The following is an essay I wrote for a course on the religious history of Jerusalem. It discusses themes of kingship and sacred space in I Kings 8.
The consecration of the Solomonic Temple demonstrates a strong relationship between kingship, God, and sacred space that is typical of Near Eastern society. It also expands this relationship, connecting God with the entire nation of Israel, and, indeed, with the concept of nationalism in Israel. In this Biblical passage, we see King Solomon as a humble servant of Yahweh, but we also see him as a ruler of tens of thousands, and in his rhetoric he attempts to utilize his connection with God to maintain and expand his power.
Solomon begins the ceremony by calling the elders of Israel to him and having the Ark of the Covenant brought before him (I Kgs 8:1). Each of these actions serves God, but each is also an exercise of his power as king. It is notable that Solomon orders the ark to be brought to him, while the priests have the less glorious (and more dangerous) duty of actually carrying the ark (I Kgs 8:3). Solomon also leads the offerings of sacrifices and other aspects of consecration (I Kgs 8:62). This is a nation in which the king’s power over religion is absolute: Solomon clearly dictates religious conduct to the priests, not the other way around. This immense power of the king is visible throughout the books of Kings, as we see that kings, not priests, make decisions about enforcement of the Law. Other people, including priests, have little control over the society’s religious practices.
Solomon, however, is clearly up to his task of leadership. Once the consecration ceremony begins, he speaks to his people in language that strongly connects nationalism and religion at several levels. He links his kingship to temple building, as had other kings, but he also attributes this very kingship to a promise made by God to his father David (I Kgs 8:20). He relates God to his nation in other ways, referring to him as “the God of Israel” and talking about the Mosaic covenant that Yahweh made with the Israelites’ ancestors “when he brought them out of the land of Egypt” (I Kgs 8:21). By connecting himself and his people to this history, he asserts that the Temple, his creation, is in fact another development in the relationship between God and the Israelite people, and that he himself has the will of God supporting him as king.
This support is essential because the Temple permanently changes the Israelite religion. The ark, which had once been portable, is now enclosed within the Devir, accessible to only a few people and only on rare occasions. The very existence of this holy space deeply affects the religion, as it poses the paradox of separating God from humanity and yet still sitting on earth: “it was at once immanent and transcendent,” writes Karen Armstrong. The Temple made Israelite religion subject to forces of change not only from within, but from adherents of other gods who came to pray to Yahweh. This influence introduced some Canaanite mythology, such as the Lotan, or Leviathan, into Israelite religion, another sort of religious change that has impacted the Bible as we read it today.
The consecration of the Temple exhibits this change in religious tradition in a rather interesting way. The ark is brought up to Solomon with “the tent of meeting, and all the holy vessels that were in the tent” (I Kgs 8:4). The ark is then brought from the tent and set within the Devir, just as it has been carried and set within a tent a generation before (II Sam 6:17). God is moving from a tent to a temple, the very move he protested before making his covenant with David (II Sam 7:6). When the ark is taken into the Devir, though, God approves, and shows his approval by filling the Temple with his glory (I Kgs 8:11).
This transition, both in God’s view towards the Temple and in the Israelite’s view towards religion, is a major one. At the same time, the Solomonic Temple was quite ordinary in that its design was very much in the temple building tradition of the region. Even the identity of its builder fits this pattern, as most temples in the Near East were built by kings. This building of a religious sanctuary follows a conquest in ancient myths such as The Epic of Creation, and this sequence is followed by the Davidic dynasty as well, though there is a generation between the one act (the conquest of Jerusalem by David) and the next (the building of the Temple by Solomon).
Mesopotamian gods followed this same sequence in building their own sanctuaries but included two earlier stages—the creation of the universe and the parting of the waters—that were accomplished in Israelite tradition by Yahweh. In a sense, then, the entire Hebrew Bible is an expanded form of these earlier myths: Yahweh does not do everything himself, nor does David, nor does Solomon, but, working together, they cooperatively fulfill the roles an earlier god-king might have taken on alone. (This does not necessarily reduce the glory of God, because it is accepted that David and Solomon could not have completed their feats without the blessing of their God.)
There is a reason for the appropriation of this Near Eastern process of creation by the Davidic dynasty. It is clear that neither David, the fighter, nor Solomon, the builder, can claim to be an incarnation of their God in the way that Canaanite and Mesopotamian kings did, because the Israelites believed in a God that did not incarnate himself in a human form. The Davidic kings could not claim to be God, but they could claim to be in communication with God or ruling by the grace of God, and this is exactly what they did.
Looking back at the Biblical passage, we see a shift in Solomon’s role as he turns to speak to God (I Kgs 8:22). He speaks of himself as a servant of Yahweh and praises Yahweh’s majesty. “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you,” he says (I Kgs 8:27). He also says that the great Temple that he has built is hence not truly a dwelling for God but instead a place for the name of God to keep holy (I Kgs 8:29). The concept of God not actually dwelling within his house seems to conflict with the idea that God moves from his life in tents into the Temple. This is likely a result of multiple authors’ works being interwoven, as well as views of God changing drastically over time. As these concepts come together within a single text, though, we are still able to conceptualize Yahweh entering the Temple, and yet not being there in his full presence.
In this context, Solomon beseeches God to listen to “the prayer that your servant prays to you today,” and admits that even his might as king is not enough to build a true house for the Lord. He asks also, though, that God hear the prayers of Israelites praying toward the Temple (I Kgs 8:30), a request that has resulted in Jews praying towards Jerusalem to this day.
Solomon asks several more specific favors of God, many relating to listening to those who pray in his name, and consecrates various areas of the temple. He then holds a festival that lasts seven days. Again, Solomon is part of a long Near Eastern tradition, this time in the length of his festival. Because Solomon was a man and not a god, he could not actually build his Temple in seven days as Baal does in the Baal Cycle, or create an entire universe in six, as Yahweh does (Gen 1), but he can party for the same length of time. Mircea Eliade emphasizes the concept that “the creation of the world is the exemplar for all constructions,” particularly those of sacred spaces, and Solomon symbolically imitates earlier constructions through his seven-day festival.
From this examination of the consecration of the Temple, a few themes have become clear to me. One is the strong connection between religion and politics in Israel, a connection that Solomon both strengthens and exploits. Another is the related, and dependent, relationship between God and Israelite nationalism, further evidenced by the importance that the central location of Jerusalem had in it its role as the Temple site. A third connection is the concept of religious change, as shown by the massive effects the construction of the Temple had on Israelite religion. A fourth is the role of Solomon as servant of Yahweh, showing his piety before the people and, through the Bible, before all believers in Judaism and Christianity.
The final theme that I see as important is the influence of Canaanite and other Near Eastern religious thought on the Bible, and on Israelite religion. It is interesting to imagine how incredibly different the modern Abrahamic religions would be without this influence, derided as pagan and impure in the Bible itself. The story of the consecration of the Temple is thus a wonderful analogue to the interplay between politics and religion, and between religion and religion, in the rest of the Bible and in the rest of the world.