Lately, I’ve seen several scholars refer to the fact that the Creation is pictured as God’s Temple in Genesis 1 — which is hardly obvious. I thought I’d go looking to see what the scholars are referring to.
A helpful introduction to the subject is Genesis 1 as Temple Text in the Context of Ancient Cosmology, by John H. Walton.
The cosmos is portrayed in the ancient world and in the Bible as a temple, and temples are designed to be micro-models of the cosmos. Temples are built in the ancient world for the gods to rest in, which does not refer to relaxing, but to enjoying and maintaining security and order. With the mention of God’s rest on day seven, we can see that Genesis 1 is also thinking about the cosmos as a temple. God is creating his dwelling place, putting people into it as his images (representatives), and taking up his place at the helm to maintain the order he has established.
Imagine a pagan temple of the ancient near east. It would be a microcosm of the entire cosmos as viewed by that pagan religion. God’s temple is the entirety of the cosmos!
When a pagan temple is completed, the idol is placed — literally “rested” — in the Temple so the worshipers can come worship. God rested himself in the cosmos once he completed it. He did not so much retire to heaven as he filled the new creation with his presence.
Compare David’s description of God “resting” in the Temple in Psalm 132 —
Let us go to his dwelling place
Let us worship at his footstool—
“Arise, O Lord, and come to your resting place,
You and the ark of your might.”
For the Lord has chosen Zion
He has desired it for his dwelling:
“This is my resting place for ever and ever
Here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.”
But just as the pagans needed an image of their god, to draw worshipers toward the “real” god behind the image, God placed men and women on earth as his image — not to be worshiped, of course, but to show the true character and nature of God, so that the presence of his images would draw others toward the worship of the One True God who is represented by his images.
Why no graven image of God? Because we are the images!
In the ancient world temple dedications were often seven days in duration. During those seven days,the functions of the temple would be proclaimed, the furniture and functionaries would be installed, the priests would take up their role and at the end, the deity would enter and take up his rest.
Ernest Martin explains,
In the Garden our first parents were able to talk face to face with God. But note an important point. They only had conversations with Him at certain times of the day. They did not see Him on all occasions. It was “in the cool of the day” that they came into “the presence of the Lord” (Genesis 3:8). The expressions “cool of the day” and “the presence of the Lord” were a part of temple language. 7 “The cool of the day” was the period when the Sun got lower in the sky and the cool sea breezes normally swept over the Palestinian region. This was the time of the evening sacrifice (1 Kings 18:36; Daniel 9:21) — about three in the afternoon. This was the time when the animals were being regularly sacrificed (and also in the morning about nine o’clock). At these times the people were then reckoned as being “in the presence of God” (2 Chronicles 20:19). …
John Walton points out how the Tabernacle and Temple represent the cosmos, God’s true temple —
In the biblical text the description of the tabernacle and temple contain many transparent connections to the cosmos. This connection was explicitly recognized as early as the second century A.D. in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, who says of the tabernacle: “every one of these objects is intended to recall and represent the universe”.
In the outer courtyard were various representations of cosmic geography. Most important are the water basin, which I Kings 7:23-26 designates “sea”, and the bronze pillars, described in 1 Kings 7:15-22, which perhaps represented the pillars of the earth. The horizontal axis in the temple was arranged in the same order as the vertical axis in the cosmos.
From the courtyard, which contained the elements outside the organized cosmos (cosmic waters and the pillars of the earth), on would move into the organized cosmos as he entered the antechamber. Here were the Menorah (lampstand), the Table of Bread, and the incense altar. In the Pentateuch’s description of the tabernacle, the lamp and its olive oil are provided for “light” (especially Ex. 35:14; Num. 4:9). This word for light is the same word used to describe the celestial bodies in day four (rather than calling them the sun and moon). As the menorah represented the light provided by God, the “Bread of the Presence” (Ex. 25:30) represented food provided by God. The altar of incense provided a sweet-smelling cloud across the face of the veil that separated the two chambers.
If we transpose from the horizontal axis to the vertical, the veil separated the earthly sphere, with its functions, from the heavenly sphere, where God dwells. This latter was represented in the holy of holies, where the footstool of the throne of God (the ark) was placed.
Interesting, isn’t it? Walton lays out the theory in great detail in the scholarly Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology and also in the more popularly written The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. (He also addresses Young Earth Creationism, but that is quite far removed from today’s discussion.)
If Walton (and many others) is right, then Adam and Eve were in fact the priests in God’s cosmic temple. And, indeed,
John Sailhamer has argued that it is not coincidental that the two verbs “to work it” and “to care for it” used in Gen 2:15 are the same verbs as those used in reference to the service of the priests in the temple.
And we have to notice that God said regarding Israel —
(Exo 19:4-6 ESV) 4 “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
God’s purpose in Israel was to form a “kingdom of priests.” Isaiah picks up the theme —
(Isa 61:6 ESV) 6 but you shall be called the priests of the LORD; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God; you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their glory you shall boast.
This purpose was, of course, realized in the Kingdom —
(1Pe 2:9 ESV) 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
(Rev 1:5b-6 ESV) To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
That’s a theme you don’t hear much in church. Yes, we’re the “priesthood of believers” and therefore may read the Bible for ourselves and all that — which is true but not really the point.
Rather, the point is that we Christians are to serve God in the same fashion as priests in the ancient temples. That’s our job. What do priests do?
Well, they instruct in the Scriptures, they help others to offer sacrifices, they offer sacrifices for themselves and for others, they accept offerings to God, they care for those in need, they do the things necessary to bring God’s forgiveness to others. Indeed, they declare the formerly unclean clean. They are God’s representatives to the people. … It’s a big deal.
You see, being a part of the priesthood of believers is not about acquiring privileges and rights so much as a role in life, a place in the world, a purpose to serve.
Thus, we have these dual images — they don’t compete so much as inform and form each other. We are both images of God and priests of God. We serve as priests, in part, by being like God. And, in part, we are like God by serving as priests. After all, the priests are often merely acting as God’s agents, being his human hands to do his work in this world.