A temple, a temple, we already have a temple

Yes, we do, a lot of temples, more than ever in history. We are, as the leaders never stop telling us, a temple building people, and if anything distinguishes us from our fellow-Christians it is our temples. For us the temple is a crucial religious and ritual focus, the apex of our notion of holiness; it is also somehow a link with a distant past, with the deep salvation history of mankind, through Israel. Indeed, one of the themes running through the Old Testament is exactly that of the temple. But what is temple, and what continuity is there among the temples? What is the ‘third voice’, the one of the author, on the temple tradition in the religion of Israel and Judah? We focus first on Jerusalem.

The Dutch temple in Zoetermeer

The Dutch temple in Zoetermeer

It all starts, as everything in the bible, with Moses, with the Pentateuch. Exodus gives a wonderfully detailed description of the ark and especially of the tabernacle, richly decorated, with lots of gold and silver, rich tapestry, and intricate construction of the ark and a tent made of dugong or badger skins. The description of the tabernacle takes up almost half of Exodus and does raise a lot of questions. Dugong or badger, the skins of which should cover the temple, the discussions on the meaning of tahash (tabernacle, but that is a Latin term for tent) is still raging, but both animals are equally unbelievable inside the Sinai desert, especially in the numbers of skins needed for such a tent cover. But the whole description of Exodus 24 – 40 is highly questionable: the idea that all these metals, rare fibers, special woods, and exotic dyes could be found in the desert is, to say it in correct academese, ‘extremely improbable’. The tent was probably much simpler and smaller, and a description of the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:7-10) would fit in with that notion, but there we are in an E part of Exodus, the older source. The exuberant description is a P text, Priestly, much later, in effect post-exilic; as I said earlier the description of the temple in Exodus should not be read as a blueprint for building, but as a reminiscence of a lost temple; in exilic times this would evidently be the Temple of Salomon, as remembered in Babylon, projected into the pre-history of Israel in the desert. A temple in words is what they created.
The first initiation temple: Nauvoo

The first initiation temple: Nauvoo

A temple in words. As I explained in my last post these post-exilic priests in Judah and Samaria, who finalized much of the Pentateuch after the return of Judah from Babylon, were not in league with Nehemiah and Ezra, who actually built the temple; they had their own agenda. They did wanted a temple in words, a spiritual temple, so they wrote a book which in many ways was the temple. It is not easy to see, but it is the book of Leviticus. The building plan comes from the Priestly part of Exodus. The Tabernacle – so the temple-in-memory – as described in Exodus 24-40, is built of three rectangles: a large square is the Court of Sacrifice or Outer Court, the second is a rectangle, the Holy Place, while the Holy of Holies is a small square – in Salomon’s temple a perfect cube. The Second Temple would have the same dimensions. It is this structure that, on close reading, does inform the book of Leviticus. The rules and prescriptions fall into three unequal categories: the chapters 1 – 17 pertain to all the rules of purity and cleansing for the public, the sins and their forgiveness: this is the public section, the Outer Court. Chapters 18-24 handle the duties of the priests, details on the sacrifices, this is the holy place. Finally, the last part, 25-27, handles the law of the Jubilee, when special sacrifices are offered up to the Lord, when slaves are freed and debts cancelled: the Holy of Holies: Leviticus has the structure of the temple plan.

But there is more to that. The 17 chapters constitute a reading tour around the Court of the Sacrifice, from the entrance seven to the right, seven to the left, and three mediating the transition to the Holy Place. Chapters 18-24, another seven, form a virtual tour of that rectangle, while the three last chapters form the apex of the meeting with the Lord. The symbolism of the numbers is clear: 3+7+7, 7 and 3. This may sound farfetched, but in the worldview of post-exilic Jews is not: Leviticus is a temple in words. Thus, the Jews in diaspora could use Leviticus in their synagogues – an institution that originated during the Exile – and walk the hall reciting the book, experiencing a temple in spirit. The many rules of purity embedded in Leviticus – the food proscriptions are just one of them – redirected their special relation with YHWH from a collective one – the temple itself – into an individual one. Earlier it was the temple that had been the focus of rules of purification and holiness, directed at the building and the priests; the chapters 18-24 originate from what scholars have identified as the Holiness School, and that is exactly their function in the structure of the book. But the spiritualization of the temple meant that this holiness became a personal one, not just for the priests and Levites, but for all of Judah, it had to become a priestly nation.
The structure of the Jerusalem temple was not alien in the Middle East at all, but in fact a variant on a usual three-partite temple lay-out. For Israel the tabernacle, so the temple, derives its basic structure from its likeness to a mountain, to the holy mountain of revelation, an age old association that has often been noticed in the whole region, and has been commented upon extensively. For Israel that was either Sinai or Horeb, depending on which source document is used, J or E, as they both figure in Exodus. In Exodus 24 the lower slopes of the mountain Sinai are for the people, on the middle slope Aaron, Nahab and seventy elders from Israel feast with God: ‘They saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity. But on the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand. So they saw God, and they ate and drank.’ (Ex. 24:10-11) The wording sounds familiar to LDS. Finally, Moses proceeded in the very presence of the Lord on top of the mountain, where he remains forty days and forty nights. (The text is a little garbled in this chapter as the J and E sources intermingle here.)
So the temple is the re-enactment of the birth of the covenant, the principal creation tale in the Old Testament. And this holds not just for the Jerusalem temple, either the First Temple (the J source might well stem from the Solomon court) or the Second Temple, but most of the shrines and temples in pre-exilic Israel. We are used to the one-and-only Jerusalem temple, but there were many more shrines in pre-exilic Israel: Bethel (the Jacob site) Sechem, Gerizim. Especially the patriarchs, the pre-history of the Old Testament, erected shrines all over the place, and the unique position of Jerusalem came late, just before the Exile. But then, before Exile, YHWH had competitors in other gods. And any temple was a holy mountain.

Those Priestly authors did more than make a temple in words, they wrote a wonderful piece that we know as the first creation story, Genesis 1-2.4. (The second story, Genesis 2.5 – 4 is from a combined J and E source, and quite different, sometimes contradictory). The tale of Genesis 1 may have been inspired by Babylonian creation myths – which the priests surely learned about in Exile – but has a completely non-Babylonian theology: no battle between the gods, but a majestic march of an uncontested God towards a harmoniously created world, including humans. This Priestly creation tale served not just as the introduction to the book, it was to all probability also used as a temple text, to be recited in the Second Temple itself (it did not exist yet at the time of Solomon’s temple). The Priestly ‘temple in words’ became ‘words in the temple’, part of a ritual cycle that was the very heart of post-exilic Jewish worship.

Our invented tradition': the 'sea' as a baptismal funt

Our invented tradition’: the ‘sea’ as a baptismal funt

Here, evidently, our temples do come in. What happens in Latter-day temples bears little relationship to either First or Second Temple rituals; those ancient buildings where sacrificial centers, streaming with blood, and smelling of incense and burnt meat. The link between the laver and the Latter-day baptismal font is not historical, but a quite creative one; in fact it is what anthropologists call an ‘invention of tradition’, worthy of what the Priestly editors did with their J and E texts. But especially the temple text does form a link over the ages, as the creation tale is still there, supplemented with 2nd Genesis story, merged together by a new writer of scripture, Joseph Smith, who created a temple-in-words inside a temple. The notion of holiness is still paramount, as it the idea of a priestly nation in a collective-cum-personal covenant with YHWH. The sacrifices have been spiritualized in an initiation journey, but the majestic enactment of the Priestly temple text is central, a tribute to the anonymous ancient authors of Script, and the not-so-anonymous author of the Latter-days. Yes, the bible is written by men, and much we can learn if we look at the text this way.

A temple, thus, is a building, but primarily an idea; it is the idea of the temple that binds us to our mythical past, not the rituals in our temples, who are inspired by other ‘inventions of traditions like the Masonic one, nor the architecture itself, which is also new. We have temples to make us into temple people, covenant people, not the other way around. ‘A temple, a temple, we already have a temple’ thus could be read as ‘a temple, a temple, we already are a temple.’

13 comments for “A temple, a temple, we already have a temple

  1. Nate
    September 2, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    Nice post. I hadn’t thought of the Old Testament as a “temple in words” but understanding Genesis particularly as such gives the Adam story in our temple added meaning. Creation as ritual.

    Mormons are taught to consider ourselves as Adam and Eve, as if their story were an allegory for our individual lives. It’s less important whether it is a completely historical summary. Maybe the entire Old Testament should be read as such: we must consider ourselves as if we were the tribes of Israel, baptized in the Red Sea, enduring years in the wilderness etc.

  2. Terry H.
    September 2, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    Nice post. For more on the temple in Exodus, the Septuagint Commentary on Exodus by Daniel Gurtner is extremely informative. Gurtner’s previous work is called The Torn Veil, which is about the tearing of the Veil of the Temple at the Crucifixion in Matt. 28. There’s a lot of fascinating temple material in that one as well, particularly about the First Temple (not as much the Second).

  3. Armand Mauss
    September 4, 2014 at 12:37 am

    Your posts on the history and interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures constitute a marvelous education, and this most recent post (about various ways of understanding what a “temple” is) brings in a new and enriching dimension to our understanding about temples! An anthropologist and Africanist who is also a Biblical scholar and a theologian! You are truly a renaissance man. I don’t know where you get the time, but we are all blessed by your contributions here (at T&S) and elsewhere.

  4. larryco_
    September 4, 2014 at 1:22 am

    “We are used to the one-and-only Jerusalem temple, but there were many more shrines in pre-exilic Israel: Bethel (the Jacob site) Sechem, Gerizim.”

    And, apparently, a temple at Elephantine Island in Egypt.

  5. Walter van Beek
    September 4, 2014 at 3:19 am

    Thanks for the comments. I will surely pursue Gurtner’s work; my own inspiration on this one has been Mary Douglas, also in the combination of fields that Armand so eloquently lauds. and #4, definitively at Elephantine as well, the recent TV series and book of Simon Schama – briljant work – testifies to that. Apparently Jewish religion, as most faiths in that time, routinely produced sacred places and shrines, and why not. Monopolisation of sacredness is a political goal and means, not a religious one.

  6. Terry H.
    September 4, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Mary comes at things from an anthropological perspective, not from the rituals themselves. Another person to look for is L. Michael Morales. “The Tabernacle Pre-figured”.

    For more on other temples, check out Robert Hayward “The Jewish Temple: A Non-Biblical Sourcebook.” Another excellent place to start.

  7. Travis
    September 4, 2014 at 7:50 pm

    “The link between the laver and the Latter-day baptismal font is not historical, but a quite creative one…”

    Is it that much of a stretch to think that a “brazen sea” five cubits deep might have been used for some kind of ritual washing? And when we consider that the ritual of baptism stems from the Jewish ritual of tevilah (ritual purification by immersion in water), can we be so certain that there is no historical link?

  8. September 4, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Ritual washing, sure, but probably not immersion. How do they get in? I’d agree that it was likely used for ritual washing, but more likely used for ritual hand/foot/face(?) washing, perhaps like Islam.

    On the other hand, some have suggested that presence of the sea/Yam in the temple is a function of the cosmological creation symbolism of the temple, related to the ideas of Chaoskampf or God triumphing over chaos/water/tehom.

  9. Craig H.
    September 5, 2014 at 7:15 am

    Really interesting Walter, thanks for posting. So the monopolizing of sacred space might be political, while the space itself can still have religious meaning for those who want to experience it one way or another; nice thoughts.

  10. Walter van Beek
    September 6, 2014 at 4:32 am

    #7 On the meaning and function of the laver the jury is still out, but the description given does not readily allow for washing and certainly not immersion, I fully agree with Ben S. #8. A symbolic presence is much more likely than a speciifc ritual function. Moreover, while many rituals are rather minutely spelled out, they do not include the laver. So, yes, ‘invented tradition’ and a creative one at that by JS, because it provides a link between the Hebrew and the Christian bible that is both inspiring and needed; the two have been separated too long anyway.

  11. Travis
    September 7, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    I also suspect that the laver was not used for baptisms in the modern sense of bodily immersion, so I think our positions are not far removed. If indeed JS made up a fictional connection to the ancient temple in order to give the modern temple ancient origins, then that raises serious questions with which believers must grapple. Is it enough that the temple is beautiful, creative, and teaches truths, if at its essence it is a modern invention and not a revealed restoration of ancient ordinances? Can we imagine that the modern temple was revealed to JS from God, or must we retreat to the idea that there was some degree of inspiration behind it without committing to the divine and/or ancient origin of any particular ritual or liturgy?

    Fortunately, I don’t think we need to go that far. The essence of baptism is a ritual washing: physical cleansing that symbolizes a spiritual cleansing. It is difficult to imagine that this core idea has nothing to do with the laver from Solomon’s Temple. Even the word “laver” means “to wash.” 2 Chronicles 4:6 explicitly states, “…the Sea was to be used by the priests for washing.” The NIV Study Bible footnote for 2 Chr. 4:2 reads, “Sea of cast metal. A larger reservoir of water that replaced the bronze basin of the tabernacle (Ex. 30:18); it was used by the priests for their ceremonial washing (v. 6; Ex. 30:21).” That last-referenced scripture, Ex. 30:21, reads, “…they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die.” So it seems most reasonable that it was used for ritual washing of hands and feet, but not immersion. As Ben S. asks, “How did they get in?” There is no mention of stairs or a ladder. (But it’s not too hard to imagine that there may have been stairs and Scripture failed to mention it. After all, it failed to inform us of exactly what the brazen sea was even used for; which is the greater omission?)

    Joseph Smith did not claim to restore the Solomonic temple. He claimed he was restoring the temple ordinances that belong to the Christian era; to the higher law as preached by Christ, not the lower, Mosaic law as practiced in the Tabernacle and temples of Solomon, Zerubbabel, and Herod. The elevation of the temple from the lower law-order to the higher law-order is symbolized by the tearing of the veil at Christ’s death, exposing the Holy of Holies to all and obliterating the old order in which only the Jews were the chosen people and only the high priest could approach God’s presence (Luke 23:45). As the early Christians never controlled the temple at Jerusalem, this dispensation may or may not be the first time that such ordinances have ever been fully practiced. But that does not mean the modern ordinances are not the successors, in symbolism and purpose, of the ancient rites. We can recognize all of this without needing to abandon the idea that our modern temple baptismal fonts are rightly considered the direct descendants of the laver from Solomon’s Temple.

  12. Walter van Beek
    September 9, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    With the transformations you mentioned, Travis, I think you are right, and a symbolic succession can be defended. The transtitions are important, though, also theological: From the priests to all people of covenant, from cleansing to covenant making plus imitation of resurrection, and especially from the present living to the distant dead, those are changes that bring us way beyond the direct sacrificial funtions of the 1st and 2nd temple. As for the early Christians, I still wonder about the Corinthians and their baptism for the dead: way beyond Jerusalem, it seemed to have been their practice and not that of Jerusalem. It seems as if their practice was unrelated to the temple, and that the true inspiration of Joseph Smith was to combine these two elements in a very theologically creative way. It would have been easier if it was mentioned in the Epistle to the Hebrews, even if that is not a Pauline letter.
    (Evidently, I am trying to save my ‘invented tradition’ here …).

  13. September 11, 2014 at 2:22 am

    Very interesting! Thanks!

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