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.