How God Made the Universe to Be a Giant Temple

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

It’s public knowledge that the reputation of church-goers isn’t good, and many of the reasons for this are, unfortunately, due to how church-goers treat people.

Consider this story, which is based on true events.

Tom grew up in the church, worked a normal job, and had a family. He prayed, read the Bible, went to Sunday school, and always tried to be decent to people.

He then fell into a hole of depression.

All Tom’s desires sunk into despair as life itself shrunk and wrinkled up like an old apple that fell behind the fridge. Tom’s marriage and family life became strained, but he felt worse about church life.

How could he talk about his issues?

His so-called friends and family at church had explicit expectations for him to follow, so sweeping his problems under the rug was a lot easier than facing disapproval.

He had nowhere to go, then that horrible weekend came.

A long-time, attractive work friend of Tom’s was the empathetic ear his wife hadn’t been. With the juicy bait dangling in front of his starving lips, he could only resist so long. Then he made a regrettable mistake.

He hated himself so much, especially now.

When his wife found out, it was the nightmare he expected, but then the church got wind of his dirty laundry. He thirsted for unconditional acceptance but instead got a face full of shunning, shame, abuse, and slander—all coated in Bible language and Christian lingo.

His wife left him, which didn’t surprise him, but when the church abandoned him—when the family who was supposed to “love one another” threw him away like a rotten apple, he was done.

Is it surprising to find out that Tom joined the millions of ex-Christian, God-hating atheists? As these stories prolificate, the reputation of Jesus’s people rusts and rots away.

And what about the victims?

It creates a special type of betrayal that is the blackest hole from which not even light can outrun. It often redefines that person’s perspective of God, people, themselves. Everything.

These pour souls feel alone, holding their aching wounds and concluding that, “There is no help coming to save us”, as one such person put it, “No one’s out there.”

Pain can break a person to death, but there’s a cure.

It Starts in Genesis

Jesus said true love is sacrificing yourself to benefit others (John. 15:13).

Action, sacrifice, and benefit—that’s biblical love, and we need it like we need oxygen. Just as pain can demolish a person into dust, this love can breathe life into that dust, reanimating it into a gloriously new person.

That’s why Jesus spoke of it; that’s why he lived it to death, and that’s why he did it for us: “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke. 22:19).

But this love doesn’t start in the Gospels.

It starts in the Old Testament, in the Pentateuch, in Genesis 1:1. The cure is described in the whole story of the Bible, not just the last part.

Uh oh!

The Old Testament has a reputation for being a boring and weird collection of mostly unimportant details—except for a few proof-texts here and there, prophecies about the anti-Christ, and maybe some Jesus typology.

The Old Testament God is also grossly misunderstood.

Turn a few pages back from Mark, and the loving God of Jesus is suddenly a demented seven-year-old with gasoline and a lighter, laughing manically over a burning anthill of Philistines.

This is the view espoused in the Satanic Bible and in other anti-Christian propaganda, and it is surprisingly common among church-goers, but it couldn’t be more wrong.

The story of the Bible is the historical account of God’s passionate pursuit to bless humanity (Gen. 1:28). That's the plan, and this plan climaxes with Jesus’ sacrifice.

But the cross is simply the next chapter in a long romance that started in Genesis.

Miss this, and it’s like seeing the last five minutes of a movie. No wonder so many Bible-readers live out Christianity so badly!

All the Toms in the world need this love, just as we all need this love. So as we dive into this romantic drama, pray we would be rekindled, resuscitated, and resurrected by the beauty of God’s plan for humanity.

That is what this series on temple theology aims to do, so let's jump in.

The Secret Meaning of the Cosmos

I once loved playing with 3-D models of real buildings, like the Notre Dame cathedral, or the Empire State building. They were just foam pieces with pictures glued on, but those models looked close enough to the real thing, except I could destroy them with a pretend meteor shower of quarters.

The Jewish temple was also seen as a miniature model of the universe. This is because, in ancient Hebrew cosmology (and Ancient Near Eastern cosmology), the universe itself was designed to function as a giant temple.

In Jesus’s day, the Jews believed this, including Jesus, his disciples, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and all the New Testament authors.

For example, Josephus and Philo, the most prolific Jewish authors of the time, both assumed the temple represented the universe, which itself was made to be a temple.

Not only is this widely supported in the Bible, but temple theology:

  • Runs through every biblical book

  • Is one of the foundational ideas of the gospel

  • Is a central theme in the Bible

  • Is present in nearly every non-canonical Jewish book, including the pseudepigrapha, the Apocrypha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Understanding it will transfigure how we see and live out the gospel, but it all starts with reading Genesis the way an ancient Hebrew in the Ancient Near East would.

Seven Days for the Temple

Theologians, philosophers, and scientists alike have asked, "How old is the universe?"

Christian theologians have answered this question in every shade on the spectrum, from seven 24-hour periods to several billion years. Augustine concluded that God made the cosmos in a single moment.

But this misses the point of Genesis entirely because these questions did not occupy the ancient audience.

There are various creation accounts made at this time and none of them are interested in answering 21st-century questions (see John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament).

It’s another example of Christians laboring over the wrong question to produce an irrelevant answer.

Here’s a better question: why did God choose seven days? Why not one, or eight, or twenty-three? Most importantly: what did this mean to ancient Hebrews?

At the time Genesis was written, Ancient Near Eastern societies didn’t keep track of time with seven-day week cycles. However, when temples were built everyone knew that temple dedications lasted seven days.

To pagan and Hebrew alike, seven was understood as a temple number.

Because of this, seven is strongly linked to the Jewish temple and tabernacle:

  • The temple was built in seven years (1 Kings 6:38)

  • Temple priests were ordained in seven days (Ex. 29:35)

  • The temple was dedicated on the seventh month for seven days (1 Kings 8:31-55)

  • The tabernacle instructions are structured by seven divine speeches (Exodus 25-31)

  • Temple instructions are given in sections of seven (Ex. 24:1-34:28)

  • The priestly instructions are in sections of seven (the book of Leviticus)

  • How the high priest must enter the temple’s core is explained in sections of seven (Leviticus chapter 16)

The connection of seven to temples would have been thoroughly understood by the original audience, including its meaning and significance.

By making the creation in seven days, Genesis is portraying the construction of the cosmos as the building of a temple. Further, the literary structure and vocabulary of Genesis 1-2 is carefully riddled with groups of sevens.

This is just scratching the surface.

God’s Lampstand For the Cosmos

There are numerous connections between Israel’s temple and the creation account in Genesis 1.

On the first day God said, “‘Let there be light’, and there was light” (Gen. 1:3), which uses the usual word for light. But on day four there is another light: the sun, moon, and stars. This light is referred to by a special Hebrew term, מְאוֹרָה (meh-oo-raw´).

This special word is only used elsewhere to refer to the lampstand in the tabernacle (Ex. 35:14), and the temple (1 Kings 7:49), which is transliterated into English as “menorah”, the same word.

“The sun and moon are like sacred lamps in the sanctuary of the universe”, as one scholar concludes, then suggests that a better translation would be “let there be lamps” (Vogels 1997: 175).

This would stick out like a waving red flag, keying the original audience in on temple imagery.

Also, this lampstand had seven lamps on it that represent the seven main lights in the sky: five planets, the sun, and the moon (Josephus V: 217).

It was even placed on the southside of the tabernacle (Ex. 26:35), just as the heavenly lights were southern from Israel’s perspective (see G.K. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission).

God said, “When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand”, just as the lights in heaven would “give light upon the earth” (Num. 8:1, Gen. 1:15).

The priests tended to the menorah in the morning and evening, as Fletcher-Louis notes, reminding the readers of the creation’s six days of “morning and evening”, (Heaven on Earth, pg. 90).

A picture emerges of the Creator lighting the lamp in his temple-universe with the heavenly luminaries just as the priests did in their temples, pointing to the cosmos as a ginormous temple project.

Interestingly, the tree of life was connected to the menorah in Jewish minds also, which explains why the menorah is described like a tree with branches of flaming flowers: "Its base, its stem, its cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it. And there shall be six branches going out of its sides" (Ex. 25:31-32).

It gets interesting.

Gardens and Temples

The tabernacle and temple were structured into three tiers:

  1. The courtyard

  2. The holy place

  3. Then the most holy place, or the holy of holies

Each space required a different degree of holiness to enter, with the holiest place as the core reserved for God's presence.

Genesis also describes a tripartite structure: the world, then Eden, then the garden within Eden, making the garden itself the holy of holies. And just as God walked amidst the temple camp (Deut. 23:14), so God’s presence was in the Garden of Eden, “walking in the cool of the day”, (Gen. 3:8).

Temples commonly had gardens in the Ancient Near East so this wouldn't have been surprising.

This all points to the garden in Eden as the most holy place—the original holy of holies, which also explains why the temple interior was designed with wood “carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers” (1 Kings 6:29).

Why cherubim?

Because cherubim dwell in God's presence (Isaiah 6), which was formerly in the Garden of Eden, and is now guarded by the flaming sword of the cherubim (Gen. 3:24).

One Jewish text that was popular in Jesus’s day even said, “And he [Noah] knew that Eden was the holy of holies and the dwelling of YHWY” (Jubilee 8:19). This understanding of the temple-cosmos was not considered secretive or marginal, but absolutely central.

There are other connections between the creation narrative and the temple:

  • Both are formed by "the Spirit of God" (Gen. 1:2, Ex. 35:31)

  • Both have gold and precious stones (Gen. 2:12, Ex. 25:7, 1 Kings 6:20)

  • Both have entrances on the East (Gen. 3:24, Ezek. 40:6)

  • Both accounts conclude with Sabbath instructions (Gen. 2:2-3, Ex. 31-35).

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was understood as a type of wisdom, even as the Ten Commandments in the ark of the covenant summarized God's wisdom for the Israelites to follow (Deut. 10:2).

These are just a sample of the most obvious connections; there are many more, but we’ll have to save that for later, as well as the answers to these questions:

  • Why does this matter and what does it mean?

  • How does this transform our view of the gospel?

  • How does this change how we live out the gospel?

Though here’s one clue you can chew on until then:

Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it (Ex. 25:8)

Also, this is a short video of temple theology in general from the BibleProject.