Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine

February 25, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Pekudei | 4 Comments
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Canaanite temples were built according to a basic three-part plan: a courtyard in front, a main hall behind it, and a small temple 2sacred chamber at the back containing a statue of the temple’s god. There were often additional rooms at the sides of the main hall for practical use by the temple’s priests and functionaries, but religious rituals happened in the courtyard, main hall, and back chamber.

During the course of the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites construct three sanctuaries. The portable Tent of Meeting that Moses assembles at the end of the book of Exodus travels with the people from Mount Sinai all the way across the Jordan River. It is erected in several locations while the Israelites are gradually conquering Canaan: Gilgal, Shiloh, Nob, Givon, and then Jerusalem. King Solomon builds the first temple in Jerusalem in the first book of Kings, and the construction of the second temple in Jerusalem begins in the book of Ezra.

All three of these sanctuaries follow the basic three-part Canaanite plan. But since the Israelites are forbidden to make an image of God, the innermost chamber at the back cannot contain a statue of their deity. So what is inside the “holy of holies”?

This week’s Torah portion, Pekudei (“Inventories”), says what Moses put into the holy of holies in the Tent of Meeting.

He took and placed the eidut in the aron, and he put the poles on the aron, and he placed the cover on top of the aron. Then he brought the aron into the dwelling-place, and he placed the curtain of screening-off, and screened off the aron of the eidut, as God had commanded Moses.  (Exodus/Shemot 40:20-21)

eidut (עֵדֻת) = testimony—of a witness or of God. (The Torah often uses this word to refer to the second pair of stone tablets Moses brings down from Mount Sinai.)

aron (אֲרוֹן)  = chest, coffer, coffin; ark of the covenant

What does the aron look like? In the book of Exodus, it is a gold-plated wooden box about four feet long, with carrying-poles attached to the bottom. Last week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, describes how the master artist Betzaleil makes the lid of the aron:

Then he made a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And he made two keruvim of gold; he made them hammered out from the two ends of the cover. One keruv from this end and one keruv from that end; from the cover he made the keruvim, from its two ends. And the keruvim were spreading wings upward, screening off with their wings over the kaporet; and their faces were toward each other, toward the cover were the faces of the keruvim. (Exodus 37:6-9)

keruv (כֱרוּב), (plural keruvim)  = a hybrid beast with wings and a face. (See my earlier post: Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.)

What are the wings of the keruvim on the cover screening off? The space above the golden lid is empty—or, at least, nothing is visible there. But the Torah treats the aron as a throne for an invisible, although not inaudible, god.

Moses came into the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God]. Then he heard the voice speaking to him from above the cover that was on the aron of the eidut, from between the two keruvim; thus [God] spoke to him. (Numbers/Bemidbar 7:89)

The keruvim and the lid of the aron are a single piece of gold in the Tent of Meeting. But in the first temple, they are separate items. While the aron stays in the tent where King David put it, King Solomon’s craftsmen make two keruvim out of olive-wood overlaid with gold. Each keruv is ten cubits (about 15 feet) tall, with a ten-cubit span from wingtip to wingtip.

Then he placed the keruvim inside the House, in the innermost [chamber]. And the wings of the keruvim spread out so the wing of one keruv touched the wall, and the wing of the second keruv was touching the second wall, and in the middle of the chamber their wings touched. (1 Kings 6:27)

The haftarah reading corresponding to the Torah portion Pekudei is from the first book of Kings. It describes the ceremony after the first temple in Jerusalem is completed, starting with a procession as King Solomon and elders from all over Israel accompany the aron on its short journey from the tent in the old city to the new House of God.

The priests brought in the aron of the covenant of God to its place, to the back room of the House, to the holy of holies, to underneath the wings of the keruvim. For the keruvim were spreading wings toward the place of the aron, so the keruvim screened off the aron and its poles from above. (1 Kings 8:6-7)

In both the Tent of Meeting and the first temple, there is an empty space between the lid of the aron below and the wings of the keruvim above. God’s voice or presence is never located inside the aron, only in the space above it.

Yet inside the aron is the eidut, God’s testimony. Commentary on the Tent of Meeting agrees that the eidut means the second, unbroken, pair of stone tablets inscribed by God on Mount Sinai (also called Choreiv). Commentators disagree on whether the aron also contained the shattered tablets, and/or a scroll that Moses wrote.

The first book of Kings clarifies the contents of the aron in the time of the first temple:

There was nothing in the aron but the two tablets of stone that Moses placed there at Choreiv, when God cut a covenant with the children of Israel after they left the land of Egypt. (1 Kings 8:9)

The first temple was sacked several times, and when the Babylonian army captured Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. they razed it altogether. The keruvim and the aron were never recovered. So in the second temple, which was begun in 538 B.C.E., the holy of holies was an empty room. But priests still treated it as the locus of God’s presence.

After the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E., Jews had to find God’s presence in other places. Today, many of us search for God by going inside ourselves: pondering what we have learned, questioning our feelings, meditating, sinking into ritual, praying with intention, and so on. This inner journey in search of God also has stages.

If the first stage of your search is like the courtyard of the Tent or temple, does your courtyard have an altar for animal sacrifices and a basin for washing? If you push on into the main hall, does it have any of the furnishings of the Israelite sanctuaries: a lampstand for light, or a table for bread, or an altar for incense? And if you keep searching even deeper, what do you find in your holy of holies?

Do you enshrine fundamental written principles in a gold coffer? Or do you encounter fantastical creatures? If you find both in your holy of holies, are the fantastical creatures bigger or smaller than the coffer? Or is your holy of holies an empty room?

Is God present there?

Terumah & 1 Kings: Tent versus Temple

January 26, 2014 at 6:55 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Terumah | 1 Comment
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A 2,000-year-old tradition pairs every weekly Torah portion with a haftarah, a reading from the Prophets/Neviim. In this week’s Torah reading, Terumah (“Donations”), God gives Moses instructions for building a sanctuary. This week’s haftarah is a passage from the first book of Kings about how King Solomon begins building the temple in Jerusalem.

The sanctuary and the temple both contain the ark, menorah, bread table, and incense altar. Both are places where priests perform the rituals prescribed in the Torah. But there are dramatic differences between the two structures.

For one thing, the building materials dictate whether each holy structure is portable or stationary. The Torah portion Terumah specifies that the walls of the mishkan will be made out of woven pieces of cloth hung on a framework of gilded acacia planks and beams.

And you shall make the mishkan of ten panels of fabric, made of fine twisted linen, and sky-blue dye and red-violet dye and scarlet dye …(Exodus/Shemot 26:1)

mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = sanctuary, dwelling-place for God. (The word is used for the portable tent-like sanctuary created in the book of Exodus and used until the second book of Samuel.)

Next God tells Moses to make the roof out of woven goat-hair, and cover it with tanned hides. The mishkan would look like a huge tent of vividly-colored cloth, its framework resting directly on the earth. After it has been built, the Torah often calls this sanctuary the “Tent of Appointed Meeting”.

The courtyard in front of it, containing the altar for burning animal offerings, is to be enclosed by another wall of linen cloth, this one roofless. I can imagine the cloth walls of both the courtyard and the tent glowing in the sunlight, and the gold, silver, and bronze fittings gleaming. The structure would be beautiful, but also obviously portable, easy to disassemble and move to the next location.

While the mishkan is temporary, Solomon’s temple is built to last.

The king commanded, and they quarried huge stones, valuable stones, to lay the foundation of the house with hewn stones. (1 Kings 5:31)

On this foundation, the “house” is built out of more large squared stones, then paneled inside with cedar wood, and roofed with cedar planks. Additional rooms are built against the outside walls, all the way around. The temple is three stories high, with stairs and narrow latticed windows. This sanctuary could never be disassembled and moved. It is supposed to be permanent. According to the Hebrew bible, it lasted for four centuries, until the Babylonian invaders destroyed it. During that time, the central place of worship for the southern kingdom remained fixed in the capital, Jerusalem.

Another important difference between the tent and the temple is how the materials and labor to build them were obtained. The materials for the tenttextiles, hides, wood, and metals—are all gifts volunteered by the Israelites. This week’s Torah portion opens with God asking for only voluntary donations.

God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and they shall take for me a donation from every man whose heart urges him; [from him] you shall take My donation. And this is the donation that you shall take from them: gold or silver or bronze, or sky-blue or red-violet or scarlet dyes, or linen or goat hair, or hides… (Exodus/Shemot 25:1-5)

But the stone and cedar for Solomon’s temple are purchased from a foreign king, Hiram of Lebanon. This week’s haftarah opens:

God had given wisdom to Solomon, as [God] promised him; and there was peace between Hiram and Solomon, and the two of them cut a treaty. (1 Kings/Malchim 5:26)

Just before this verse, the first book of Kings describes the deal between Hiram and Solomon: Hiram will provide timber and stone for Jerusalem, and in exchange Solomon will pay Hiram in annual shipments of wheat and oil—shipments that would require a heavy tax on Israel’s farmers.

In the book of Exodus, both women and men enthusiastically volunteer to do the weaving, carpentry, and metal-working for the tent sanctuary. In the first book of Kings, Solomon imposes forced labor on the Israelite men to do the logging and quarrying.

And King Solomon raised a mas from all of Israel, and the mas was 30,000 men. He sent them to Lebanon, 10,000 a month in turns; they were in Lebanon for a month, two months at home. And Solomon loaned 70,000 burden-carriers and 80,000 stone-cutters on the mountain. (1 Kings 5:28-29)

mas (מַס) = compulsory labor, corvée labor, levy

Compulsory labor, mas, is what the pharaoh imposed on the Israelites in Egypt—the slavery that God and Moses freed them from. King Solomon gets away with his temporary mas, but later in Kings, his son Rechavam imposes an even heavier “yoke” on his people, and they revolt against him.

So while the mishkan is constructed with voluntary gifts and voluntary labor, the temple is built through agricultural taxes and forced labor.

In the Torah portion, Moses gets instructions for making a sanctuary from God Itself. In the haftarah, Solomon remembers his father David’s desire to build a temple, and after he has built a palace for himself, he starts the temple on his own initiative.

In both cases, God makes a conditional promise to dwell among the Israelites. In the Torah portion, God will stay with them if they make a place for God:

And they shall make for me a holy place, and I will dwell in their midst. (Exodus 25:8)

But in the haftarah, God will stay with the Israelites if King Solomon follows the rules:

And the word of God came to Solomon, saying: This house that you are building—if you follow my decrees and you do my laws and you observe all my commandments, to go by them, then I will establish my word with you that I spoke to David, your father: then I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel, and I will not desert my people Israel. (1 Kings 6:12-13)

The differences between the mishkan and the temple imply two different approaches to religion. The sanctuary God describes to Moses belongs to the people; they make it voluntarily, they move it with them wherever they go, and God dwells among them because they make a holy place for God.

The temple of Solomon belongs to the king; he oppresses his own people in order to procure the materials and labor, he fixes it permanently in Jerusalem, and God dwells among his people because King Solomon obeys God’s rules.

I believe the tent-sanctuary described in the Torah portion represents the ideal approach to communal religion, in which everyone in the community contributes enthusiasm, support, or creativity; in which textual interpretations and rituals are flexible enough to move and change along with the people; and in which everyone makes a holy place for God.

Yet this ideal cannot always be realized. There are times everyone, including me, is too exhausted or too stuck to manage creative communal worship. Sometimes we just need a place to go where the rituals will be fixed and familiar, and where a trusted authority figure is taking care of everything and telling us what to do.

We need both tents and temples.

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