G. K. Beale says that both texts and ruins from the ancient Near East portray temples as small models of either heavenly temples or of the whole universe. In yesterday’s post we saw how he understands Israel’s tabernacle and temple, along with the vestments of the priests, to model the two visible parts of the universe (heaven and earth) and the invisible part (the dwelling place of God). This understanding seems to fit with the conception of temples throughout the Near East.
Beale cites several examples from Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts that say in various ways that temples were made like the heavens. A temple to Marduk was made as a “counterpart” to the work of the god in creating the heavens. Egyptians often talked about their temples as “heaven on earth”.
But ancient temples also portrayed the earth. Often they contained either a real tree or an artistic one to show the divine gift of fertility and life. Sometimes they contained a basin like the “sea” in Israel’s temple. These may have symbolized mythic worldviews such as the chaos tamed by the god or the life-giving waters at the center of the cosmos.
Mythology often pictured a cosmic mountain atop which the gods dwelt. Temples were “lofty”, elevated above their surroundings (high places) to symbolize the divine mountain.
Temples were not all the same, but they did seem to symbolize the cosmos in one way or another.
Also there are many examples of temples with increasing levels of holiness like the Israelite progression from the outer court to the holy of holies.
For instance, the outer court of Egyptian temples often was surrounded by a mudbrick wall decorated with scenes of the Pharaoh hunting or fighting. There was usually a pond for ceremonial washings. Anyone could come into the outer court.
Then two towers or pillars, representing either mountains or trees, marked the entrance to a transitional court. This was decorated with solar images with walls representing the horizon and an east-west orientation to align with the rising and setting of the sun, stars and planets. Apparently, women and people of lower social rank did not venture into this section.
Then there was a womb-like inner temple often ablaze with the metallic light of gold and other precious metals. This probably was similar in meaning to the holy of holies for the Israelites. It represented the invisible realm of the gods. And it was likely only had access for priests and, perhaps, royalty. (I do not know about the status of women in this regard. In Egypt there were priestesses to certain gods. So maybe it depended on which god the temple was for.)
So there were obvious similarities between Israel’s sanctuary and those of pagan nations. Beale wants to point out that there were also differences. He proposes that Israel’s temple was meant as a kind of protest statement against pagan temples. It had to be somewhat similar. It had to reflect cultural understandings of heaven an earth. But these similarities led to a polemic against what the Israelites saw as false religions.
The pagans put an idol in the inner sanctums of their temples. The place for the idol was empty in Israel’s temple.
Beale argues for several other differences. There was only one temple in Israel, whereas there were many in other nations. The priests practiced divination and other magic in pagan temples, but these things were forbidden to Israel.
I agree with the caveat that these differences reflect the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah. I am not sure what all went on in Solomon’s temple before that. Also, I have elsewhere argued that there were multiple temples in ancient Israel. The one-temple-rule was a late Judaic rule. It never applied in the Northern Kingdom.
But the most powerful differences concerned the fact that Israel’s God did not need feeding or housing. One of the roles of pagan priests was to care for the god’s needs. Israel’s God could not be put in the debt of the Israelites. Even in northern sanctuaries before the consolidation of worship in Jerusalem there were Levites who clearly understood this. I think the 50th Psalm, a psalm of Asaph, reflects this.
I do not need to take a bull from
or goats from your sheepfolds.
For every wild animal in the forest belongs to me,
as well as the cattle that graze on a thousand hills.
I keep track of every bird in the hills,
and the insects of the field are mine.
Even if I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and all it contains belong to me.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls?
Do I drink the blood of goats? (Psalm 50:9-13 NET Bible).