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The Temple and the Cosmos

Categories Old Testament

Bible-BackgroundsWhen we think about the world and the universe in modern American culture, we are most inclined to think of it like a machine. In the ancient world, however, the Israelites, as well as all of their neighbors, would have been more inclined to think about the cosmos as a kingdom. Furthermore, they would have understood the cosmos as a temple. The following entry explores this matter:

The Temple and the Cosmos

The temple on earth was considered only a type of the larger, archetypal cosmic temple, and there are many images and symbols that evoke the relationship between temple and cosmos. The temple is considered the center of cosmos and in itself, a microcosmos.

In Egypt the temple contained within its sacred precincts a representation of the original primeval hillock that emerges from the cosmic waters. In short, the temple was considered deity’s cosmic domain. This concept is represented even in the design of the temples.

In Mesopotamia, the primary imagery of the temple was that it was the center of the cosmos. This perspective can be seen in Gudea’s temple building text from early in the second millennium, in which the temple’s cosmic qualities are enumerated and show little change in the middle of the first millennium in Neo-Assyrian texts.

In Syro-Palestine, the temple is the architectural embodiment of the cosmic mountain. This concept is represented in Ugaritic literature as well as in the Bible, where Mount Zion is understood as the mountain of the Lord (e.g., Ps. 48) and the place where his temple, a representation of Eden, was built.1

In Isaiah 66:1 the Lord indicates: "Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool, where is the house you will build for me, where will my resting place be?" Here God indicates that the manmade temple cannot be considered the true temple (cf. 1 Kings 8:27). It is only a micro-scale representation of the cosmic temple. Psalm 78:69 communicates a similar idea by indicating that the temple was built on the model of the cosmos. Ideas like these are also found in literature from Mesopotamia that compares temples to the heavens and the earth and gives them a cosmic location and function. It is evident, then, that Israel and her neighbors shared an ideology that understood the cosmos in temple terms and viewed the temple as a model of the cosmos or the cosmic temple. (Excerpt from John. H. Walton, Genesis in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, forthcoming).

Once we understand this ancient concept, we can understand that the temple would be seen as the control room of the cosmos from where God sustains creation and history. We can also see that the Israelites, along with their ancient neighbors, viewed the universe more theologically and in functional terms rather than in strictly material terms.

1 L. Stager, "Jerusalem as Eden," BAR 26/3 (May/June 2000): 37; M. S. Smith, "Like Deities, Like Temples (Like People)," in Temple and Worship in Biblical Israel, ed. J. Day (New York/London: Continuum/T. & T. Clark, 2005), 3–27; E. Bloch-Smith, " ‘Who Is the King of Glory?’ Solomon’s Temple and Its Symbolism," in Scripture and Other Artifacts, ed. M. Coogan, J. C. Exum, and L. E. Stager (Louisville: Westminster, 1994), 18–31.

Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.

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