Study Series Intro: Over the next several months I will be posting a series of group bible studies on the Bible’s sacred places. Each study focuses on what these sacred places reveal about the character of God and how these places point to God’s ultimate self revelation in Jesus Christ. Though supported with deep research, this work is written for the average adult and structured for use in a discussion group setting. Thought provoking material equally balances discussion questions to encourage readers to discover important theological concepts for themselves.
Study 1. From Places to Place: God Draws near to His People.
Before diving into Hebrew ideas about sacred places, it is helpful to look at the ancient world in general. The ancient Near East was predominately polytheistic, and people generally considered sacred places as points of contact between heaven and earth, between a god and his/her earthly followers. If one wanted to visit a particular god, they would visit his/her “house.” Ancient temples, therefore, were places where a god of the heavenly realm connected to the earthly realm. This connection was facilitated by the belief that earthly temples were replicas of a god’s heavenly dwelling.[i] A god could, in one sense, “dwell” in an earthly house meaning that the god was present in a special way to hear and give out blessings from that location. Nevertheless, the heavens were the place of a god’s true dwelling. This belief meant that temples were considered both an earthly place for a god to dwell (or rest) as well as the location a god would most likely pay attention or manifest himself/herself from heaven.[ii] The god’s temple was a connecting point where followers could go to appease or seek favor with that god because the temple was set apart for that god’s special use. Think of temples as WiFi hot spots where one could Twitter/Instagram/Facebook a particular god because WiFi coverage was sparse elsewhere. Because the ancient gods of the Near East (and later Greece and Rome) were prone to the same greed, lust, and violence as humans, people felt the need to enlist a god’s help to protect themselves from other gods as well as to secure blessing and fertility in “naturally” harsh living conditions.
Discussion questions: What ancient gods (probably Greek or Roman) and their exploits have you heard about? (Possible answer: When the god Atlas sided with the titans in war, Zeus punished Atlas by making him hold up the celestial spheres for eternity.)
If the gods were depicted like very powerful and spoiled humans, why would temples be considered important in the ancient world? (Possible answer: If the gods didn’t like what I was wearing or I got caught in the middle of a fight [like those poor imperiled crowds that have buildings fall on them in the Superhero movies], I would like the gods to help me out. So I should go to the temple and make some sort of offering with the hopes of getting a divine bodyguard.)
The ancient Israelites’ ideas about their sacred places had some similarities with neighboring cultures, but they also held some distinctly different concepts concerning their God. In contrast to their neighbors, Israel thought of their God as unrivaled, as the one who created the world through the sheer power of his will. Their God was unchanging and not prone to the same caprices as humanity because he was totally self-sufficient. Like neighboring cultures, the Israelites believed that their earthly sacred places (Bethel, tabernacle, temple) were “sacred points of contact between the God of glory and His creation.”[iii] Likewise, within the Israelite temple the earthly and eternal merged so that heavenly realities became present on earth (the chief reality being God’s presence).[iv] While some early Israelites probably believed in the existence of other gods, strict monotheistic belief eventually accompanied the God of Israel’s call for exclusive allegiance and worship.
Israel’s almighty God transcended the earth so that his presence could not be contained, and yet there was a recognized need to set apart a place where the almighty God of heaven could interact with his chosen people. (How God established a chosen people for himself is important, but would carry us too far off topic. We only have time to point out that this Almighty God is described as seeking out re-connection with a fallen world through specific people [like Abraham and Jacob] and their descendents [the children of Israel]). According to the book of Exodus (25:8-9; 29:43-46), the establishment of a definitive sacred place of connection between the almighty God and his people occurred after God delivered the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. After this deliverance, God made a covenant (a.k.a. the Law, the 10 commandments) with these people through Moses. The establishment of the tabernacle (a big, multi-room tent temple where God would dwell with his people) was a part of that covenant.
Scripture study and Discussion:
Read Exodus 25:1-9.
- The Israelites take a collection for building materials for the new sanctuary. Whose idea was this? What was the purpose of this sanctuary? (Suggested Answers: God gave the instructions about the collection. The purpose of the tabernacle was so that Yahweh may “dwell in their midst”-verse 8).
Read Exodus 29:42-46.
- What consecrates (sets the place apart for scared use) the tabernacle? How will the tabernacle function in the life of the people? (Suggested Answers: The tabernacle is consecrated by God’s glory presence-verse 43. It will function as a place where God dwells with, meets, and guides his people. It will function as a reminder that Yahweh brought them out of slavery in Egypt. The reminder occurs because immediately after the deliverance, God establishes a covenant with them that includes the tabernacle.)
- What kind of relationship between God and his people does the tabernacle facilitate? (Suggested Answer: A close relationship where God is dwelling, interacting, and guiding his people.)
Earlier in Exodus (3:13-16), the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob revealed himself to Moses with the divine name Yahweh (a name that means something like “I am” or “I will always be”). The revelation of the divine name was soon followed by Yahweh delivering Israel from slavery and gathering his people into a covenant relationship. This covenant, which included the Ten Commandments, proclaimed that Yahweh would be their God, and Israel would be his special people. God gave this covenant to Moses on Mount Sinai; a mountain that was covered by God’s manifest presence in thunder, fire, and cloud.[v] The above study scriptures attest that the tabernacle was the fulfillment of the covenant pledge and a further revelation of the divine name (a name was thought to reflect a person’s character) as Yahweh would dwell his people.[vi] At the completion of the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-38), God manifested his glory in the tabernacle to confirm that this would be the place where heaven and earth, God and people, would continue to meet in the centuries ahead.[vii]
Read Exodus 40:32-38.
1. What does God’s glory presence mean for the tabernacle? Why do you think the book of Exodus ends with this manifestation? What function does the glory cloud have here? (Suggested Answers: The glory means that God has confirmed the tabernacle as the place of his presence. Exodus ends with this manifestation because God’s presence with his people is the culmination of the salvation and covenant described in Exodus. Here, the glory cloud also functions to guide Israel in its wanderings as they follow God’s cloud presence.)
2. What kind of relationship does the ending of Exodus depict between God and his people? (Suggested answers: God is close to his people. He has saved them from slavery and now wants to guide them with his glorious presence.)
3. What do the above passages say about God? (Suggested answers: God wants to be close to his people. He is not aloof. God saves his people for relationship.)
4. Do you feel your concept of God matches the above depiction of a God who wants to dwell among his people? Why or why not?
[i] Jeffrey Niehaus, God at Sinai (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 118-120.
[ii] Harold W. Turner, From Temple to Meeting House. Religion and Society 16 (New York: Mouton, 1979), 19-33.
[iii] Dan Lioy. Axis of Glory: A Biblical and Theological Analysis of the Temple Motif in Scripture. SBL 138 (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), 1.
[iv] Margaret Barker. The Gate of Heaven (London: SPCK, 1991),16-60.
[v] I owe the use of the term “manifest presence” to Richard Owen Roberts, whom I heard speak several years ago. Owens uses the term (and admits it is not original with him) to refer to a particular manifestation of God, when he draws near to his people. This drawing near in no way detracts from his transcendent (essential) presence.
[vi] Brevard S. Childs. The Book of Exodus (Louisville: Westminster, 1974), 540.
[vii] R. E. Clements. God and Temple (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1965), 63-64; John Durham, Exodus. WBC 3 (Waco: Word, 1987), 499-501.