Further Thoughts on the Empty Temple—My Response to Jon Garvey

This is my response to questions raised by Jon Garvey in his post called Middleton on the empty temple.

I’m delighted to respond Jon’s post, which reflects on a previous post of mine where I suggested that a priestly/liturgical read of the imago Dei can unify the entire biblical story. Jon raises very good questions in his post, questions I myself have wondered about.

Jon was intrigued with my suggestion that whereas the wilderness tabernacle and the Jerusalem temple are filled with God’s glory/Spirit/presence when they are completed (Exodus 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chronicles 7:1-3), there is no reference to the cosmic temple of creation being filled with God’s presence upon its completion (Genesis 2:1-3). Instead, I suggested that God intends humanity, as God’s authorized image in the temple of creation, to mediate that presence from heaven to earth, thus filling the earth not just with progeny (Genesis 1:28), but with progeny who manifest God’s glory, until (to use a Pauline phrase) God is “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

Does Genesis intend to teach that God has not yet filled the cosmic temple?

But Jon wonders if we can really attribute this idea to the author/editor of the Pentateuch. Particularly, he wonders if God’s rest on the seventh day, which just happens to omit reference to cosmic filling, could be intentional or is just a “fortuitously omitted detail of one stand-alone creation myth.”

In response, Jon quotes Numbers 14:21, a later Pentateuchal text that I myself would have mentioned if he hadn’t. There God promises that even the disobedience of Israel won’t thwart his purpose, but that “all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.” Although some translations (notably the NIV) render the imperfect of māle‘ as present tense here, the context supports the future (as Jon notes); and the LXX uses the future of epiplēmi here.

But there is another “fortuitously omitted detail” in the opening creation account of the Bible, which may suggest that neither omission is fortuitous. Whereas every “day” of creation from 1 through 6 concludes with the formula “and it was evening and morning, day X” there is no such formula associated with the seventh day (Augustine himself noted the absence of this concluding formula in the Confessions). This omission suggests that the seventh day has no conclusion and that everything that follows in Genesis (indeed, the entire Bible) may be read as occurring on the seventh day.

This intriguing possibility gains more credibility when we realize that among the polemical points of contact between Genesis 1 and Mesopotamian creation myths is precisely the notion of divine rest. In Mespotamian myths (Enuma Elish; Atrahasis; Enki and Ninmah; KAR 4) the gods are able to rest because they have created humans to do the manual labour that they disdained to do; so in these myths the gods’ rest is their abdication from a burdensome task.

By contrast, the biblical account suggests a different purpose for God’s rest, because of its more exalted view of human dignity and status. In Genesis 1 humans are created to share in God’s own rule of the world; they have been delegated the power and authority to administer the earth on God’s behalf.

This suggests that the creator’s rest on the seventh day represents God handing over the reins of power to humanity; the seventh day inaugurates the time of human historical agency.

So both forms of incompleteness in Genesis 2:1-3—the lack of reference to God filling the cosmic temple and the absence of the evening and morning formula—fit very well with the notion that humans are tasked with representing God’s rule and mediating God’s presence on earth.

What about biblical texts that suggest that God’s presence already fills creation?

But then Jon raises Isaiah 6 as a potential problem for the “future glory” theme, since verse 3 states that “the whole earth is full of his glory.” Although this is a legitimate translation of the Hebrew, there is actually no verb for “is full” here; instead there is the noun for “fullness.” So a more literal translation would be “the fullness of the whole earth is his glory,” which is quite compatible with the interpretation I was proposing.

Jon also mentions Ezekiel’s vision of YHWH on a chariot throne by the river Chebar in Babylon (Ezekiel 1-3). And he wonders if this indicates that God is omnipresent, dwelling in the Jerusalem temple and available to the exiles in Babylon (thus the cosmic temple is not empty of divine presence). Here it is crucial to read Ezekiel 1-3 in concert with the flashback the prophet is granted in chapters 10-11, where he sees YHWH’s glory exiting the east gate of the Jerusalem temple (10:18-19) and heading further eastward (11:22-23); he twice mentions that what he sees in this vision is the same as what he saw by the river Chebar (10:15, 20).

This journey eastward is completed when YHWH arrives in Babylon (Ezekiel 1) to accompany his people in their exile. So the point of the vision at the start of Ezekiel is not that God is omnipresent, but rather that this stern book of mostly judgment (oracles of restoration do not begin until chapter 34) nevertheless opens with the amazing grace of a God who himself goes into exile with his people (thus profoundly foreshadowing Christ’s identification with us in incarnation and atonement).

My own problem text—Jeremiah 23:23-24

Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1-3 aren’t that hard to deal with. The more difficult passage is Jeremiah 23, where God critiques the false prophets in Jerusalem who have claimed to speak on his behalf (23:15-22). The critique culminates in a series of rhetorical questions that challenge the prophets’ assumption of God’s immanence and availability:

“Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD.” (23:23-24)

I have to admit that I have often wondered how this passage fit with the future filling theme; if it intends to affirm that God already fills the cosmic temple it would be stand out as quite distinct in the Old Testament.

I have therefore wondered it if is polemical hyperbole, to make the point that God is not only located nearby (in the Jerusalem temple) as these prophets thought, but is also far off or transcendent (in heaven)—and then earth is added for good measure.

This contrast between heaven and Jerusalem seems supported by the earlier point God makes in Jeremiah 23:18 and 22 that a true prophet stands in the council of YHWH (that is, he has access to the decisions made in the gathering of angels in heaven). But these false prophets are earthbound and so have no genuine word from God.

The motif of God in heaven is often associated in the Old Testament with omniscience, since from heaven God can observe all activity on earth (see Psalm 11:4; 14:2; 28:24 33:13; 53:2; 102:19; Lamentations 3:50; cf. 2 Chronicles 16:9; Proverbs 15:3). So the false prophets cannot hope to escape judgment.

It is also associated with universal dominion: “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens,/ and his kingdom rules over all.” (Psalm 103:19) This motif of the God of heaven is especially prominent in Daniel 2-7, where the point is that even Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has to submit to the universal ruler of the world.

Here it is important to note that immanence and transcendence are not two polar opposites as in much Christian theology today. Rather, in the Old Testament God’s transcendence (in heaven) grounds his immanence (on earth), in the sense of his intimate involvement in earthly affairs.

Jon had asked for clarification of this very point. And here it is appropriate to note the exodus story, where Israel’s cry “rose up to God” in heaven (Exodus 2:23) and God tells Moses, “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:8).

Precisely because YHWH rules from heaven, outside the oppressive system of human evil (including Egyptian bondage), this God can be appealed to in a situation of injustice, and can be expected to care about human suffering (whereas appeals to Pharaoh, who is implicated in the oppressive system, are ineffectual; see Exodus 5:15-16). And as ruler and creator of all God has the power to change the situation of oppression.

In the Bible, therefore, God’s transcendence is not in contrast to God’s involvement (or immanence), as it sometimes is in our theological systems. Rather, God’s transcendence is precisely the condition of his involvement.

But, admittedly, the wording of Jeremiah 23:24 goes beyond saying that God is in heaven; it implies (through a rhetorical question) that God does indeed fill both heaven and earth.

At that point, I would simply say that there are diverse perspectives in Scripture (the Bible is a coherent, yet complex, unity). And yet the dominant tenor of the Old Testament is to affirm, with Isaiah 66:1-2a, that God’s throne is in heaven (the locus of his presence) and the earth is his footstool—until that climactic day when God’s dwelling/ throne shift decisively to earth (Revelation 21:3; 22:3).

Click here to read this post in it’s context on Jon Garvey’s wesbsite, along with responses and comments.

Middleton on the Empty Temple

This is a post by Jon Garvey on his blog called The Hump of the Camel, where he interacts with a recent post of mine on humans as God’s image. In that post I argued that God’s intends humanity to be the locus of divine presence in the temple of creation. The Hump of the Camel is a fascinating website that addresses questions of theology and science, especially in the area of origins. In the course of his post Jon asks a number of questions for clarification. I will shortly post my answers to his questions.

Those helpful chaps at Academia.edu alerted me recently to an interesting piece by J Richard Middleton. Richard has commented here, and is one of the scholars doing good work on the science-faith interface. He’s written a book, Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (which unfortunately is still on my “to-read” list) on the image of God, and this new article updates and extends that thesis.

He notes that the idea, which I’ve discussed here quite often, that the image of God in man implies the ANE concept of a royal image that manifests the presence of a king (cf Daniel 3), is in fact now the dominant opinion of OT scholars. That’s significant, because it gets relatively little mention in origins discussions at, for example, BioLogos, where biological attributes like intelligence still guide the thinking, perhaps because of BL’s bias towards a scientific mindset.

Richard has, since the publication of his book, increasingly stressed the ANE ritual equivalent of that concept, namely the way in which the image of a god in a temple manifests the presence of the Deity. This, too, is encouragingly consistent with the line I’ve taken here, based on the work of John Walton and G K Beale, especially. It resonates well with the “cosmic temple” approach I’ve taken to the Genesis creation story in particular, and the biblical concept of creation in general, most recently in my waving a cautious flag for one of the less influential patristic writers on cosmology, Cosmas Indicopneustes. Richard too integrates his concept of the imago dei with the temple imagery used throughout Scripture.

I am very comfortable with the way his thought has developed, and intrigued by one new insight. That is his observation that, whilst in the Old Testament’s coverage of temple/tabernacle themes the concept of God’s glory (Heb. kabod) filling the sacred space is a recurrent motif (eg Ex 40.34-35, 2 Chron. 5.13-14, Rev 15.8), the Genesis 1 creation account, in which the cosmic temple is inaugurated, lacks any reference to God’s glory coming to dwell in it.

As you’ll read in his article, he links this fact to the Genesis 2 story of Eden, in which God later comes to dwell with his “authorised image”, Adam, in the sacred space of the garden:

When read against this ancient Near Eastern background, Genesis 1 and 2 are in profound harmony with each other, despite their genuine differences. In both texts humanity is understood as the authorized cult statue in the cosmic temple, the decisive locus of divine presence on earth. This understanding of the human role means that God never intended his presence to fill the cosmic temple automatically. That is precisely the vocation of humanity, the bearer of the divine presence.

The human race was created to extend the presence of God from heaven (the cosmic holy of holies) to earth (the holy place) until the earth is filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea (combining Numbers 14:21; Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14); or, to use Pauline language, when God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).

This first expression of the “glory” theme comes through the breathing of God’s own breath (Heb ruach) into his earthly human creation. Remember how in my discussion of Athanasius’s concept of the creation of man, it was in his view the very life of the Son, as Logos and presumably as “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact image of his being” (Heb 1.3), that was breathed into man. “Image” and “glory” certainly appear to be linked by this.

Richard’s insight integrates with such ideas wonderfully, providing an interpretive framework for the entire biblical revelation. We can see the image damaged by the Fall, and restored in the salvation history culminating in Christ himself. The idea is present at the various stages along the way, in response to the faith of Abraham, Moses, or Israel, or Solomon, as God’s “glorious presence” (known to later Judaism as shekinah), in the burning bush or on Sinai, in the tabernacle and in the temple. In Christ, the Church becomes the bearer of God’s glory, helping to achieve what Adam failed to do, by their lives and cultural impact on the world.

This glory theme is, ultimately, eschatological (as Richard spells out), its final fulfilment coming in the “fusion” of heaven and earth illustrated in Revelation as the New Jerusalem (a concept encompassing both people and communal culture) coming down from God, and his eternal dwelling with redeemed mankind. Thus the creation of Genesis 1 is only finally completed by Revelation 22.

What I find most exciting in this idea is that it makes the transformation of the cosmos, the change into something beyond the merely physical (Romans 8.18-22), part of what was planned in the original creation. It gives weight to the suggestion that the role originally intended for Adam’s line was the completion of creation by bearing God’s shekinah into every part of it.

Now, two points for discussion occur to me in this. The first is to ask whether the author of the Pentateuch could really have seen things this way? Was he really implying that God’s resting on the seventh day, without overtly filling his creation, is a significant foundation to the rest of the Pentateuch and the biblical story? If not, it would seem to be reading a unifying biblical theology into an fortuitously omitted detail of one stand-alone creation myth.

I’m helped here by my recent reading of John Sailhamer’s work on the authorial intent of the Pentateuch. His overall thesis is that the Pentateuch, both in its original and final forms, was already fully committed to a Messianic and universalist understanding of the covenant, responding to the historical failure of Israel’s relationship to God through the Law. There are many good indications that the coming of God’s glory to dwell in Israel’s tabernacle, through their faithful obedience, was from the start seen as just one step of a process that would finally involve all of humanity and, indeed, the whole cosmos.

If we concentrate on the “glory” theme, one Pentateuchal passage provides a clue that the author of the Pentateuch did have such a view. Nu. 14 is a “compositional seam” (Sailhamer) of the Pentateuch, in which Israel’s rebellion threatens the whole covenant. Moses’s intercession is seen as pivotal in God’s not casting off Israel altogether. Vv20-22 say:

So the Lord said, “I have pardoned them according to your word; but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord. Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who spurned Me see it. (NASV)

The implication is that the earth is not yet filled with God’s glory, but that this is his firm intention whatever the outcome for Israel. NIV and some others translate a present tense here, but that would make v21 almost unique amongst a number of prophetic parallels that speak of the coming of God’s glory eschatologically.

There are a couple of passages that seem to paint a different picture. I don’t think they negate Richard’s analysis, but I’d quite like to hear his comments on them (if you’re around, Richard?). The first is the vision of Isaiah in ch6, in which the prophet has an experience of God’s shekinah in the temple, and the seraphim call:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The second is the vision of Ezekiel, in which God’s “chariot”, a kind of mobile temple in which God is seen in “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” I take it this vision was, at least in part, to show Ezekiel that God’s presence, influence and glory was not restricted to the distant and doomed Jerusalem temple but covered the whole earth. How, though, do these two passages fit the “future glory” theme?

This brings me to my second point for discussion, and that is the relationship of this “delayed glory” to the present natural creation, which does not appear to have been stressed in Richard’s article but would be, I’m sure, of relevance to his research interests as well as The Hump’s concerns. I’ve hitherto taken the sabbath rest of Day 7 of creation in Genesis 2.1-3, following John Walton, to imply God’s taking up divine residence in his temple, governing it for the good of mankind, for its own blessing and for his own glory. Apart from anything else, that treatment makes good sense of the Bible’s scattered but important teaching on “sabbath”.

Clearly, if Richard is right in saying that God’s glory was (and is) yet to fill the earth, some adjustment to my understanding is necessary. But “glory” aside, the whole biblical teaching on creation is one of God’s intimate involvement, which temple imagery represents very well. Heaven may be God’s throne, but earth remains his footstool, and all that is in it remains ontologically dependent on him, not simply an artifact of one initial burst of creative activity now governed purely by lawlike secondary causes (see my last article here).

The content of the temple and image themes Richard Middleton has brought to life is so rich that I’m convinced it’s valid, and especially in the way it unites salvation and creation – surely highly relevant to the origins question in which “natural science” and “supernatural religion” are often kept absurdly apart. It’s so rich that I have no doubt it has room for both the transcendence and immanence of God in nature. In one comment under the Patheos posting of his article Richard mentions that it is the dwelling of God in heaven that allows for his immanence in the world – but I’d like to hear more about how that works and, in particular how it relates to the Bible’s pervasive temple imagery.

It surely can’t be the case that the cosmos is altogether empty of God apart from the Church, though it is manifestly the case that we look forward to a time when it is full of him in a new way.

Click here if you want to see this post in its original context, with comments and discussion.

In the above post, Jon Garvey raises some important interpretive questions; I have responded to these questions in a follow-up post.

God and Nature in Belize

It’s the beginning of the school year at Northeastern Seminary, and I’m way behind in posting anything. A new school year is always characterized by a buzz of activity—getting syllabi ready, making sure course websites are up and running, attending faculty meetings, and getting to know new students. This year I’m also teaching three new courses, which makes for extra busyness. The result is that I’ve been too focused on school matters to do any blogging the last few weeks.

One of the new courses I’m teaching is in Belize, Central America. It is a week-long course called “God and Nature” and it starts tomorrow (I’m posting this Sunday evening Belize time, which is two hours earlier than Rochester, where I usually post from).

The course is part of the Creation Care Studies Program (CCSP), and I will be teaching one of two weeks on the topic of “God and Nature” for Christian students in a semester abroad program in tropical ecology. The other week will be taught later in the semester by Steven Bouma-Prediger of Hope College. Both “God and Nature” courses provide a biblical and theological foundation for the more practical courses students take in forest, stream, and field ecology, plus internships where they get to apply what they are learning.

The students have so far had an orientation week, followed by a week of stream ecology. Here’s a crazy video montage of this year’s orientation, which shows something of what Belize is like. Starting tomorrow (Monday) the students begin digging into Scripture and reflecting on the implications of the biblical worldview for their studies.

I’ve been in Belize now for two days. I flew into Belize City yesterday and we drove two hours to the town of Santa Elena, where the program is located. It is a beautiful environment (though very humid; so I have to get used to changing my shirts often). I’ve already seen one iguana by the side of the driveway and one snake across my path.

I’ve been told I have to watch out for what the locals call the Tommy Goff (Fer-de-Lance) and Coral Snakes (both poisonous) when I’m walking in the forest. Belize has the largest population of wild jaguars in Central America, but I doubt I will see any, given I’d have to go far afield and most of my time will be taken up with teaching.

I plan to post further reflections at the end of the week (along with some pictures), or possibly after I get home, depending on how busy things get.

Also look for a follow-up blog I will be posting shortly on humans as God’s image and the world as a cosmic temple.