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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Sacred Structures in 1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13

Defining one’s territory is in and of itself a highly contentious endeavor. Defining God’s territory brings this to a whole new level. In the building of Solomon’s Temple we see that God is to great to be contained by any single building or territory.

The Israelites began as a nomadic people. Rather than rooting their identity in a particular place, the early Israelites shared an identity primarily based upon a common (assumed) ancestry—their descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was called Israel.

Many of their neighbors at that time worshipped gods of particular cities and nation states—deities who were thought to reside in the particular place(s) where their devotees constructed their temple(s) and shrine(s). However, the God of the Israelites was likewise a nomadic god. God first revealed God’s self to the Israelites in a variety of places, often coming directly to them wherever they were. Then, after revealing God’s self to Moses and the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, rather than waiting for Moses to build a temple on that mountaintop, God instructed the people to build a “tabernacle” as the meeting place between God and the people. Appropriately, the word tabernacle, in Hebrew, literally means “tent.” Thus, although impressive in its proportions and construction, the tabernacle was a portable meeting place for a wandering people and their wandering God.

Fast-forward about four hundred years. The Israelites were no longer a nomadic people. David had built a great Kingdom, with many allies, and his son Solomon had succeeded him to the throne. Presumably, Solomon’s goal was to maintain and extend this Davidic dynasty both for himself and for his descendants. As a result, he implemented two impressive building projects during his reign—the construction of a palace to house the royal family in Jerusalem and the construction of a temple to house their ancestral God.

In some regards, this can be seen as one more extension of the institution of the monarchy in Israel itself—an effort to be more like their neighbors who had not only a king, but a stationary king, who lived in a stationary palace, and worshipped a stationary deity. After generations of wandering and conflict, the people of Israel had begun to take root in the Promised Land, and as such their King, took action to establish himself through the construction of more permanent homes for both himself and his sponsoring deity in the city of Jerusalem.

While the construction of the palace, of course, displayed Solomon’s power and resources, the political implications of the construction of the temple exceeded this by far. By tying the local deity to Jerusalem, Solomon not only mimicked other state religions of his day, but also assured that his capitol would be protected with the religious fervor due to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moreover, he made the capitol the center, not only of political life, but of the religious life of his people—who made pilgrimages for special life occasions and holidays in order to sacrifice at the temple.

The political implications of this construction were not lost on Solomon’s allies either. In the opening verses of today’s reading, Solomon shares his plans with King Hiram of Tyre. In the ensuing dialogue, the latter pledges his support, offering precious supplies from his region to the endeavor. Throughout the construction process, Solomon proceeds in like manner to draw resources—both material goods and conscripted labor—from across the region, thus building the Jerusalem temple on the backs of both his allies and enemies.

What does this mean for us today? Solomon’s temple has been long since destroyed—as a sign of political dominance by an occupying enemy. Indeed, such was also the fate of the Second Temple, built as a political maneuver to win the favor of occupied subjects at a later point in history. Nonetheless, the previous site of these two temples remains highly contested in the Middle East—where it presently hosts the Haram es-Sharif (in Arabic, The Noble Sanctuary), the site where, according to the Qu’ran, Muhammad ascended into heaven.

Maintaining (or gaining) control of this sacred site has remained a highly politicized goal on the part of both Palestinians and Israelis. Like Solomon, they too understand the complexities both of worshipping one’s God in a dignified way and of connecting one’s God to the geography in which one lives. Indeed, might this not also be part of why Americans sing “God Bless America” and the English sing, “God Bless the Queen”?

Defining one’s territory is in and of itself a highly contentious endeavor. Defining God’s territory brings this to a whole new level. However, as in addressing those who speak about giving in terms of percents and push for and celebrate the achievement of the elusive “tithe”, we must recognize that ultimately nothing really is ours—it all comes from and belongs to God. The question is not how much should we give, but how much do we dare keep? Likewise, I challenge this idea of territory and containing God within the boundaries of any one (or multiple) geographic locations. The question is not, “Where does God reside?” but rather, “Is there anywhere that God does NOT reside?”

Indeed, in Exodus 40:34 we are told, as in our reading today, that “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle,” while the cloud of the LORD rested above. The Lord God of Israel, it would seem, is too big to be contained by a tent or a temple. The Lord God of Israel is too big to be contained by America or Israel. The Lord God of Israel—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob … the God of the Christian Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ—is a God whose home is indeed inhabited and worked at by all peoples and all nations because it expands and includes all peoples and all nations in its reach.

The Rev. Amy Lindeman Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.

[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to 40bicycles@gmail.com.]

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