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The Universe as God's Temple



By Brandon Lemons


Did you know the idea of God’s temple is written into the Bible’s opening statements?  In Sunday’s sermon that traced the theme of “temple” through Scripture, I said, “Many scholars believe the temple theme begins in Genesis 1 with how the creation account is presented.”  I didn’t have time to dive into this claim during the sermon, but I’m writing this article to highlight parallels between creation and God’s temple.  These parallels show that, in the opening chapters of Genesis, God wanted to send the message that He is the King who reigns over the universe!

 

A Place for God to Rest

 

Throughout the region where ancient Israelites lived, people believed temples were places for gods to rest.  The conclusion of the creation account in Genesis also shows God at rest.  Genesis 2:1-3 says, “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.  By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.  Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”  After God was done with His work from the first six days, He rested. 

 

This theme of “rest” as it relates to the temple is evident in other parts of Scripture as well.  For instance, Isaiah 66:1-2 says, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.  Where is the house you will build for me?  Where will my resting place be?  Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?’”  The ideas of temple and rest are connected!  Another example is in King David’s words from 1 Chronicles 28:2.  “Listen to me, my fellow Israelites, my people.  I had it in my heart to build a house as a place of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD, for the footstool of our God, and I made plans to build it.”  The ark of the covenant represented God’s presence, and the temple was “a place of rest” for God.  Likewise, Psalm 132:7-8 says, “Let us go to his dwelling place, let us worship at his footstool, saying, ‘Arise, LORD, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might.’”  Again, this shows that a temple is a place for God to “rest.”  The fact that God “rested” after completing His work of creation points toward a temple metaphor in Genesis 1-3.

 

In my mind, this theme of “rest” is the clearest connection between creation and the temple.  John Walton, who is one of the world’s top Old Testament scholars, writes: “rest is the principal function of a temple, and a temple is always where deity finds rest.”

 

The Structure of Forming and Filling in Genesis 1

 

In a temple construction project, the structure would be built, and then furniture and other items would be installed in preparation for the moment when all was ready for the temple’s inauguration. 

 

The structure of the six days in Genesis 1 appears to consist of two symmetrical parts; one way to describe the two parts is “forming” and “filling.”  The first three days are about “forming,” and the second three days are about “filling.”  The forming of light on day 1 parallels the installation of specific sources of light (sun, moon, stars) on day 4.  Water and sky were separated (formed) on day 2, and on day 5, the water and sky were filled with fish and birds.  On day 3, dry land was formed, and on day 6, the land was “filled” with animals and humans.

 

An interesting parallel comes from Exodus 25:9, where God gave instructions for constructing the tabernacle: “Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.”  There is the forming of the tabernacle and then filling it with the furniture God designated.  So the structure of forming and filling offers a parallel between Israelites constructing a temple and God constructing the universe.

 

The Sequence of Sevens

 

The creation account features the number 7 (as in 7 days), and the number 7 was also significant for important events related to temples.  For instance, the ordination of a priest took 7 days (Leviticus 8:33-35).  Israel’s temple was constructed in 7 years (1 Kings 6:38).  The temple was dedicated to God during a 7-day festival in the 7th month (1 Kings 8:2,65).  Slightly less obvious was that Solomon’s prayer while dedicating the temple included 7 petitions to God (1 Kings 8:31-35).  An organization called The Bible Project declares, “This [seven-day] ritual was so deeply ingrained in ancient culture that the Israelites would have immediately understood a seven-day creation story to mean that creation itself was a temple for their God.”

 

Echoes of Eden

 

Another parallel between creation and temple is the Garden of Eden.  Both the Garden and the temple were places where people could meet with God – in fact, they were the places of God’s most intimate, personal presence.  When God gave instructions for building the temple, He prescribed artwork that featured garden imagery like flowers, palm trees, and pomegranates (1 Kings 6:18,29; 7:19-20).  The lampstand in the temple (called a menorah) was designed to represent a tree (Exodus 25:31-32) – specifically, the tree of life that was at the center of the Garden.  Plus, there is the powerful parallel of cherubim, which I describe as “angelic bouncers declaring ‘Keep Out!’”  After Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God stationed cherubim at the Garden’s entrance (Genesis 3:24), and He instructed that cherubim be pictured on the curtains blocking the entrance into the holy rooms of the temple (Exodus 26:31).  The representation of the Garden of Eden in the temple clearly associates temple imagery with the creation account.

 

The Presence of Priests

 

The temple was where priests uniquely experienced God’s presence and served Him.  Genesis 2:15 describes the responsibility God gave to Adam and Eve: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”  The Hebrew words for “work” and “take care of” are both used many times do describe the role of priests in the temple.  At times, the words are even used in the same statements.  For instance, Numbers 3:7-8 says: “[Priests] are to perform duties for him and for the whole community at the tent of meeting by doing the work of the tabernacle. They are to take care of all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, fulfilling the obligations of the Israelites by doing the work of the tabernacle.”  If other lines of evidence point to creation being God’s temple, then it is a natural step to believe that God appointed Adam and Eve to serve as priests in His presence.

 

Conclusion

 

Based on the five points listed above, I believe Genesis 1-3 presents God’s work in creating the universe as constructing and inaugurating His temple.  There is certainly more than this happening in the creation account, but “temple” serves as a metaphor with powerful implications for our understanding of God’s goal in creation.  If He was constructing a cosmic temple for Himself, then creation is an act of God installing Himself as King of the universe.  He constructed the cosmos as His “house” (temple); as the divine King, He has now taken up residence in the world.  God is sitting on His throne, having rested from the work of creation, and is reigning supreme as the Lord of the universe!

 

The fact that God reigns is true regardless of our interpretation of Genesis 1-3.  But the idea of the universe as God’s temple adds a beautiful and profound layer of meaning and significance to the opening chapters of the Bible!

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