Published: 11 January 2021

The Cosmic Temple

Cosmic Temple

There are two main concepts in Genesis 1-2 that aren’t on most people’s radar:

  1. Genesis describes the functional origins of the Universe, not necessarily the material origins.
  2. Genesis portrays creation as a cosmic temple.

In the prior articles we have summarized the functional origins of the world. The first six days were leading to the most important day of the creation week: day seven. What makes day seven such a big deal? After all, the Bible simply says God rested, so what makes day seven so important?

“In the traditional view that Genesis 1 is an account of material origins, day seven is mystifying. It appears to be nothing more than an afterthought with theological concerns about Israelites observing the sabbath—an appendix, a postscript, a tack on

In contrast, a reader from the ancient world would know immediately what was going on and recognize the role of day seven. Without hesitation the ancient reader would conclude that this is a temple text and that day seven is the most important of the seven days.”[1]Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (p. 72). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

What makes Genesis 1-2 a temple text?

God’s work was complete and on day seven He rested from His creative acts. People of the ANE would have intuitively understood Genesis 1 (and following) as a temple text. Their culture was very familiar with the idea of a seven day inauguration period of a new temple after which the deity took up residence. The implication here, which we Westerners completely miss, is that the Cosmos itself was God’s temple. There are at least three indicators in the opening chapters of Genesis which hint that a temple is being described in the creation account.

1. There was an inauguration period

In biblical times, temples to pagan gods were always dedicated by an inauguration period which was frequently seven days long.[2]Walton, John H., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Vol 1, p 23. A temple wasn’t a temple merely because a structure had been built. It didn’t become a temple until it had been inaugurated, dedicated, and the deity had taken up residence in the temple. In other words, it wasn’t a temple until it functioned as a temple. There are several ancient texts which attest to this custom, but we can see the same concept right in the pages of the Old Testament.

Inauguration of the Tabernacle of Moses

Exodus 40 records the inauguration of the Tabernacle at Mt. Sinai. The materials of the Tabernacle had been completed just as God had commanded (Ex 39:43). In chapter 40 God orders that the tent should be erected, the Ark of the Covenant placed inside and all the sacred items where to be put in place. Once these things were done, God’s presence filled the tent (Ex 40:33-34). The Bible doesn’t tell us how long the inauguration was, whether one day or several, but it records the preparations in which the structure was transformed from a tent to a functioning temple.

Inauguration of Solomon’s Temple

The dedication of Solomon’s Temple was a national event celebrated by a feast throughout the entire nation (1 Ki 8:65). Likewise, 2 Chron 7:9 tells us that there was a seven day dedication involved in addition to the feast.

The creation account records a temple dedication

The creation account is likewise a seven day dedication/inauguration of God’s temple.

“[T]he seven days are not given as the period of time over which the material cosmos came into existence, but the period of time devoted to the inauguration of the functions of the cosmic temple.”[3]Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (p. 92). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

In addition, those seven days were not long eons of time as some argue when trying to reconcile what the Bible says with the conviction that the Earth is billions of years old.

“These are seven twenty-four-hour days. This has always been the best reading of the Hebrew text.”[4]Ibid., 91.

Walton goes on to explain why the Day-Age Theory has a number of serious flaws. Suffice it to say, the first seven days of creation were the acts of God establishing order out of chaos and setting systems and functions in place that would result in the smooth operating of his temple. Once these things were accomplished, God could rest.

2. Rest only happens in a temple

Differences in ancient versus modern concepts are what makes Bible study so challenging and interesting. When we hear the word rest, we envision a lazy weekend filled with leisure activities. Rest is what we do when we aren’t working. In spite of modern ideas about rest, the ancient Israelites didn’t exactly see it this way. On top of that, we don’t have temples to false gods scattered throughout the land as was the case in the ANE. Therefore, we don’t intuitively know what went on in temples and what the gods were expected to do in them.

“[T]he piece of information that everyone knew in the ancient world and to which most modern readers are totally oblivious: Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for. We might even say that this is what a temple is— a place for divine rest. Perhaps even more significant, in some texts the construction of a temple is associated with cosmic creation.

What does divine rest entail? Most of us think of rest as disengagement from the cares, worries and tasks of life. What comes to mind is sleeping in or taking an afternoon nap. But in the ancient world rest is what results when a crisis has been resolved or when stability has been achieved, when things have “settled down.” Consequently normal routines can be established and enjoyed. For deity this means that the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken.”[5]Ibid., 72-73.

To the ancient reader, God wasn’t taking a nap on day seven. Instead, this marked the beginning of normal operations in God’s cosmic temple. The work of building and ordering the temple was completed in the first six days. Now, God will begin His normal routine.

Clearly, the Garden of Eden was a place where God and man communed with one another. Not coincidentally, this is one of the functions of a temple!

A familiar analogy would be a person building a new house. Much work is involved in constructing the house and establishing functioning systems. However, once it is completed the builder can “rest” in his new house. This doesn’t mean he never lifts a finger ever again. No, there is still work to do to maintain the house, but the heavy lifting of its construction phase is complete and comparatively speaking, the builder now rests in his new home. This ancient idea of rest as a normal routine is expressed in these Scriptures:

“But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safety,” (Deut. 12:10 ESV)

“And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands.” (Josh. 21:44 ESV)

“A long time afterward, when the LORD had given rest to Israel from all their surrounding enemies, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years,” (Josh. 23:1 ESV)

Life in the Promised Land was not afternoons filled with naps and no work. There were still crops to raise, herds to tend, etc. Rest was the safety and freedom from agents of chaos and disorder (enemies) so that normal routines and functions could be carried out. Rest in the ANE wasn’t what we consider it to be.

The Psalms describe this same idea of Deity dwelling and resting in a temple:

5 Until I find a place for the LORD, A dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.” 6 Behold, we heard of it in Ephrathah, We found it in the field of Jaar. 7 Let us go into His dwelling place; Let us worship at His footstool. 8 Arise, O LORD, to Your resting place, You and the ark of Your strength. 9 Let Your priests be clothed with righteousness, And let Your godly ones sing for joy. (Ps. 132:5-9 NASB)

13 For the LORD has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His habitation. 14 “This is My resting place forever; Here I will dwell, for I have desired it. (Ps. 132:13-14 NASB)

Clearly these verses from Psa 132 are referring to David’s desire to build God a temple; a place where God will dwell and rest. This Psalm ties together the ideas of God residing and resting in His temple. This of course was written in the time of David and/or Solomon, but God’s temple described in Genesis 1-2 was the Universe that He had created.

3. Adam was assigned priestly duties

If the Universe was God’s temple and the Garden of Eden was the Holy of Holies, who served as priests? There are clues in the text that it was none other than Adam.

“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Gen. 2:15 ESV)

In light of the information about the ANE concept of rest and the fact that God rested in His temple, it is interesting that the word translated “put” in Gen 2:15 is the Hebrew word for rest. God “rested” the man in the Garden, or in other words, Adam was placed there in order to carry out some sort of normal routine. What might that routine have been?

Clearly, the Garden of Eden was a place where God and man communed with one another. Not coincidentally, this is one of the functions of a temple! Adam’s role was to work and keep the garden. Most of us conclude, and reasonably so given our modern perspectives, that “working and keeping” refers to horticultural tasks. Interestingly, while these words may indeed refer to agricultural activity, they are not exclusively used that way in the Old Testament.

The Hebrew words avad (work) and shamar (keep) are also applied to the priestly functions of the tabernacle.

“7 And they shall keep [shamar] his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation before the tabernacle of the congregation, to do the service [avad] of the tabernacle. 8 And they shall keep [shamar] all the instruments of the tabernacle of the congregation, and the charge of the children of Israel, to do the service [avad] of the tabernacle.” (Num. 3:7–8 KJV)

Since the Garden of Eden was sacred space, it is probable, given the similarities of both the words used and the surroundings, that Adam’s tasks were priestly in scope. Adam was tending to sacred space just as the Levitical priests would do later on.

This is not easy stuff!

Viewed through an ancient Near Eastern lens, it starts to become clear (or at least less muddy) why Genesis 1-2 is a temple text. This is not easy for us to see. It takes more than a little bit of light afternoon reading to see the text as an ancient reader did. The Bible is ancient Jewish meditation literature and this means we have to give it a lot of thought to come to terms with the text. However, the rewards are worth the effort because when we can start to understand the text as they did, only then can we begin to grasp its true meaning. Once we’ve done that we can better understand how it applies to us and, after all, this is why we study God’s Word.

References

References
1 Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (p. 72). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
2 Walton, John H., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Vol 1, p 23.
3 Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (p. 92). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Ibid., 91.
5 Ibid., 72-73.