Lessons From the Sanctuary

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Lessons From the Sanctuary


What does it mean to be holy? What probably comes to mind is a cleric of some sort. Someone who is devoted exclusively to religious work. If I told you that you needed to be holy in all that you do, would that mean that you would have to change your profession? The sanctuary teaches us something about being holy, so let's plunge into our study of the Bible and see what we can learn!

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Lessons from the Sanctuary
Commentary for the October 26, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Hebrews 10:1-4, NIV
During the Exodus, Moses told the people that God had ordered him to construct a sanctuary as a place where He would dwell among his people. According to the biblical text, Moses was shown a pattern of how it should look.[i] While the writer of Hebrews asserts that this pattern was a heavenly sanctuary,[ii] this may be speculative in the same way that assuming because a contractor shows you the plans for a particular type of home, he lives in the same type of home. But be that as it may, there were also similar models for the sanctuary in Egypt where the Israelites had resided for 430 years. Moses, who was raised in the royal household, may have been familiar with that architecture.
Just like the Sanctuary, Egyptian temples would often be built around the idea of having a courtyard that would be traversed while worshipping at the temple. As the worship progressed it would move from the courtyard through a colonnade into a holy area, and ultimately into the most holy area. These two areas are commonly known as the pronaos and the naos respectively.[iii] This does not mean Moses was not actually shown a pattern is some sort of heavenly encounter. It simply means such an encounter may not have been necessary. Perhaps Moses simply interpreted his life as being directed by God and any experience that served to further the liberation of the Israelites and to increase their cohesiveness as a nation was therefore from God. We do much the same, today, when we look back over our lives and determine that this or that moment was God’s direct influence on our future direction.
We would like to think that the Israelites came out of Egypt with a pure Hebrew culture, but this is inconsistent with their behavior throughout history. We see for example that during the Greek era that Hellenic influences pervaded the entire culture of Israel, even to their synagogues. While we might expect these houses of worship to somehow reflect a pure Hebrew faith, they sometimes contained signs of the zodiac and other pagan Greek imagery.[iv] The word “synagogue” itself is Hellenic koine Greek. It is not specifically the use of alternative cultural decorations for worship that I am drawing our attention to but rather an overall willingness to adapt architectural features from other cultures. Another example would be the Roman Amphitheaters that became a part of the Jewish cultural package. An excellent example is the one at Caesarea.[v] This perhaps was where Herod, who had it built, was reported to have accepted the accolades of a crowd that proclaimed him a god, and thereafter, according to the Bible, he promptly died.[vi]
Perhaps we should not overlook that there was an element in Israel opposed to these borrowings from other cultures, especially when it came to religious architecture. When Ahaz was king of Judah, he went so far as to redesign the altar for the temple in Jerusalem based on a design he saw in Damascus.[vii] The temple priest readily acquiesced. Although the writer of 2 Kings where the account is written does not speak specifically against the new altar, his opinion of the king is made clear in his statement, “Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. Unlike David his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places, on the hilltops and under every spreading tree.”[viii]
In view of the tensions that appear to have existed over worship styles and architecture, it may beg the question of why there was no tension over the similarities between the sanctuary and the Egyptian temple designs. This may be for several reasons. One reason might be that Moses was such a powerful personality and had the backing of his tribe, the Levites, who were given positions of power and influence in relation to the new sanctuary structure, and no one was powerful enough to resist him. However, his hold on power did not go unchallenged, even by his sister Miriam and his rather wishy-washy brother, Aaron,[ix] but Moses and the loyal Levites always seemed to come out on top. An interesting sidelight is that in spite of his repeated involvement with those who were rebellious toward Moses, even to the extent of lying to Moses,[x] Aaron never seemed to face punishment for his actions. Perhaps, Moses felt he was too important a link to Levite loyalty to do so. However, per the text, Miriam was punished harshly for her role in rebellion. Of course this might only reflect a gender bias by the author.
Another possible reason that Moses was not challenged over the design of the sanctuary and its similarity to Egyptian temples is that some if not all of the miracles, the ten plagues, the crossing of the sea on dry land, and the pillar of cloud and fire, actually took place and cemented him by divine endorsement in a position of unassailable authority. After all, who in their right mind would challenge someone able to wield that kind of power? Strangely the Bible maintains that some did. Korah, Dathan and Abiram from the tribe of Reuben rose up to challenge the authority of Moses and the Levites.[xi] Consistently, the biblical account deals with the rebellion with the same resort to supernatural power that delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians, thereby providing yet another supernatural endorsement of Moses’ right to rule.
Apart from all the drama and the various possible reasons for Moses’ motivation to construct the sanctuary, one very big question remains. Why was there such a dramatic transition in worship theology? Prior to the Egyptian captivity, God was understood so expansively that the idea of building Him a house would not even have been dreamed of. He was worshipped under an open sky, often at mountain-top altars. What caused the Israelites to now feel that such a God could now be contained in a tent in the desert? Even King Solomon had trouble understanding that concept.[xii]
Were they influenced by the centuries they lived in Egypt to feel that the proper place for gods was in a temple, hidden in darkness? We often want to assume that the Israelites came out of Egypt with a pure faith, but how realistic is that? Even in our day, we struggle over what represents purity of faith, and how much is influenced by our cultural milieu. Were the Israelites in Egypt somehow superhuman in this regard? Were they, including Moses, able to resist any sort of Egyptian religious understandings influenced by over four centuries of pressure to assimilate into the local culture? Or were there instead those who sought to build bridges between the two cultures?
Throughout the history of the Christian church there seems to have been a certain amount of syncretistic influences operating. On the one hand, there have often been those that felt by accommodating to some degree the culture where one is living will open channels of communication for “spreading the gospel.” The idea being that if we are open to listening to and even incorporating the thoughts of others, they might be willing to do the same toward us. The basis for such thinking continues to be mostly anecdotal with little hard data to back up these assumptions, but they are often strongly held nonetheless.
On the other hand, another factor that can drive syncretism is the desire to avoid persecution or open hostility toward one’s own culture or belief system. We may seek this because it is rarely healthy to continue in a state of conflict for any length of time. Many societies, both religious and secular, apply a great deal of pressure for members of those societies to accommodate one another to achieve order and harmony, even when the accommodations are outside of previously acceptable practice.
Perhaps this very syncretistic accommodation not only caused the Israelites to incorporate Egyptian perspectives into their world view, but it may have also made it easier for them to accept the radical change in religious practice from their ancestors that Moses taught them to adopt. Perhaps after so many centuries they were closer to the Egyptians in their understanding than the patriarchs. If this was the case for them, then where are we today?
[i] Exodus 25:40
[ii] Hebrews 8:5
[iii] “Ancient Egyptian architecture: temple,” www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/art/temple.html
[iv] “Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols,” www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/
[v] “Herod's Roman Theater, Caesarea,” www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/caesarea-roman-theater
[vi] Acts 12:21-23
[vii] 2 Kings 16:10-16
[viii] 2 Kings 16:2-4
[ix] Numbers 12
[x] Exodus 32:24
[xi][xi] Numbers 16
[xii] 2 Chronicles 2:6
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Re: Lessons From the Sanctuary

Contemporary Comments

"Lessons From the Sanctuary"
October 26, 2013

Exodus 40:9, 10; Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:14-16; Exodus 31:2-11; Romans 3:25-28; 1 Kings 8:31-53; Psalm 73:1-17
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King David had a dream house, too. But he didn't need to buy or build it. In fact, it wasn't even his to own. He talked about it in Psalm 27:4: "One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple." (NIV).

What was so special about the house of the Lord? It was the place to meet God. After sin put an end to our face-to-face communication, God missed us. A new plan had to take place, and so the sanctuary was built. The earthly sanctuary was a place to reconnect with God. It was a place where everyone could be cleansed of his or her sins. It was a place where the gap between God and humans could be bridged with a sacrifice that pointed to Jesus' ultimate sacrifice. It's a place where God's holiness covered their sinfulness. It was a place of grace.

~ nc

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1. Forbes