5.44 1 Kings -- The Temple

The building of the Temple was started in the 480th year after the Exodus (1 Kings 6:1).  This date has provoked considerable controversy.  For one thing, the Septuagint substitutes 440 for 480.  Another problem is that the book of Judges alone covers a period of about 450 years, without considering the years that Joshua or Samuel led Israel, or the reigns of Saul or David.  There are several attempts to explain the discrepancies.  Some of these involve alternative definitions of "year," or speculation about the "corrections"  made by later redactors.  These discussions are outside the scope of this study.

          

It was David who gave the command to build the Temple, who drew up the plans for it and provided most of the raw materials on a lavish scale:  100,000 talents of gold, 1 million of silver (1 Chron 22,  1 Chron 28)!  He also drafted the surviving resident Canaanites as stonecutters, and drew up the lists of all the priests and Levites who would serve in the Temple:

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          "All this," David said, "I have in writing from the hand of the Lord upon me, and he gave me understanding in all the details of the plan" (1 Chron 28:19).

         

Building the Temple was the superlative achievement of Solomon's rule, and a crowning moment of Judaism, at least of its institutional aspect.  There is a sense in which Judaism has been, ever since, a religion that looked backward.  For 2000 years, since the destruction of Herod's Temple, itself a replacement of Solomon's, Judaism has been a religion without a physical center.  This has caused it to develop other compensations --  exaltation of the role of the Torah, the rabbi, the local synagogue.

        

The question arises:  given the survival of Judaism for two millennia without any central building, and in the face of drastic opposition and persecution, was the Temple itself all that important?  Was it really an essential aspect of the religion?  After all, as Kings itself notes, the Israelites had survived nearly 500 years without it.  During this time, they had retained the ancient sacred objects:  the Ark of the Covenant, the tent of meeting, the vessels in the tent (1 Kings 8:4), and the Book of the Law.  These objects and the events they signified constituted the core of the faith.  They symbolized the promises of God and the identity of Israel as His own people.  But the Temple changed the aspect, if not the heart, of Hebrew religion.

         

The building of a massive monumental building to house these emblems, plus the construction of many more elaborate implements and furnishings, marked a transition in Judaism itself.  In one sense, it caused the rise of the Levites to social prominence.  The sacrificial and legal aspects of the religion came to the fore, as the eyes of all Jews turned to Jerusalem as their center.  Religion was no longer de-centralized, it was externalized and made magnificent.  This was the beginning of Judaism's  "Catholic" phase:  the Temple in Jerusalem performed the same function for the Israelites as St Peter's in the Vatican does for Catholics.  In both, the spiritual truths of tradition were translated into aesthetic artifacts and buildings: pillars of bronze, the Sea upon twelve oxen, the golden lampstands...or soaring ceilings, stained glass, altarpieces.  This is important:  the building and ceremonies do not merely house the faith of the fathers, but become part of the content of faith itself.  God inhabited the Temple (1 Kings 8:10-11), and as a result the buildings, the implements, and the priests shared in His holiness.  The consequence was that one was not really worshipping God unless he was offering his sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem or in the manner prescribed there.   

        

For example, Moses had commanded the Israelites to gather before the Lord three times a year in "sacred assemblies" (Ex 23:14-17).  Before Solomon, Shiloh was the location of the Ark and the priests who tended it.  After the Philistines captured the Ark and then returned it, it was moved to Kiriath Jearim, and later to Jerusalem.   It is uncertain whether or where the annual festivals were held during the reigns of Saul and David.  Solomon re-established  the annual calendar of holy days and feasts centered on the Temple (1 Kings 9:25).  From that time on, until the invasion of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon, the Temple was the official site of the celebration of all the festivals.    

        

There is a parallel between what happened to the nation of Israel and to the religion.  The monarchy transformed both of them.  Not only was there now a state for the first time, but there was a state religion.  As David and Solomon had their palaces, and even the daughter of Pharaoh had hers, so God had His palace.  And all these houses were  on a similar scale:  lavish and massive, protected from the ordinary people by walls and gates and guards.  The God who had been content to dwell for hundreds of years in a holy box in a rough tent in simple surroundings was now enthroned in a permanent royal edifice, separated from the populace, served by dozens or scores of consecrated attendants, surrounded by vessels of gold and pillars of bronze.  There were rules about who could come near to His dwelling, and how close they could come, and how to purify themselves, and what offerings to bring.  The bottom line is that a transition occurred in Solomon's reign from the dynamic faith of the Covenant and the prophets to an institution, a religious machine served by professionals.

        

Contrast the situation of a hundred years earlier when a village woman could come to Shiloh and present her petitions directly to God in the presence of the high priest.  This was Hannah pouring out her grief before Eli (1 Sam 1).  The surroundings did not awe her, no glorious buildings distracted her, and the high priest himself spoke with her.  It was indeed a "tent of meeting."  The prayer of her heart was heard and answered.  But in Solomon's Temple, there was an entirely different religious experience awaiting the common man or woman:  impressive, "numinous", regulated, aesthetic.  But did the worshipper encounter God at the level of her need?