The Evolution of the Temple in Salvation History

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By Elena Mirus, Franciscan University of Steubenville

The following essay won Best Biblical Theology Essay in the Summer 2022 Clarifying Catholicism Theology Essay contest. To view other category winners, click here.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1 RSVCE). Any half-trained Catholic can tell you that this is how the Bible begins, most could even tell you what follows it. After God creates the earth, he puts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Everything is perfect, until Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. They are then exiled from the Garden and sent out into a cruel world, full of toil, sickness, pain, and death. What could be worse than pain and death? To answer that question, it is important to understand why the Garden of Eden was so perfect. The obvious answer is that Adam and Eve were living in paradise – limitless food, only pleasant work, and no pain or death – but that is not the reason that living in the Garden is Eden was such a wonderful thing. The real perfection was the intimate relationship that Adam and Eve had with God. God is described as walking in the Garden, intimately and physically present to Adam and Eve, dwelling with them. 

This is what Adam and Eve lost when they sinned and were sent from the Garden, and this loss was worse than pain and death. The rest of Salvation History is spent regaining that permanent, physical, dwelling with God, but, because of man’s sinfulness, this did not happen all at once. God gave man a physical dwelling with him through the Temple, starting with the Tabernacle of Moses. Over time, the Temple evolved to allow more and more intimacy with God.

This paper will attempt to prove that the evolution of the Temple through Salvation History is God’s process of returning man to the Garden of Eden. To demonstrate this, first the Garden of Eden will be looked at more closely, under the aspect of the first sanctuary. Then each stage of the Temple – the Tabernacle of Moses, the Temple of Solomon, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of Revelation – will each be examined. First by looking at the Edenic parallels present in each and then by considering both how each stage of the Temple was limited and how each stage lessened those limitations. 

Before looking at how the Garden of Eden was a sanctuary, it will be helpful to have a description of the Garden, particularly for looking at Edenic parallels later. The Garden of Eden was in the eastern part of Eden. God placed every type of tree in the Garden and in the midst of the Garden, He put the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:8-9). Scripture then says that, “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers…there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon” (Gen 2:10-13). Later, when man is driven out of the Garden, more description is given, “At the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen 3:24). These aspects of the Garden will be preserved in the Temple through the ages.

The Garden of Eden was the primordial sanctuary, a place of communion with God. Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God until they left the Garden. According to Lisfa Schachter, “Implicit in the Garden story is the idea that Eden was God’s dwelling place, where He dwelt in close proximity to the first man and woman. In Deuteronomy the Temple is called God’s habitation (12:4). While this is not the precise language used in Genesis, the Garden is portrayed as the place where God’s presence abided.” As Schachter says, the Temple, especially the sanctuary, is the place where God abides, and the same is true of the Garden of Eden. This idea is backed up by G. K. Beale,

“The temple later in the OT was the unique place of God’s presence, where Israel had to go to experience that presence. Israel’s temple was the place where the priest experienced God’s unique presence, and Eden was the place where Adam walked and talked with God. The same Hebrew verbal form (hithpael), hithallek, used for God’s “walking back and forth” in the Garden (Gen 3:8), also describes God’s presence in the tabernacle (Lev 26:12; Deut 23:14 [15]; 2 Sam 7:6-7).”

So God’s intimate presence with Adam in the Garden of Eden is the same type of presence that God had in the Temple later in the Old Testament. 

Another proof of the Garden of Eden being the original sanctuary is that Adam is described as a priest. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). In Hebrew, the words “till” and “keep” are more literally “work” (‘ābad) and “guard” (shāmar). These two verbs together do not occur again in Scripture until they are used in Numbers to describe Levitical priestly duties. So while on one level, God puts Adam in the Garden to care for the agriculture, on another level, Adam is depicted as a priest who is charged to care for the sanctuary in which he dwells. The Garden is also described as being in the eastern part of Eden, with the land of Eden around it and the land east of Eden on the outer part of Eden. This is the same structure as the physical Temples of the Old Testament, with a sanctuary, Inner Court, and Outer Court. 

After man was driven from the Garden of Eden, although God made himself present at various times during the Patriarchal period, it was not until Moses and the Exodus that God offered man an opportunity to have Hhis presence with them always. The structure of the Tabernacle of Moses was dictated directly by God and has striking Edenic parallels. First, the account of the building of the Tabernacle has several parallels with the account of the sixth and seventh days of creation as described in the book of Genesis. On the sixth day, man was created and placed in the Garden of Eden, and on the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of rest and worship, was instituted. 

There are four notable parallels between the accounts of these days and the construction of the Tabernacle. First, in Genesis 1:31, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” and in Exodus 39:43, “Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the LORD had commanded.” Both God and Moses look at the sanctuary that they have built and determine it to be good. Second, both passages use the same phrasing for the completion of the work. In Genesis, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished” (Gen 2:1), and in Exodus, “Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished” (Ex 39:32). Third, each narrative says that God/Moses finished the work. Fourth, God blesses the seventh day “and Moses blessed them” (Ex 39:43). Lastly, Tthe decoration in the Tabernacle also looks back to the Garden of Eden as the original sanctuary through the use of the symbols of trees, water, and cherubim, and through the use of gold and precious stones, including onyx, in the construction. When God gives the instructions for the Tabernacle, hHe says, “And you shall take two onyx stones, and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel” (Ex 28:9). This is no mere coincidence, as the descriptions of the Garden of Eden in Genesis particularly reference the plentitude of onyx, a description that seems arbitrary at the time. 

As demonstrated above, the Tabernacle of Moses was clearly a new Garden of Eden, but it did have extreme limitations. First, the Tabernacle was only for the Israelites,; Gentiles were not included in the building of the Tabernacle or in the worship that took place there. The Garden of Eden included all men and so this first new Garden was very limited in comparison. Second, unlike Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Israelites were not permitted to dwell within the sanctuary and commune with God. In fact, only the high priest could enter the sanctuary of the Tabernacle and even that was only permitted once a year. These restrictions are made evident by details in God’s instructions for the construction of the sanctuary. “Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end…The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another” (Ex 25:19-20). Just like the Garden of Eden after the Fall, cherubim guard the sanctuary so that man may not enter. God also directs that a veil decorated with cherubim be made to enclose the ark of the covenant. “And you shall hang the veil from the clasps, and bring the ark of the covenant in thither within the veil; and the veil shall separate for you the holy place from the most holy” (Ex 26:33). The key word in this passage is separate, the veil was commanded to separate the people in a very physical way from the presence of God in the ark of the covenant. The Israelites were only permitted to worship in the outer areas of the Tabernacle. 

The Tabernacle remained the sanctuary of the Israelites until the Davidic kingdom, when Israel went from a relatively small nation to a rich and powerful international kingdom. Then the next stage of the evolution of the Temple took place under David’s son Solomon, who ordered the construction of the Temple of Jerusalem, also known as the Temple of Solomon. The construction of the Temple also echoes the Genesis account of creation as the Temple is built in seven years, dedicated in the seventh month, and celebrated with a festival lasting seven days. The number seven is taken from the seven days of creation, but especially focuses on the seventh day of creation which God blessed and made a sign of the first covenant with humanity. So the sets of seven in the building and dedication of the Temple show that Solomon viewed the Temple as a new creation and a new place for God to dwell with man. The Temple also has many Edenic parallels in its decorations, similar to the decorations of the Tabernacle. Gold, jewels, trees, cherubim, and water are all abundantly present in the Temple. In addition, the spring which flowed from the Temple mount was named after one of the four rivers of Eden – the Gihon (I Kgs 1:45). Another important aspect of the Temple of Solomon is the structure of the holy of holies, the inner sanctuary of the Temple. “The interior of the inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high” (I Kgs 6:20). In other words, it was a perfect cube, and is the only structure in Scripture that is described in that way until the book of Revelation, which will be discussed later. 

The descriptions of the Temple of Solomon show that it was both similar to and greater than the Tabernacle of Moses. This is true in the construction: the decorations of the Temple of Solomon as well as the physical structure itself, while similar in style to the Tabernacle of Moses, were much grander as well as more permanent. For example, while the Tabernacle had two small cherubim on the ark, the Temple of Solomon had two massive cherubim in the inner sanctuary and while the Tabernacle had one small bronze laver of water, the Temple of Solomon had ten large bronze lavers of water. This theme of similarity but improvement is also evident in regards to the function of the Temple of Solomon as a new Garden of Eden, and the restrictions thereof. As previously mentioned, the inner sanctuary of the Temple of Solomon is still guarded by two cherubim, in this case, each ten cubits high – an impressive and terrifying sight. The inner sanctuary was also still very physically separated from the people. “Solomon…drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold” (I Kgs 6:21). Man still was not permitted to dwell in the presence of God, or even to enter into the sanctuary. Despite all of these continued restrictions, improvements and advancements in returning man to the Garden of Eden were also present. Bergsma and Pitre say of the building of the Temple of Solomon, 

“Significantly, this massive project is not an Israelite-only undertaking; instead, Solomon solicits the Gentiles to aid him in building the sanctuary by forming a trade alliance with King Hiram of Tyre (I Kings 5:1-18). Unlike the Tabernacle under the Mosaic covenant, the Temple in Jerusalem under the Davidic covenant will be built by both Israelites and Gentiles.”

Not only were Gentiles included in the building of the Temple of Solomon, the location of the Temple in the capital city of the international kingdom of Israel also brought Gentiles to the Temple after it had been built. The splendor and glory of the kingdom under Solomon attracted high ranking Gentiles from many nations to come and visit Jerusalem, and so unlike the secluded Tabernacle of Moses, the Temple of Solomon was accessible, in a very limited fashion, to the Gentiles. The Temple of Solomon was destroyed in the third Babylonian exile but a second Temple was built on its foundations under the orders of King Cyrus of Persia, so, although there is a lot to be gained by examining the second Temple period, for this paper the second Temple will be included with the Temple of Solomon as the second step in the return of man to the Garden of Eden.

All the glory and splendor of the Temple of Solomon cannot compare to the next stage in the evolution of the Temple – the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ has two senses: first, the physical body of the incarnate God, second, the Body of Christ made up of the faithful. The Body of Christ in the sense of the church stems from the first sense and therefore the two senses comprise one stage in the evolution of the Temple. It may be argued that Christ himself is not a Temple, but there is clear biblical evidence to support the claim that Jesus’ body is the Temple. First, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matt 12:6). Nothing could be greater than the physical dwelling place of God except another, greater physical dwelling place of God, a Temple. Second, in the gospel of John, after Jesus drives the merchants out of the Temple, Jesus has a conversation with the Jews in which they demand a sign to explain his actions. “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body” (Jn 2:19-21). In this passage, Jesus clearly refers to his body as a Temple. 

Having proved that the body of Jesus is a Temple, it is important to look at the parallels between Jesus and the Garden of Eden. These are more subtle than in the last two stages of the Temple, and mainly center around Jesus as the new Adam. The first Adam was called to “work” and “guard” the sanctuary, but he failed when he allowed the Evil One to lead him and his wife into sin, which led to expulsion from the Garden. Christ as the new Adam is the obedient son who goes to the cross to do what the first Adam could not. The crucified Jesus is also the new tree of life, because through his crucifixion on the wood of a tree, Christ gives eternal life to all the faithful.

In this new Temple of the Body of Christ, most of the limitations of the previous Temples were removed. God sent his only Son into the world to make a radical step in returning man to the Garden of Eden. Christ died, rose, and opened Heaven to all believers – allowing them to dwell with God for all eternity after their death and in a limited way on earth. Until now, the veil before the Ark of the Covenant served as a physical barrier between man and the presence of God. At the moment of Jesus’ death, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Lk 23:45). The barrier was gone, signifying that man was now allowed to dwell with God in Heaven, but also on earth through the Eucharist, and this is where the second sense of the Body of Christ comes in. Throughout the writings of the apostles Paul and Peter, the Body of Christ, in the sense of the Church, is referred to as a temple. “For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6:16). This is for two reasons, first, because Jesus’ body is the Temple and the Church is the Body of Christ.  Second, when the faithful receive the Eucharist they become Temples of the living God. Through the Eucharist, not only is man now able to dwell within the sanctuary but he is given the grace of becoming the sanctuary himself, but only in an imperfect way. Man still has disordered passions that lead him away from God, and man must still toil and suffer pain and death. Even in Heaven, where the soul dwells in the presence of God through the Beatific Vision, the body does not share in this dwelling as it did in the Garden of Eden. Thus one more stage of evolution is needed to return man to the Garden of Eden.  

The last stage in the evolution of the Temple is yet to come, but it is described at length in the book of Revelation, particularly in book 21. “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2). According to Hahn, “As Jewish Christians, we would immediately recognize the Temple in Revelation’s description of heaven.” Any Jewish Christian would recognize that the new Jerusalem described in Revelation is not only portrayed as a city, but as a Temple sanctuary. “The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal” (Rev 21:16). As noted above in the description of the Temple of Solomon, the holy of holies, the inner sanctuary of the Temple, was a perfect cube, unlike any other structure in Jewish culture. 

The new city also parallels the Garden of Eden, with a river flowing in the middle of the city and “on either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2). No longer is there a tree of the knowledge of good and evil but instead there are two trees of life, both greater than the tree which grew in the original Garden of Eden – producing constant fruit and leaves of healing. 

The last stage of the evolution of the Temple fully returns man to the Garden of Eden. There are no restrictions and evil has been obliterated. This new Jerusalem is an expanded sanctuary. It is not only a perfect cube, but it is a massive structure – fifteen hundred miles each for the length, width, and height, making the holy city much larger than the inner sanctuary of old and much more perfect than the limited earthly Temple participation of the Body of Christ. The city is described as having no architectural Temple, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22). Like in the Garden of Eden, God himself is physically present in a profound and intimate way, but without the limits of a Temple structure. Worship in the original Tabernacle was limited to Israelites, and while access was expanded through Salvation History, united worship of God by all peoples continues to be limited on earth by time, space, and prejudice. In the vision of the holy city to come, “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:9). Every barrier is now gone and all people worship together before the throne of the Lamb, dwelling in his presence forever. 

When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden they lost much more than the perfect bodily life – they lost the grace of dwelling in the physical presence of God. In His great mercy, God willed to return man to the Garden of Eden, the sanctuary from which he had been driven. Because of man’s sinfulness, this could not happen immediately. God prepared man, step by step, to return to the intimate dwelling with Him that He had intended from the beginning. Through Salvation History, God used the Temple to bring man back to Him in the Garden of Eden. By necessity, the Temple was very limited at first, but slowly evolved to allow more and more intimacy with the Creator God. Although Christians still await the last stage of evolution and the total return to the Garden of Eden, because of the coming of Jesus, the Body of Christ is now able to dwell with God on earth through the Eucharist and in Heaven in the Beatific Vision.