Israel’s temple was a symbolic shadow pointing to the eschatological “greater and more perfect tabernacle” (Heb. 9:11) in which Christ and the church would dwell and would form a part. If so, it would seem to be the wrong approach for Christians to look in hope to the building of another temple in Jerusalem composed of earthly “bricks and mortar” as a fulfillment of the OT temple prophecies. (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 634)
The above quotation presents one of the logical outcomes of adopting the position that the garden of Eden was designed as a “temple,” which in turn symbolized the created cosmos, which needed to be subordinated to its Creator. This micro-cosmos Eden “temple” was to be expanded by mankind, we are told, until it covered the surface area of planet earth. The tabernacle and the temple of Israel were related to the Eden “temple” in that they too were mini-cosmoses; yet they also functioned as types of the final temple, the church in Jesus Christ. The church is the new and real temple which is to expand its “sacred space” until it spreads over the whole of creation.
Explaining the Cosmic Temple Idea1
If one spends time reading the older commentaries, articles and Old Testament theologies, one will find no mention of the idea of a Cosmic Temple.2 Today the situation has changed and there is a widespread consensus about cosmic symbolism in the ancient world, the Hebrew Bible included.3 There are, to be sure, impressive parallels between ancient views about temple complexes, the concept of rest, the symbolism of trees and so on, in Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures, and certain ideas in the Old Testament.
If we put to one side the vital question of the sufficiency of Scripture for the moment and concentrate on the issue at hand, we can put together a decent picture of the way the ancient Jews, among other peoples, saw the temple as symbolizing the universe. But whether the Bibleought to be thought of as reflecting this same outlook, as some evangelicals claim4, is an altogether separate question.
The basic concept involved is well expressed in the following quotations:
It is now widely known that archaeological ruins and texts from the Ancient Near East portray ancient temples as small models of heavenly temples or of the universe conceived of as a temple.5
The setting for the world’s true story is the cosmos God made. In this cosmos he intends to be known and worshiped by his image and likeness. In that sense, the world God made is a cosmic temple. Within the cosmic temple God planted a garden, and it appears that [man] was charged to expand the borders of that garden until the glory of the Lord covered the dry ground as the waters covered the sea.6
The Ancient Near Eastern temples are also compatible with the…conclusion that the three sections of Israel’s temple represented the three parts of the cosmos.7
Our thesis is that Israel’s temple was composed of three main parts, each of which symbolized a major part of the cosmos: (1) the outer court represented the habitable world where humanity dwelt; (2) the holy place was emblematic of the visible heavens and its light sources; (3) the holy of holies symbolized the invisible dimension of the cosmos, where God and his heavenly hosts dwelt.8, 9
Eden as a Cosmic Temple?
Greg Beale, who has been at the forefront of this movement, thinks that seeing Eden as a temple, fated for worldwide expansion, has a lot of promise, helping us to comprehend the Bible’s grand narrative. His case is built up from allusions, hints, strands, and possible scenarios. Beneath the surface it is all very speculative, and he often has to qualify his assertions (“possibly”, “perhaps”, “no explicit evidence”). Rarely does he point to plain and clear statements of Scripture to prove his thesis. For example, if one asks, where is this idea most clearly spelled out? Beale answers with Ezekiel 28:
Ezekiel 28:18 is probably, therefore, the most explicit place anywhere in canonical literature where the Garden of Eden is called a temple.10
The passage in question reads:
You defiled your sanctuaries by the multitude of your iniquities, by the iniquity of your trading; therefore I brought fire from your midst; it devoured you, and I turned you to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all who saw you. – Ezekiel 28:18
As Beale explains in another place, “Ezek. 28:18 says that the sin of the glorious figure ‘profaned your sanctuaries,’ which alludes to Eden as a temple being profaned.”11
The Hebrew word miqdashim (“sanctuaries”) is plural, but it may be that the plural is used simply for emphasis12, so that in itself does not derail the identification of Adam as the “glorious figure” or Eden as a profaned temple.” But everyone will admit that the passage has been given many interpretations, and the “Adam interpretation” feels less than airtight.13 Bruce Waltke believes that, “the description of the king of Tyre is not apt for Adam. Rather, the imagery fits Satan quite well; an angelic cherub in God’s court…”14 When all is said and done, if Ezekiel 28:18 is the most unambiguous place where Eden is referred to as a temple the thesis does not enjoy a very solid biblical foundation.
This Eden as temple approach has become very trendy of late.15 Whether one accepts it or not there is nothing terribly controversial about a connection between Moses’ Tabernacle or Solomon’s Temple and Eden (or its garden), so long as it is the right connection and it is held at bay. But Beale’s theology extrapolates to a significant degree.
1 Although I rely on many authors, the sources from which I have mainly formed an understanding of this position are Jonathan Klawans’ detailed chapter “Temple as Cosmos or Temple in the Cosmos” in his Purity, Sacrifice and the Temple: Symbolism and Supercessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 111-144; Gregory K. Beale’s, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, esp. 29-60, and various chapters in his A New Testament Biblical Theology, and John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 71-112.
2 One might expect to find discussions of this idea in the works of respected OT scholars. But, as a matter of fact, many of them, e.g. Von Rad, Eichrodt, Scobie, Goldingay, give the subject little or no attention. Even the IBR Bibliography of Old Testament Theology by Elmer A. Martens fails to include it as a theme. Cf. also William Dyrness, Themes in Old Testament Theology. This is a very new teaching. Recent strategies to make it a determining concept in Biblical Theology ought therefore to be treated very cautiously.
3 See, e.g. Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice and the Temple, 115, 280 n.22
4 To be clear, these writers are not always saying that the biblical authors borrowed from the worldview of their neighbors. Rather, they claim that the ancient Israelites also saw things in these ways. E.g. see John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 78, and G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 51.
5 G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 51
6 James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, 356. Upon reflection this paragraph is problematical. If “the world God made is a cosmic temple” that needs expanding and where God wants to be worshipped, then why was it not all originally created as such? Why was the actual temple only a garden upon the earth? This contradicts Hamilton’s statement above. He might have said that the garden was created as a temple on the earth, and mankind was to enlarge it over the surface of the planet. But if one is going to base this idea on ANE temples, it should be noted that they did not require enlarging because they were not intended for most of the populace. Therefore the concept breaks down, there being no clear biblical support for it.
7 G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 58
8 Ibid, 32-33. Some other writers believe that the holy of holies and not the outer court represented the earth. See e.g., T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem, 37-38 n. 50.
9 As a matter of fact, ancient temples did not always signify a god’s presence with the people. It was Elmer Martens’ view that: “… a temple may bespeak the presence of the deity, but it does not guarantee it.” – Elmer A. Martens, Interpreting the Old Testament: A Guide for Exegesis, ed. Craig C. Broyles, 196. This is contrary to Walton’s assertion that “If God is not in it, it is not a temple.” – John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 87. Walton’s point cannot be true since it is flatly contradicted by Ezekiel 40:1-43:10. Neither were these temples open to the ordinary populace, but usually only the priests and nobles. See Rodney Stark, Discovering God: The Origin of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 75
10 G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 75-76. Also G.K. Beale and Mitchell Kim, God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014),18
11 G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 361 n. 7
12 Keil considers and rejects this explanation. – C. F. Keil, The Prophecies of Ezekiel, 416-417. Fairbairn makes good sense when he makes the sanctuaries the holy mount of God, and the garden of God which both figure in the immediate context in Ezekiel 28. – Patrick Fairbairn, An Exposition of Ezekiel, 313-314 n.1. Daniel I. Block, in an essay we shall consider below, believes the plural “sanctuaries” distinguishes them from the garden. – See “Eden: A Temple: A Reassessment of the Biblical Evidence,” in From Creation to New Creation: Biblical Theology and Exegesis, (Peabody, MS: Hendricksen, 2013), Daniel M. Gurtner & Benjamin L. Gladd, eds., 10 n.4
13 I take up the identification of the “covering cherub” in the chapter on Ezekiel
14 Bruce K. Waltke, Old Testament Theology, 274
15 See, e.g., Scot McKnight, “Covenant” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), Kevin J. Vanhoozer, General Editor, 141
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.