Abstract of Keel, Othmar. “The Temple: Place of Yahweh’s Presence and Sphere of Life.”

Keel, Othmar. “The Temple: Place of Yahweh’s Presence and Sphere of Life.”  In The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms, translated by Timothy J. Hallett, 111-76.  Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997. [Israel/Mountain/Design/Furnishings/Ritual/Liturgy/Worship/Presence/Theology/Symbolism]

I first encountered Keel through William Dever.  In his book, Does God Have a Wife, Dever devotes a portion of an early chapter to a discussion of how Biblical scholars have neglected archaeology as a resource.  An exception is what Dever referred to as the “magisterial 1992 German work by Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger, translated into English as Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel.” (p. 54) Such high praise led me to search for this book on the Internet.  I found it to be quite expensive, but I obtained the work in which the chapter herein being reviewed was found.  It too merits high marks.

This chapter of over 50 pages, following a brief introduction treats seven topics relative to Solomon’s Temple: 1) Temple and Mountain, 2) The Temple Gates, 3) The Forecourts and their Furnishings (the longest of the chapters), 4) The Altars, 5) The House of Yahweh, 6) The Furnishings of the House of Yahweh, and 7) The Significance of the Temple.

The chapter is lavishly illustrated with 96 graphics drawn from archaeological finds in the Near East.  For Keel the architectural design, furnishings, and symbolism come largely from pre-Solomonic parallels found in the Near East, especially Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, though he leaves room for some Israelite originality as expressed in the following quotation from the introduction: “While the institution of the temple as such was undoubtedly of Canaanite-Phoenician origin, and while its craftsmanship was certainly the work of Phoenician artisans, it does not follow that the plan of the structure as a whole was without specifically Israelite features.” (p. 113)

Keel is not overbearing in explaining the meaning of the symbolism.  He draws upon the research of many others and uses many parallels to make his points and one interested in the symbolism of the temple will only occasionally raise an eyebrow at his explanations.  More often helpful insights and understanding ease for from the text.  One important example is Keel’s suggestion that the idea of the “house” of God grows out of the standard residential buildings in the Near East.  They were rectangular structures with a central courtyard which contained an oven and a cistern.  Keel maintains that ancient temples followed this pattern for God’s house, an inner courtyard with a sacrificial altar analogous to the oven and some form of water catchment such as a cistern, pool, or even a lake.  Interestingly, the foundation stones found at Jerusalem, Megiddo and Gezer all had some sort of a cave or cistern under them.  Since the foundation stone represented the place where primeval land first appeared in the eventual conquest of the chaotic waters, Keel observes in his caption for the “Holy Rock” of Megiddo: “In the sanctuary, Chaos (the cistern) is harnessed and becomes a source of fertility.”

Wonderful examples such as this could be multiplied many times over.  However, the remainder of this review will concentrate on the two primary theses of the chapter expressed in it’s title.  Repeatedly Keel reminds the reader that a particular feature of the temple or its symbolism shows the temple to be what he terms “the sphere of life.”  Almost everything in the temple or associated with it are related to life, indeed “highly intensified life” made possible by God and through the life-giving powers and blessings of the temple.   For Keel the mountains which symbolize the temple and upon which they are often built and by which they are often called, with trees, vegetation, and water are the sphere of life. (p. 116)  The gates of the temple–the gates of salvation are gates to eternal life. (pp. 120, 126)  Thus “the temple is a sphere of highly intensified life and blessing.” (p. 123)  The Egyptian sign of life, the ankh, and the was scepter are shown above the entrance to the first pylon of the Karnak Temple complex in an ancient illustration–a mixture of power (scepter) and life (ankh)–not an uncommon notion to Mormons. (p. 124)  Coming back to the idea that a temple is the house or home of the Lord, we are reminded that home is itself the sphere of life. (pp. 128-ff)  Trees, water (in the laver, bronze sea, rivers, pools, lakes and cisterns), and gardens all adorned the courts of ancient temples and were symbolical of fertility and life. (p. 135)  The “tree of life” (what more needs to be said!), pillars, standing stones and poles represent God, the source of life and the fruit of life. (p. 135)  Keel produces an illustration of a gold lamella (small plate) with a portrayal of the tree of life which he said was sewn to the breast of the deceased to mediate to him the inexhaustible powers of the tree of life. (p. 142)  Rivers arising from the garden of Eden (a temple) show that this is the place from which all life issues.  Ps. 92:12-15 speaks of the righteous who flourish like palm trees and the cedars of Lebanon planted in the house of the Lord and they flourish in its courts.  (p. 143) According to Keel, “The anteroom and the forecourt incorporate all those features which characterize the temple as a sphere of life. These features are  repeated almost without exception in the Solomonic temple and in the description of paradise: the mountain (Ezek 28:13-16), the rivers, the trees, the cherubim.” (p. 114)  Man also, Keel says, must contribute his part to the preservation and renewal of the vital powers of the Temple precincts by his obedience, receptive heart, and his offerings.  One ancient view of the temple sacrifices was widely understood as the supplying of food to the Gods ( a great fraud perpetrated by heathen priests, in Keel’s view).  The pillars on the vestibule of the temple–Jacin and Boaz–as symbolic trees, characterize the temple as the sphere of life. (p. 164)  Even the utensils and tools used by the priests in their sacral duties showed that the “divine household lacked nothing necessary to a substantial earthly household” (p. 165).  Although Keel does not explicitly point this out, the clear implication is that ultimately the temple symbolizes and is the medium of producing eternal life.

Lastly, in the title to this chapter Keel speaks of the temple as a place of Yahweh’s presence.  Again, many elements of the temple, its furnishings, rituals, and symbolism point to the Temple as the house of God, the place of his earthly presence.  This was the common notion throughout the ancient Near East as many non-Jewish peoples kept statues or other representation of their gods in the temples.  It was understood as the sphere of God.  But Keel comes to a rather startling conclusion regarding Solomon’s temple.  For him the Deuteronomists changed things in their account of Solomon’s Temple in the Book of Kings.  Solomon said that the temple could not contain God.  Keel writes, “In the Deuteronomic history, the temple is nothing more than ‘the place where one can call upon the name of Yahweh (that is the essential content of the prayer at the dedication of the temple in 1 Kgs 8:26-43), in such a way that prayer is made ‘in this house’ (which may signify the entire sacred precincts) (1 Kgs 8:33b), or in such a way that the worshipper, whether near or far, orients toward this house (1 Kgs 8:29b, etc.), thus making the house the point of’ prayer direction’ ….  In comparison with the significance of the temple in the Canaanite sphere, and probably also in the early monarchical period in Israel, such sentiments imply a substantial reduction in content.”  (p. 176, emphasis added)

One thought on “Abstract of Keel, Othmar. “The Temple: Place of Yahweh’s Presence and Sphere of Life.”

  1. JL Fuller

    It would be appreciated if this site allowed copy and paste. Those of us who suffer from eleven thumbs syndrome would benefit.


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