Temples, Ships and Cupboards

In the Pre-Christian Bible, there is a number of occasions when „buildings“ are described. I assume that in all of these cases the deeper meaning has something to do with the construction of a temple. But which temple, critically-historically and archeologically?

In the Bible’s own chronology, first there is Noah’s Ark (Genesis 6, 15-16). Of course it’s clear that these verses can only distantly allude to the dimensions of a temple, because here proportions length to width are 6:1, which is pretty unlikely to have been the design of a temple. The symbolism is marvelously poetical nevertheless. There are, however, three floors, just like in the later Jerusalem temple.

Second, there is the description of the tent sanctuary, the mišqān, of Israel’s desert era, in Exodus 26-27.

Third, there is the description of Solomon’s temple, the commonly so-called „First Temple“ of Jerusalem, in 1Kings 6.

And finally, there is the description of the post-exilic Jerusalem temple, the „Second Temple“ of Serubbabel, in Ezra 3-6.

My initial question already reveals that I do not believe the biblical informations to be critically-historically and archeologically trustworthy. For me, it’s no problem to see the Bible as a deep spiritual truth that may diverge with critical-historical and archeological truth.

For religio-political reasons, the Jerusalem Temple Mount is extremely hard to explore. No trace of any pre-Persian-era temple has ever been discovered on the Zion. Since Herod the Great in an unprecedented architectural prestige project artificially enlarged the whole temple plateau not long before the time of Jesus, already for mere technical reasons access to any older stratigraphy is heavily blocked.

There is no doubt about the historicity of the temple of Herod – but any older construction activity on the site disappears in the primeval mist of a predominantly legendary history.

I reckon there is a hypothesis about how it all emerged which by present can not yet a priori be pre-qualified by any perfectly positive clues – it’s only after you „creatively“ accept it that you „inductively“ see how much it explains which up to now remained largely unexplained.

This hypothesis goes as follows: The Jewish „cult-unity“ or „one-temple“ rule was imposed on the Jews by the Persian great-king as a condition when he allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem from Babylonian Exile. This condition obviously served an agenda of control. There hadn’t been „cult unity“ before the exile; even on the eve of deportation, still there would have been many temples around in the Israelite kingdom of Judah, in some of which YHWH would even have been still married to his Ashera. The latter assumption is indeed corroborated by archeology, by the way.

Thus, when the Israelite, now „Jewish“ theologians developed their new religious program by the late 6th century BCE, they faced a problem. As a theologian, you always hate and fear to tell people that something is new. So, there „must“ have been „cult unity“ some time before the Babylonian Exile already, in order to theologically justify it after the exile. Because „The Persians said so“ is no satisfying spiritual justification for a Jewish temple, is it. This is why the legend of the „Josianic Reform“ was invented, which was claimed to have had taken place in 622 BCE.

Prior to the political catastrophe of 597/586 BCE, certainly there would already have been some temple in Jerusalem. Another fact that archeologists can confirm to is that Judahite Jerusalem grew rapidly by a multiple after the destruction of the northern Israelite kingdom by Assyrian assault in 722 BCE. Obviously a lot of northern refugees were assigned a new home in Jerusalem by the king of Judah whom they in turn passionately helped to defend his northern border against the enemies who had invaded their former homeland – a reasonable deal. (Jerusalem becoming a melting zone between southern and northern Israelite theology after 722 BCE would decisively have contributed to the emergence of the specific spirit of our Bible, by the way – though not yet to the emergence of the actual biblical text, which is post-exilic.)

So, at the latest some decades after 700 BCE, Jerusalem certainly would have had a decent temple – but many places in Judah had one. When our Bible talks about the „temple of Solomon“, the „First Temple“, it implies an institution that came already very near to the unique status of later „Second Temple“ – but in that sense no „First Temple“ ever existed, because there would have been still many other temples in the country.

As the whole of the extant Pre-Christian Bible was written no earlier than „in the shadow of the Second Temple“, it is nothing but this temple „of Serubbabel“, the one post-exilic temple, that is reflected by all the biblical allusions to the topic in Genesis, Exodus and Kings.

The only exception potentially being Noah’s Ark: The description in Genesis 6,15-16 could also refer to another one of the pre-exilic temples, as apart from the three floors it does not stress any particular similarity with the Jerusalem temple. The Noah story is a northern-Israelite tradition, the northern-born Deuteronomists used it as their „second“ covenant (besides Sinai/Moses) in order to keep up with the two „Priestly“ covenants (with Abraham and David). Therefore, a „northern“ temple is most likely to have been the template for Noah’s Ark.

Interestingly, prominent Israeli archeologist Israel Finkelstein has recently discovered the remains of a big 8th-century-BCE temple on the hill of Kiryat Yearim, few miles northwest of Jerusalem. Kiryat Yearim makes the impression to have been the most original sanctuary related to the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark Narrative (1Sam 4-7) leads and points to Kiryat Yearim – David bringing the Ark to Jerusalem (2Sam 6) is clearly just a later appendix to it, trying to appropriate the originally northern Ark tradition to the solely surviving southern kingdom after 722 BCE. Finkelstein says he recognizes archeological evidence that 8th-century-BCE Kiryat Yearim was a northern Israelite sanctuary (the area is precisely the former border region between the two kingdoms).

In our Bible, Kiryat Yearim is „Gibeonite“, which means belonging to an ethnic group with unclear status (not an Israelite tribe, though not „pagan“ either). When Saul is said to have hailed from „Gibeah“, a Benjamite place, suspicion is that „Gibeon“ and „Gibeah“ were originally in fact identical, but some Bible redactors didn’t want king Saul to turn out a „Gibeonite“. All these observations lend support to the assumption that here southern 7th-century-BCE redactors are trying to dissimulate the fact that some of „their“ important places had still been „northern“ not too long ago.

So, it would be utterly interesting to find some link between Noah’s Ark and the Ark of the Covenant. On the one hand, we must not let ourselves be fooled by the term „Ark“, because in Hebrew Noah’s vehicle is „téva“ („box“), while the Ark of the covenant is „arōn (ha-b’rit)“ („cupboard“). On the other hand, we can observe in quite a number of cases in the Hebrew Bible that difference in wording probably doesn’t mean the authors or redactors didn’t want the things to be compared or seen in a relation of symbolic reference. To give you only one example: Clearly „harīm“ is a neutral expression for „hills“, while „bamōt“ are those evil heights where false gods are worshiped – nevertheless, when Psalm 121 famously commences: „I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?“, reading „harīm“, it still makes a lot of sense to mentally play on „bamōt“ here, when the Psalmist continues: „My help comes from YHWH…“. So, what this wants to say is: Words have their own history, and sometimes to let the reader recognize the connection despite of different wording makes for the even richer literature as such, compared to simply using the same word in order to inelegantly „rub someone’s nose into the meaning“, so to speak. Talking about the Ark of the Covenant, for the biblical authors it was most important to compare this sacred object to traditional polytheistic processional portable shrines for „idols“ in Ancient Near East, the technical term for which was „arōn“, while they assessed it less important to stress this object’s symbolic relationship with Noah’s Ark (or with little Moses’ „life boat“ on the Nile, which is also called „téva“). So, the difference in Hebrew wording must by no means discourage the idea that there is a connection between the two „Arks“.

In Exodus 25-27, the length-width proportion of the Ark of the Covenant, 5:3, may be accepted as a practical approximation to the „Golden Ratio“. So, there is no allusion to the Ark of the Covenant in Noah’s Ark’s 6:1.

Some secondary cultic objects from the desert sanctuary in Exodus 25-27, such as certain boards or textiles, have similar ratios of measurements – but the tent sanctuary is a southern tradition, which makes its details unlikely to be connected to the Ark strand. How do I know? The post-conquest history of the mišqān is strangely separate from that of the arōn in our Bible. When the Ark was captured by the Philistines, King Saul sent the holy tent to Nob, near his home town Gibeah, but after he had massacred the priests there (1Samuel 21-22), the tabernacle was moved to Gibeon, a YHWH hill-shrine (1Chronicles 16,39, 1Chronicles 21,29, 2Chronicles 1,2-6.13). (Remember: „Gibeon“ and „Gibeah“ are possibly identical, but artificially divided in order to tell the story of Saul in a less uncomfortable way.) Before David brought the Ark from Kiryat Yearim to Jerusalem, he pitched a tent for it at Jerusalem (2Samuel 6,17, 1Chronicles 15,1), which was not the mišqān, the latter remaining at Gibeon and serving as a space for sacrificial worship there (1Chronicles 16,39, 1Chronicles 21,29, 1Kings 3,2-4). After his son Solomon got YHWH’s permission for a solid temple building, he brought the tabernacle tent to Jerusalem, too, in order to decorate the temple with it (1Kings 8,4). With so strong clues for the original independence of the arōn tradition and the mišqān tradition, it would push things too far to read something into the similarities of measurements ratios between those objects from exodus and Noah’s Ark.

Another trace may reasonably be followed, however. Archeologists inform us that a typical ancient Greek „trireme“ had an average length of 120 feet (37 metres) and a beam of 18 feet (5,5 metres). When the famous pioneering British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the „Great Britain“, the largest ship of his days, im 1844, he also used exactly the 6:1 ratio. In ancient times, that ratio pushed big-boat length to its limits, in terms of tolerable transversal shear force impacting the hull by waves at sea. Thus, Noah’s Ark’s data appear to be based on true shipbuilding knowledge – which is not typical Israelite expertise, however.

The conclusion from this is: HOW the construction of the Ark is narrated clearly reminds of the typical biblical description of a temple building – the data content however makes clear that this has nothing to do with the Jerusalem temple. We have to assume that this ambivalence is intentional. Noah’s Ark alludes to a temple which is not Zion. We assume: Northern story, northern temple. It were the northerners, by the way, whose neighbors were the sea-experienced Phoenicians. As the story meant a temple, but not Jerusalem, deliberately there was no attempt to portray that other temple realistically; the responsible author or redactor rather turned to real shipbuilding information to fill in the void. Nevertheless symbolically it was about a real temple – namely the temple of the Ark of the Covenant: Kiryat Yearim.

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