Saturday, February 28, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 8

In this chapter, Solomon brings the ark into the new temple and dedicates it with a prayer and sacrifices.

This is a somewhat lengthy, but simple, chapter. Having built the new temple, Solomon is transferring the ark of the covenant from the old tabernacle of David and into the shiny new temple. From what I can tell, all the other furnishings, such as the various altars, table of consecrated bread and the golden lampstand, were constructed anew by Solomon. However, the ark of the covenant is not rebuilt, and he simply transfers it from the tabernacle (the Hebrew word means “tent”) to the new temple (the Hebrew word means “house”).

First of all, verse 1 tells us that they were going to “bring up the ark” from “Zion, the City of David” to Jerusalem. This is interesting because in most places in the bible, Zion is considered a poetic name for Jerusalem. Jerusalem is also called the City of David. I think it’s noteworthy that in 2 Samuel 6, the author of Samuel specifically says that the ark was brought up to “the City of David”; he never says it was brought to Jerusalem. However, in 2 Samuel 5 (just one chapter before), the author of Samuel describes David’s conquest of Jerusalem, saying in v. 6 that David “marched to Jerusalem to attack…” and in v. 7, “David captured the fortress of Zion, the City of David.”

My best guess is that Zion, “the City of David”, refers to a particular district or a fortified hill that overlooks the larger city of Jerusalem, and I suspect that David conquered both Zion and Jerusalem. Then he built his palace in the fortified fortress of Zion and established his tent for the ark and the LORD’s presence there. Afterwards, Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, but outside of the (probably more specific) fortress of Zion, and now he is moving the ark from Zion to the temple in Jerusalem.

As I mentioned above, in later times Zion gradually drifts from being a place-name to being a poetic name, referring to Jerusalem as a whole. This poetic drift expands even further, with Zion and Jerusalem both eventually becoming something like a philosophy, Zionism, which (in general terms) refers to the Jewish desire to return to the promised land, to “go up to Zion” and return not just to the city of Jerusalem, but more broadly to the LORD’s presence and to the faith of their ancestors. I will point out places where Zion is used in this way as we go along, but I expect to see it particularly often when we get to the book of Psalms. For now, it suffices to understand that the author of Kings is using the term far more literally.

King Solomon offers countless sheep and cattle. This is a demonstration of both piety and power.

Next, I would like to briefly reference v. 8 which says “and they are still there today”. We have read a couple statements like this, where the author establishes the continuity of some monument or tradition “until the present day”, and these are always interesting to me because, assuming we believe the author is speaking truthfully, it helps us to date when this particular passage was written. I’m sorry if this is a “spoiler” for anyone and if any of my readers get upset with me for giving away the ending, but in about 300 years after the life of Solomon, Israel and Judah are going to be conquered and taken into exile by foreign powers. I would feel worse about telling you guys if it hadn’t happened 2600 years ago. When they do, the temple is going to be looted and destroyed, and the poles of the ark will not longer be visible as “they are still there today”. Therefore, we can logically assert that the book of Kings (or this passage in particular) must have been written before the people of Judah were exiled and the temple was destroyed. This is interesting for at least a couple reasons, but in particular because the book of Kings itself refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple at the end of 2nd Kings. Although the point is debatable, I think it’s likely that Kings was written as a progressive commentary or chronicle of Israel’s history, and that the section here (in 1 Kings 8) was likely written sometime close to the events it was describing, while the end of the book was written after the destruction of Israel and the exile from the promised land.

It is likely that this chapter was not written cotemporaneously with the events it describes, because if it were, “still there today” would not mean anything. To say that something is “still true today” only has meaning to the extent that there is a timeframe between when it was originally true and when the author is presently writing. Otherwise, there is no point in saying that something is “still” true.

I don’t think there is any significant theological point here. I am just mentioning it because these are the seemingly minor comments that scholars can use to trace the construction and evolution of the Hebrew Bible, and I think it’s interesting for its own merit.

Next, in verse 9 the author notes that the ark of the covenant contained nothing but the two stone tablets “that Moses had placed in it at Horeb.” This statement is a little hard to reconcile with some previous passages. We had previously been informed that the ark also contained a jar of manna and the staff of Aaron that budded (Exodus 16:33, Numbers 17:10). These objects have not been mentioned since then, so one would assume that they had simply been left in-place (for hundreds of years, but still in-place). Rather, it appears that these items are now gone, and I don’t know why, when or how they were removed. As far as I can recall, they will never be mentioned again, so they simply disappeared without a trace. A sufficiently creative person could offer many possible explanations, but none of them have any real supporting evidence so I will leave this mystery for my readers to puzzle over just as I do.

In verses 10-11, the glory of God fills the temple with a cloud, manifesting his presence just like he did when his cloud and glory filled the tabernacle of Moses (Exodus 40:34, Leviticus 9:23, Num 14:10). This should call us back to the Exodus from Egypt and wandering in the desert, when the LORD’s presence dwelt among Israel, protected them and guided them. For nearly all of the Judges period through David’s kingdom, we have not had a manifestation of God’s presence like this, even though he was involved with guiding Israel’s affairs. This is a hopeful sign, then, that God has accepted Solomon’s temple and will dwell with his people again.

Then Solomon talks for a while. I will pick out the parts I find interesting or unexpected.

For this chapter as a whole, we should understand Solomon’s dual purposes of showing his devotion to the LORD and demonstrating his power and wealth to his subjects. There are many kings who have done this, and some kings are more interested in devotion and other kings are more interested in showing off to their subjects. Saul, for instance, offered a sacrifice in order to rally his men and Samuel rebuked him for it. David offered sacrifices every six steps when taking the ark of the covenant up to the fortress of Zion, and the LORD called David “a man after my own heart”. I get the sense that Solomon falls somewhere inbetween these figures. He is clearly a wise ruler, and he is devoted to the LORD, but he is also very pragmatic and his devotion is not wholehearted. I think Solomon is glad that the LORD’s presence filled the temple, but I also think he is glad that the people “blessed the king” (v. 66). Similarly, the people were “joyful and glad in heart” for the LORD’s blessing, and also joyful and glad in heart for having 14 days of rich feasting at the king’s expense.

With all that as context, I think Solomon’s prayer is mostly genuine; but I do think there is an aspect of showmanship as well, and I think Solomon is possibly just as interested in appearing pious as he is in being pious.

Now, let’s start near the beginning: Solomon asserts that God promised David that his dynasty would last forever, as long as his sons remain obedience to the LORD. This is a pretty incredible promise, but it also has a pretty important condition on it. As I’ve already stated, Israel is going to be destroyed as a nation in a couple hundred years, so unfortunately I think my readers should be able to guess by now that David’s descendants are not going to remain faithful to the LORD. Nevertheless, this promise that David’s dynasty would last forever has some interesting implications with regards to the Messiah. Later passages are going to call the Messiah the “son of David”, which suggests that the fulfillment of God’s promise to David is found not in a perpetual dynasty in Israel, but in something much more important.

Then Solomon lists the many kinds of prayers he would like the LORD to answer at his temple: prayers for justice and mercy, for foreigners and victory in battle against other foreigners. Most commonly, he asks that the LORD forgive Israel’s sins and reverse any of the various kinds of curses and plagues that might come upon them because of their sins. On the one hand, this shows us the general philosophy of the day, that plagues and misfortune come about as a result of sin, and on the other hand, it shows us just how many different kinds of misfortune they faced in Solomon’s era: defeat in battle, drought, plagues and locusts, disaster or disease, and most significantly, captivity and exile into a foreign land. The last one foreshadows Israel’s eventual defeat by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and their exile into foreign lands at the end of this book.

My favorite verse in this passage at the present moment is v. 36, “Teach them the right way to live.” This has been my own prayer recently, because I want to learn God’s ways and learn the right way to live.

I have heard other commentators point out the uniqueness of v. 41-43, when Solomon prays that God would answer the prayers of foreigners, even those who do not belong to the house of Israel, when they pray towards the temple, and that God would do whatever they ask of him, so that God’s name would be glorified by demonstrating his power to all the people of the world. This is the most selfless part of Solomon’s prayer, because in this instance he is not praying for God to bless Israel, but rather that God’s name would be glorified throughout the earth. This certainly demonstrates sincerity on Solomon’s behalf.

In verse 48, Solomon tells the Israelites that when they are in exile, they should pray towards the land, towards the city (Jerusalem) and towards the temple. In later times, it would become a tradition of the Israelites to pray facing towards the land of Israel, the place where God’s presence dwells.

Solomon appears to reference Moses more often than he references David, which I find interesting. When the presence of God fills the temple, it reminds us of the presence filling the tabernacle of Moses. The ark (built by Moses) has the two tablets placed there by Moses. Towards the end of his prayer, Solomon twice references the exodus from Egypt (v. 51 and 53), and he twice references Moses himself (v. 53 and 56).

Perhaps Solomon, as he prays about a future exile from the promised land, had in his thoughts the previous “exile” when the people were condemned to wander for 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai, when a whole generation died without entering the promised land. Solomon is perhaps thinking of a future time when Israel would be once more driven out of the promised land and condemned to “wander” in foreign lands, living in slavery under a foreign power like when they were in Egypt, and he is hopeful that a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15) would emerge to lead the people into righteousness and back into the promised inheritance.

Solomon concludes by offering a gigantic heap of sacrifices over 14 days. I am amused by v. 64, because Solomon had just built this new, significantly larger bronze altar for sacrifices, and then he goes and offers so many sacrifices that even the larger altar can’t burn them as fast as his priests are butchering them, so they just consecrate an entire section of the courtyard and burn everything in what must have been an impressive pyre.

In the end, Solomon is happy, the people are happy, the animals are dead, but otherwise everyone is happy. This is certainly Israel’s golden age: everything in this chapter is optimistic, except perhaps for Solomon’s prayer when he says “there is no one who does not sin”. That part is grimly foreboding; but everything else about this chapter is happy and cheerful. David’s throne will endure forever, God’s presence is back, and the people are rejoicing. How could things go wrong from here?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 7

In this chapter, Solomon constructs his palace and the furnishings of the temple.

This chapter contains a long series of descriptions.  I will briefly summarize them here, since I found this chapter a bit confusing when I first read it:
  1. The "Forest of Lebanon", Solomon's royal palace.  More on this below.
  2. The two pillars of bronze.  These have no parallel in the tabernacle of Moses.  I'm not aware that these were used in any religious rituals; to the best that I can tell, these pillars are purely artistic.
  3. "The Sea", a large bronze basin.  More on this below also.
  4. The ten stands and basins.  There is no parallel to these in the tabernacle of Moses as laid out in the book of Exodus.  Their purpose is not explicitly described here.  It's possible they were used for ritual washing (though I don't think they could not be used as a "mikvah", the kind of washing mandated in the book of Leviticus for cleansing ceremonial impurity).  It's also possible they were used for sacrificial offerings.
  5. A bunch of other stuff.  Shovels, bowls, basins, lampstands, etc.  These are nearly all things that were made by Moses as well.  The shovels and bowls are for shoveling ashes from the burnt offerings, the golden altar and golden table are placed inside the temple.  The ten lampstands are new, and probably kept lit similarly to the golden lampstand within the holy place.
  6. Wheels, axles, frames?  Pomegranates, wreaths, chains and capitals?  There is a lot of specific details in here that I don't think are very important or necessary to discuss.  If my readers are confused by any of the descriptions in this chapter, I think they could replace the words with "it looked really nice" without losing much interpretive value.
So, to start off, I noticed that Solomon spent nearly twice as long building his own "house" as he did building the LORD's "house".  Also, Solomon's palace is much larger than the temple.  My first instinct is that this shows Solomon investing more heavily in his own luxury than in the LORD's temple.  Rashi notes that he built the LORD's temple quickly and his own house slowly, as meritorious, showing he was more interested in the LORD's house than his own.

Taken objectively, Solomon invested lavishly in the temple.  He built it out of the most expensive woods and covered nearly every surface with gold.  Even if we could say that he built his own house to be larger and more expensive, I don't think that Solomon was miserly in any way towards the LORD.  Tithing, for instance, is 10% of a person's income.  We can spend 90% of our money on ourselves and still honor the LORD.

Secondly, as a minor note, "Hiram of Tyre" in this chapter is almost definitely a different person from King Hiram who made a treaty with Solomon two chapters ago.  So these two figures should not be confused.  "Hiram of Tyre" is a half-Israelite, son of a man of Tyre and an Israelite woman.

Third, I would like to take a moment to talk about "the Sea".  The word in Hebrew is "yam", literally "sea", but in construction this is a bronze basin.  This is essentially a larger and more elaborate replacement to the bronze basin made by Moses for the priests to wash.  It's called "the sea" as an allusion to its vast size.  We can imagine the Israelites looking at this large pool and poetically referring to it as being like a sea.  This chapter doesn't specifically tell us what the sea is used for, but a later parallel text in Chronicles explains that the ten basins (v. 38-39) were used for washing the utensils and the sea is used for the priests to perform ceremonial washing (which is commanded in Exodus 30:18-21).

Fourth, the "Forest of Lebanon".  As with the Sea, this is a poetic allusion.  In particular, the palace is built almost entirely out of cedar, which would have been cut in Lebanon, and it is built with multiple rows of wooden pillars.  There are also multiple rows of windows which would illuminate "the forest".

Similar to the previous chapter, most of the things that Solomon built (apart from his palace) mimicked the furnishings built by Moses during the Exodus.  However, they are more elaborate and expensive, and Solomon throws in a few extras like the enormous and expensive bronze pillars.  The Sea, also, is a much larger and more artistic version of the bronze altar that was part of the tabernacle worship.  Solomon adds many decorations like the bronze oxen, the pillars, and other various details and carvings.

As a whole, this chapter shows that Solomon is going to build everything in the temple similar to how it was structured before, except more expensive and elaborate, showing off his tremendous wealth and power.  We can also see where Solomon is putting all that cedar he was harvesting a couple chapters ago, and the costly stones become the foundation of his new palace.  To quote myself, "it looked really nice."

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 6

In this chapter, Solomon builds the new, permanent temple of the LORD.

At a high level, this chapter should remind us of Exodus 25-30.  In Exodus, we are given a description of the tabernacle, the altars and the various other religious furnishings.  Spanning over 6 chapters, those descriptions are far more detailed and expansive than what we have here, which is just the temple (which is replacing the tabernacle at this time).  In terms of its factual construction, the temple is very similar to the tabernacle in the general layout, though the precise details vary.  The biggest difference is that the temple is a permanent structure and is meant to be the LORD's permanent dwelling place, while the tabernacle was movable and intended to follow the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness.  In cultural terms, it represents the shift from a nomadic, pastoral society into a static agrarian one.  But in religious terms, the temple is a very close continuation to the tabernacle.  Israel's society may be changing, but the way they are supposed to worship and seek God is not.

So, my reaction to this chapter is very similar to how I reacted to the tabernacle in Exodus.  My first instinct is that this chapter means very little.  It is filled with countless details that hardly seem to matter.  The proportions of this room, the layout of that chamber, and it just goes on and on.  It's like reading the SEC filing of some major corporation; it's filled with many numbers that I'm sure have a lot of meaning to an accountant somewhere, but means nothing to me.

My second instinct is to ask myself, should these details have meaning to me?  Do these proportions or designs must have some kind of mystical or interpretive meaning?  I can hardly stop myself from trying to piece everything together and figure out "what it all means".

My conclusion is that the truth is probably somewhere in-between.  I think a lot of the peculiar details can be ignored with very little consequence, but that we can draw some high-level notions from the design of the temple to build a greater understanding of how to approach God.  Indeed, the purpose of the temple itself is to provide a venue, and the sacrifices provide a process, for how the Israelites were meant to approach God.  Although the physical temple no longer exists, both Jew and Christian alike have sought ways to copy the temple into their own hearts, and copy the sacrificial process into their own lives, that we might approach God wherever we live.

There are many people who have spent time analyzing the symbolic meaning of cedar versus cypress, gold versus silver, and the various numbers and proportions in this chapter and elsewhere.  I do not intend to reproduce that analysis here though, since I don't think it is critical to understanding God's intention with the temple, or the author's purpose with this chapter.

I think the author's purpose is to convey the reality of the temple.  He is saying, here is the size of the side rooms.  They had doors there, and a stairway leading up.  The holy place was this size and the most holy place was that size.  It is all real, it was built, it existed, and this was how we worshiped God.

I think God's intention is expressed in the middle of the chapter, in verses 11-13, when he says "if you walk in my laws and obey my commands, I will dwell amongst you and your people forever."  (paraphrase)  The intention of the temple is to establish the permanence of God's residence amongst his people, even as God was intending to establish David's throne and dynasty forever.  Solomon was the recipient of God's promises to David, just as Israel was recipient to God's promises to the patriarchs.  In building the temple, Solomon and Israel are affirming God's covenant with them.

In terms of the structure of the temple, as I said before it is very similar to the tabernacle.  It has multiple stages of holiness.  First, there is the courtyard, which contained the bronze altar of burnt offerings.  Then there is the nave, in front of the temple.  Within the temple, there is first the holy place, and then most deeply within the complex is the most holy place, where the presence of God dwelt between the cherubim above the ark of the covenant.  Not to dwell on the point excessively, but even this layout emphasizes that the covenant is central to Israel's relationship with God.  Without the covenant, there is no purpose for the ark, and without the ark, God's presence would not dwell in the most holy place.

I also think the temple is designed to create a sense of progressive revelation.  Most Israelites were not permitted into the temple; only the priests were allowed within.  The most holy place was not permitted even to the priests; only the high priest was allowed in there.  But to those who enter, there were also degrees of ritual purity.  The people who enter the courtyard needed to be ritually clean.  To enter the temple, the priests were required to take a special bath.  To enter the most holy place, the high priest needed to make a series of sacrifices on his own behalf and on behalf of the people.

Why does God require this gradual approach, these layers of separation that are taken away one at a time?  I think there are multiple answers to that. but what makes the most sense to me is that God is holy, pure and righteous.  He is like a burning fire, and to approach him as a sinful person would burn us.  God uses these layers for the same reason that Moses put a veil over his face to conceal the glory of God that rested on him when he went back to speak to the rest of Israel while he was conveying the Law to them in the book of Exodus.  The glory can actually be damaging to people if their hearts are not purified.  This is one of the reasons why 70 men (or 50070 men) from Israel died when they looked into the ark of the covenant in 1 Samuel 6:19.  They were not sanctified or purified and they looked into the glory of God, and it was the glory that destroyed them.

Approaching God is not a trivial thing, and it should not be taken lightly.  There are multiple stages because the human heart needs the time and process in order to acclimate to God's environment, and even then, most Israelites were not permitted to go into the deepest and most holy places.

Now, my readers should understand that life under the new covenant is significantly different from life under the old covenant, for reasons that I will address in depth when we get to the New Testament.  But even still, many of these truths apply.  God does not reveal all of his glory to us at once; we would be overwhelmed.  Rather, he teaches us and builds us up progressively.  Sometimes there is a shock of revelation, but these are usually structured so that we have preparation beforehand and time to digest it afterwards.  These kinds of revelations can be life-altering, but I think they tend to be infrequent for that reason.  A human soul can only absorb so many bursts before we start to flounder and lose our sense of identity and self.

To approach God, we must be changed and purified.  But to change too rapidly, to be purified too swiftly, can ultimately be destructive.  There is almost a violence inherent in change; it takes time to solidify and reform, and so change needs to be spread out over time.  It is like physical exercise: working out actually damages your muscles, breaks down protein and depletes iron.  What makes you stronger is the rebuilding process as your body repairs those muscles.  But if someone exercises too vigorously and does not rest, that person actually loses muscle mass because then the destruction outpaces the rebuilding process.  What had been helpful can become harmful if it is done without proper spacing and rhythm.  It is the same when approaching God.

For my own sake, while I like to think of myself as a patient person, in many situations I am not.  I am not patient about seeking God.  I want to be immediately and instantly in the fullness of God's presence and remain there for the entirety of my life.  I get frustrated at the process.  I have had occasional bursts of growth and shocks of revelation, and I wonder why God doesn't do that all the time in my life.  The dry and desert seasons are hard for me to understand because I don't feel like I am getting any closer to God in those times.  I am pained and confused by the sense of distance that I feel runs contrary to all the promises of God.  Like even in this chapter when God says that he would dwell in the midst of his people.  It's true, he does dwell in their midst, but to approach him requires several stages of sanctification, and that can be challenging.

God ordained the seasons; he created winter, and he also declared that the seventh day would be a Sabbath, a holy rest.  This is intentional, and it is an example for how we are supposed to structure our lives, even in pursuit of God.  This is not to say that we take "time off" from God, or that God doesn't do anything in those times.  Resting is part of the growth process, and we are supposed to pursue God in the midst of rest just as much as we pursue God in the midst of work.  It looks different, however, and it feels different.  We, as God's people, are called to be sensitive to what God is trying to do in us in every season, and to understand that the appearance of God's activity in your life will change just as much as the seasons.  There is a rhythm in God's activity, and we can acknowledge his rhythm and patterns without exactly understanding them.  Indeed, we must acknowledge them, because God is not going to change for our convenience or comfort, and if we do not accept God's ways then it will make those winter seasons much harder to deal with.

But once we learn to flow in those seasons, to mirror in our own lives and ambitions what God is trying to do in us, then we can find a harmony with him that transcends the seasons, and brings us into a closeness with him even in the midst of all the ups and downs in life.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 5

In this chapter, king Solomon starts gathering the building materials for the LORD's temple.

This is a short chapter, and in proper context it is relatively straightforward.  Lebanon is renowned in this historical era for its cedars, so much so that the "cedars of Lebanon" are a biblical metaphor for wealth and luxury.  In fact, even to this very day the flag of Lebanon has a cedar right in the middle of it.  Solomon goes to Tyre (which is a city in the nation now called Lebanon) to buy these cedars because he wants the temple of God to be made using the finest materials.

We see an emerging alliance between Israel and Tyre, that is primarily (if not entirely) based around trade.  Solomon buys their wood in exchange for food.  The overall exchange is quite simple; what amuses me about this chapter is that both Solomon and Hiram couch their intentions with religious language.  Solomon phrases everything in terms of the construction of the temple (which is fair, that is what he is doing), while Hiram "rejoices" at Solomon's request, and also blesses the LORD for his newfound wealth.  I do not think we should take Hiram's piety at face value, however, because amongst other things, Hiram is not a follower of the LORD.  I'm sure Hiram's rejoicing is authentic, because he was just handed an enormous windfall, but I think Hiram would be just as likely to bless Baal or Ashtoreth if some other nation were coming to him with a request for cedar.

Hiram asks for food in exchange, because during the biblical period, Tyre and Sidon were not able to grow enough food to be self-sufficient; located on the coast of the Mediterranean, Tyre was primarily dependent on trade for its livelihood, and this cedar harvesting scheme would have been supplementary to that.

In addition, Solomon conscripts laborers from his own people to harvest cedars as well as quarry stones.  This was something alluded to a couple chapters ago when we learned that Solomon had a minister over forced laborers.  Now we know what those laborers are doing.  With over 180,000 forced laborers, this is clearly an extensive project that is only possible due to Israel's growing wealth.  Still, we can imagine that most of these conscripted laborers are probably displeased with Solomon, because it is unlikely that they are compensated much for their time.  Perhaps they are fed, but otherwise I doubt they are being paid much, if anything at all.

However, this is the golden age of Israel's prosperity, so nothing is going to stop Solomon from accomplishing his goals, even if it builds a little resentment from his own people in the process.