Saturday, May 12, 2012

Imago Templi II: Temples and The Temple in Judahite and Judean Imagination

again, abstracted from my forthcoming study of Scholarship and Religious Experience in Judea and Babylonia, 586-100 B.C.E. (Brill, 2013)


The first presentation of a shrine's architecture in the Bible comes not as a description but as a set of instructions. Strikingly, it follows immediately upon the Bible's first vision of a piece of actual heavenly architecture, in the form of God's throne (Exodus 24:10).

"And they saw the God of Israel, and beneath his feet was something like a brickwork of lapis lazuli, (kemaˤaśê libnat hassappîr) like the very heavens in purity (ṭwhr)."

Especially interesting here is the comparison to brick. While it was still a common building material in Iron Age Syria-Palestine, brick is a low-prestige material in the Tanakh. Not one brick is used in the construction of the Temple, the Tabernacle, or Solomon's palace, and brick construction, as opposed to stone, appears to be the subject of a barb in the Tower of Babel story (Gen 11:3).

The immediately following account of the Tabernacle begins, like the description of God's throne, as a vision (Exodus 25:9):

"Exactly as I show you--the pattern (tabnît) of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings--so shall you make it."

The key term is tabnît, which has the connotation of a heavenly visual model. That this special force of the term continues to be available is shown by its use later in the Qumran Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, where it also denotes the visual appearance of something in heaven. But in the passage that follows, we are not shown a vision: the plan for the tabernacle is framed, instead, as direct discourse from God in the form of a set of verbal commandments.

The construction of the Jerusalem Temple in 1 Kings 5-7 is, by contrast, a complex narrative. Rather than God speaking to Moses, the project of building the Jerusalem Temple is initiated in the quoted text of a letter sent by Solomon to the Phoenician king Hiram. God's verbal mandate to build the Temple is quoted in turn within this letter. The discursive framing signifies a deeper difference: in contrast to the Tabernacle, the Temple is to be a political affair, initiated in talk between rulers. The rest of the account is narrative, interrupted by a warning from God at the point when the physical structure is finished. The building account concludes without any substantial description of ritual practices or personnel, and is followed by a separate section describing how God comes to dwell in the Temple. Striking is the prayer which Solomon prays: its ritual instructions (8:31ff) are directed to the people of Israel, concerning how to use the Temple in times of need; no instructions are directed toward the priests.

There are two main contrasts between the building accounts of the Tabernacle and the Temple. Generically, the Tabernacle's construction is commanded by God while the Temple's construction is narrated by the authorial voice of I Kings. And ritually, the Tabernacle account instructs the priests in how to perform its cultic operations, while the Temple account contains nothing of the sort.

The account of the new temple in Ezekiel 40-44 represents a third related type. In a divinely inspired vision the temple's space is shown and measured by an angel and the instructions for its rituals are commanded by God through the angel. Ezekiel's vision also differs significantly from the Tabernacle and the Temple accounts in content: while there is a limitless interest in the temple's physical layout and dimensions, not once does it mention what it is made of.

In the Hellenistic period, there appear to have been two strategies for imagining the Temple: in the Temple Scroll, an Ezekielian architectural program is written into the Torah and designed to be carried out on earth. The second is the transfer of the Temple to heaven. But while the architecture and rituals of the Temple Scroll have been subject to careful scrutiny, the shape of this new heavenly temple and the specific mode of its construction remain vague. Is the heavenly temple of apocalyptic literature in fact the Jerusalem Temple, mapped onto heaven?

In an important note on the Canaanite background of biblical and apocalyptic images of heaven, Mark Smith (1987) pointed out that some of the materials and building techniques of Baal's house corresponded not only to God's heavenly palace in Exodus, and the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice but to earlier West Semitic texts. The building of Baal's temple is described thus: first, the materials are commanded [CAT 1.4 V 18-19, 33-5]

wbn.bht.ksp.wḫrṣ And build the house with silver and gold,
bht.ṭhrm.iqnim The house of pure lapis lazuli

When it comes time to actually build, the house is burnt, a process that transforms the precious metals into usable building materials: [KTU 1.4 VI 34-8]

sb.ksp.lrqm The silver had turned to building material ,
ḫrṣ/nsb.llbnt The gold had become bricks
šmḫ/aliyn.bˤl Mightiest Baal rejoices:
[b]hty.bnt/dt.ksp. “My house I have built of silver,
hkly[.]dtm/ḫrṣ My palace of gold.”

The construction of bricks and the use of lapis in Baal's temple provides a background for the appearance of God's throne in Exodus 24, as is commonly recognized in the commentaries. But these texts are in turn part of a larger picture: Avigdor Hurowitz (1992) points out that there are significant parallels between the Baal narrative and the biblical texts. These include 1) "the hiring of an artisan who is mentioned specifically by name" (Bezalel and Oholiab in the Tabernacle story, Hiram in the Temple account, Kothar-wa-Hasis in the Baal epic), with no significant parallel in the Mesopotamian writings (102-3) and 2) the statement that the recipient of the new structure "had no house, and afterward the text goes on to state what substitutes there were for the missing house." (103) These features seem to be shared by West Semitic accounts over against the Mesopotamian ones.

But, as Hurowitz demonstrates, much of the structure of the account of Baal's temple fits the pattern of Mesopotamian building accounts. These include 1) a request to build; 2) obtaining the approval of the high god; 3) negotiating divine obligations; 3) brickmolding; 4) building; and 5) dedication festivities. Hurowitz points out that "in certain details the Baal epic loudly echoes several characteristically Mesopotamian ideas." These include similarities to the dedication festivities in Gudea Cylinder B, Enki's Journey to Nippur and Enūma Eliš.

But what was Baal's temple at Ugarit, the one his worshipers would have encountered, actually made of? The fact is that the temple walls, preserved in several places, are constructed of large, well-cut stones, carefully assembled on massive stone foundations. Of course, stone was the prestige material of construction in the West Semitic world, as the stonework of the Jerusalem Temple and the jibe at mudbrick construction in Genesis suggest. But it leads to a more surprising observation: by contrast with Baal's actual temple, his temple in the Baal epic, as well as God's palace in Exodus 24 and the heavenly temple of the Songs, represents the heavenly temple as constructed with a low-status building technique.

In other words, neither in Biblical nor Ugaritic myth is the physical construction of the heavenly temple modeled on that of the earthly one. The Baal epic does not project the earthly construction of Baal's temple onto the mythic one; rather the tradition embodied in the Baal epic reflects older mythological conceptions. This tradition finds a closer fit with archaeologically attested practices when it appears almost a thousand years earlier, in the first-person account of temple-building in Gudea Cylinder B. Like Baal, Gudea burns the area where he is building, and molds bricks. But unlike Baal, Gudea's gods were actually worshipped in brick temples. In the contexts in which the Baal epic was used at Ugarit, its images were already archaic.

If the lack of fit between the temple materials of Baal's textual and physical throne is significant, the distance between the brickwork of Exodus 24 and the materials of the Jerusalem Temple is a striking reccurrence of the same phenomenon. The phenomenon reaches its extreme in the following text from the eleventh Song of the Sabbath Sacrifice, 4Q405 19 a,b,c,d 3-7:

The pi[ece]work of the wondrous firmament is 4 brightly mixed (mmwlḥ ṭwhr)...[im]ages of the living God/living divine beings, images of bright spirits. 5 A[l]l their workmanship is of holy, wondrous joining, [spirits (formed of)] piecework, [fi]gures of the shapes of divine beings engraved 6 around their [gl]orious bricks (llbny [k]bwdm), glorious images (formed of) splendid and awesome b[rick]work (lmˤśy l[bn]y hwd whd[r ]). Their construction is all of the living God/living divine beings 7 and the appearance of their figures is (that of) holy angels.

This text shows a deep fascination with seeing and encountering the physical construction of the heavenly temple: if our previous texts narrate heavenly architecture, this passage detonates it. And its imagery cannot be simply derived from a Biblical text. If the relation to I Kings 19 is exegetical, the use of two words from Exodus 24:10 ṭwhr and lbnt, is not, since they are not used in a similar way or associated with each other (thus failing Fishbane's criteria for exegetical reuse). Instead, the words appear in phrases unparalleled in the Bible. Indeed, one reason for the difficulty in interpreting this passage as a whole is that it appears to have a set of idioms and a technical vocabulary with which we were previously unfamiliar.

This combination of ancient architectural concerns, which seem in some way to bypass those of the Bible, with a pervasive concern with the number seven as a physical structuring principle, suggests that we have found essential elements in this text which can neither be derived from Bible interpretation nor imagined as springing full-blown out of the minds of the Qumran sectarians. The entire body of liturgical and poetic material in the Tanakh shows almost no interest in the appearance or features of the Temple. From a strictly formal point of view, the Shirot's closest relatives are not in the Bible but in the (earlier and contemporary) Sumerian Temple hymns and the (later) Hekhalot literature.

The most plausible explanation of these literary patterns is that there was a set of poetic techniques transmitted among Judean circles who were not only speculatively interested in but also ritually committed to the visualization and worship of a heavenly temple. The archaism of elements of these texts and their partial independence from biblical language and views suggests that they continue liturgical traditions not well represented in the Bible and not necessarily directed towards or performed in the Jerusalem Temple. The archaeology of worship in ancient Israel demonstrates there had to be liturgies outside of Jerusalem, and our Hellenistic materials may represent their descendants.

This suggests a new explanation for the apparent explosion of interest in heavenly temples in Jewish apocalyptic: these apparently new materials build on an ancient and to some extent shared hymnic tradition barely attested in the Bible. Temples outside of Jerusalem provide a possible physical and ritual context for the use of these hymns. We are thus able to document not only in the ancient Near East but within early Jewish tradition itself a stream of Israelite religion only dimly hinted at in the Hebrew Bible.

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