27 July 2010

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up.

This quote gives me some relief for the two books I'm listening to on my phone.

I'm listening to The Irresistible Revolution: Life as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne: a call to reject the world and insights into Claiborne's life as a "new monastic." He worked with Mother Theresa in India and returned to inner-city Philadelphia to set up a Christian commune for work with the poor.

Also on my Android is A Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism by Robert Murphy: a vapid expostulation on capitalism that insists that (a) deficits don't matter, (b) the environment would be better protected by industry, and (c) the minimum wage increases unemployment.

Vive la differance!

24 July 2010

The Temple: Icon or Idol?

One of my favorite stories in the Bible takes place at the beginning of Solomon's reign. God appears to him in a dream, offering the fabled choice of "one wish."

Solomon, Temple-builder, says: "Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?" (2 Chronicles 1.10).

I love that story! God responds, "Wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, riches and honor, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have" (verse 12). It's like the rule on the Price is Right, when someone guesses the correct price of the Showcase Showdown and wins both showcases.

What I hadn't realized until I began this series was the location of the dream. It isn't in Jerusalem or upon Mount Moriah, the site of the Temple. Solomon actually interacts with God near the old Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle ordained by God through Moses, where Solomon had traveled to worship at the altar. The gilded box was in Jerusalem, the tent and the altar were in Gibeon--and that's where Solomon met God the first time.

Worship is about meeting with God. The ultimate worship experience comes when God speaks back--when He inspires me in return. In his charmed life, Solomon would worship twice. The initial experience happened not in a temple but near a tent, not in Jerusalem but in Gibeon.

The Legend
But it is easy to get lost in the stories of Solomon, who is among the most fabled ancient rulers of the Near East. In story, he is as legendary as Midas of Phrygia or Croesus of Lydia, but the chronicler provides us with enough details to look beyond the myth and provide Bible readers with a glimpse of the truly back-breaking cost of the Temple that Solomon erected.

Here is a sampling of the legends that grew up around Solomon. It is written that God gave Solomon many forms of wisdom, including the ability to interpret the speech of animals. He only realized this when he heard an ant telling its friends, "Get out of the way before Solomon steps on us!"

He could also summon angels--known as jinn, the word from which we get the term "genie"--to do his bidding. As he built the temple, he could summon winds, molten brass bubbled up from the rocks, and the angels followed his orders. "[The angels] worked for him as he desired, making high rooms, images, basins as large as reservoirs, and cauldrons," the legends state.

(And if these stories seem far-fetched, my dear reader, they actually come from the Koran, Surah 26 and Surah 34.)

The Bible Story
Solomon's story is told through the eyes of two authors in the books of 1 Kings (chapters 1-10) and 2 Chronicles (1-9). Therein I find no mention of genies or communication with insects but a fascinating view of the economic and political environment that supported Solomon's building spree.

The Chronicler reveals that Solomon the Dreamer left the Tent of Meeting, and in his next act as king he...acquired 1400 chariots and 12,000 horses (2 Chronicles 1.14). Moreover, he "made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees" (15).

What? Wasn't Solomon supposed to build the Temple because he wasn't a warrior like his father, David? Why the arms build-up? This doesn't mesh with the fables or the ideal of the pious king seeking after wisdom.

The answer is found in Verse 17: Solomon was actually an arms dealer, using his geopolitical situation to import weapons from Egypt and sell them to the Hittites (modern Turkey) and Arameans (Syria). All this wheeling and dealing among the superpowers of the day was lucrative indeed, and Solomon's close ties to Egypt are among the most significant, unwritten aspects to his long reign.

The import/export business wasn't enough to fund Solomon's expensive tastes. He sent to Hiram of Tyre for skilled workers and supplies to augment the ones already set aside by David. We find in 2 Chronicles 2 the outlines of the contract in a letter from Hiram, King of Tyre:
Now let my lord send his servants the wheat and barley and the olive oil and wine he promised, and we will cut all the logs from Lebanon that you need and will float them in rafts by sea down to Joppa. You can then take them up to Jerusalem (verses 15-16).

Of course labor on a seven-year building project like the Temple would have cost even more than the materials, no matter how precious. Solomon solved this by enslaving the Canaanites who remained within the borders of his kingdom--153,600 in all--to complete the building (verses 17-18).

This fact adds new ironies to the Temple Story. The hands that cut the stones and set the blocks of the Temple were not Jewish hands but Jebusite (the original residents of Jerusalem); the voices that cried out under oppression were not Jewish but Perizzite or Amorite. The nation that God had called out of Egypt--where it was enslaved to construct temples to foreign gods--had now enslaved foreign peoples to build a temple for its God. The moral decay of Israel--indeed of Solomon himself--began long before the first Psalm could be chanted within the Temple courts.

A Splendid Temple
But oh what a Temple it was! It's possible to ignore the squalor, the slavery, the shady arms deals, when we think about that wonderful structure. The chronicler takes us through the temple--even into the Most Holy Place--for a first-hand look at the extravagant decorations. The walls were inlaid with images of palm trees and winged cherubim--and those images were coated with gold (a tablet from Solomon's era--right). In the Most Holy Place, two giant cherubim shaded the sacred ark and its modest figures, stationed on the box at the time of the Exodus. It is written that 600 talents (23 tons) of solid gold were used in the Most Holy Place alone (2 Chronicles 3.8)

Perhaps the online application, Wordle, allows us to enjoy the words of the chronicler in 2 Chronicles 3 and 4. The size of words is based upon the number of times they are used in the passage. Words like "gold" and "temple" loom large, and the word, "cubits," alludes to the precise measurements given by the chronicler.
Wordle: 2 Chronicles 3 and 4

And when the Temple was done, there was worship. A throng of musicians stood on the eastern side of the altar, praising God with cymbals, harps, lyres and trumpets. Singers rejoiced: "He is good; his love endures forever" (2 Chronicles 5.12-13). And God responded to this worship with utter brilliance:
"The the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God" (13-14).

Solomon's Prayer
Solomon the Wise began his prayer with a rhetorical question.
"But will God really dwell on earth with men? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!" (2 Chronicles 6.18)
This is such a profound question that touches on so many theological points, that it would take books to mention them all. I will just point out two:
  1. I could rewrite the question using a name popular with Christians: "But will God really Emmanuel?" The idea of God dwelling with man went back to the Garden of Eden, and it wouldn't be resolved until the Incarnation.
  2. (Since mine is an anti-temple rant, I could point out here that John writes, "The Word came down and Tabernacled/tented with us." I have an idea why the most anti-temple writer of the New Testament would use this phrase, but it is interesting to point out here.)
  3. Solomon is also pointing to a definition of God--boundless, omnipotent, One--that won't really get fleshed out until the prophets just prior to and following the Exile. Basically, he's Ezekiel here.
  4. (What is your take on the second question, "How much less this temple I have built!"? Is this arrogance or humility? It seems to have a measure of both.)
Solomon looks into the future to see a Temple that will be the center of Jewish worship: one toward which both believers and nonbelievers will pray when they seek God's favor; a place where people will go to have their prayers heard; a place where sinners will find forgiveness (verses 20-23, 32-33).

But his is a national vision as well: the Temple is the place where wars will be won (34-35), famines will be ended (26-31), and rains will return (26-27). Solomon dreams--he dreams that he has built a Capitol from which God will govern human hearts. It will take a greater dreamer--Jesus Christ--to demonstrate that the individual human heart itself is the capitol God most desires.

God Answers Solomon
After Solomon's dedication, there was more song, more praise, and more fire. No one could bear to be inside the Temple, but this time the fire "consumed the burnt offerings and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple" (2 Chronicles 7.1). The celebration continued for a total of two weeks.

A few nights later, God appeared to Solomon a second time. Solomon had raised the stakes with this building; God raised them back. God had heard, but he would be watching. His words to Solomon would seem to have two warnings for every blessing:
As for you, if you walk before me as David your father did, and do all I command, and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father when I said, 'You shall never fail to have a man to rule over Israel.'

'But if you turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot Israel from my land, which I have given them, and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. I will make it a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. And though this temple is now so imposing, all who pass by will be appalled and say, 'Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?' People will answer, 'Because they have forsaken the Lord, the God of their fathers, who brought them out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them--that is why he brought all this disaster on them.' (verses 17-22).
This doesn't sound optimistic to me. It is as if God already knows the future, sees the idolatry. Or maybe that's just the chronicler--who will go on to describe the sad history that would follow.

An Aerial View of Jerusalem
Let's step back from the Most Holy Place to look at the City of David as it was in Solomon's day. Solomon's building project had doubled the size of the walled city, and the temple complex covered a wind-blown threshing floor that had been outside the gates of the city that David conquered.

As I look at the Temple in my minds eye, the first thing I notice are the two, bronze pillars that stood on each side of the main door. Each had its own name: one was Jakin (he establishes) and Boaz (in him is strength). They didn't support a roof; they just stood there, but how they must have shone as the rising sun rested upon them!

The temple occupied the highest ground in the city, but it was not the largest building by far. Solomon build three adjoining palaces: The Palace of the Forest of Lebanon, surrounded by wooden pillars, was almost twice as big as the Temple and held Solomon's armory and Hall of Justice. It also took twice as long to build. While the outer walls of this palace featured enough cedar trunks to resemble a hillside forest in Lebanon, the inner walls were lined with elaborate golden shields. Solomon ordered 200 large shields covered with gold (about seven pounds each), and 300 smaller shields which featured a mere four pounds of gold. (With today's gold prices, each of these large shields would be worth $114,000!)

Beyond the temple and armory, 1 Kings implies that there were two more huge, 5,000-square-foot palaces. The temple complex seems so choked with royal palaces that some historians have gone so far to speculate that the the Temple was a royal worship place rather than a national one.

Government Debt, Moral Decay
Solomon kept building. By the time the temple & palace complexes were finished, Solomon had begun building an astonishing harem of foreign wifes, each of which demanded a temple for her own god. The Mount of Olives became the site for this new wave of building, and it featured temples to Chemosh of Moab, Molech of Ammon and various other gods (1 Kings 11.7-8).

In some ways, Solomon didn't have a choice. He had become a regional leader. At the time he took power, Israel was a small kingdom, based in the hills around the Jordan River. Solomon pushed the kingdom westward, toward the Mediterranean Coast, by building up the cities of Joppa and Beth Horan, acquiring the town of Gezer from the Egyptian Pharaoh.

He also moved southward. His most significant conquest was Ezion Geber, which lay at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. His control of Joppa and Ezion Geber meant that all the land routes to Egypt passed through his dominions. The tariff revenue must have been incredible, for Egypt was a superpower, and this made Solomon's arms dealing even more valuable. With these trade routes under his control, the Queen of Sheba's visit takes on new meaning, and one can understand why cedar, gold and silver would have been common in Jerusalem.

Egypt responded in various ways. Pharaoh gave a daughter to Solomon and with her the city of Gezer (which had been captured from the Philistines--perhaps in a joint campaign with Israel). But the Bible shows that Pharaoh's daughter began a cultural conquest of Solomon that would gain her a palace of her own and a temple for her gods on the Mount of Olives.

But Egypt also hedged its bets. It became a safe place of exile for Solomon's enemies, who included Jeroboam (future ruler of the northern ten tribes) and Hadad the Edomite (1 Kings 11.18-19, 40). This doesn't seem like the behavior of a strong ally.

More fascinating is Solomon's relations with Hiram, king of Tyre, the source of the cedar and skilled workmen that built the temples and palaces. Solomon seems to act as a vassal king to Hiram, not as an equal.

The reason was probably debt.

First Kings describes an interesting exchange that took place midway through Solomon's rule:
At the end of twenty years, during which Solomon built these two buildings--the temple of the Lord and the royal palace--King Solomon gave twenty towns in Galilee to Hiram, king of Tyre, because Hiram had supplied him with all the cedar and pine and gold he wanted. But when Hiram went from Tyre to see the towns that Solomon had given him, he was not pleased with them. "What kind of towns are these you have given me, my brother?" he asked. And he called them the Land of Cabul (good-for-nothing), a name they have to this day" (1 Kings 9.10-14).
In Jerusalem, "Nothing was made of silver, because silver was considered of little value in Solomon's days," but in the hinterlands, the appalling level of public debt was beginning to peel away cities from Solomon's empire (1 Kings 10.21).

Hiram would also have his own hand in the economy of Israel. His sailors and captains would man the ships Solomon built at Ezion Geber to trade in the Red Sea, and one wonders how many of the 420 talents of gold these ships brought from Ophir to Solomon eventually ended up at Hiram's palace in Tyre (see 1 Kings 9.28).

Was the Temple the Center?
While the Bible writers treat the Temple as the focal point of Solomon's ambitious building plan, it is easy to see the seeds of destruction sown in its building and ornate decoration. The Bible demonstrates that this was hardly Solomon's greatest project (in terms of size or luxury) nor was it his only temple.

Moreover, the steps that Solomon took to fund the project--through tariffs, taxes, and slavery--left the kingdom in deep debt, left the populace at the edge of revolution, left Israel with little moral vigor to pursue worship in the way Solomon's father had envisioned.

As Solomon's 40-year reign ended, the seeds had grown into a forest of danger for his successors. Within five years of his death, his kingdom would be divided and his fabulous temple would be stripped of nearly every ounce of inlaid gold.

But that is for a future time and a future post.

17 July 2010

The Temple: Who Needed It?

If you read the Bible beginning to end, you will find a verse near the end of the final book of Revelation that will surprise you.

John the Revelator, given a prophetic glimpse of the World Made New, makes an astonishing observation:
"I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple" (Revelation 21.22).

I have read this verse scores of times without really "getting it." It is fanciful--inspirational even--the thought of worshiping out in the open with the Lamb of God, my Savior.

Now, I begin to suspect that it is far more than that.

It's ironic.

I mean, have you read the Bible? It's obsessed with the Temple--or rather, a series of temples built sequentially in Jerusalem. The Temple is a place, an idea that unites Abraham with Isaac, Moses with David, Solomon with Ezra, Ezekiel with Jesus, and Paul with destiny.

Yet twenty verses before the end of his Revelation, John speaks out of prophetic ecstasy, peers into the center of the New Jerusalem, and he does not see a temple.

John Lennon, one of the most outspoken 20th-century atheists, sang,
"Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try.... Nothing to kill or die for, no religion too."
If you are a Christian believer who is annoyed by that lyric, then you have some inkling of how Jews might feel about someone who writes, "Imagine there's no temple, it's easy if you try."

Granted, Revelation was written 30 to 40 years after the final Jerusalem Temple had been obliterated by Titus's army, so most of John's readers would have only known a world without a temple. Still, the prophecy would have had a huge impact on a worldwide church that was still equal parts Jew and Gentile.

But why?

Had not God said through Zechariah, "I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem...and the mountain of the Lord Almighty will be called the Holy Mountain"? (Zechariah 8.3). Anyone who reads the Old Testament begins to believe that The Temple is really the point of the whole thing--'the belly button of the world' as Jewish tradition believed. It was the central point of worship, the focal point of the Jewish nation. Who did John think he was?

As the sheer irony of John's statement began to sink in, it really took me back into scripture. All of the stories of the temple had reached a peak for me now--a place where I could see that there was no need for a temple. The Temple is vestigial. That's what John seemed to be saying to me, and I had to hunt through the Bible to find out how it got to be that way.

In order to really understand the Temple, it is important to identify the multiple perspectives in play. The Bible writers--mostly from the priestly class that rose up after the Temple had been built--stressed the religious nature of society and the role of God in history. Outside the Bible writers, one can also see glimpses of empires like Egypt and Phoenicia (Philistia, Tyre and Sidon are outposts of this superpower that was based in Carthage). Kingdoms like Judah and Israel rise and fall. Empires like Assyria and Babylon wander in and out of the narrative. Everyone sees the Temple at the center.

Everyone, it seems, but God.

The Temple Idea
The Temple wasn't God's idea. If you read through the five books of the Torah, books in which the minutest details of Jewish culture are spelled out, there is no mention of a Temple. Moses ordered a tent to be built, and inside this tent he placed a modest-sized, gilded box or "ark." There was s no Temple--not even a recognized need for one. Presumably, after efforts to utilize the golden box in conquest were unsuccessful, it was forgotten for a generation, left not in a tent but in the house of Abinidab.

The rescue of the golden box and the idea for the Temple come from the same man: David. The first six chapters of 2 Samuel are a flurry of nation-building, as David crushes remaining opposition from the House of Saul, defeats the Philistines, conquers Jerusalem and consolidates the kingdom under his command.

In the context of events, the House of God would seem to be David's final conquest. Israel's dominion over Jerusalem is barely a year old, David isn't done fighting, just taking "a rest from all his enemies around him" (2 Sam 7.1), when he makes a wily declaration:
"Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent" (2 Samuel 7.2)
Who could argue with this? The prophet Nathan can't--at least not at first. We don't see conquest here; we fall for David's piety, his humility, his concern for God's gilt box.

God takes exception. God doesn't seem pleased. "Did I ever say to any...I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, 'Why have you not built me a house of cedar?'" (verse 7). There is only one Creator, God points out, and He creates spaces for His people--both physical and spiritual. To God, David's plan is like a child declaring to its mother: "I'll make a womb where you can be safe and warm and fed."

"The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you," the message continues, again emphasizing that David's "house of cedar" may not be the ultimate house God has in mind. The promise extends, however, to David's son: "He is the one who will build a house for my Name" (verse 13).

God rejects David's proposal of conquest. Later, David will claim that the rejection was based on his reputation as a warrior (1 Chronicles 28.3), but that isn't supported by the actual text. David had conquered everything that stood between his shepherd's staff and the king's scepter. He would not control the box as well. That would remain under God.

Taxation and Oppression
David seizes on one element of the promise: he prepares to build the temple anyway, letting his (unborn) heir take the credit. Again, this can be seen as yet another canny political move. Battles over succession and legitimacy were endemic in royal houses. David's heir would achieve on the drafting board what David had claimed on the battlefield: legitimacy, primacy, and fame.

Without laying a single stone, David designs the temple portico (verse 11), sets up a schedule for the temple workers (13), "he designated the weight of gold for all the gold articles to be used in various kinds of service, and the weight of silver for all the silver articles" (14). He foresees two golden cherubim, spreading their wings across the gilt box to lend it glory (!).

And he does this in a spasm of spiritual ecstasy: later he will tell Solomon, "All this I have in writing from the hand of the Lord upon me, and he gave me understanding in all the details of the plan" (19).

But there is one problem--it's a problem that faces every king and president sooner or later--where will the gold and silver come from?

The people. The people always pay.

Again, one can look back at God's "no thank you" and see the reason why. God was happy in a tent, why would he need a house? A wooden box, inlaid with gold was enough for His Covenant, was there a need for more? Taxation...taxation without consecration quickly leads to a corrupt church and compromised forms of worship.

David offers his fortune: three thousand talents of gold, with thousands more of silver, bronze and iron. "The task is great," he proclaims, "because this palatial structure is not for man but for the Lord God" (1 Chronicles 29.1). The people respond with five thousand talents of gold. This is a tax that will extend for a generation, long after the completion of the Temple, until the kingdom is divided by the oppressive taxing regime.

Because I am full of irony (thanks to John), I note that "the people rejoiced at the willing response of their leaders.... David the king also rejoiced greatly" (9), but there is no mention of how God responded.

Imagine there's no Temple. It's easy if you try. No sanded cedars. No golden cherubim guarding the Most Holy Place. No courts, no altars.

It is important to pause here because of the picture we see without the Temple. Israel is at its height of conquest. David rules in Jerusalem, fully allied with God and devoted to Him. The people are religious, eager to glorify God and willing to give all they have.

It will never fully be this way again in Jerusalem's future...at least not until the New Jerusalem found in Revelation 21.

But that is for a future time, and I will delve into Solomon later.