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Objections to the Cosmic Temple Motif in Scripture
In Beale’s book The Temple and the Church’s Mission, both the garden of Eden and the Jerusalem temple are types of the Church, which is confusingly called the literal non-physical temple.1 Beale’s thesis, which is fed by many ingeniously interpreted though vague allusions – mainly reliant upon reinterpreting OT texts by privileged interpretations of the NT – is that the OT stories of Adam, Abraham, and Israel recapitulate the same story of failure to extend God’s spiritual kingdom throughout the world. Jesus, the final Adam, the final Israel, and the final temple (though apparently not the final Abraham), will set everything to rights when He comes, and then it’s a wrap as far as this present creation is concerned.2
This is it in a nutshell. While its supporters readily admit that the cosmic temple has little support from the text of the Bible3, the main assertion is that ancient temples were mini-universes: models of the cosmos. Following this understanding, it is the function of the sacred space in Scripture that becomes dominant, not the literal meaning conveyed by the words in context. This maneuver concentrates the mind on ideas beyond the prima facie wording of the texts and starts it thinking along very different lines, with its own assortment of motifs, types and recurrences.4
Alongside of this it is proposed that the tripartite temple structure mirrored the same threefold structure in the cosmos. Further, we are instructed to view the garden of Eden as a proto-temple which God intended man to gradually push out over the untamed earth until all was claimed for God.5
It is clear from some inter-testamental Jewish writings and from Philo and Josephus that some Jews in the second temple period (c. 200 B.C. – 70 A.D.) understood the temple and the priesthood to reflect realities in Heaven.6 It is also clear that some ancient cultures saw the act of temple-building as a sort of re-enactment of the creation of the universe.
Josephus attributes cosmic significance to various aspects of the structure. The veil hanging above the temple gate itself symbolizes the universe ([Jewish War] 5:212-213). The twelve loaves placed on the table symbolize the zodiac and the months, while the menorah… symbolizes the seven planets (5:218)7.
Very well, but these sources are not from the time of Moses, never mind Adam. True, there are some resemblances between Genesis 1 and God’s directions for the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus 25 – 318, but these possible comparisons are not at all decisive for inferring that the tabernacle was designed as a mini-cosmos.
What about the assertion that, “the three sections of Israel’s temple represented the three parts of the cosmos”? Beale is convinced that the truth of this is undeniable, and he stakes a lot upon it. But is it really a fact that ancient peoples of the Near East held to this three-tiered conception? And is it an established fact that the biblical writers assume the same three-storied view of the cosmos?
Biblical theologian Gerhard Hasel and his son, the archaeologist Michael Hasel argue convincingly that neither is actually the case. They have shown from Canaanite records that “the gods did not always dwell in the heavens or the upper story of a supposed three-storied universe.”9 As a matter of fact,
The most comprehensive study on Mesopotamian cosmic geography concludes that there was no belief in a three-storied universe…10
After examining the figurative expressions in the Bible they conclude that “the widespread assumption that the biblical cosmology is that of a three-storied universe cannot be maintained.”11 If they are right then the theory of the temple reflecting such a three-tier cosmos is in serious trouble. But again, surely the more important point is how dependent upon speculations and mild possibilities all this is?
What Did the Temple Stand For?
When one narrows ones focus down to the Bible the question “did the earthly temple sometimes stand for the whole cosmos?” needs to be reconsidered. It is perhaps best to think about it in relation to the question of whether the earthly temple stood as a replication of the heavenly temple. Of this latter thesis there ought to be no argument, for as Exodus 25:9 and 40 show, God gave Moses a blueprint to follow assiduously. And the enlargement on this given by the author of Hebrews fills out the picture when he calls Jesus in His High Priestly function,
a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected… – Hebrews 8:212
On the face of it this plainly indicates that there is a “true tabernacle” in heaven of which the earthly one was a replica. But once this is accepted then the temple = cosmos motif seems less viable, because it would seem to go too far to assert that the heavenly temple itself symbolized the whole cosmos. This would force one to have to assert a double symbolism; (1) temple = cosmos plus (2) earthly temple = heavenly temple. Unless the entirety of heaven is right now “the true tabernacle”, which is not the impression one gets from reading Hebrews 8 and 9, then the (1) temple = cosmos parallel won’t work. This impression is sustained by recalling the picture of New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22, which is clearly distinguished from heaven (Rev. 21:2-3).
What this means is that since the true tabernacle is not coextensive even with heaven it cannot picture the cosmos, and for the same reason it cannot represent the cosmos as three-tiered as is maintained by Beale.
Still, I see no reason (other than innate bloody-mindedness) not to agree broadly with Beale that “There is…abundant evidence from the ancient world that temples symbolized the cosmos in various ways.”13 But having granted this to be true, how are matters improved? Our concern is not with pagan temples and erroneous worldviews but with the text of the Bible. Let it be said clearly that the Bible is its own witness and is not to be interpreted on the basis of supposed ancient parallels. Therefore, I have to strongly disagree with what Beale, Walton, and others do with such information from the ancient world, more particularly because the position on a three-tiered cosmology is open to serious objections from that very source.
I prefer the view which sees Eden (post-fall), the tabernacle and the temple as “sacred space” (if we must use the term) within which is preserved both a remembrance of the original integrity of creation and “a stake as it were that signified that the kingdom claims had not been abandoned.”14
As an interesting slice of biblical background the cosmic temple motif is worth knowing about, and it supports our idea of the Creation being God’s “project”, which He will not be deterred from bringing to completion. But as a place from which to launch out on a typological way of reading the whole Bible it is fraught with difficulties.
It is well to keep in mind that other ancient depictions of events similar to those found in the Bible are often more extravagant than their biblical counterparts. Just as it is unwise to employ these ANE versions to understand Genesis, or indeed to use ancient treaties to interpret biblical covenants, it is unwise to repair to fragmentary ancient understandings of temples and temple-building and functionality, and to use them as looking-glasses through which the biblical text is supposed to become more intelligible to the modern reader. It is still more risky to develop a major interpretative schema for the Old and New Testaments by recourse to a motif derived from such sources. It is this latter development in evangelical interpretation that I think we ought to be uneasy with. The point of tension is not so much the concept of a Cosmic Temple (though that too is open to question), as is its use as an entryway for spiritualized typological readings of the entire Bible. Just as in the cases of a supposed Creation covenant or a covenant of grace in Genesis 1-3, whose claims are exegetically hollow, the notion of God’s earthly dwelling place increasing through biblical history looks exegetically suspect. The Bible teaches it nowhere explicitly. The entire edifice is built on scraps from Scripture and ancient history. And even then there is evidence to contradict the model. For example, even Beale is forced to admit that “The pagan temples had no such eschatological purpose as a part of their symbolism.”15
1 Although they are well intentioned, it seems to me that these attempts at viewing Eden as a Cosmic Temple and finding threats lurking outside the garden are being read into the narrative. The imaginations of some of these scholars seem to be more fertile than the soil in the garden of Eden itself. I believe this theologizing of the Eden-Cosmos-Temple link to be a theological band-wagon which will be abandoned before very long, under the heavy weight of criticism it will inevitably bring upon itself. In our humble opinion the sooner this happens, the better. What remains of it when stripped of typological accoutrements will still be instructive.
2 G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 465.
3 G.K. Beale citing the Jewish scholar Jon Levenson, The Temple and the Church’s Temple, 49.
4 This is the major burden of John H. Walton’s book, The Lost World of Genesis One. See e.g. 102. It is quite similar to the arguments of those who push for apocalyptic interpretation. See e.g., John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 16
5 It is worth noting that Walton is a little more cautious than Beale. He writes: “From the idea that the temple was considered a mini-cosmos, it is easy to move to the idea that the cosmos could be viewed as a temple. This is more difficult to document in the ancient world because of the polytheistic nature of their religion. If the whole cosmos were viewed as a single temple, which god would it belong to? Where would temples of the other gods be? Nevertheless it can still be affirmed that creation texts can and do follow the model of temple-building texts, in this way at least likening the cosmos to a temple.” – John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 82 (my emphasis). I might also mention the opinion of another OT scholar that “the cosmic sanctuary may be more appropriately contrasted to (rather than compared with) the Jerusalem temple.” – J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image, 83, n.101. Cf. also T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem, 37-38 who says that the case “is not beyond dispute.” So Klawans: “a homology between the creation of the world and the building of the tabernacle is implied in the bibilical narrative, though no explicit statement to this effect can be found in scripture.” – Purity, Sacrifice and the Temple, 124
6 Klawans is unsure whether Philo believed that the Divine Presence dwelt in the temple. See Purity, Sacrifice and the Temple, 113, 122-123. Scripture itself cannot be used to prove the Divine Presence in the second temple. In fact it appears to imply just the opposite; that the Glory-cloud that left the temple in Ezekiel 10-11 never returned. Far more dogmatic on this point is Wright, who states categorically, “Nowhere in the so-called post-exilic literature is there any passage corresponding to 1 Kings 8.10f… Instead, Israel clung to the hope that one day the Shekinah, the glorious presence of her god, would return at last…” – N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 269. Because God’s Glory-cloud was absent the second temple, Wright believes “The exile is not yet really over.”
7 Ibid, 114. Cf. also 124. Klawans is sure the menorah represents the seven planets. Beale seems to favor “the seven light-sources seen by the naked eye (sun, moon, Venus, and four other planets).” – Beale, The Temple, 54. Why Venus is separated from “four other planets” is not explained. Klawans also discusses the possible connection of the zodiac with the menorah in many Jewish places of worship as alluding to the belief that the temple was a microcosmos. But he also notes that this connection was all but abandoned in later Jewish literature. – Ibid, 127.
8 See J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image, 84-85. The writer thinks that such correspondences, plus the passages which refer to “the foundations of the earth” etc., show a deliberate allusion to the days of creation (although Middleton being a theistic evolutionist is no six-day creationist).
9 Gerhard F. Hasel and Michael G. Hasel, “The Unique Cosmology of Genesis 1 against Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian Parallels”, in The Genesis Creation Account and Its Reverberations in the Old Testament, ed. Gerald A. Klingbeil, 16
11 Ibid, 21
12 This is confirmed also by Hebrews 8:5 and 9:11. Notice again that these NT verses do not force a reinterpretation upon the OT text!
13 G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 54. Also Brevard Childs writes: “It is quite clear from comparative religion and recent archaeological research that the description of the Old Testament tabernacle shares many features with its Ancient Near Eastern background.” – The Book of Exodus, 539
14 Eugene H. Merrill, Everlasting Dominion, 287
15 Beale, Temple, 60
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.