The Bible shows a progression in its understanding of where God dwells among humans.
Over the years I have read many scholarly books of the Bible. Most have enriched my understanding. Some have deeply influenced my teaching and preaching. But seldom does a work completely overturn my understanding of a particular text.
That has happened for me in the last couple of weeks as I read through Tamara Cohn Eskenazi’s monograph In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah.* It has stood my previous understanding of the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah on its head. I must completely revise my thinking.
Eskenazi is a professor of Biblical literature at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Although modern Bibles divide Ezra and Nehemiah into two separate books, Eskenazi regards them as being originally one unified work. She convinces me on that.
She then seeks to explore this unified work as a literary creation. This means she does not try to get tangled up in the complex issues of sorting out the historicity of Ezra-Nehemiah’s narrative. There are all kinds of displacements in the text that make for a convoluted historical record.
Instead she concentrates on trying to understand the message that the work seeks to convey in its canonical, literary form. If you have been reading my blog faithfully, you know that I favor this approach as well. I use it all the time in my own reading.
This is not to say that historical questions are not important. But it is the message of the Bible in its present canonical form that serves as an enduring message to the religious communities of Judaism and Christianity. That message is the foundation for preaching. And so it is where I like to concentrate my attention.
A New View of Ezra-Nehemiah
But back to Eskenazi’s book. Whenever I have read Ezra-Nehemiah in the past, I tended to get bogged down in the long lists of names of people that punctuate the text. These lists make for tedious reading. For one, they are long; and two, the names are generally hard-to-pronounce Hebrew names. An English speaker will stumble over the names only so long before either turning the page or abandoning the work completely.
The book also describes the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem and the temple after the exiles return from their deportation to Babylon. The new temple proves to be a paltry affair after the glory of Solomon’s temple. The rebuilding of the city sets the stage for that long transitional period between the end of the Old Testament and for Christians, the beginning of the New Testament era. Because Protestants ignore the Apocrypha, we tend to regard that transitional period as unrecorded history and therefore insignificant.
So like many Protestants, I have given Ezra-Nehemiah scant attention. Eskenazi convinces me how very wrong I have been. Ezra-Nehemiah is a profound work. It expresses some theological themes that help set the course of the intertestamental period in Judaism and which then in course shaped the long-term thinking of both rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.
Eskenazi highlights three of those themes: 1) the important role of the people (in contrast to heroic leaders) in the rebuilding of Jerusalem, 2) the expanded understanding of what constitutes the house of God, and 3) the emergence of documents in contrast to oral prophecy as the locus of authority in the community’s life.
The Challenge for the Returning Exiles: To Build a House for God
All three of these themes play a role in reshaping my view on Ezra-Nehemiah. But in this posting I want to comment on just one of those themes, because it opened a door on the progression of an idea through the whole course of the Christian Bible. This theme is the second one Eskenazi highlights: what constitutes the house of God.
As Ezra-Nehemiah tells its story, the task of rebuilding the house of God is the major challenge the returning exiles are given when they return to the Jerusalem ruins. This comes through clearly in the edict given by the Persian king Cyrus, recorded in Ezra 1:2-4. There he says that the God of heaven has charged him with the task of building God a house at Jerusalem in Judah. And so he summons Jews from throughout his kingdom to take on this challenge.
When we read this mandate, we immediately assume that this is a charge to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem that the Babylonians had leveled. And the returning exiles make that their first priority. But Eskenazi shows that a close reading of the text suggests the completion of the temple does not constitute the completion of the mandate. For Ezra-Nehemiah does not regard the house of God as identical with the temple.
Only when the walls of the city are rebuilt under Nehemiah’s leadership is the task complete. And only then do we get the festive dedication celebrations in Nehemiah 12. For what emerges in the course of the unified book is the understanding that the house of God has expanded beyond the temple proper to include the whole city of Jerusalem. The city and its residents constitute the fulfillment of the mandate.
Jerusalem Becomes the Holy City
For this reason, we encounter in Nehemiah 11:1 an expression that was not used of Jerusalem in the centuries before. Jerusalem is called “the holy city of Jerusalem.” This explains why the temple gatekeepers (liturgical figures) are now stationed not only on the gates of the temple, but also on the gates to the city. And the dedication ceremonies celebrating the completion of the walls involve a liturgical procession of priests and people around the city on those new walls. The walls enclose the sacred space, which coincides with the city.
I found all this fascinating because it suggests that we must look to this era and its accomplishments for the rise of the perception of Jerusalem as the holy city, a perception common to Judaism and Christianity. Previous to this post-exilic restoration, the city of Jerusalem was important at the capital of the kingdom and as site of the temple. But we don’t find references to Jerusalem as a holy city in the books of Samuel and Kings and the pre-exilic prophets.
But this idea is present in Ezra-Nehemiah. And it is an idea that has come to occupy a permanent place in the religious imagination ever since.
An Evolving Understanding of the House of God
Now let me explain why I find this so fascinating beyond just a historical datum. What we see in Ezra-Nehemiah, I believe, is one stage in the evolution of the concept of the house of God as we can follow it throughout the course of the Christian Bible.
In the earliest stages of the Biblical record, the house of God is associated with the tabernacle that the Israelites build in their exodus wanderings. Under King Solomon the tabernacle is transformed into the glorious temple in Jerusalem.
King David had proposed building this temple in 2 Samuel 7, where it is referred to as a house for God. But God denies him that privilege, leaving it to Solomon. When Solomon dedicates his new temple, he does so saying:
The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.
I have built you an exalted house,
a place for you to dwell in forever. (1 Kings 8:12-13)
This makes sense to us, as it would have been a common perception of the role of temples throughout the ancient world. They are houses for the gods.
But with Ezra-Nehemiah, we begin to see this concept of the house of God expanding beyond its architectural manifestation. It is expanding to include the whole city of Jerusalem and subtly by extension, the city’s people. The architectural understanding is beginning to recede and the concept is beginning to take on an urban, social meaning.
Voices in the New Testament
Now when we get to the New Testament, we find a further progression in this evolution of meaning. In 1 Corinthians the apostle Paul takes the Corinthian church to task for its infighting and internal strife. Such behavior is destroying the church community.
We need to notice how Paul highlights the seriousness of this negativity. He writes to the Corinthians:
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
The “you” in these sentences is a plural “you.” Notice that Paul says ‘you’ (plural you) are the temple of God. The Corinthian church would have had no architectural structure in which it worshipped. (The church met in people’s homes.) The temple of God is now the community itself. The place where God dwells is now firmly within the community and its community life.**
Finally when we get to the book of Revelation in the New Testament, the elder John’s final vision is of the world as it has been remade after the coming of the End. And in this vision (Revelation 21-22), the focus of attention is the new Jerusalem, called the holy city, which descends upon earth out of heaven adorned as a bride for her husband (Revelation 21:2).
The angelic voice that speaks to John reveals the significance of this city, saying
See, the home (Greek: tabernacle) of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them. (Revelation 21:3)
Significantly, we are told this city has no temple, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. (Revelation 21:22). There is no need to confine the sacred into a restricted space. In this new creation the walls enclosing the sacred are exploded. The sacred spills out and fills all of creation. This suggests the ultimate house of God will be the whole universe, but most especially the human community at its center.
Now I don’t know about you, but this is a vision that astonishes me. This is what God is up to in creating the universe, and in calling Israel to be his people, and in sending Jesus to usher in the Kingdom of God, and in pouring out the Holy Spirit upon all flesh. It is nothing less than creating a spectacular house for God, a house in which every individual being created by God can find its home. And I believe that includes not only human beings, but all forms of life.
As Jesus says in his farewell discourse to this disciples:
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:2-3)
To that, I say, Amen.
* Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1988.
** I am aware that Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:19 also says that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. He uses this as part of the sanction for his sexual ethics. The concept of the house of God as it evolves in the Bible never becomes totally dematerialized. It always keeps its roots in the material world, as shown in the vision of Revelation 21-22.
Photo credit: Andrew Shiva