Sin at the Center of God’s Temple

There’s a lot of talk about how Christians pick and choose which Bible verses they use and which ones they ignore.  It can be personally difficult to criticize others for picking and choosing when we realize that we do a fair amount of picking and choosing ourselves.

It may be helpful when we see that the Bible contains some picking and choosing itself, and I’m not talking about David choosing to commit adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband as part of a cover up.  No, there is bona fide, legitimate picking and choosing, and it’s God who does it!  Some of the “picking and choosing” is fairly well-known, like Jesus choosing to violate the Sabbath by 1) picking kernels of grain for a snack or 2) healing a man’s withered hand.  What isn’t so well known are three places in the Hebrew Bible where God commanded and tolerated breaking one of the ten commandment.

You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20: 3-4)

Moses and Solomon both violated the command not to make for yourself any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.  And except for one of these, none of them seems to have drawn any negative attention, no doubt because God commanded them to make the forbidden images.

The Bronze Serpent — Nehushtan

The Bronze Serpent, Wikipedia Commons, public domain

The first violation of the command against making graven images took place when a plague of poisonous snakes was, according to the Bible, sent by God against Israel.  According to scriptures, God ordered Moses to make a Bronze Serpent and place it on a tall pole.  The Bronze Serpent was eventually called Nehushtan.  When Israelites who’d been bitten looked at Nehushtan, they would be healed of the snake venom.

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. (Numbers 21: 6-9)

Many years later the people treated the Bronze Serpent like an idol, and King Hezekiah, a righteous reformer, ordered it destroyed.

[King Hezekiah] did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.) (II Kings 18:3-4)

There is some tension between the commandment forbidding graven images and the command to make a bronze snake to look to for healing.  It was episodes like this that led later students of the Bible to wonder about how various sections of the Bible, like passages in the Torah, were revised, edited, and redacted in the mists of history.

Graven Images in the Temple Itself

Brazen Sea, Solomon’s Temple. From Jewish Encyclopedia, Wikipedia Commons, public domain.

The second violation of the first commandment involved an item in the temple itself.  There were a number of large items in the room, decorated with lions, oxen, bulls, cherubim, pomegranates, or palm trees. One large item was called the Bronze Sea, or the Brazen Sea.  It was used by the priests for ritual washing, for their purification.  The legs of the bowl were fashioned as twelve large bulls.

Now he made the sea of cast metal ten cubits from brim to brim, circular in form, and its height was five cubits, and thirty cubits in circumference. Under its brim gourds went around encircling it ten to a cubit, completely surrounding the sea; the gourds were in two rows, cast with the rest. It stood on twelve oxen, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south, and three facing east; and the sea was set on top of them, and all their rear parts turned inward.  (I Kings 7:23-25)

Then he made the ten stands of bronze; the length of each stand was four cubits and its width four cubits and its height three cubits. This was the design of the stands: they had borders, even borders between the frames, and on the borders which were between the frames were lions, oxen and cherubim; and on the frames there was a pedestal above, and beneath the lions and oxen were wreaths of hanging work. (I Kings 7: 27-29)

There don’t seem to have been any reservations about including images of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath.  I would note, however, that someone was in fact concerned about the placement of the twelve oxen.  It is carefully noted that “all their rear parts turned inward.”

Fertility religions were ubiquitous in the ancient world, and exaggerated sex organs of the gods were typical.  Emphasizing the fact that their rear parts were not visible emphasizes the fact that there was nothing sexual about the presence of these bull images in the temple.  So while there was concern that the temple not contain fertility images, there seem to have been no qualms about the presence of images of what is in heaven above or on the earth.

Notice the commandment, You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.  Basically this prohibits two things: idols and images, and the language does not restrict images to “images that are worshiped.”

Graven Images on the Ark of the Covenant

The third violation of the first commandment is the Ark of the Covenant itself.

You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and one and a half cubits wide. You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at one end and one cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim of one piece with the mercy seat at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread upward, covering the mercy seat with their wings and facing one another; the faces of the cherubim are to be turned toward the mercy seat. You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you. There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.  (Exodus 25: 17-22)

Cherubim are heavenly creatures, and are mentioned in a number of places in the Bible.  The first commandment forbids making “any likeness of what is in heaven above,” yet God commanded the Israelites to to make two cherubim of gold.

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above.”

Ark of the Covenant: Cherubim (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”), Wikipedia Commons, public domain

The Veil

Additionally, there is a repeated pattern of cherubim in the finely woven veil which, according to Matthew 27:51, was ripped in half when Jesus died: “You shall make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet material and fine twisted linen; it shall be made with cherubim, the work of a skillful workman.  (Exodus 26: 31)

So What?  A Perfectly “Non-Contradictory” Bible is Unnecessary

In times past these examples would have been used by skeptics and “freethinkers” as evidence against religion. They’d be labeled “contradictions” that would prove that the Bible was filled with mistakes and unreliable as a guide.  This is silly, of course, because our faith doesn’t rest in book, and it doesn’t rest in an inerrant Book, either.  According to our own traditional beliefs, our faith is in God, in his Son Jesus Christ, and in his indwelling Holy Spirit.  The Bible holds a special, central place in our tradition, but not the ultimate position.  That ultimate position is occupied by God alone.

Unfortunately, many of us have substituted a book for the immediate and real presence of the Spirit who is God.  This is bibliolatry–worshiping and obeying the Bible instead of God.

Certain Protestants have painted themselves into a ridiculous corner by insisting there is perfect consistency in the Bible, and that the apparent contradictions in the Bible are due only to the limitations of our human minds.  Some people claim that God inspired the writing of the Bible, preservation an accurate text, and guided the transmission of the Bible over the centuries.  These people insist that God guided and inspired the men who finally determined which books were canonical and which were not.  “Isn’t God able to do that?” they ask.

My reply: Of course God is able to do that.  But there is nothing in the Bible that says God did that, or that the process you described was even necessary.  There is nothing in the Bible that makes a canon necessary, no prophecy that says, “And in that day the Spirit will guide you to decide which of the new writings in the foreign tongue should be in the canon of the New Testament.”  In fact, Jeremiah prophesied (31:31-34) that under the New Covenant, the law will be put in our minds, and written, not on parchment, but on our hearts.

I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.

My relationship with God does not depend on a Bible that is error-free or perfect.  There are still people who believe that if there is even a single mistake in the Bible, then it is totally useless.  This kind of black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking is unnecessary for living the life of love in the Spirit that the Greek scriptures urge on us.

Holding to Biblical inerrancy results in some Christians spending hundreds of hours researching and explaining away mistakes and contradictions, whether they are real or imagined.  That hobby isn’t something that most Christians need to trouble themselves with.  It is far more important to pursue the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, by which unity the world will know that Jesus really was sent from God.  By this shall all people know that we are Jesus’ disciples, that we love one another. 

Yes, those are quotes from the Bible.  I didn’t say the Bible was useless.  Paul said that the scriptures are profitable for a great many things.  He did not say, however, “Scripture is profitable for proving that you’re right, for pummeling your opponents into submission, and for deciding who is orthodox enough to be allowed into your church.”  But I love the Bible.  It’s the last book I would ever give up to book burners.

So What?  Sin is at the Very Center of the Temple, and All the Clergy Knows it

It should come as no surprise when the Bible says we have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  The greek word for sin is hamartia, which means “to miss the mark.”  It’s an archery term.  We don’t always hit the bull’s eye.  We miss the target.

Missing the mark, missing perfection,

And we miss the target of perfection in some of the most solemn things we do, including listening to the Spirit and following that leading.  In the example of the first commandment and in the construction of Nehushtan, and the Ark of the Covenant, and the Bronze Sea, something is out of synch.  But that doesn’t matter.  There will always be something out of synch, either in our personal lives, or in our ability to love others, or in our faith community, or in our understanding of scriptures.  This falling short of perfection, of missing the mark, is all sin, but it doesn’t matter.  Our salvation does not depend on some elusive and imaginary perfection.  It depends on God’s graciousness.

Only the priests were aware on a daily basis of the graven images at the heart of the Temple.  Average Israelites, while they may have been told of the golden cherubim, oxen, and lions in the Temple, were not reminded of the forbidden images day in and day out.  The priests and scribes undoubtedly had an explanation for the discrepancy, but that’s always true.  There’s always an explanation for the inevitable discrepancies between reality and the ideal.

In the Ark of the Covenant and the Bronze Sea, we see sin, hamartia, in the very heart of the Temple.  For me personally, understanding this has allowed me to be considerably more gracious toward Christians, and toward our apparent inability to let go of a myriad dysfunctional structures and beliefs.  Clerics know how carnal and worldly the churches are, too.  They know what sorts of birds of the air perch in the branches of the kingdom of God. Many of them are grateful for the naiveté and low expectations of laypeople.

There is, Nevertheless, a Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven 

“A time for every purpose under heaven” means, in this context, that there is a time to explain how we misunderstand what the Bible is for, and a time to stop worrying about it.  There is a time to be concerned about our personal sin, and a time to leave it to God.  There is a time to correct the injustices of our society, and a time to stop and reflect.  There is a time to improve the church’s ministry in the world, and a time to let things be.  There is a time to address the structural problems that cripple the churches of God, and a time to ignore them.  There’s a time to strive, and a time to relax.

The only things we must not ignore are the two greatest commandments.

About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
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2 Responses to Sin at the Center of God’s Temple

  1. Pingback: Sin at the Center of God's Temple « Bible-Thumping Liberal | Christian Dailys

  2. Tim Attwell says:

    Thanks Ron, for a very important (as ever!) take on Scripture. The Bible must always be seen as pointing beyond itself and not as an end in itself if it is to be read, and its insights experienced, profitably. Bibliolatry is the curse of honest Biblical scholarship.

    However, bibliolatry goes hand in glove with another and, I submit, worse form of idolatry. That is, the elevation to absolute status of a particular concept of what constitutes truth and the frame of reference that goes with it.

    The ways in which we think are actually human developmental and cultural constructs. In other words, we make the ways we think for ourselves, no less than the material artefacts and implements that we make for ourselves. Hence, for example, we develop a concept of God based on what we conceive truth to be and invest that concept with frames of reference (i.e. ways of talking about our concept of God) that are of our own making – then we worship it! This is what Voltaire (I think it was Voltaire!?) described as “Creating God in Man’s image.” It is also precisely what idolatry is.

    Does that mean that everything we think about God is idolatry? Not at all, as long as we hold on to the essentially contingent and provisional nature of all human thought and language about God. And that includes the Bible’s language and our interpretation of it.

    Isaiah 55: 8-9 has always said it for me: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” We lose this perspective at our peril!


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