Background for Temple Veil
James M. Leonard, PhD (Cambridge)
23 May 2014
The Jerusalem Temple of Jesus’ day was a huge and marvelous wonder, built on a mountain height known as Mount Zion. Its theological significance was in its representation of Israel’s God dwelling with his people. As such, it was fashioned as a house, with household furniture such as a table for meals, a lamp, and a chair. It had its origins in the desert wanderings of Israel, after the Exodus. Under Moses, God led Israel out of Egypt in a cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night, both of which were visible manifestations of God’s presence. After establishing Israel as his people at Mount Sinai by covenant, and after the giving of the Law, God gave instructions on building a tabernacle—a grand tent, that would be placed in the middle grounds of Israel’s encampments, so that the theological urgency that God dwells in the midst of Israel would be fulfilled. As the tabernacle was dedicated, God’s manifestation in fire and cloud came down from the sky and filled the tabernacle with smoke (i.e., the Shekinah glory).
Despite the emphasis on proximity, imminence, and intimacy of God, the tabernacle was designed to convey God’s other-ness, his transcendence, and his utter holiness. The throne room where God was symbolically seated was set off from the people. Indeed, the tabernacle had its own fabric walls clearly marking off the border of God’s house from the rest of the camp. Entry was strictly regulated and required sacrifices, characteristically animal offerings. At times, sacrifices were offered as a means to atone for the worshiper’s sins, reinforcing the portrait of a holy God who does not countenance sin in his presence.
The holiness of God is further emphasized by additional barriers between the holy throne room and worshipers. Worshipers were generally not admitted into the inner shrine of the tabernacle. The inner shrine was called the Holy Place.
After the Egyptian bondage and wilderness wanderings, Israel conquered and settled in Canaan. The era of the portable tabernacle came to an end, and the Jerusalem temple was built. At its dedication, God filled the temple with his glory cloud, as he had done previously in regard to the tabernacle. The similarity of the two events indicated that the Temple was now the new abode of God, as God dwelt in the midst of his people. For the most part, the design of the tabernacle’s construction served as a model for the temple, and most rules were carried over into the new era.
God’s presence with his people was contingent upon Israel’s faithfulness. Failure to be faithful would result in divine judgment, the culmination of which would be the departure of God’s presence from the Temple. The temple’s holiness was not innate, but rather was wholly dependent upon God’s presence. It was God’s presence that made the temple holy (holy Temple); it was God’s presence in Jerusalem that made Jerusalem the Holy city; it was God’s presence in Canaan that made Canaan the Holy Land; and it was God’s presence that made the Israelites holy (holy people = the saints). Without God’s presence, the temple, the city, the land, and the people would be common, defiled, and their destruction inevitable.
Indeed, after generations of prophetic warnings, God’s patience came to an end, and judgment ensued. The sixth century BCE prophet Ezekiel depicts the glory cloud of God’s presence very methodically arising from the throne chair, exiting out the Holiest Place and then out of the Holy Place, breaching the both the inner and outer curtains of the inner shrine. After exiting the inner sanctuary, it proceeded to the courtyard, where God’s glory observed the profanity therein, and then departed the temple courts, and then forsook the city itself. It ascended up the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple Mount, and then finally disappeared. The departure of the temple made way for its conquest and destruction by the invading Babylonians.
Decades later, the temple was rebuilt, and centuries later, was damaged again in a conquest of the city. The city’s new king, Herod the Great, expanded its foundations and rebuilt it with unrestrained splendor. Although substantially complete during Jesus’ ministry, improvements and embellishments continued up until a few years prior to its utter and final destruction in the revolt against Rome in 70 C.E.
Jesus’ view of the temple was not at all evident in his early ministry. A better understanding of his perspective, however, arises in his final days, after the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem at which time he threw a fit in the temple precincts, overturning tables and preventing legitimate temple activities.
In subsequent days (following the order of events in Matthew’s Gospel), Jesus unleashed a vicious attack against the Jewish religious leaders, blaming them for all the blood that was ever shed, from that of Abel, son of Adam and Eve, to the murder of a Zechariah son of Berekiah who was slain at the steps of the temple. The tirade culminated in his pronouncement in Matt 23:38 of the temple’s forthcoming forsakenness, at which time Jesus departed from the temple, a departure that is arguably understood as a prophetic correspondence to the departure of God’s presence from the temple in Ezekiel, especially as Jesus ascended the Mount of Olives, and predicted the coming destruction of the temple.
During the crucifixion, the Synoptic Gospels indicate that the curtain of the inner sanctuary was ripped in twain. An interpretation of the meaning of the ripping of the veil was not explicated in either of the three gospels, but there are clues that might suggest the authors’ intended meaning, meanings which might be substantially different from the meaning explicated in Hebrews.