The Elusive Presence-from the Ark to the Exile

One of the things I am doing with these posts is reporting on older books I think have something to say even though their message may seem unfashionable today. That was the point of going through Adam Welch’s old The Code of Deuteronomy. It is the same with Samuel Terrien’s The Elusive Presence.

Today’s reading of the Elusive Presence was about the Temple. In the background of the Jerusalem Temple were two objects that had been with Moses in the wilderness.

One of these was the ark of the LORD. Originally this had been an answer to the problem of God’s absence when the Moses group left Sinai. We saw in the last post that leaving the holy mountain was a crisis. Moses and the people had to grapple with the problem of how God could go with them. One answer was the ark.

Terrien thought that the oldest and most reliable description of the original function of the ark comes in Numbers 10:35-36:

“And when the ark set out, Moses would say, Rise up, YHWH, and let your enemies be scattered; and let those who hate you flee before you. When it rested, he said, Return, YHWH, to the ten thousands of the thousands of Israel.”

This passage, he says, seems like archaic poetry and may come from the lost book of the Scroll of the Wars of the LORD. It shows how the ark was carried into battle with a prayer for victory The ark was a kind of seat from which the ancient Hebrews conceived that the presence of God ascended to fight and to which it returned in peace.

David brought the ark to Jerusalem because he hoped this old mark of the unity of the tribes in holy war would help unite his new kingdom.

The other object was the tent of meeting. The tent originally functioned as a space where a holy man, or prophet could receive oracles from God. It prepared for the idea that God could speak directly to a human being. So it prepared for the great prophets.

The tent was originally separate from the Temple. He thinks that at Shiloh, as described in the early chapters of 1 Samuel, there was a temple and there was also a tent of meeting near the temple.

Both the ark and the tent allowed God the freedom to be present or not. When the ark was carried into battle the Israelites could only pray that God would fight for them. It wasn’t magic. God’s presence was intermittent and elusive. So with the tent of meeting. God did not have to give oracles there. He spoke to those he chose to speak to.

But in the temple of Solomon the priests developed a theology of glory, which objectifies the “psychological awareness of presence and localizes it in a man-made structure” (p. 198). Terrien thinks that in Northern Israel there developed an opposite theology of the name. This theology sought to safeguard an understanding of God’s presence as beyond anyone’s ability to localize. God chose places for “his name to dwell” but these local sanctuaries preserve the elusive presence of God.

The Deuteronomistic history followed upon Josiah’s reforms and included sources representing both theologies but tempered the theology of glory and subordinated it to the theology of the name. Jeremiah was on the same page with them, although he allowed for a future new covenant with God’s presence unmediated and available to each person. Ezekiel in the exile had a vision of the return of the glory to a purified Israel. Terrien didn’t like Ezekiel much. He held him responsible for the development in Judaism of the idea that foreigners and women are impure and tended to block the presence of God.


“in divergent ways, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were able to convince the deportees, that, although Yahweh had left his temple desolate, his presence had not abandoned them. Hebrew faith, at the dawn of Judaism, was evolving a new theology of presence” (p, 213).


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
This entry was posted in Ancient Israel, Spirituality, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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