The Story of God’s Dwelling Place: A Review

If you’ve been following this blog over the last couple of months, you know I went on a trip to Israel this summer. On that trip I gained a newfound interest in the physical details of places in the Bible. The more I know, for example, about what Jerusalem looked like in the first century, the easier it is to visualize the events that happened there.

9780801016202J. Daniel Hays has written a useful little book for people who are curious about the physical spaces where God was worshiped in the Bible: The Temple and the Tabernacle: A Study of God’s Dwelling Place from Genesis to Revelation. It relies on recent research into archaeology as well as biblical studies and ancient history, and it also manages to be a very useful book even for the reader without a lot of background knowledge.

From creation until the incarnation of Christ, according to Hays, the story of God’s dwelling place is a story of decline. As many other scholars have argued, Hays writes that the garden of Eden was itself a temple designed as a place where humans could have communion with God. God walked with them there until their sin caused them to be evicted from God’s presence. Later, after the exodus, the tabernacle enabled God to dwell among his people again, but his glorious presence was limited to the holy of holies. Only the high priest could go there, and then only once a year.

Hays continues to document this decline in Solomon’s temple. Yes, God’s presence did inhabit Solomon’s temple, but there are many subtle indications in the biblical account that all was not well, even before the end of Solomon’s life when his idolatry is named explicitly. There are significant differences between the way Moses oversaw the building of the tabernacle and the way Solomon oversaw the building of the temple. For example, Solomon relies on a Canaanite craftsman to build the temple. And whereas the tabernacle was built using the voluntary contributions of the Israelites, Solomon built his temple with taxes, tribute, and forced labor.

This decline continued after the time of Solomon. God’s glory left the temple before its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BC, which the prophet Ezekiel narrates in a vision (Ezek 8-11). The temple was rebuilt 70 years later, and 500 years after that Herod the Great expanded it in a grandiose manner. But Hays argues that God was not present in the temple in the years between the departure of God’s glory and the arrival of Jesus. This is why, for example, the Roman general Pompey could enter the holy of holies in 63 BC and suffer no ill effects. Although God returned to the temple in Jesus, the days of the physical temple were numbered when the religious leaders of his day rejected him. The Romans destroyed the second temple in AD 70, but even before then Jesus and his followers had begun speaking about God’s dwelling place in a new way. Jesus had spoken of himself as the temple, and his followers like Paul spoke of the church as a temple in which God dwelled by his Spirit. The latter chapters of Revelation look forward to a time when God’s presence will dwell more openly among his people, and there will be no need for a physical temple (Rev 21:22).

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The southern steps, where the main entrance to the temple complex was in Jesus’ day

The Temple and the Tabernacle contains numerous full-color photographs of architectural sites and artifacts, as well as artistic renderings of what the temple and tabernacle looked like. The only negative thing I can say about this book is that I would have preferred a hardcover. I know that it would have driven up the price, but it has quality paper and full-color photos; it would have been nice to package them in something more sturdy than a paperback.

With that small critique aside, the content of this book is first-rate. It teaches readers about the physical aspects of God’s dwelling places in the Bible, educating us in their symbolism. But it does more than that. It teaches about the character of God, pointing out his persistent desire to dwell among his people in spite of their rebellion against him.

Note: Thanks to Baker Books for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

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