Do We Need Temples Today? (Part 1)

When I mention the word ‘temple,’ what comes to mind? Maybe you think of a house belonging to a deity. Maybe you think of a place where religious people gather to worship their god or gods. Maybe you think of the stories in the Bible, the people of Israel and their kings. Maybe you think of a beautiful building that has all the glitz and glamour of a five-star hotel. Or maybe you think of movies like Star Wars and its Jedi temple or the TV series Lost, where a temple played a significant role in the story’s plot structure. Whatever you think of, I am sure you have some conception of what a temple is.

So what is a temple? If you look up the definition of temple in an English dictionary, you will find something like this: “A building devoted to the worship, or regarded as the dwelling place, of a god or gods.” A temple is place where people meet with their deity. It is a place where heaven comes down to earth. For much of world history, temples have been a significant part human civilization. Temples transcend cultural barriers, religious barriers, and historical epochs. Human beings have an innate desire to worship at a place where they can safely meet with the divine.

For many 21st century westerners, temples are the product of an unenlightened, pre-modern, pre-scientific age. Unenlightened peoples of ancient cultures needed a sanctuary where they could perform worshipful acts of service to their gods in order to receive the blessings of the good life—bountiful crops, healthy children, and overall prosperity. Yet, temples have continued to play a part in human civilization and many major world religions even into the 21st century. The former site of the Jerusalem temple and now the location of the Dome of the Rock remains one of the most important pieces of real estate in the world. But it is not just Bible lands where temples remain an important part of society and culture. My own “backyard” here in Salt Lake City Utah boasts many temples. In the Salt Lake valley, temples are all over the place. They are architecturally beautiful buildings and regularly visited by members of the LDS religion.

So how should we think about the ongoing significance of temples in our own time? Do we still need temples? My goal is not to provide an answer to this question from a sociological or psychological standpoint to try and uncover why the human race has an intrinsic desire for sacred spaces. Instead, I will attempt to answer this question from a biblical standpoint. If we asked the Bible, “Do we need temples today,” what would it say? The answer will require an investigation into the whole Bible’s perspective of temple theology. Simple proof-texting will not suffice. Therefore, in this series of posts, I will examine the purpose of the temple in the OT before asking the NT how it interprets the OT’s conception of temple in light of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. For now, we will begin at the very beginning because it is a very good place to start.

The Garden-Temple

According to the Bible, human history begins in a garden. In Genesis 2, we learn that God planted a garden in Eden and placed Adam in this garden to work it and keep it (Gen 2:8, 15). Why does God begin human civilization in a garden? What is the significance of history’s first garden? Was God’s intent for Adam to establish a successful landscaping business? The significance of the garden of Eden in the context of Scripture is much bigger than fruits and vegetables and a well-kept lawn that would make one’s neighbors jealous. In fact, the garden of Eden is the Bible’s first temple. It is the place that man met with his creator. As one scholar has written, “The garden of Eden is not viewed by the author of Genesis simply as a piece of Mesopotamian farmland, but as an archetypal sanctuary, that is the place where God dwells and where man should worship him.” (Wenham, 23)

What evidence points to the conclusion that Eden was a garden-temple? Most of us probably do not think of a sanctuary when we think of a garden. If you are like me, when you hear the word ‘garden’ you think of a small plot of dirt in your backyard where vegetables are supposed to grow, but for some strange reason very few can be found! The garden of Eden is nothing of the sort. Several strands of evidence from the biblical text substantiate the garden of Eden as a temple.

First, Eden was the place of God’s presence. The Lord God “walked” in the garden just as he “walked” in the tabernacle (Gen 3:8; Lev 26:12; Deut 23:15; 2 Sam 7:6). Second, Ezekiel’s description of the eschatological temple in Ezekiel 47:1–12 parallels the description of the garden of Eden in Genesis 2:10–14. Genesis 2:10–14 describes a river that flowed out of Eden to water the garden. This river divides into four rivers as it spreads out into the earth (Gen 2:10). In Ezekiel’s vision of the end-time temple, a river flows out of the temple threshold in Jerusalem toward the east (cf. Gen 3:24). This river is a source of life and blessing to the rest of the world (Ezek 47:9). I will not develop the verbal parallels here, but the imagery surrounding Ezekiel’s description of the eschatological temple recalls the narrative of Genesis 1–2. Third, the entrance into the garden was from the east. After Adam and Eve fell into sin, they were cast out of the garden and God placed a Cherubim with a flaming sword at the entrance of the garden to guard the way to the tree of life. Similarly, the tabernacle and temple were entered from the east and guarded by Cherubim (Gen 3:24; cf. Exod 25:18–22; 1 Kgs 6:23–29). Fourth, Genesis 2:15 says that God placed Adam in the garden “to work” (עבד) and “to keep” (שמר) it. The same two Hebrew verbs are used together in later passages to describe the responsibilities of the priests in the tabernacle and temple (Num 3:7–8; 8:25–26; 185–6). Adam’s assignment was a priestly one. He was to maintain the sacred space of the garden by ordering his life around the priority of worship.

We may also observe that the garden of Eden was a sacred space separate from the outer world. The Hebrew word גן (garden) literally refers to an enclosure usually protected by some type of fence or hedge. The garden of Eden would have been a contained, localized place separated from the outside world. To nuance the geographical boundaries even further, Genesis 2:10 indicates that the garden and Eden formed two distinct regions—“a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden.” Thus, we discover a tripartite structure in the description of Eden, the garden, and the rest of the world. This tripartite structure is significant because it mirrors the tripartite structure of the tabernacle—outer court, holy place, and holy of holies. On this point, G.K. Beale writes,

Thus, one may be able to perceive an increasing gradation in holiness from outside the garden proceeding inward: the region outside the garden is related to God and is ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31) in that it is God’s creation (= the outer court); the garden itself is a sacred space separate from the outer world (= the holy place), where God’s priestly servant worships God by obeying him, by cultivating and guarding; Eden is where God dwells (= the holy of holies) as the source of both physical and spiritual life (symbolized by the waters). (Beale, 75-75)

More could be said to demonstrate the fact that the garden of Eden is the Bible’s first temple. The point, for now, is that a biblical understanding of the meaning and purpose of temples in biblical theology will begin with the creation narrative and God’s original intention for mankind to dwell in a garden-temple. But the question remains, what purpose did the garden of Eden serve other than being the place God originally chose to dwell with mankind? Most would agree that a temple is the dwelling place of God, but does Genesis 1–2 indicate that creation’s first temple served an even greater purpose? In other words, what does the garden of Eden and mankind’s role in the garden teach us about the meaning and purpose of temples throughout the rest of biblical history? This will be the topic of part two of this series.

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