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 to 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 its context on Jon Garvey’s website, along with responses and comments.

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

  1. Pingback: Further Thoughts on the Imago Dei: After The Liberating Image | CREATION to ESCHATON

  2. Pingback: Middleton on the Empty Temple | CREATION to ESCHATON

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