Saturday, July 12, 2008

1 Kings 5 - 8: New Temple! New Doctrine?

There are all sorts of ways in which the Bible's frame of reference is different from our own. One of the most obvious is the range of famous people, places, and things that the reader is expected to already know all about. There is a beautiful example of this at the end of last week’s reading at 1 Kings 4:30-31:

30 Solomon's wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than any other man, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations.

So, that’s how wise Solomon was! Wiser than noted wise guys like Ethan the Ezrahite or Mahol’s sons Heman, Calcol, Darda! Any questions?

The Little Big Temple

Another fairly obvious issue is the matter of scale. Except for the numbers of soldiers in the field, which are always suspiciously impressive, the exact figures for Biblical values, budgets, and volumes are always, predictably, decidedly minor-league by modern standards. Well, it’s not their fault they lived in the Iron Age.

1 Kings 5-8 covers Solomon’s building of a permanent Temple to replace the mobile Tabernacle (built by Moses back in Leviticus) as the seat of the Ark of the Covenant. The Temple was clearly an impressive building, and several pages are devoted to its specs, its d├ęcor and equipment, and to the domestic and international labor agreements necessary to drum up the raw materials. All of this to produce a building of 60 cubits by 20 cubits by 30 cubits – somewhat larger than, but at the same general scale as, humble Castle5000. A building less than one-fifth the size of the Belmont Condos development here in the City of Roses. (Inside joke. Go here, if you’re curious, and read the comments.) It would be a decidedly modest church if built today.

But again, it is configured and appointed in such a way as to make it a very impressive structure, and Solomon puts it at the heart of an expanded palace complex, so doubtless it is a highly impressive monument for the burgeoning Israelite capital. At the celebrations of its completion, after the Ark is brought into its new chamber, services are interrupted when God manifests physically within the Temple in a thick cloud of smoke, forcing the priests out of the building.

Solomon Sneaks in Some New Ideas

At this point, Solomon makes a speech which at first glance seems like a standard prayer of dedication, but which quietly introduces some radically new theological concepts for the first time.

After starting with a recitation of some of the historical background, Solomon says:

Chagall, Prayer of Solomon, 1956.
27 "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! 28 Yet give attention to your servant's prayer and his plea for mercy, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. 29 May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, 'My Name shall be there,' so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.

This is, unless I am mistaken, the first statement in the Bible that definitively rules out the notion of a physically finite God. Through the wanderings of Moses, God often (as he has just done at the Temple dedication ceremony) appeared as a cloud of smoke or a pillar of fire, and nowhere did anyone say anything to indicate that this was strictly a local manifestation of an infinite entity. But here, Solomon makes the idea explicit for the first time.

Then, he says this:
30 Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.
Do you see it? It’s the first non-trivial mention of “heaven” in the Bible! There has still, here on page 253 of my printing, been no indication of an afterlife, but the idea of a separate sphere of reality that is the true domicile of God is a significant piece of news.

Then, there’s this bit:

46 "When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to his own land, far away or near...”
“No one who does not sin!” This, also, is a new and rather radical idea. God’s reactions to violations of the Law hitherto – in the case of Saul, for instance – have implied a zero-tolerance approach to sin. Absolute adherence to every aspect of the Law was demanded, and thus by implication deemed possible. Solomon’s literally parenthetical remark here thus appears to be a major rethinking of the relationship of humanity to the Law.

The Reaction

So, wow! That’s quite a speech! Interestingly, there’s nothing about the text that acknowledges that we really have a whole new religion, or at least a significantly reconfigured one, once Solomon finishes his talk. Presumably, then, he is expressing ideas that were already thought unremarkably true by his listeners and/or the original readers of the account. It seems likely that it’s just a textual fluke that makes the speech seem like such a barn-burner to someone reading the Bible front to back.

In terms of their reaction, the Israelites mostly just seem happy with their nice new building and the massive parties to celebrate its opening, and pleased to have a king who has, by the time the massive building project is complete, already brought them thirteen years of peace and prosperity.

Next time: More about Solomon, presumably!

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