Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Visual Arts Contextualization in the Bible, Part 4

Today I'd like to focus on an idea that I recently read about in The Temple and the Church's Mission  by G. K. Beale, and secondly in an article entitled “Jerusalem as Eden,” by Lawrence E. Stager (Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2000). The idea is this: that the motifs and symbolism of Israel's temple, like the temples of its pagan neighbors, were based on the idea of a primeval garden. If this is the case (and it seems to be, at least in part), then it is another way in which Israel borrowed artistic and theological concepts from its neighbors in order to show the truths of Yahweh.  

As Beale puts it, “It is apparent that Israel intentionally alluded to facets of the pagan religion surrounding them (e.g., Egyptian, Canaanite and Babylonian) in order to affirm that what the pagans thought was true of their gods was true only of Israel's God” (p. 29).

The idea of a primeval garden from which God ruled over the earth was common to several cultures surrounding ancient Israel. A central part of these cosmologies was the idea of the garden being located on a cosmic mountain where the deity dwelled. From this mountain flowed the primordial waters of life, which watered the garden and the earth (see Genesis 2:10-14). Examples of garden imagery in the temples of Israel's neighbors include a temple created by Ramses III of Egypt, who created “gardens” inside his god's temple. In the temple of Isis on the island of Philae, colorful foliage forms the capitals of the ten pillars. We recognize several sorts of tropical vegetation: lotuses, papyri, palm trees. The huge, beautifully painted pillars symbolize the first plants, trees and flowers of the earth which began to grow on the Primeval Mound (symbolized by the temple floor). In the ceiling (the sky), are images of the Day Boat and the Night Boat, and of the vultures of Upper and Lower Egypt.


Another example of garden imagery is a mural in the Babylonian palace at Mari, located on the banks of the Euphrates in modern Syria. It depicts the installation of King Zimri-Um into office. According to Stager, “The setting for the ceremony is a paradise garden with date palms and stylized papyrus stalks. Guarding the garden and the palace are winged sphinxes, griffins and bulls. At the outer edges of the scene, two goddesses of high rank stand with upraised arms-- a gesture of protection for all within the garden precincts” (p. 39). In addition, he mentions “near the city of Assur, archaeologists have discovered a garden temple associated with the akitu festival. Row after row of tree pits filled the courtyards of the sanctuary” (p. 43). Stager mentions several examples of Near Eastern kings (including Solomon) who built literal gardens near their temples or palaces and filled them with all kinds of trees and plants from near and far. These lush gardens reinforced the idea of kings as the representatives of their gods on earth, with each king tending the garden or dwelling place of the god.

Inside Solomon's Temple itself, the entry portico was flanked by two tree-like columns which were capped with lily-shaped capitals, each interlaced with two rows of pomegranates (1 Kings 7). The olive wood folding doors at the entrance to the temple and to the Holy of Holies, like the walls of the central hall (Holy Place), were decorated with carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and rosettes (open flowers), all of which were covered in gold (1 Kings 6). As mentioned in last week's post, cherubim were mythic/spiritual beings in Near Eastern cosmology who guarded both the throne of God and the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. In the main hall (Holy Place), there was one main lampstand (menorah) flanked by ten additional smaller lampstands. Beale speculates that the main lampstand represented the Edenic Tree of Life. God's instructions for its construction (Ex. 25:31-36) call for it to look somewhat like a small, flowering tree with seven protruding branches from a central trunk. The overall effect of the entire grouping of lampstands suggest a forest of trees. In fact, when describing the later destruction of the temple by enemies, the writer of Psalm 74:5-7 stated “They behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees.”

Like the garden of Eden, Solomon's Temple suggested that God could metaphorically step out of the Holy of Holies into the Holy Place, just as he had stepped down from his throne and walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam. In this sense (according to Beale and others), Eden was the first “temple” and Adam was the first priest who, like Moses, met face to face with God. In conclusion, I agree with Beale's thoughts on the significance of the parallels with Solomon's Temple and those of his neighbors:

This resemblance of pagan temples to Israel's temple probably was due, at least in part, to a refracted and marred understanding of the true conception of the temple that was present from the very beginning of human history. As history unfolded, God's special revelation about the temple continued only with the faithful remnant of humanity. The recollection of the true temple by those outside God's covenant community probably continued, but its memory became dim over time. Nevertheless... some temples were designed that still retained features corresponding to God's own view. God's people, on the other hand, continued building temples that represented the pristine view of the true cult (Beale, p. 29).

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