A preliminary note before I get down to work. First, though these posts on biblical building are among the least-read in the history of Text Patterns, they’ve been getting some good comments, and at least two of those comments are causing me to reconsider, or at least to nuance, some of my argument: see Chaka’s comment here and Scott’s comment here. I’ll have to make my simple story less simple!
I’m going to tell a familiar story here — familiar to students of the Bible, anyway. But I hope it will take on an interesting coloration in light of my last few posts.
In my first post on this matter of Biblical building I cited Gabriel Josipovici’s list of complex built objects in the Hebrew Bible: starting with the Tabernacle, he goes on to list the Golden Calf, Solomon’s Temple, Solomon’s royal palace, Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, and of course the cosmos itself. It’s time to take note of the prominent construction project that is missing from this list: the re-construction of the Temple, as described in the book of Ezra.
Or rather, as not described in the book of Ezra. For there we learn very few details of the reconstruction. We are told that the leaders who had returned from their Babylonian captivity set up the altar, and began to hold sacrifices there, before they laid the foundation, and that when the foundation finally was laid the returned exiles shouted with joy. But that was not the only sound heard:
And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.
A remarkable moment in the long and extraordinary history of the children of Israel.
We do not learn much else about the rebuilding project for a curious reason: the chronicler of the events is much more concerned to record the various legal disputes that interfered with the project. The returned exiles, mostly from the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin, refuse to allow those from the northern tribes — the Israelites known in Ezra as “people of the land,” who had remained in Palestine and in many cases intermarried with the various peoples of the region — to cooperate in the reconstruction. This refusal leads to legal challenges, appeals to the King of Persia and the like, which our chronicler faithfully reproduces: they are the documents in the case. It is these recriminations, these squabblings over inheritance, that dominate the book of Ezra, not anything concerning the Temple.
The significance of this emphasis becomes more clear, I think, when we consider the key event in the book of Nehemiah (known in ancient times as the second part of Ezra). That event is the public reading, by Ezra, of the Law.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
And so is marked the transition, in the history of Israel, from a people whose connection to their God is marked primarily by architecture, material design, and liturgy to a people whose connection to their God is marked primarily by the use of and response to textual technologies.
Why did the old men weep when the foundation of the Temple was laid? Surely because, even if by some miracle the new Temple could be made as magnificent as its predecessor, it would never contain the Tabernacle which the Lord had promised to make his dwelling place. That had been lost, presumably destroyed by the Babylonians. There was therefore a great emptiness at the very heart of the new temple (and its later renovation). The Lord does not speak to Ezra as he had earlier spoken to Samuel and Nathan and Solomon. He speaks now through His Word. The Temple, though beautiful and beloved, will never again be what it once was; and even the greatness it once had possessed was guaranteed not by Solomon’s architecture but by that smaller, more fragile, portable curiosity that had sat within it.
Just as the story of the rebuilding of the Temple is a familiar story, this is a familiar theme: the relationship between the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle and the presence of the Lord in his Word. The Tabernacle is called, among other things, the “tent of meeting,” for Moses meets the Lord there and the Lord speaks to him — speaks words which become the Torah. Essential to the furniture of the Tabernacle is the great menorah), the lampstand fashioned from pure gold, and perhaps we are meant to remember it when the Psalmist says,
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
(I just have to use the KJV for Psalm 19.) Valuable and beautiful though the menorah may be, and all the furniture of the Tabernacle, more beautiful still are the judgments of the Lord — as enacted, yes, and also as recorded in Torah. This does not constitute a dismissal of worship through material design, but I do think it constitutes a de-centering of it. It is as though the Lord is preparing Israel for a future of rootless wandering. What can always accompany the children of Israel, even in a great diaspora?