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. 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.
This is it in a nutshell. While its supporters readily admit that the cosmic temple has little support from the text of the Bible, 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.
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.
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. 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).
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 – 31, 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.” As a matter of fact,
“The most comprehensive study on Mesopotamian cosmic geography concludes that there was no belief in a three-storied universe…”
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.” 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 8:2
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. (more…)