Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Temple in Scripture

God's House
The Temple of God. It's where God lives. He's present there in a way that He isn't elsewhere. But how can that be? God is omni-present isn't He? He is. But even at the very beginning of creation, God decided to build a place where His presence would dwell more tangibly than anywhere else. That first place is the garden. It's the first temple of God. God walks around its environs freely and nothing in that holy place is disturbed by His immediate presence. He takes a creature out of the ground outside of the garden and fashions a man, adam, from adama, which means dirt, soil, earth. He then brings him into the garden, breathes life into him so that he is now a living being, and places him in charge of the garden. Up to this point every thing has been 'good' but now adam is standing there twiddling his thumbs and God says for the first time that something isn't quite right. He even says that this situation is 'not good'. First God brings all the critters that He had made before adam up to adam in order to name them (an act of dominion by the way. We name that which we have power over). But none of the animals is quite right for what adam 'really' needs. Adam needs someone like himself. God knocks him out, splits his side, builds a woman, and then adam sees another living being just like him, but different. Humanity version 2.0! Now that's very good!

So they get to work. It's not hard. All they have to do is tend the garden and do like the rest of the critters by being fruitful and multiplying. Eventually, even if there were no rebellion,the garden would have had to grow beyond it created space. All these critters, plants, and humans multiplying would have led pretty quickly to some mighty cramped quarters. And besides, outside the garden was barreness and chaos, and it needed to be restored (if you hold to an angelic fall preceeding the human one) or organized/ordered in order to reflect the heavenly/cosmic temple. Either way, this primordial couple had some work to do, and they were God's vice regents in charge of getting it done.

Shiny Serpents
But even in this primordial paradise, there were other creatures that had other ideas. A creature that can be seen as a spirit being also lurks in this garden. He speaks to the woman first, asking her about what God had said previously. Did God really say...? Something in this line of questioning must have tickled the ear of Eve (the name means the mother of all living), so that the words sunk down into her. She listened to these accusing, questioning words. But so did the man, Adam, standing next to her. They both gave in to the impulse to take the shiny serpent's word over that of the One who had created them. Somehow they didn't take seriously the warning that they would 'die' that very day if they disobeyed God's command.
This shiny serpent (I use the term 'shiny serpent' because the Hebrew, nachash, can be translated either as a noun, serpent, or as an adjective, shiny one. Since later Scripture describes our great adversary, Satan, as being both, I lean towards a both/and rather than an either/or approach to translating the term) gets them to take the first bite. Their eyes are opened now. They see they're naked in a different way than before. Before this moment they knew they were naked, but they were OK with it. They weren't ashamed. Now they were. Something had changed. Now they had something to hide. Something, or better yet, someone, had to die.

They hear God walking around nearby. They're scared. They run and hide. They cover up. God asks His own questions. He isn't so much interested in finding out what happened. He knows full well what just went down. He wants to know their 'story'. How are they going to explain themselves. Thus from this moment on, we find our own story told for the first time here. It's not my fault! God asks the man. It's the woman's fault who 'You' gave me (bad move!). God asks the woman. It's the shiny serpent's fault. God doesn't ask the shiny serpent anything. All three get judged. The man has to work harder to get the same or lesser results. The woman gets painful childbirth and submission to the man. The shiny serpent gets thrown to the ground and a death sentence that is irrevocable, even if somewhat delayed in the sentencing phase.
Meanwhile, the first couple get their walking papers. They get the very first pink slip from the royal residence. They're evicted from the garden. Their charge, their responsibility, is still intact, but now they get to share in the primordial chaos surrounding them. That chaos is now in them. They now are that chaos.
God was pleased to have them dwell in His midst as long as they 'dwelled' in His Word, His command. But now that they had decided to follow a different path, He sent them out from His midst. A flaming sword made sure that they could not turn back to where they had come from. They were now 'separated' from God because of their rebellion, their sin. Their relationship with God had been ruptured. They were no longer on speaking terms. The honeymoon was over. The sweet communion was over, it was dead. And soon they would be too. And the dying began.
Every time someone in Scripture is confronted with the immediate presence of God since then, they always cry out "Woe is me! For I am undone!", "Get away from me, a sinful man!", "I fell as a dead man." To be in the presence of God without some sort of mediation was and is a very dangerous thing. In fact, it's deadly. All of the Biblical writers knew that. We would do well to know that too. To entertain God glibly is to invite His holy wrath. Strange fire still burns deadly. God will not be mocked. But God was also pleased to provide a way. More temples will show up.

The greatest 'cover up' in history!
Something, or as I put it earlier, someone, had to die. An animal, we don't know what kind, was sacrificed in order to provide a covering for the man and the woman. This second 'skin' would protect them until something better came along. Temples throughout the world have, almost to a one, a sacrificial system in place to appease various deities. A pinch of incense here, a pure virgin there, a grain offering can't hurt. Somehow, we have to get those angry gods off our backs. That, and they always seem to have these temples on hilltops and mountaintops where high priests and kings intercede between us and them. The Bible also talks about temples on mountains, gardens, sacrifices, and being 'right' with God. Why is it all so familiar? Did all of these pagan religions and cultures 'borrow' these ideas from God's people? Worse yet, did the Hebrews 'borrow' these ideas from their pagan neighbors? Which came first, the sacrificial chicken or the fertility egg?
These kinds of questions scare us. Can I hold on to my faith in what the Bible says when I find out that there were/are religions that speak of almost all the same themes? In reading about the Temple and its importance to the church's ministry, I was surprised at how much overlap there was between the Biblical witness and the imagery and even content of the surrounding cultures. The Ancient Near East (ANE) is filled with creation narratives and judgments from the gods on humanity. Yet in each of these accounts, there are also striking differences between the Biblical account and what the ANE describe.
While to our modernistic and materialistic ears the Biblical account of creation and the fall may seem quite fantastic, it is surprisingly tame and materially coherent compared to the surrounding narratives of the ANE. The striking similarities between the Biblical narrative and the surrounding culture is counterbalanced by the wildly fantastic differences found in some of those other stories. Yes, they all have similar creation narratives. But unlike the Biblical narrative, which sees the physical realm as inherently good, the surrounding tales find the physical creation being born out of conflict and violence. We, as physical beings, exist because of war. We are the offspring of violence. In other words, what's the matter with matter? In the Hebrew Scriptures, nothing. In much of the surrounding narratives, everything.
Thus the 'end' or 'purpose' of our story in the pagan world is to either escape this inherently flawed world (think gnostics) or duke it out on the ground level in imitation of the pantheon of gods vying for head man (or woman) on the totem pole. In either case, we escape or we compete violently to get the upper hand.

A Violent Peace
But what about the blood? Many people get queasy at the sight of blood. Some Christians do too. Blood seems, well, so bloody. The whole idea of blood sacrifices seems like something more akin to a vampire movie than to anything modern Christians could believe. But it's our modernism that's the problem, not the blood. Christianity has always acknowledged the importance of blood. After all, it's the blood of Jesus that washes away my sins isn't it? Nothing but the blood? We sing it, but it still makes us uneasy. Blood implies violence. But isn't the gospel about peace? Is the gospel message about God reconciling a people to Himself. He makes peace with us, His enemies. But how does God, at least the God of the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures, make peace?

Before we get to how God makes peace, let's get a better idea of why there needs to be peace in the first place. If we need peace, maybe that's because there is currently war. But if we need peace because there is already war, then how did we get war? War came about because of rebellion. Back at the beginning, as we saw earlier, there is a rebellion. There is a rebellion of humans against God. But there is also a rebellion of the angelic realm against God too. We know that not only from the Genesis account with that nachash character asking all the wrong questions, but because of other accounts that tell us about an earlier (apparently) cosmic rebellion. Isaiah alludes to it in chapter 14:12-14 when he speaks of the fall of the king of Babylon. Ezekiel too speaks the same way when he describes the fall of the king of Tyre in chapter 28:11-19. While this is a lament against the king of Tyre, verse 14 seems to point pretty strongly towards something or someone beyond and before a mere mortal king. By the way, it's in this passage that we see the garden of God, Eden, also being described as the holy mountain of God. There are several other passages that also describe the cosmic rebellion, but the main concern here is to bring out that there was a spiritual rebellion among these angels and other spirit beings that occurred before the human fall. One of the characteristic features of these descriptions of the cosmic fall is that these powers are always violent and perpetrate injustice. They are unholy, both in their idolatry and in their impurity.

Meanwhile, back to the blood. One day Abraham gets told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Go up to this mountain and offer him up as a burnt offering. Again, this is hard stuff. We recoil at this idea. We always breath a sigh of relief when God intervenes through His angel by providing a lamb/ram tangled in a thicket nearby. "God Himself will provide a lamb." That was the promise to Abraham. He did provide Himself a lamb to Abraham. The Son of promise lived so that a still later Son of promise might die.

To be holy is to be in the presence of God. To be holy is to have the presence of God in your midst. To be holy is to dwell with God. To be holy is to have God dwell with you.

In the Mean Time
God meets people in all kinds of interesting places. He meets them on roads to Damascus. He meets them when they're asleep. He meets them out in open fields while they tend flocks of sheep. He meets them in burning bushes. He just shows up. Sometimes a particular person is looking for God. Many times they're not. In fact, sometimes they're running headlong in the other direction. But each time God meets someone, they remember the spot they wer at when it happened. It's kind of like "Where were you when 9/11 happened?" We all know. It's seared into our memories because ot was such a traumatic event. Well, meeting God is traumatic too. You don't soon forget that moment either. That is, of course, if you live to tell about it.

Each time someone met God in the period of the patriarchs, they set up altars, usually a collection of stones, in order to commemorate the event. It also set aside that spot as a sacred space, holy ground. It's the place where God met with us. Heavenly-earthly intersections. Portals to the spiritual realm that had a dangerous, special significance. Take off your shoes. Treat this spot with care. God was here. These stones remember that. These meeting places are heavenly footsteps, spiritual impressions left behind that somehow still resonate with a shimmer of His presence. He keeps showing up. First with the first couple in the garden. Then with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even more so with Moses. We see a much more developed scene of the heavenly realm when God talks to Moses. He even commands Moses to build a tabernacle that corresponds to the heavenly original! He gets the specs direct from God! That way, whenever they moved, God's special presence (His shekinah glory) moved with them. He traveled with them as they sojourned through the wilderness. Eventually, they would make it to the promised land. But not yet. Even more temples were to come. A king would need to build a more permanent structure. But the temples soon to be built left something to be desired. They were too handy so to speak. That's not the kind of temple God really wanted anyway. But it's a good pointer to the real deal.

The first Temple; that is, the Temple of Solomon, was commanded by God. He had commanded David, but David was a man of war, so he couldn't lawfully construct the temple (1 Kings 5:3). Only a man of peace could build the temple. David's son's name Solomon means "peace." It's a variant of the Hebrew word shalom. God's Temple could only be built by a man of peace, during a time of peace or rest. Thus David could not, but his son, Solomon, could and would. God commanded the Israelites to build Him a Temple in order to make His name known (1 Kings 5:5). But even Solomon seemed to acknowledge that what he built was wholly inadequate for the task at hand.

Looking for God in all the wrong places
There were other "temples" too. Human beings can't help but be religious. We have to worship something! Either it's going to be the God who actually created all that is, or it's going to be other spiritual beings in the heavenly realm, or it's going to be a creation itself, or it's going to be the most available candidate for worship, ME! As Bob Dylan says, "ya gotta serve somebody."
Temples, towers, shrines, altars. They all evoke images of sacred space, holy ground, places of worship. All of human history is filled with these places in one form or another. According to the Biblical account, the prototypical idolatrous temple is the tower of Babel. It's the original rebellious power. All other images of rebellion and idolatry hearken back to that original act and place. Whether it's the Assyrians, the Baylonians themselves, the Chaldeans (another name for the same people), or the later Persians, Greeks, or Romans, they all speak of setting up a counterfeit version of what God intended. It's what I like to call the "evil twin skippy" effect. It looks like the real thing, but it's a counterfeit. It has to approximate the real thing in order to be able to pass itself off as the real thing, and I'm not talking about Coke!

The idolatries and false temples of the Old Testament, and of the other parts of the world even up to today all speak to this copy-cat tendency.