While the temple certainly has a history and integrity of its own, it was created by extension of the tabernacle and is associated with such diverse topics as a mountain and a city, the cosmos and a person's body, and God's glory and name. The biblical authors from Moses through Ezekiel and Haggai to John of Patmos never describe a complete temple, but offer a vision of what the temple was to be: the locus of the presence of God.
Offering a vision rather than a blueprint for the temple is in keeping with the inherent ambiguity of the concept "temple of the Lord, " for how can the transcendent deity be localized in a building? The vision is also in keeping with the function of temple as a symbol. The temple is indeterminate literally and figuratively.
The Preexistence of the Temple. The foundation for temple is laid in the Pentateuch. Already in the patriarchs we find the promise of God's presence: "Do not be afraid, for I am with you, I will bless you" ( Gen 26:24 ). How and where will this presence be mediated?
Although various locales were deemed sacred by virtue of God's presence ( Gen 32:30 ), patriarchal religion did not put much importance on sacred space or the cultic practices that typify Mosaic Yahwism. Nevertheless, in various forms of foreshadowing, we find the usual lines of continuity with later persons, events, institutions, and practices Scripture's penchant for typology. Thus "Jerusalem, " where centralization of the cult eventually took place, figures prominently in two key texts that address "cultic" issues: in Genesis 22 with the "binding" (sacrifice) of Isaac ("Moriah" cf. 2 Chron 3:1 ) and in Genesis 14 with the tithe paid to Melchizedek.
With Mosaic Yahwism a change in perspective and practice occurs. God appears to the newly created covenantal community, a community formed by the exodus and, now at Sinai (which parallels Jerusalem as a place par excellence for "visions" of God), given an identity, including instructions where Yahweh's presence with the full implication of both blessing and danger would be manifest (Exod. 24-26; 33:12-17 ).
How would God's presence in the covenant community and ceremony be evident? Inevitably certain symbols were necessary (despite the aniconic nature of Mosaic Yahwism Exod 20:4 ). The symbols appeal to the senses, but not simply as "visual aids." The ark, cherubim, and the tent of the meeting become the institutional representations of the Lord's presence among his people. Here, in this place, Yahweh appears and makes his will known ( Exod 33:7-11 ).
The tent of the meeting in the Pentateuch, and the priestly tabernacle, is not, however, a projection (or retrojection!) of the temple, but an independent dwelling reflecting the life of Israel prior to settlement and the centralization of worship. The tent is a "portable temple" of sorts, but not provisional nor simply a pattern; rather, the tent is a unique "dwelling."
With the ritual performances in the tabernacle/ temple complex, and the personnel and attendant appurtenances, we come to a theologically significant point about temple practice: coming into the presence of a holy God. In each change of location, vestment, instrument, or ritual act, with their various gradations of importance, the "needs" of the people and the holiness of God come together: I am holy, it is holy, you are (to be) holy.
The extensions and the symbolic associations began early in the canonical literature. As a commentary on the Torah, Deuteronomy expresses the presence of Yahweh in the cult devoid of some simplistic equation of Yahweh's presence constrained by the natural order of cause and effect by utilizing his alter ego, his "name, " as the manifestation of his transcendent reality. Even the ark itself is divested of its throne-like setting by its role as the "container" of the tablets of the law ( Deut 10:1-5 ). Yahweh is not seated on a throne like some dowager duchess.
The paradoxical and symbolic nature of the temple is thus seen as the author(s) construct the parameters of temple theology: the transcendent deity graciously appears before his holy people in the place of his choosing, a dwelling symbolically rich by virtue of its ability to generate varied metaphoric associations (fire, cloud, tent, ark, and most especially "name" in the Pentateuch).
The Construction of the Temple. The construction of the temple began with David to serve as, at least on sociopolitical grounds, a "media event" of divine support and favor. David, however, was deterred from completing the task. No doubt sociopolitical forces played their usual role in this. The biblical authors were not oblivious to these explanations ( 1 Kings 5:13-18 ), but characteristically pass theological judgment ( 1 Chron 22:8-9 ), or, more important, God himself divulges his feelings on the matter: "Did I ever say Why have you not built me a house of cedar'?" ( 2 Sam 7:7 ). God does not require an immutable dwelling, but the metaphoric associations are kept open, even those of monarchal justification (i.e., a "house" like the house in which the monarch resides).
The "cedar house" is ultimately built. And in Solomon's great prayer of dedication the paradox of this dwelling is acknowledged once again by his classic statement: "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!" ( 1 Kings 8:27 ). The paradox is softened by "quoting" the Deuteronomic "name" formula: "My Name shall be [in this place]" (v. 29). (This terminology underscores the point that the correspondence between God's presence and his "dwelling" tabernacle or temple is more "textual" than physical.) But what does the Lord think of this structure?
Solomon, like Bezalel before him with the building of the tabernacle, is described as having "wisdom." Unlike Bezalel, however, Solomon sends straightaway for supplies and instructions from Phoenician artisans. Moreover, a labor force is needed to complete the project, a force not unlike what the Israelites experienced in Egypt. Finally, Solomon is portrayed as the central figure in the planning and implementation of the project: "As for this temple that you are building " ( 1 Kings 6:12 ). No editorial judgment from the author is forthcoming from these contrasts, but the reader is left with the impression that Solomon's project is equivocal before God.
The equivocal nature of the project is supported by the Lord's response to it in 1 Kings 9:3-5. The Lord does hallow the place, but it is still Solomon's doing: "I have consecrated this temple which you have built" (v. 3). A clear stipulation is also attached: "if you walk before me" (v. 4; the sanctity of the place must be preserved, at the very least).
Responses to the Temple. What responses do we find in Scripture to the building of the temple beyond those found in the immediate context of it being built?
Rather than "going up" to the mountain of the house of the Lord to hear the word of the Lord, as in the eschatological visions of Isaiah and Micah ( 4:1-2 ), the Babylonians "descend" upon the temple to break down its wall and carry off the temple treasures. After centuries of covenant disloyalty, the Lord withdraws his presence from this place ( Eze 10:18 ); in fact, he is driven from the temple because of the abominations of the people ( Eze 8:6 ). This destruction could be seen as one of the contingencies of history except for the interpretations put upon it; the theologian of Lamentations states the destruction of the temple in unequivocal terms: "The Lord determined to tear down the wall of the Daughter of Zion" ( 2:8 ). The destruction is purposed by God because the people failed to live before him.
Reconstructing the Temple. High on the agenda of the postexilic community was the rebuilding of the temple. Indeed, it was not long before all their troubles which were many were attributed to the disrepair, the virtual absence, of the dwelling of God ( Hag 1:3-9 ). The question must surely be asked: Why? Why, after a stern critique by the prophets, an outmaneuvering in the wisdom tradition, and its abandonment by God and destruction, would the people rebuild this structure?
The most obvious and strongest answer is that the Lord commands its construction ( Ezra 1:2 ). But a further answer lies in the theological sophistication of the biblical authors themselves and in the power of this symbol to go beyond mere structure. The means for rebuilding temple theology are present in the preexilic theology itself, the selfsame theology that so thoroughly critiqued an overly literal-minded approach to the presence of God.
The temple was always symbolic, "textual" even before (and as much as) it was physical. To the extent that the metaphoric associations speak to the reality of our experience(s) before God, the symbol retains its power as a symbol. Although Jeremiah held little esteem for the ark/temple, he nevertheless prophesied that God's throne would be Jerusalem itself (3:17), and Torah would be written in their hearts ( 31:31-34 ). These extensions of the symbol are developed further in the New Testament ( Rev 21:22-27 : "I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple Nothing impure will ever enter it." ). The relativizing of the temple and moral earnestness that we see in Jeremiah were precisely the points of the Deuteronomic theology that influenced the short-lived reforms of Josiah.
The most extensive view of the new temple comes from Ezekiel. The construction of the temple is once again more ideal than real. In Ezekiel's new temple a remarkable event takes place: water flows from the temple (in Jerusalem) with such abundance that it calls to mind the rivers of paradise (see also Psalm 46:4 ; Rev 21:6 ).
The Songs of Zion in the Psalter are particularly rich in their celebration of the temple. With all their "sensuality" the reader is instructed to "behold" the beauty of the temple; walk about it; clap and shout; smell; bow down; and other sense-oriented activities the Songs show that one is not to ponder the temple simply as a theological abstraction. The one who enters the temple not only receives spiritual blessings but material ones as well ( Psalm 36:7-9 ).
While we do not find much by way of extensions of this symbol, its paradoxical and metaphoric nature are everywhere testified to in what takes place in the life of the communicant. The most powerful statement of this sort comes in Psalm 73, where the psalmist cries out because his inherited beliefs are at odds with his personal experiences. Everything is "oppressive" (v. 16). "Till I entered the sanctuary of God " and what unfolds is a transformation of his character and his understanding of God. What happens in the sanctuary? It is, as it should be, unspecified. We are simply told at the end of the psalm that "as for me, it is good to be near God I will tell of all your deeds."
In sum, by building the temple and by extending the metaphoric associations with temple, a continuity between the pre- and postexilic community was established ( Ezra 1:7 ; Hag 2:9 ). For all the critique of the temple, in the final analysis, Yahweh takes pleasure in this place and it is a source of delight for those who assemble there ( Psalm 43:3-4 ; 65:4 ; 84:1 ).
Jesus, Paul, and Judaism. In Judaism the temple was the religious, cultural, and national center; indeed, the temple was a microcosm of the universe. The power of the temple as a symbol is especially seen in its ability to continue long after the temple building itself was destroyed in a.d. 70.
According to the Gospels, Jesus participated fully in the practices and ethos of the temple. Jesus' birth was announced in the temple ( Luke 1:17 ; 2:27-32 ), where he was also circumcised and studied with the rabbis as a lad ( Luke 2:46 ). Later, of course, Jesus taught in the temple himself ( John 7:14 ). It is not without significance that while Jesus is teaching in the temple precincts, he says, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me" ( John 7:37 ), and the next day offers forgiveness to the woman taken in adultery ( John 8:1-11 ). Blessing and forgiveness, priestly functions, are pronounced by Jesus in the shadow of the temple.
Jesus is not only a communicant and priest of sorts; he is also a prophet. Thus, when the temple practices are compromised, Jesus assails those who jeopardize the sanctity of the temple: "My house will be called a house of prayer But you have made it a den of robbers" ( Mark 11:17 ). They were not living before God. Jesus, while teaching in its precincts, preserves the sanctity of the temple by his ethical admonitions. Even the forgiven woman is told to sin no more ( John 8:11 ; see also John 4:23 ).
In the cleansing of the temple we also find a development and extension of the metaphoric associations of temple. Jesus employs a wordplay equivocating on the term "body" to break the parochial thinking of his audience ( John 2:19 ). John characteristically points out the error of their literal-mindedness: "But the temple he had spoken of was his body" ( John 2:21 ). Thus, in Jesus' acts and words we see the temple once again as a place of holiness, of danger (words of judgment; Jesus's own death) as well as blessing, and further extensions of the symbol are generated.
Paul also makes the correspondence between the temple and body: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?" ( 1 Cor 6:19 ; see also Rom 12:1-2 ). Of course, the believer can be called the temple of God only because Christ himself is the temple and the believer participates in Christ ( 1 Cor 3:9-17 ). The believer, like Paul himself, must be (cultically) pure in order to live in God's presence ( 2 Cor 2:17 ). If God can dwell in a holy place, by extension, he could dwell in a holy person!
After the destruction of the temple in a.d. 70, temple theology loses none of its living and healing power since the temple was always "beyond" its physical presence. A theology of temple answers the problem of how God's presence is mediated. Specifically, temple theology recognizes the importance of "sacred space." Its analogue is sacred time Sabbath, festivals, and appointed times of prayer. Humankind is oriented in time and space, thus Sabbath and temple testify to "eternity" beyond the confines of our usual orientation. Sabbath and temple redeem time and space.
Temple theology shows a high degree of theological sophistication holding ambivalent attitudes/doctrines in tension, part of the mystery of faith, of paradox. Temple theology is most fruitful when it is functioning as a powerful symbol, with the ability to be fully grounded in (sacred) space and yet generate new metaphoric associations a vision of life in the presence of the Lord. Even though the temple is both protological and eschatological, it is always grounded in the realities of our lives: it is a mere edifice, yet, Behold! Thy God.
Anthony J. Petrotta
Bibliography. B. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context; R. E. Clements, God and Temple; idem, Wisdom for a Changing World; R. H. Gundry, Somain Biblical Theology; M. Haran, Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel; A. J. Heschel, Quest for God; A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms; M. E. Isaacs, An Approach to the Theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews; G. Josipovici, The Book of God; K. Koch, The Prophets: The Assyrian Period; C. Koester, The Dwelling of God; H. J. Kraus, The Theology of the Psalms; J. D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion; J. G. McConville, Law and Theology in Deuteronomy; W. McKane, ZAW94 (1982): 251-66; D. H. Madvig, NIDNTT, 3; R. Mason, Preaching the Tradition; C. Meyers, Ancient Israelite Religion; R. W. L. Moberly, The Old Testament of the Old Testament; J. Neusner, Wrong Ways and Right Ways in the Study of Formative Judaism; W. Nowottny, The Language Poets Use; D. A. Renwick, Paul, the Temple, and the Presence of God; J. Z. Smith, To Take Place; W. R. Smith, The Prophets of Israel and Their Place in History; idem, The Religion of the Semites; J. Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language; N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Temple'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".