Tag Archives: Temple

Psalm 48 God and Zion

Panorama of the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives by Bienchido shared under Creative Commons 4.0

 Psalm 48

<A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites.>
1 Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God. His holy mountain,
2 beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King.
3 Within its citadels God has shown himself a sure defense.
4 Then the kings assembled, they came on together.
5 As soon as they saw it, they were astounded; they were in panic, they took to flight;
6 trembling took hold of them there, pains as of a woman in labor,
7 as when an east wind shatters the ships of Tarshish.
8 As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God, which God establishes forever. Selah
9 We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple.
10 Your name, O God, like your praise, reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with victory.
11 Let Mount Zion be glad, let the towns of Judah rejoice because of your judgments.
12 Walk about Zion, go all around it, count its towers,
13 consider well its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may tell the next generation
14 that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will be our guide forever.

In the previous two psalms we have celebrated God as our refuge (Psalm 46) and God as King (Psalm 47) and now we see God’s Kingship occupying a specific place of refuge: the city of Jerusalem and the temple. The city of Jerusalem and the temple were two central signs of God’s promised protection and presence. Although I can understand the remark of Walter Bruggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr. that the beginning and ending of the psalm in their symmetry and structure of, “nearly equating the God of the temple with the beauty and symmetry of it.” (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 224) I tend to view the message of the psalm in a more positive light appreciating the presence of God in a holy space. There is always a danger of identifying a structure or item designated for God’s worship and glory becoming an idol in the mind of the worshipper. Yet, we do seek places where God’s presence can be felt amid a world where God’s presence may be harder to identify and God’s refuge in a world that can feel fraught with dangers. The city, the mountain and the temple should all be spaces where the LORD is praised. At its best the beauty and security of the temple and city create a little piece of heaven on earth where God’s presence seems closer. Religious buildings, from the humblest to the most elaborate, attempt to create a safe and holy place for God’s people to come together and where God’s presence is felt and communicated.

Jerusalem as city is merely stone, wood, cloth and metal inhabited by the people who dwell in and around it. Yet, in the minds of the faithful it becomes something far greater. As J. Clinton McCann, Jr. can state, “Jerusalem is important because it is God’s place; thus it can serve as a witness to God’s character.” (NIB IV: 821) It becomes a place of hope and aspiration where in the words of the prophet Isaiah:

In the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Isaiah 2: 2

Nancy deClaissé-Walford points to how the psalm appropriates the language of the Canaanites that was used to worship Baal. God ss the one who ascends the mountain in the north instead of Baal, Zion replaces Zaphon as the place of sanctuary and the place from which the God of Israel reigns as King over all other gods and nations. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 435) Like Psalm 29, the people transformed the language of the surrounding culture to give worship and praise to the LORD of hosts. This serves both a polemical function, the LORD is God and King instead of Baal, but also reflects the process of trying to come up with language that can be used to talk about God and the willingness of the Jewish people to repurpose imagery that seemed appropriate for their LORD.

In contrast to the hope in Isaiah 2 where the nations stream to Zion seeking teaching and wisdom, we see the kings of the earth assembling to assault Jerusalem. Yet, like Psalm 2: 1-6, the conspiring of the kings of the nations only exposes their weakness. It is possible that Psalm 48 references the failed siege of King Sennacherib of Assyria in 701 B.C.E. (2 Kings 18-19) but the psalm may be independent of this experience of liberation in the memory of the Jewish people. The kings who sought to conquer in strength flee in panic and trembling. Kings who are pictured as masculine symbols of conquest are transformed in the psalm to women in childbirth, an image in the ancient world that was the opposite of strength. Although I would disagree with the use of a woman in childbirth as an image of weakness it was a common image in the ancient world because of the intense pain and the high risk of death for women during childbirth in the ancient world. Devastating winds in ancient Israel were east winds. In Exodus 14:21 it was an east wind which drove back the Red Sea and in Jeremiah 18:17 God promise to scatter Israel before their enemy “Like the wind from the east.”

The reality of God as the refuge for the people of Zion moves from being something handed down from previous generations to the experienced reality of the city of Zion. Once they had heard of God’s steadfast love, victory and judgements but now they can rejoice because they have experienced these things. The threat from the other nations has passed and they can walk around an examine both the physical walls and barriers that surround the city but also reflect upon the God who is the true refuge for the faithful people. They will now have their own experience of God’s faithfulness to share with future generations for their God will endure forever and ever.

For those of us who hear the words of this psalm in our own time we may wonder where we go to experience the presence and protection of God? What are times where we experienced God’s power so that we could speak of our own experience of God rather than the experience of our ancestors? What language do we use to talk about God and how has it changed from the language our parents or grandparents used? What places do we consider sacred or holy and why do we consider them to be sacred?

Exodus 26 The Tabernacle

Erection of the Tabernacle and Sacred Vessels by Gerard Hoet (1728)

Exodus 26

Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue, purple, and crimson yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them. 2 The length of each curtain shall be twenty-eight cubits, and the width of each curtain four cubits; all the curtains shall be of the same size. 3 Five curtains shall be joined to one another; and the other five curtains shall be joined to one another. 4 You shall make loops of blue on the edge of the outermost curtain in the first set; and likewise you shall make loops on the edge of the outermost curtain in the second set. 5 You shall make fifty loops on the one curtain, and you shall make fifty loops on the edge of the curtain that is in the second set; the loops shall be opposite one another. 6 You shall make fifty clasps of gold, and join the curtains to one another with the clasps, so that the tabernacle may be one whole.

 7 You shall also make curtains of goats’ hair for a tent over the tabernacle; you shall make eleven curtains. 8 The length of each curtain shall be thirty cubits, and the width of each curtain four cubits; the eleven curtains shall be of the same size. 9 You shall join five curtains by themselves, and six curtains by themselves, and the sixth curtain you shall double over at the front of the tent. 10 You shall make fifty loops on the edge of the curtain that is outermost in one set, and fifty loops on the edge of the curtain that is outermost in the second set.

 11 You shall make fifty clasps of bronze, and put the clasps into the loops, and join the tent together, so that it may be one whole. 12 The part that remains of the curtains of the tent, the half curtain that remains, shall hang over the back of the tabernacle. 13 The cubit on the one side, and the cubit on the other side, of what remains in the length of the curtains of the tent, shall hang over the sides of the tabernacle, on this side and that side, to cover it. 14 You shall make for the tent a covering of tanned rams’ skins and an outer covering of fine leather.1

 15 You shall make upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle. 16 Ten cubits shall be the length of a frame, and a cubit and a half the width of each frame. 17 There shall be two pegs in each frame to fit the frames together; you shall make these for all the frames of the tabernacle. 18 You shall make the frames for the tabernacle: twenty frames for the south side; 19 and you shall make forty bases of silver under the twenty frames, two bases under the first frame for its two pegs, and two bases under the next frame for its two pegs; 20 and for the second side of the tabernacle, on the north side twenty frames,21 and their forty bases of silver, two bases under the first frame, and two bases under the next frame; 22 and for the rear of the tabernacle westward you shall make six frames. 23 You shall make two frames for corners of the tabernacle in the rear; 24 they shall be separate beneath, but joined at the top, at the first ring; it shall be the same with both of them; they shall form the two corners. 25 And so there shall be eight frames, with their bases of silver, sixteen bases; two bases under the first frame, and two bases under the next frame.

 26 You shall make bars of acacia wood, five for the frames of the one side of the tabernacle, 27 and five bars for the frames of the other side of the tabernacle, and five bars for the frames of the side of the tabernacle at the rear westward. 28 The middle bar, halfway up the frames, shall pass through from end to end. 29 You shall overlay the frames with gold, and shall make their rings of gold to hold the bars; and you shall overlay the bars with gold. 30 Then you shall erect the tabernacle according to the plan for it that you were shown on the mountain.

 31 You shall make a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen; it shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it. 32 You shall hang it on four pillars of acacia overlaid with gold, which have hooks of gold and rest on four bases of silver. 33 You shall hang the curtain under the clasps, and bring the ark of the covenant 1 in there, within the curtain; and the curtain shall separate for you the holy place from the most holy. 34 You shall put the mercy seat1 on the ark of the covenant 2 in the most holy place. 35 You shall set the table outside the curtain, and the lampstand on the south side of the tabernacle opposite the table; and you shall put the table on the north side.

 36 You shall make a screen for the entrance of the tent, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, embroidered with needlework. 37 You shall make for the screen five pillars of acacia, and overlay them with gold; their hooks shall be of gold, and you shall cast five bases of bronze for them.

Constructing holy space is something every religious tradition has to think about and the way in which a tradition creates that space illuminates something about the people who worship there and the god or gods they attempt to worship. The tabernacle serves an unsettled people, a people who are still on their Exodus journey. It is designed to be transported across the wilderness and set up wherever the people dwell. It is a holy space for a God who is not associated with one particular place but rather a God that can move with the people and who desires to dwell among them. Even though there is the desire for a place where the LORD will dwell among the people there is still a need for zones of holiness. Paradoxically the God of Israel is viewed as being both unapproachable and yet approaching to dwell with the people. The tabernacle becomes a place to mediate the presence of the holy God.

The tabernacle is constructed out of the most valuable materials: Gold, silver and copper, acacia wood, died wool and tanned animal skins. Within the curtains, bars, bases and clasps used for the holiest regions the best material is used: gold and precious died wools in purple, blue and crimson. Wool, and in particular the three stated colors, may seem like an ordinary commodity in our time but in the ancient world purple, blue and crimson in particular are self-fixing colors that do not fade with the exposure to sun and water but are expensive to make because of the materials to make them being rare or dangerous to work with. (Myers, 2005, p. 235)  Purple was often a color associated with royalty precisely because of the cost of producing purple cloth. These curtains or sections are probably woven together and the cherubim designs are included as a part of the weaving. Each of these curtains is roughly forty two feet by six feet and a total of ten of these sections are made to enclose the most holy portion of the space. This is a space designed around the ark of the covenant described in the previous chapter that it will contain.

The worship space itself is big for a mobile structure, but it would not be big in terms of worship space that we would design for a modern congregation. Most of the people would never enter the tabernacle and certainly not the holy of holies with the ark, instead they would be outside the tabernacle while the priests would intercede, sacrifice and mediate the presence of the LORD to the waiting people. The curtains and bars and bases all set aside space and the ark, lampstand and table sit within the set aside space. It is the uncluttered worship space of an Exodus people.

Even when King David desires to build a temple (2 Samuel 7) there is resistance to the idea of transitioning from a tent and a tabernacle to a fixed temple. The LORD does not dwell in one specific place and within the construction of the temple there are some often unnoticed contrasts between the temple work and the tabernacle work. The tabernacle work comes from the voluntary offering of the people but the temple built under Solomon will involve conscripted labor and would be a part of the building projects that placed a heavy burden on the people and would eventually lead to the splitting of Israel away from Judah. Eventually the temple itself became such a focal point that it, the Davidic king and the city of Jerusalem became central for the identity of the people. During the Babylonian exile when Jerusalem, the king and the temple were lost the memory of God’s presence moving with the people in a mobile tabernacle may have been a source of comfort as they found themselves separated from their former home in a strange land and wondered how the LORD could be present.

Jeremiah 26 The Prophet, the Temple and the Elders

Jeremiah 26: 1-19 The Prophet, the Temple and the Elders

Ilya Repin, Cry of the Prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem (1870)

Ilya Repin, Cry of the Prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem (1870)

At the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came from the LORD: 2 Thus says the LORD: Stand in the court of the LORD’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the LORD; speak to them all the words that I command you; do not hold back a word. 3 It may be that they will listen, all of them, and will turn from their evil way, that I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on them because of their evil doings. 4 You shall say to them: Thus says the LORD: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, 5 and to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently– though you have not heeded– 6 then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.

 7 The priests and the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speaking these words in the house of the LORD. 8 And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die! 9 Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant’?” And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD.

                10 When the officials of Judah heard these things, they came up from the king’s house to the house of the LORD and took their seat in the entry of the New Gate of the house of the LORD. 11 Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, “This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.”

 12 Then Jeremiah spoke to all the officials and all the people, saying, “It is the LORD who sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard. 13 Now therefore amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God, and the LORD will change his mind about the disaster that he has pronounced against you. 14 But as for me, here I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. 15 Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.”

 16 Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, “This man does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the LORD our God.” 17 And some of the elders of the land arose and said to all the assembled people, 18 “Micah of Moresheth, who prophesied during the days of King Hezekiah of Judah, said to all the people of Judah: ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.’ 19 Did King Hezekiah of Judah and all Judah actually put him to death? Did he not fear the LORD and entreat the favor of the LORD, and did not the LORD change his mind about the disaster that he had pronounced against them? But we are about to bring great disaster on ourselves!”

This passage is traditionally linked with the ‘Temple Sermon of Jeremiah’ in Jeremiah 7 and into chapter 8 based on the dating and the circumstances lined out in the first lines. Jeremiah goes into the temple, the heart of the royal and priestly justification of the people’s favored status and compares the temple to Shiloh, which was an earlier site of the tabernacle site in the time of 1 Samuel. The prophet calls the people back to the two sided covenant of Deuteronomy, ‘If you will do these things, then you will be blessed, if you will not do these things you will be cursed.’ Since the construction of the temple by Solomon there has been a critique of the possibility of relying solely on the temple for maintaining the people’s status with God. For example when God answers Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 9, it relates the answer as this:

2 the LORD appeared to Solomon a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon. 3 The LORD said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you made before me; I have consecrated this house that you have built, and put my name there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 4 As for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my ordinances, 5 then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised your father David, saying, ‘There shall not fail you a successor on the throne of Israel.’

 6 “If you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, 7 then I will cut Israel off from the land that I have given them; and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight; and Israel will become a proverb and a taunt among all peoples. 8 This house will become a heap of ruins; everyone passing by it will be astonished, and will hiss; and they will say, ‘Why has the LORD done such a thing to this land and to this house?’ 9 Then they will say, ‘Because they have forsaken the LORD their God, who brought their ancestors out of the land of Egypt, and embraced other gods, worshiping them and serving them; therefore the LORD has brought this disaster upon them.'” (1Kings 9:2-9)

Yet in the time of King Jehoiakim this way of understanding the covenant with God is either forgotten or neglected. For the prophet claims of obedience to God’s law/Torah are more important than any human authority. This undercuts the certitude of not only Jehoiakim, but particularly here the priests in the temple where Jeremiah makes his proclamation. Their lives are invested in the maintaining of the centrality of the temple worship and the proclamation of the prophet threatens not only their temple with its words but their livelihood. The react quickly and harshly demanding the death of Jeremiah because he has spoken against the temple and the city and bring him before the leadership of the city. It is a tense picture painted where the priest and temple authorities and the crowd have surrounded the prophet and the city leaders quickly move to bring calm to the situation and hold judgment in the case of this troublesome prophet.

For his part, Jeremiah denies nothing that he is accused of and yet he claims his role as a prophet of God speaking on God’s behalf and still in the hope of both the prophet and God that the people will hear and turn from their ways. What the priests have heard as condemnation is from Jeremiah’s perspective a hope for turning and rescue by God, but the words have fallen on unreceptive ears.  Jeremiah knows that his life rests in these officials’ hands and yet he warns them that if they take his life they will be liable for innocent blood.

The elder’s rely on the precedence of Micah, one of the examples of intertextuality in the Bible. This instance refers back to the prophet Micah who a century earlier had spoken harsh words against the city, and yet Micah was not killed by the leadership then. The ‘elders’ override the ‘priest’ and the historical memory of prophetic witness and Torah piety hold out in this case and the elders too are able to see this as an opportunity for repentance rather than a certain doom. Unfortunately for the people the repentance does not come as the priestly and royal authority are hostile to this message that Jeremiah proclaim.

Jeremiah 26:20-24 The Risk of the Prophetic Challenge

 

                20 There was another man prophesying in the name of the LORD, Uriah son of Shemaiah from Kiriath-jearim. He prophesied against this city and against this land in words exactly like those of Jeremiah. 21 And when King Jehoiakim, with all his warriors and all the officials, heard his words, the king sought to put him to death; but when Uriah heard of it, he was afraid and fled and escaped to Egypt.22 Then King Jehoiakim sent Elnathan son of Achbor and men with him to Egypt, 23 and they took Uriah from Egypt and brought him to King Jehoiakim, who struck him down with the sword and threw his dead body into the burial place of the common people.

 24 But the hand of Ahikam son of Shaphan was with Jeremiah so that he was not given over into the hands of the people to be put to death.

King Jehoiakim is not receptive to Jeremiah’s message, and while Jeremiah apparently has some protection from Ahikam son of Shaphan another prophet, Uriah son of Shemaiah does not. The words of Uriah infuriate the king enough to send men into Egypt to capture, bring the prophet to the king and then to be killed by the king. This is not a welcome time for prophets and death and torture are real possibilities to ensure the message of King Jehoiakim is the dominant message heard.

The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 2: King, Temple and the Prophetic Critique

David and King Saul, Rembrandt

David and King Saul, Rembrandt

 So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” 1 Samuel 8.10-18

 

At roughly 1,020 BCE a decisive change takes place and Israel enters the time of monarchy.  Power becomes consolidated briefly under King Saul.  Two men, King Saul and Samuel, whose title before had been that of a judge but functioned as a mouthpiece for God at this point, hold the religious and political authority.  Israel begins to act as a powerful actor in the region, constantly moving from one conflict to another, but internal conflict emerges when David emerges on the scene.  Without getting bogged down in the story or trying to parse out what happened historically  by 1000 David would unify his power as king and Israel became for a brief shining moment a power player on the world stage, Jerusalem becomes the capitol, and then perhaps decisively for this era the temple is established under Solomon.   Especially for the Southern Kingdom of Judah this is decisive because the monarchy and the temple become linked as the dominant secular/religious authority. There is a prophetic voice within that critiques the monarchy and temple, but for the most part the people give up a portion of their freedom for the relative security, power and identity of being a part of the unified kingdom of Israel.  That is not to say that family, clan and tribe have lost their power or authority, but that the people become much more linked to the kings and temple than at any previous point in their history.

This is probably a good point for a fun interlude, it is hard for us to imagine being bound in systems where our autonomy is defined so externally.  We don’t have any experience of a monarchical system and so our reaction might be somewhat like the peasants in this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Even a romanticized king when we look from our perspective seems like a tyranny or despot.

Even though King David is often looked upon romantically like the King Arthur of legend, one of the incredible things is that the recorded memory of David includes many ugly situations, many family struggles, many times where he is at odds with the prophetic voice of the time.  The whole Bathsheba and Uriah episode (2 Samuel 10-12), incest within the royal family (2 Samuel 13) and eventually the usurpation of the throne by his son Absalom (2 Samuel 15-19) as well as other internal rebellions are a part of David’s roughly forty years of consolidated rule.  Even though the King amasses incredible authority previously unattainable in anyone’s imagination the constant warfare and internal struggles begin to wear on the people.  By the time Solomon, David’s son, ascends to the throne it is a relatively peaceful time but the energy is directed internally on large building projects, the temple, but also many houses and palaces for Solomon and his entourage. The temple becomes, at least for a large group of people, the central focus of worship, and yet again just like with the idea of consolidating power with a king there is a large amount of space dedicated to the critique of the temple

 King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home; Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor. Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work. At the king’s command, they quarried out great, costly stones in order to lay the foundation of the house with dressed stones. So Solomon’s builders and Hiram’s builders and the Gebalites did the stonecutting and prepared the timber and the stone to build the house.  1 Kings 5.13-18 NRSV

This is a huge commitment of people and resources which are directed internally.  In fact it is such a strain that immediately upon Solomon’s death when Rehoboam takes power the people come and plead for relief:

Your father made our yoke heavy.  Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed upon us and we will serve you. 1 Kings 12.4 NRSV

To which the narrative has Rehoboam reply three days later in our language, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet, you think my father made things hard on you?  Well prepare to be screwed!’ Most translations clean this up significantly…but the little thing that is thicker than his father’s loins is probably not a finger (see 1 Kings 12: 6-15 particularly v.10) Things are not nearly as clean in the Bible as we sometimes want to make them.  The people are offended, the kingdom splits apart and now there are two kings, two places of worship, a prophetic voice that continues to grow louder…but even with this prophetic voice within the Kingdom of Judah in the South and the Kingdom of Israel in the North growing stronger the fate of both nations is linked to the actions of kings and the worship at the temple in Judah and the worship at various sites in the North.  Particularly for the Southern Kingdom of Judah, so long as there is a Davidic king and the Temple who they are as the people of God seems secure.  Yet this too will change….

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