“The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the largest shrine; on that altar Solomon presented a thousand burnt offerings. At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night...”
1 Kings 3:4-5 (emphasis mine)
The vision of the heavenly temple may be the single most prominent mythic element in Jewish apocalyptic literature. In apocalyptic narratives and related liturgy, the heavenly temple is presented as visually encountered: it is beheld in its awesomeness and praised by the protagonist or speaker. In the Hebrew Bible by contrast, the phenomenon appears only in ambiguous snippets: Isaiah 6's divine throne is not just in heaven but also in Jerusalem.
Yet if there is one thing the finds from Qumran reveal, it is that the Hebrew Bible gives only a narrow sample of ancient Judean literature and religious practice. In these texts we find not only new interpretations but entirely new episodes, themes, words and ideas. Explaining them as dependent on familiar old texts surely helps cope with the disarray into which the flood of material throws the Biblicist. Stressing the exegesis of known texts, rather than what was previously unknown, is a way of mastering the corpus by fitting it into the apparatus of biblical scholarship.
But how could we trace where this new material—for example, about the temple--comes from? Because of the nature of the Hebrew Bible's editing, it is a partial and limited source for the history of the religion it describes. There is, however, a substantial ancient Near Eastern literature concerning temples, including myths, hymns, rituals and building accounts, and extensive excavated material attests to the physical features of earthly Near Eastern temples. This makes the heavenly temple a promising test case for ways to integrate the new Hellenistic material into the history of the religion of Israel.
The imagination of the temple and the imagination of heaven are bound up together. But how does one study that imagination historically, in connection with human practices and social realities? Ancient ideas about the Jerusalem Temple are difficult to place in history: while the architectural record manifests significant parallels to the architecture described in Kings, Chronicles and Ezekiel, our only direct evidence about the early history of the Jerusalem Temple is contained in the biblical texts and dependent on how we reconstruct our literary sources. Its physical beginnings are not accessible to us.
In later periods, changes in the role of the Temple can be documented, but their analysis is dominated by a single influential theory. This model holds that the crucial change in the image of the Temple was a response to its decline. As the Temple's rituals became invalid in the eyes of some groups, they "spiritualized" the concept of the Temple: the real Temple moved from earth to heaven, becoming physically unreachable where it had been present before (for a disscussion, see Martha Himmelfarb's Ascent to heaven in Jewish and Christian apocalypses, pp. 10-16) In the Hellenistic period, the heavenly Temple waxed as the earthly Temple waned in Jewish apocalypses. Revelation, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Enochic Book of the Watchers, and the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice are understood as the products of a sort of compensatory biblical exegesis, motivated by longing for return to the Temple as it had once been. If so much Hellenistic and post-Destruction Jewish creativity was an attempt to compensate for the loss of the Temple, the central topos of national religious life, this suggests the natural explanation of the heavenly Temple as a projection of the Jerusalem Temple. While the Temple had always existed in both this world and the other, the balance shifted to heaven as the Temple's this-worldly legitimacy began to wane.
But this theory takes the Jerusalem Temple's total dominance in ideal and reality for granted. That consensus requires a remarkable uniformity of imagination and practice on the part of ancient Israelites--one they are not likely to have had. As Michael Stone wrote,
"In principle, there is no reason to think that the body of literature that is transmitted as the Hebrew Bible is a representative collection of all types of Jewish literary creativity down to the fourth century...It is specious, therefore, when faced with a third-century phenomenon, either to seek its roots in the Bible or to relegate it to foreign influence. Circles other than those transmitting the biblical books existed, or else those involved in transmitting the biblical books did not allow a considerable part of the intellectual culture of their day to be expressed in them..."
By the Persian period there were of course substantial numbers of Jews living far away from Jerusalem and firmly embedded in local economies and cultures. What was their relationship to the centralized Temple? We know that the members of the colony at Elephantine considered themselves Jews, retained Israelite names, and observed the Sabbath and Passover. They kept in regular contact with the Jerusalem religious authorities. Interestingly, the Jews of Elephantine worshipped hypostatized temples and elements of temples, including the gods bytˀl "The Temple", ḥrmbytˀl "Sacredness/Sacred Enclosure of the Temple" , ˀšmbytˤl "Name of the Temple", and ˤntbytˀl "Sign of the Temple." The phenomenon reaches back further than this in West Semitic religions, already attested by the seventh century in the treaties of Esarhaddon ( SAA II 5 p. 27; 6 p. 49)
Indeed, the process of hypostatizing and personifying religious architecture is already seen in the Bible itself, where Jacob's altar at Shechem was called "El, God of Israel" (Genesis 33:20) while the altar at Bethel was named "El of Bethel" (35:7). The phenomenon of proper names for temples is well known in Mesopotamia, where temples had individual names and a large corpus of hymns naming and detailing the physical features of the temples was in use, evolving from the earliest literary texts through the Seleucid period. With the exception of the pillars Jachin and Boaz, such naming is not predicated of the Jerusalem Temple.
The Jerusalem Temple's very political centrality would have made it religiously anomalous. Indeed, the Temple's greatest prominence may in fact have been in the Hellenistic period, when it is safer to assume that in the diaspora, as in the land of Israel, "the formal focus of religion was the Temple." Yet as Safrai notes, even then pilgrimage was not necessarily a particularly important form before the late Hellenistic period. It is not possible to state with certainty how dominant the Temple was or how far back opposition to the unique cosmic status of Jerusalem and the Temple goes. However, it is likely that there was no point in Israel's history at which it was universally accepted. This perspective is reinforced by independent study of the archaeological evidence.
“The guilt of Judah is inscribed with a stylus of iron...while their children remember their altars and their Asherahs, beside every green tree, and on the high hills." (Jeremiah 17:1-2)
In his groundbreaking study of "Religion in Israel and Judah Under the Monarchy: An Explicitly Archaeological Approach," John Holliday notes that "every Israelite and Judean cult center so far identified (whether correctly or not is another story) seemed to represent a different tradition." (251). In principle, he argues, we should expect a variety of levels of structure, from central town buildings to smaller shrines to surreptitious, concealable sites: and this is precisely what archaeological survey suggests. The general picture his survey produces supports the classic reading between the lines of the prophetic jeremiad: at no point was the cultic picture in Israel or Judah uniform, and at no point was the Temple the only option.
This picture is accepted by many scholars. But the consequences have not been followed through: if alternative sacred sites were constantly available and used, then they must also have been constantly imagined and discussed: there were alternative verbal models for imagining and describing sacred space—ones omitted from the bible. A discourse of pilgrimage to Temple courtyards (Psalms 84, 135) and a mountainous, fortified holy site (Psalms 24, 87 etc.), would not be expected in the liturgy of a small shrine or a minimal, mud-brick cella. The diversity of physical cult sites would be expected to correspond to a diversity of imaginative mythic and ritual complexes in Israelite tradition.
One reconstruction of such a complex from the archaeological record was provided by Gosta Ahlström in a brilliant article on "Heaven on Earth - at Hazor and Arad." After claiming that there is a common ancient Near Eastern view that the temple can represent heaven on earth, Ahlström began his analysis by describing the layout of the broadroom sanctuary 3136 in the last stratum of Hazor, datable to the 13th century. This room appears to have been an open-air sanctuary enclosed by a temenos wall, oriented on a northwest axis with a niche in the northwest wall. The room contained a podium and a basalt statue of a seated man with a cup in his right hand, found in situ in a row with ten stelae. The statue's chest and one of the stelae bore lunar crescents and other iconography indicating that they represent gods; an offering table faced the stelae. Ahlström argues that
"It is at this point that the idea of the temple as heaven on earth, the realm of the god(s), can be helpful. If two of the stelae are deities, then the other stelae would likewise be symbols of other deities of the pantheon, standing in attendance upon the two main gods of the temple..This cult niche at Hazor has thus furnished a rare archeological illustration of the religious phenomenon of a Canaanite divine assembly." (79).
Similar phenomena are identifiable at Iron Age Israelite sites. The example utilized by Ahlström was the Arad sanctuary, described by Mettinger in his definitive study of Israelite aniconism as "what seems to be the clearest example of all" of a maṣṣēbôt cult. As at Hazor we find the NW corner of the shrine marked, this time with a bāmâ: We appear to have to do here with three sacred stones: a large one with red pigment and two smaller ones with plaster.
"Assuming that all three stelae from Arad are maṣṣēbôt, how should this phenomenon be interpreted? Once again, the idea of the temple as heaven on earth suggests, as mentioned above, that they are deity symbols. Thus, these stelae would be a parallel to the Hazor occurrence. Also, as has already been mentioned, the Israelite mythology included the concept of YHWH having a divine assembly."(82)
Considering the nature of this shrine, integrated into a fortress which epigraphic evidence proves was an Israelite outpost, its iconography is especially interesting. The most plausible explanation of the multiplicity of maṣṣēbôt would appear to be Ahlström's "divine assembly" hypothesis. Obvious, but worthy of emphasis here is the absence of any kind of ark, cherubim or throne. We have to do here with an official place of worship that presents an iconography, and thus a visual and spatial experience, significantly different from that of the Jerusalem Temple. Yet the broad outlines of the Arad sanctuary do mirror those of the Jerusalem Temple, including a basic three-room structure, the presence of an inner sanctum (debîr), and a pair of pillars. Not only this, but the Arad sanctuary appears to have been accepted by members of the Jerusalem priesthood: offering lists found near the temple list the priestly families of Meremoth, Pashhur, and the sons of Korach as contributors (Arad ostraca 50, 54, 49 respectively).
What are the consequences of such a site, in contact with but divergent from the institution of the Jerusalem Temple? What the Arad sanctuary, and its continuities with both the Hazor and Jerusalem Temple, makes clear, is that there existed not only abstract alternative "streams of tradition" outside of those of the Bible but actual physical places where rituals divergent from those of the Temple were carried out. These places, as sites of human religious activity, must have had their own prayers, blessings, and versions of myths. By contrast, the liturgical and ritual material preserved in the Tanakh is centered on Jerusalem and not likely to have been used in a temple outside of Jerusalem. As physical icons of the location of the divine assembly, these alternative sites could have been the places where alternative visions of temples and heaven were cultivated.