6-8 and 2 Chronicles 2-7. The second is the temple built by Ezra and the Jews returning from exile according to Cyrus’ edict in Ezra 3. The third is Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of a magnificent temple in Ezekiel 40-48, roughly twenty times larger than Solomon’s and perfectly square. Since Solomon’s temple is the one which sets the standard for the Hebrew notion of temple, it will be the first subject of examination.
Solomon’s temple features many similarities with other ANE temples. It was built on a mountain upon the location of an encounter with the holy. In 2 Sam 24:18-25, David sees an angel sent by the Lord atop mount Zion in Jerusalem by the threshing floor of Araunah (called Ornan in Chronicles) the Jebusite. Later, the prophet Gad instructs David to build an altar in that spot. First Chronicles 21-22 adds the additional detail that this was the site where David and Solomon were instructed to build the temple. The temple is oriented eastward. Its main entrance is on the eastern end and the door to the holy temple faces the east as well.
The temple was guarded, both by Levites guarding the whole complex and cherubim at the entrance to the Holy of Holies. Floral imagery decorated the whole temple, with pomegranates, palm trees, and flowers; even the menorah in the temple appeared like a tree. The “sea” or the large bronze basin from which water was drawn to cleanse those who entered sat beside the temple. As was common, the whole structure was decorated with precious metals and gems. In typical fashion, the temple was first constructed, then furnished, and finally consecrated by the priests and king.
There were several stages to the temple with increasing levels of holiness, from the outer court where general worship would have taken place, to the inner court where sacrifices would have been offered on the altar. As one entered the temple complex, the eyes would have looked through the fire to see where God’s presence is. The temple building had first the “Holy place” (הֵיכָל pronounced heikhal) and then the “Holy of Holies” (דְּבִיר pronounced dabir).
All this would be standard fare for a temple in the ancient Near East. See the diagrams below, which show Israel’s temple and Ugarit’s temple to Dagan. Ugarit was a prominent Bronze Age city in modern day Syria along the Mediterranean coast. It featured two temples: one to Dagan, the chief god of the Philistines (Judges 16:23) and the other to Baal, the storm god mentioned throughout the Hebrew Bible.
However, Israel’s temple has several key differences. First, many common kinds of worship offered at most ANE temples were forbidden at the temple of the Lord. Child sacrifice and cultic prostitution were so abominable in the eyes of the Lord he banned them with the threat of capital punishment (Lev 18:21, Deut 23:17-18). Second, the purpose of sacrificial worship differed from other ANE religions. God makes it clear he has no need to eat or drink. Instead, sacrifices were meant to serve the worshippers as an act of faith and a lesson in what was required to cover sin. Psalm 50:12-15 states this clearly:
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
Most prominently, Solomon’s temple had no image of the Lord. Hearken back to Solomon’s dedication—he recognizes that God cannot be limited to a temple because he is infinite, but his special presence does dwell in the temple (1 Kings 8:27-29). Rather than an image or an idol, the Holy of Holies featured the ark which contained the tablets given to Moses—a covenant cut between God and his people, a seal of God’s faithfulness to his people. As rich with significance as the tabernacle was to Israel, it would have been noteworthy that their temple lacked an image. They would have likely been left with the question “What happened to it?” To understand that, it might be helpful to start working through the development of the theme of temple through redemptive history.
Creation as Temple Construction
Genesis 1-2 bears striking resemblance to the description of an ANE temple construction. The world is first constructed (days 1-3) then furnished (days 4-6). The world is decorated with floral imagery—vegetation, pomegranates, flowers, and trees. There is a stage to the world, where the whole thing is created but the garden is specially set apart as the place where God walks with his people. The garden is oriented eastward. Out of Eden flows a fresh-water river which fills the four rivers of the earth—it is the axis mundi and the source of life for the whole world. The tree of life (likely what the menorah was meant to symbolize) sits within the garden. Precious metals and gems are abundant there. Upon completing his work, God declares the whole of creation to be very good and then enjoys rest.
Thus, the whole world was created to be a temple—God’s beautiful, harmonious sanctuary where his presence could dwell—and in the center of his temple God places his own image: humanity. Man and woman were meant to be the image of God in the world—not lifeless idols made of stone reflecting dead pagan gods, but living breathing humans reflecting the living God. Adam and Eve filled the roles of both image and priest. Rather than offering sacrifices to the Lord who had no need of food or water or incense, they were commanded to do the work of ministry, spreading the image of God and the order of his garden across the whole world.
However, God’s sanctuary was broken. God’s image bearers were tempted and sought to become God themselves (Rom 1:22-25). In light of their sin, Adam and Eve hid form the presence of God, breaking their harmonious dwelling-together. Note that they hid even from God’s presence even before being banished from the garden; the problem of sin isn’t geographic, it’s in humanity’s own heart. As a result, they were banished from the garden, driven out of God’s presence, now blinded by sin and driven to worship created things rather than the creator. God stationed cherubim at the entrance to Eden to prevent entrance by the unrighteous and unclean. Humanity’s role as image-bearers and priests was not totally renounced, but is horribly marred by the curse.
What needs to be fixed to restore God’s vision of Eden? At least these three things. First, God’s image needs to be restored. His people’s hearts need to be renewed so they can truly reflect God. Second, his presence must again be with his people. The dwelling place of God must one day again be with man. Finally, his priests must resume the work of ministry unencumbered, offering perfect worship. This expectation drives the narrative of a biblical theology of sanctuary and temple.
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The next post will continue to develop the theme of temple through redemptive history, culminating in the person and work of Jesus.
Temple of Dagan diagram
Click to access Reconstituting_historical_stratigraphy.PDF
Solomon’s Temple diagram