Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Altars of Stone

And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Exodus 20:25

Iron is one of the metals which rusts. And it was looked upon as a symbol of pollution. Gold, on the other hand, was the symbol of glory and purity.

The altar was to be built of unhewn whole stones, in Aramaic called shalmatha, "whole" or "perfect." Shalam means "peace." Iron instruments might cause injuries to the workers and pollute the altar with human blood. The stones were to be natural, symbolizing the purity, naturalness, and simplicity of the religion of Israel, as compared with man-made pagan religions.

The altars of the God of Israel were to be different from lavish pagan altars. That is to say, they were to be simple. Many of the ancient altars in the countryside were built of unhewn stones
[Deut. 27:5].

Lamsa, George M. 1964. Old Testament Light. San Francisco: Harper Collins., pg 142

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Beautiful Gate


These eight side gates, as we may call them, were all two-leaved, wide, high, with superstructures and chambers supported by two pillars, and covered with gold and silver plating. But far more magnificent than any of them was the ninth or eastern gate, which formed the principal entrance into the Temple. The ascent to it was from the terrace by twelve easy steps. The gate itself was made of dazzling Corinthian brass, most richly ornamented; and so massive were its double doors that it needed the united strength of twenty men to open and close them.

This was the ‘Beautiful Gate;’ and on its steps had they been wont these many years to lay the lame man, just as privileged beggars now lie at the entrance to Continental cathedrals. No wonder that all Jerusalem knew him; and when on that sunny afternoon Peter and John joined the worshippers in the Court of the Women, not alone, but in company of the well-known cripple, who, after his healing, was ‘walking and leaping and praising God,’ universal ‘wonder and amazement’ must have been aroused.

Then, when the lame man, still ‘holding by’ the apostles, again descended these steps, we can readily understand how all the people would crowd around in Solomon’s Porch, close by, till the sermon of Peter–so fruitful in its spiritual results–was interrupted by the Temple police, and the sudden imprisonment of the apostles.

(Edersheim, Alfred. 1994. The Temple: Its Ministry and Services. Updated edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers., pg 124

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The True Vine and Veil Symbolism

I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. John 15:1

The quote below gives us a word picture that the Savior used when He called himself the "true vine." Josephus also shares the Jewish interpretation of the embroidered veil symbolism.

"As to the holy house itself, which was placed in the midst [of the inmost court] that most sacred part of the temple, it was ascended to by twelve steps; and in front its height and its breadth were equal, and each a hundred cubits, though it was behind thirty cubits narrower; for on its front it had what may be styled shoulders on each side, that passed twenty cubits farther.

Its first gate was seventy cubits high, and twenty-five cubits broad; but this gate had no doors; for it represented the universal visibility of heaven, and that it cannot be excluded from any place. Its front was covered with gold all over, and through it the first part of the house, that was more inward did all of it appear; which, as it was very large, so did all the parts about the more inward gate appear to shine to those who saw them; but then, as the entire house was divided into two parts within, it was only the first part of it that was open to our view.

Its height extended all along to ninety cubits in height, and its length was fifty cubits, and its breadth twenty; but that gate which was at this end of the first part of the house was, as we have already observed, all over covered with gold, as was its whole wall about it: it had also golden vines above it, from which clusters of grapes hung as tall as a man’s height; but then this house, as it was divided into two parts, the inner part was lower than the appearance of the outer, and had golden doors of twenty-five cubits altitude, and sixteen in breadth; but before these doors there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors.

It was a Babylonian curtain , embroidered with blue and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe; for by the scarlet, there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax of the earth, by the blue of the air, and by the purple of the sea; two of them having their colors this foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for that foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing living creatures."

(Josephus, Jewish War 5.5.4 §§207-14 #118)

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Temple's Splendor

The Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Christ was an imposing sight. Josephus gives an impressive description:

Now the outward face of the temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men’s minds or their eyes: for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for, as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceedingly white.

(Josephus, Jewish wars 5.5.6 §§222-23 #117)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Calming Storms & Drowning Legions

Ancient Jewish sages believed that the future Messiah of Israel should display certain Moses-like characteristics—powerful spiritual leadership and astute Torah teaching. It is no secret that Moses and Jesus have much in common, sharing similar life experiences. In particular, both led a mission of deliverance from bondage. Therefore, it should not surprise us to find parallels of language and themes from the Exodus within the Gospels. For example, in Luke 11:20, Jesus says that if he drives out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon the people. This unique phrase, “finger of God” is a direct reference to Ex 8:19 and the plague of the lice/gnats, where the Egyptian magicians proclaim that “this is the finger of God.”[1]

The Gospel writers, with the possible exception of Luke, were biblically oriented Jews writing to other Jews and “God-fearing” Gentiles. When describing the life and teachings of Jesus, these writers would naturally want to communicate through shared biblical motifs understood in their Jewish framework. It is logical to suggest that their target audiences would be holding to certain expectations about their long-awaited Messiah.

Without understanding the life and work of Moses, the messianic reports about Jesus could potentially fall on deaf ears. Of the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), Mark is perhaps the heaviest-laden with thematic parallels and inter-textual connections to the Exodus. To fashion a message with such links would have fit well into the more respected styles of teaching and storytelling known in the ancient Jewish world, specifically midrash. Within the ancient Jewish teaching there was often a sub-world of midrash, a sophisticated system of biblical interpretation that connected different parts of Scripture by word plays or subtle allusion. It has been widely taught in Christian circles that Mark’s work was customized to fit the interests of a Gentile Roman audience. However, with a careful investigation of his style, it seems doubtful that Mark cast his pearls of midrashic teachings on those with no synagogue background or biblical literacy.

Keeping this in mind, several parallels to the Exodus come to light in Mark’s depiction of Jesus. Jesus under pressure from the crowds (Mk 3:9-10), calming the storm (Mk 4:35), and delivering the demoniac from a host of demons (Mk 5:1-30) has allusions to the Israelites flight from Egypt (Ex 12:34), Moses calming the children of Israel at the Reed Sea (Ex 14:13-14), and the subsequent destruction of Pharaoh’s army (Ex 14:27-28).

Under Pressure on the Shore

Both Mark and Luke relate that crowds pressed upon Jesus for healing and teaching while he was on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (Mk. 3:9, 10; Lk. 5:1).[2] At one point Jesus instructs his disciples to prepare a small boat so the crowds would not “press hard” upon him (Mk 3:9). Moments later, Mark tells us that Jesus is so rushed, he does not have time to eat a meal of bread (Mk 3:20). This seemingly insignificant detail about being “pressed” strikes a biblical chord and may be a clue to a larger story build-up connected to the Exodus account. With this phrase, “pressed hard”, Mark’s audience would be reminded that the children of Israel were under intense pressure and had little time to eat a meal with proper bread before their escape from Egypt (Ex 12:34).

In Exodus 14 we find Moses on the shore of the Reed Sea as the Israelite crowds press upon him for answers. The jubilation over their recent deliverance from slavery in Egypt has suddenly turned into the highest level of anxiety. As darkness falls, the Israelites are acutely aware that Pharaoh and his army are closing in behind them, while in front of them is the impassable Reed Sea. The Israelites cry out to Moses saying “did you bring us here to die in the wilderness?” (Ex 14:11).

Calming Words—“Peace, Be Still!”

Paralleling Mark 4:35-41, with darkness looming on the horizon Jesus and his disciples set sail. Later that night, they encounter a furious storm on the Sea of Galilee.[3] At this critical moment Jesus is found sleeping on a cushion and his disciples are in a state of terror as the waves begin to break over their boats. They awaken Jesus and cry out, “Teacher, don’t you care if we perish?” (Mk 4:36). There is harmony here in all the Synoptic narratives, but the next detail sets Mark apart from the others when he tells us specifically what Jesus said to the wind and waves, “Peace! Be still!” (Mk 4:39).

Returning to Exodus 14, Moses is pressed for answers as the tension mounts and the future of the children of Israel hangs in the balance. With the crowds pressing him, he exclaims, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Ex 14:13-14).[4]

With both Jesus calming the storm and Moses calming the Israelites, we have two nearly identical moments involving imminent doom that is tranquilized by the words “Quiet, be still” or “Peace be still.” For reasons we may never know Matthew, Luke and John chose to leave out this fascinating link.

Pharoah’s Legions and Pigs Drown

In Mark 5, Jesus and his disciples finally reach the other side of the Sea of Galilee in the early morning (conjectured time of day). They arrive in the Gerasene region of the Decapolis (possibly near modern day Kursi). There Jesus is confronted by a man who has been tortured for years by an unclean spirit. There is a dialogue between Jesus where the demons identify themselves by the military term “legion” and beg not to be sent out of the country (Mk 5:1-10). Jesus promptly exorcises these spirits out of the man and they enter a herd of pigs located on a nearby hillside, whereby the pigs rush into the sea and drown (5:13).

In Greek religious culture which was pervasive on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, pigs were often selected for sacrificial purposes. After Jesus casts the demons into the herd of swine that soon after drown, witnesses inform the local residents. Instead of expressing joy or gratitude for the miracle that had set the demoniac free, the residents request that Jesus “leave their region” (apelthein apo ton orion Mk 5:17). This angry reaction of the locals may provide a crucial hint at the religious offense of the pig drowning. Their Greek religious infrastructure had just taken a blow. After the Egyptians suffer from ten devastating plagues or divine strikes, we can hear a similar urgency in their words as they demand the Israelites be sent out of their region (ekbalein outous ek tais gais, Septuagint Ex. 12:33).

At the Reed Sea, Pharoah’s army is thrown into utter confusion (Ex. 14:24), and like the possessed pigs charging into the Sea of Galilee, Pharoah’s soldiers give chase to Israel. Yet, both hordes of legions meet a watery grave. Several commentators have suggested that Mark’s narrative about the drowning pigs was originally intended to be a satire about the Roman occupation of the Jews. The wild boar was the symbol of the Roman 10th Legion, and the drowning of swine would have been welcome news to a Jewish audience. Likewise, after years of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites would have celebrated after the drowning of their oppressors.


The Gospel of Mark skillfully draws our eyes and ears back to one of the greatest rescue accounts of all time from one of the most popular Torah books, Exodus. Just as Moses represents God’s redemption from the bondage of Egyptian slavery, so too, Jesus is the redeemer of those trapped in spiritual bondage or suffering from demonic oppression. Deliverance is a driving force in Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus not only sets them free, restoring them to their right mind, but the enemy takes a “hit” from the “hand of God” (Deut. 28:59).

Mark’s linguistic links and thematic hints to the Exodus resonate with and solidify one of the central messianic expectations—that he should be like Moses. If Mark’s intended audience were indeed Roman, I would suggest that they were most likely Jewish Romans or ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles who attended synagogues and would have been familiar with the rich Exodus themes. Mark’s portrayal of Jesus as a liberator and redeemer like Moses would have convincingly communicated to these synagogue members Jesus’ messianic purpose and message.

[1] David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of the Christianity (Magnes Press, Jerusalem 1988) p. 550 – the expression could also be understood as an eschatological sign.

[2] Known as sea or lake Kinneret (כנרת ים) in biblical Hebrew (Num 34:11 and Jos. 13:27)

[3] Luke never uses the term ‘sea’ instead he consistently calls it a ‘lake’ (lymnain) a description more authentic to the size and reality of the Kinneret which is indeed a fresh water source. Mark on the other hand, never uses any term but ‘sea’ (thalassa) when speaking about the Kinneret. Matthew uses both terms but ‘sea’ is less frequent. By definition a sea is typically a larger body of salt water.

[4] תחרישון Taharishun = hold your peace, be quiet or be still

By Jon “Yoni” Gerrish

Friday, April 6, 2012

Herod the Builder

“In 35 B.C.E. Herod the Great was king of Israel. Herod had a reputation for cruelty and for acting as the Roman’s puppet. However, he was also responsible for countless building projects throughout Israel and therefore was called ‘Herod the Builder.’ It was this Herod who remodeled the Second Temple to look as beautiful as it did when Jesus saw it.

“Of course, because of God’s instructions, the site of the Holy of Holies remained the same for both Temples, because this was a holy place set aside by God. The Jewish people were careful to keep track of its exact location. The Temple surrounding the Holy of Holies was greatly expanded by Herod, as were the Temple courtyards.

“But Jerusalem is a hilly area,” Shep continued. “Herod wanted the entire complex to be on one level, so he dug rock, moved it, and created a huge level area on which to build. It wasn’t very stable, so he built four huge retaining walls around the whole Temple area: a northern retaining wall, an eastern one, a southern wall, and the famous Western Wall.

“When the Romans demolished Jerusalem after the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 C.E., they destroyed everything in the city ‘to the very last stone’ except for the western retaining wall. This wall they left standing to serve as a reminder of the Roman’s capacity for destruction.” It serves as a vivid reminder to this day.

One Noachide’s Journey, The Holy Land, pgs 68-69)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Opulence Of The Two Temples

And David said, Solomon my son is young and tender, and the house that is to be builded for the LORD must be exceeding magnifical, of fame and of glory throughout all countries: I will therefore now make preparation for it. So David prepared abundantly before his death.
1 Chr. 22:5

It is known that most or all of the holy vessels of gold and silver from the tabernacle were with the Ark when it was brought from the city of David to the first temple by Solomon (I Kings 8:4). Although David desired to build a permanent house of God in Jerusalem, his son Solomon built the first temple. The plans were those of David, and David amassed the materials (I Chronicles 28:1-19; II Chronicles 2-4; I Kings 6-7).

These materials included 100,000 talents (Ref. 3) of gold and 1,000,000 talents of silver, (I Chron. 29). From his own private fortune David also gave 3,000 talents of gold and 7,000 talents of high grade silver. This is an enormous quantity of gold and silver by any standard: 100,000 talents of gold = 3750 tons, value today = $45 billion; 1,000,000 talents of silver = 37,500 tons, value today = $10.8 billion. In round numbers, the wealth of the first temple was about $56 billion. ...

The total wealth of the Second Temple was always small compared to the greatness of the First Temple though there were many changes made during the 400 years following the closing of the canon of the Old Testament. The Roman ruler Herod decided to completely rebuild and enlarge the Second Temple beginning in his 18th year of reign (c20 BC). Herod employed 10,000 workmen and 1,000 wagons. The size of the temple area was increased from 17 to 34 acres by excavations in the north and by the building of great retaining walls rising 450 ft from the Kidron Valley in the southeast. Within this area, now measuring 351 yards on the north side, 512 on the east, 536 on the west, and 309 on the south, rose the temple with its Corinthian columns of bronze, its different courts and gates and gleaming, spacious cloisters. The buildings and walls we built were extensive and massive. It was in this enlarged Second Temple built by Herod that Jesus was dedicated, and where he later taught and cast out the money-changers on two separate occasions. ...

The second temple treasury did benefit from a great influx of gold and silver from all lands contributed by worshippers. Cicero wrote of great influxes of gold to Jerusalem during his lifetime. Gifts other than gold or silver coins were sold and their value given to the treasury. Another large source of revenue was profit made from the sale of the meat offerings which were prepared by the Levites and sold every day to the offerers. By far the largest sum was probably derived from the half-shekel of temple tribute which was required of every male Israelite of age, including proselytes and slaves. The total sum of gold and silver contributed annually at the time of Jesus has been estimated to have been of the order of $500,000 per year. A large fraction of this wealth no doubt accumulated year after year over the lifetime of the second temple, (515 B. C. to 70 A. D.). There were numerous temple expenses but the evidence suggests that the bulk of the income was stored up year after year. Thus, the Roman plunder could well have been worth tens of millions of dollars.

The pillaging of the temple, its total destruction and the burning of Jerusalem with terrible suffering and loss of life occurred in 70 AD under the Roman General Titus (Josephus, Wars of the Jews). Tradition has it that the intense flames of the temple fire melted the gold and silver of the temple so that it ran between the cracks of the rocks. Roman soldiers then totally dismantled the temple stone by stone to extract the gold, (see Matthew 24:1-2). No one seems to know with certainty if any of the vessels or sacred objects from Herod's temple were hidden in subterranean passageways during the long siege of Titus. Most everything of value was most likely carried off to Rome.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Bowing as Worship

In many Asian and Middle Eastern cultures today, the act of bowing has tremendous significance both religiously and politically. Here is a scholarly insight that helps us to appreciate the symbolism of that posture.

"For much of the Old Testament, whether in Hebrew or in the Greek of the Septuagint, "bowing down" and "worship" are linguistic equivalents. Thus, according to George E. Mendenhall:

The symbolic action denoted by the Old Testament Hebrew term consists of kneeling before the god or person having power, and then leaning forward until the face rests on the ground, or sometimes becoming completely prostrate. Sometimes the act is completed and acknowledged by the god’s or the king’s placing his foot on the head or neck of the worshiper. The symbolisms should not be difficult to understand. The situation is that typified by a captive of war. The man has been rendered powerless by a superior power, and henceforth his fate is completely in the hands of the mighty one. He is in a state of absolute dependence upon the will of the victor, and this is the first basic significance of the act."

From such a perspective, incidentally, it is worth noting that the Islamic term "mosque" derives from an Arabic word masjid, meaning "place of prostration."

Burkhart, John E. 2002. Worship: A Searching Examination of the Liturgical Experience. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers (reproduced with permission from the Westminster Press, pg 103)