Sacred Space in the Bible and the Ancient Near East

                                     Sacred Space in the Bible in the ANE

Introduction to paper and thesis statement

After spending the bulk of time in research from G.K. Beale’s book.  I learned a lot concerning the temples in the Old Testament and the cultures around Israel and their great influence on Israel’ temples and in particular sacred spaces.G.K. Beale gave me much insight on this ongoing theme throughout scripture as well as a better understanding of the other cultures mentioned in the Bible.

The Benefit to doing this study will give the reader a more full understanding to the great amount of time the Biblical writers go to explain aspects of temples throughout the scriptures.These, what seem to be, drawn out passages are rich with meaning when one understands what the symbols and patterns are communicating to the modern culture of that time, in the books of the Old Testament.

It is my purpose in this paper to clearly define what sacred space was and how it was understood in the ANE (Ancient Near East).Not only for Israel but also for: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.Little will be said specifically concerning Sumer and Akkad.This is because there is little evidence outside the scriptures concerning these people groups and what their understanding of sacred space was.That is not to say there is no evidence concerning these groups.In fact, archeologist have recently come across a new artifact from the Phoenician people group.On the artifact was inscribed, “qodesh le’ AsheratWhich means “Sacred to Asherat.”In this place where the artifact was found is what could possibly be a old 7th century Ekron temple to a god named Asherat.

Sacred Space in the Old Testament and Intertestamental time explained

When studying the concept of sacred space in the ANE it should be noted that more ground could easily be covered concerning a compare and contrast of sacred space.This is because sacred space played such a crucial role in the ANE.In all these cultures religion, government, and land all harmonized together and were way more closely knit together in these cultures when comparing it with the mindset of today’s American culture, where we have a separation from church and state mindset.In reference to the Roman culture and it’s relationship between state and religion, Adkins and Adkins have this to say:

As the community grew in a state, religion became closely connected with politics and society.Religion governed all political activities because it was essential to ascertain the will of the gods before any state action

We must take this mindset as we dive into comparing and contrasting the sacred space of the Bible in the ANE.

Comparing the sacred space of the people of God with pagan sacred spaces in the ANE

This was the norm for all culture in the ANE.The king or ruler of the land was often viewed as a representative of a god, and in many cases the ruler himself was seen as a god.Sacred space in this time was understood to be the place god rested or manifested his glory.The gods were seen as powerful and able to do things that the people of the land were in need of.This is why in all these cultures there was a god to each need the people had.Some of these gods would be gods of: light, futility, love, and etc.When the god was done from his work he resided in a temple (i.e. sacred space).The people of the culture would build a temple in which the god could rest after his work for the people.For example, the people in the ANE were in great need of rain because of the topography of the land.The people would build a house/ temple for a god of futility and offer gifts/sacrifices to appease the gods, so that, the god would bless them and give them then rain.This was a common link in the cultures and the purpose for a temple.Enuma Elish says:

Their ways have become very grievous to me, by day I cannot rest, by night I cannot sleep.I shall abolish their ways and disperse them.Let peace prevail, so that we can sleep.

(Enuma Elish 1.37-40)

Dr. Beale comments on this quote from a text in the ANE and says:

After defeating Tiamat Marduk reorganizes the cosmos and the lesser gods under his sovereignty, concluding with the building of Babylon conceived as a shrine-like temple in which gods can find rest.

This is also seen in the Sumerian culture with the god Ningirsu, where the temple was a place of resting after his work was completed.The Egyptian Pharaoh also built a temple for Ptah for rest.In reference to this idea G.K. Beale says, “Consequently, ‘in the Ancient Near East as in the Bible, temples are for divine rest’, and divine rest is found in sanctuaries or sacred space.”

Another big concept when understanding sacred space in the ancient Near East is that they were seen as microcosms.Nearly in every culture we find that temples were tripartite.They had a outer courtyard, and further in was a more holy place, and in the third part was found the most holy place.These temples and sacred spaces should be seen as microcosms due the seemingly unending quotes from this period and excavations that show strong relation to the temples reflecting the whole cosmos.It was consistently seen in the these tripartite temples the outer courtyard reflecting the earth, the second part reflecting the heavens, and the third being the throne room of a god as well as a further in the heavens picture.G.K. Beale says:

One of the best examples of the cosmic symbolism of temples is the notion in the Enuma Elish 6.113, where it is said concerning the building of the Marduk temple, ‘He shall make on earth the counterpart of what he brought to pass in heaven.’Likewise, the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III restored a temple for the god Amon and made it ‘like the heavens’.And Ramses III affirmed about his god: ‘ I made for thee an august house in Nubia. . . . the likeness if the heavens’.The same Pharaoh said of an Amon temple, ‘I made for thee an august palace. . . like the great house of [the god] Atum which is in heaven.’.It was not unusual for Egyptian temples to be called ‘heaven on earth’.

Another common aspect in sacred spaces in the ANE was the placing of an image bearer in the most sacred space of the temples built for the god.For example, in the Baal temple they would place a statue that had the same appearance and represented the god Baal.G.K. Beale shows this in an example of Egyptian culture and there temples and says:

The Egyptians believed that the sun god, Re, would empower other lesser deities to enter the stone images placed in temples.Accordingly, an inscription from the Pyramid Age affirms that the Creator Ptah ‘fashioned the [lesser] gods. . . . He installed the gods in their holy places. . . he equipped their holy places.He made likenesses of their bodies. . . Then the gods entered their bodies of every wood and every stone and every metal’.

Harpers Bible Dictionary makes this statement clear by affirming the same thing.In the quote from Harpers Dictionary the statement made is more a general statement referring to all the cultures in the ANE during the Old Testament period.Which says:

The formation of nation-state or city-states in the ancient world involved the concept that the nation’s or city’s chief approved and would support the concentration of power in the hands of the few who controlled the administrative structure of a state.Consequently, the building of a temple nearly always accompanied the establishment of a dynastic power.A temple building, as the visible symbol of a god’s presence was the most effective way for the leaders of a country to communicate, in the days before mass literacy and broadcast media, the fact that their god favored the political organization that was being established.The building of a temple added the essential note of absolute legitimacy to the formation of a new system of governance.

In this case, we see the temple was to communicate to the people that their land and government was ruled by the god who dwelt in a certain temple.In every culture, it was understood that their was a hope and expectation for the expansion of their kingdom by the building of their temple to their god in different lands.This was to show that the god of the temple had power over the land where his house/ temple was set-up.

Another commonality between the cultures and their sacred spaces were that they more often than not faced east.We see this in the Bible even in the earliest sacred space or dwelling place of God in Genesis 2.We see it in many writing and excavations of temples from all over the land of the Bible.The Oxford Classical Dictionary notes, “ Orientation was generally towards the east, and often towards that point on the skyline where the sun rose on the day of the festival.”  Some argue that because the similarities in all these temples in the ANE that there must have been a blueprint , in a sense, that all the cultures were working off of.As a Christian I believe the original temple of God was in Eden.

This leads me into my next point in similarities in the cultures in the ANE.Temples often had gardens just outside the temple as well garden like décor in the temples.Tree-like furniture and so on were not uncommon in Jewish temples and pagan temples alike.Much of the allusions seem to be almost referring back to the Tree in the garden.Indeed, even pagan temples had in their temple what was called a “tree of life”.

The last comparison to be shown in this paper before going into the contrasting between Israel and all the other cultures is that all temples share commonality of being built on hills/mountains.Whether we look at temples from Sumer, Akkad, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greco-Roman, or Judean cultures, they all are built on hills and mountains.In G.K. Beale’s book, he goes to great lengths not only to show this as true with the Jewish Temples and pagan temples but also from the Eden, Noah and the Patriarchs.More time will be spent discussing this idea in the contrasting half of the paper.Beale says:

We need to remember that just as the primordial hillock was thought to have expanded to form the entire earth, so temples were constructed to memorialize symbolically this initial creation:hillocks were depicted in the back of temples and the temple structure from that point was built in an ever-widening, expansive design

Beale explains that the reason for this is because of the imagery that mountains have of ever expanding which is what he is attempting to argue is the purpose of the temple.This is why temples were built on mountains.More time will be spent here when we go into the next section discussing the differences between Israel/ people of the One True God and their temple to all other temples to false gods.

Contrasting the Temple of the people of God to pagan temples in the ANE

The second portion of this paper will now take all the similarities found in the temples of the people of God to the temples of pagans in the ANE and show where there is crucial difference between them.G.K. Beale says it like this:

These commonalities with Israel’s Temple reflected partial yet true revelation, though insufficient for a personal knowledge of God.Yet Israel’s temple are not like her neighbors merely because they reflected some degree of perception about the true reality of God’s dwelling, but because Israel’s temple was intended to be viewed as the true temple to which all other imperfect temples aspired.Israel’s temple was likely a protest statement against all other pretenders, ofwhom she was quite aware.

I think this is an important point that Dr. Beale makes.Although there are many similarities between the true temple and false temples, it should not lead to a rash decision that, that means they must be all the same.This is why this portion of the paper is crucial to understanding true sacred space in the ANE.

The first point made in the comparing portion of the paper was that all the temples were a place of resting for the gods after they had finished there work.Although this may sound very similar to the narrative found in Genesis where God rest from all His work on the seventh day, but it is here that I will show the distinction in the understanding of the true sacred space and God to the other frauds.In the pagan accounts the temples were built as a place of resting because the gods were tired from there work and needed a place of rest.This is completely different than the God found in the Pentateuch who never grows weary or faint.Instead, the seventh day of rest is to show rather, that His objective was done.In this case, the creation of the Universe.Beale explains:

Similarly, the gods of the nations needed ‘housing’ for rest but God Himself says that no human-made structure could be adequately be a dwelling for Him.One reason for this is that, as we have already hinted and will see later, Israel’s temple pointed to the end-time goal of God’s presence residing throughout the entire cosmos, not merely in one little, isolated structure.The pagan temples ha no such eschatological purpose as a part of their symbolism.

Another contrast to be shown is that as the pagans had a god for every ailment that the people had, Israel had one God who was LORD over all.Including in this idea whereas, the false priest would offer sacrifices in hopes of appeasing their gods and cause them to show favor upon them.The priest of the God of Israel was in need of these gifts nor the people offer Him anything to cause Him to change His mind and show favor upon them.Rather, “I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”

In the first portion we mentioned how in the temples they would place an image bearer in the most holy place of the sacred space and this image represented and in some cases became the god.However, this is much different than the temples of Israel.Israel in its most holy place had no statue or carvings or graven images of their God.In fact, quite the opposite was in there.God footstool was placed in the most holy place for Israel’s temple.We see the God of Israel being declared to be much different than the false gods in Isaiah 40 which says:

To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with Him?An idol! A craftsman cast it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains.He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.. . To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?Says the Holy One.

Contrary to man placing an image of God in the sacred space we see in the true temple, that is, the cosmos before the fall.God created for Himself an image bearer and placed the image bearer Himself in the sacred space and gave the command to cultivate and protect the sacred space. This is most likely where all the pagan cultures get there ideas for an idol or image bearer to represent the god on earth and to expand the sacred space given to the whole world.

It is important to take some time to explain the history of the temple of Israel.Like it was said earlier in the paper, nearly every time we find a mention of a temple we see that a mountain is not far from the text.This flows from the first or original temple which can be strongly argued was all creation.The holy of holies being Eden.There are allusion that Eden was set on a hill in Genesis as well as quotes from the prophets in the Old Testament referencing that Eden was on a Hill/ Mountain.This is why we see the Patriarchs of Israel building tabernacles or temples on hills in Canaan.

The book of Genesis lists the places where the patriarchs worshiped on the soil of Palestine.In each instance God is believed to have manifested Himself to the founder or founders of the sanctuary, which consisted, as a rule, of an open-air area akin to the high places of the Canaanites, with the usual combination of sacred tree or trees, raised stones, an eventually an alter and a well or a reserve of water.

G.K. Beale links the commission in Genesis 1:26 and 1:28 as being given each time there is atrue temple built.He list five things that occur every time with the exception of two instances where they exclude the first on this list:

1.God appearing to them

2.They pitch a tent

3.On a mountain

4.They build alter and worship which include prayer and likely asacrifice.

5.The place where these activities occur is often locate near or at Bethel, that is, “the house of God”.

After the patriarchs comes the time where Moses goes to Mount Sinai to get the law and directions to building a tabernacle or temple for the LORD to dwell in.When we look at the even of Mount Sinai we can note that this event is in itself a picture or type of a temple.We have God presence in a dark cloud, a mountain, and a division of the sacred space into three parts.The outer courtyard, if you will, where the people congregate, then you have at the foot of the hill the priest, and then you have one man going up the mountain to the Holiest place.

Next is the temple built by Solomon.This temple and it’s direction have clear allusions back to Genesis.The temple is tripartite.The outer courtyard has pictures of lion and other beast on the basin.The colors and scheme to point to the earth.Next is the holy place where the colors, lights and images mirror that of heaven.Then in the holy of holies there is the presence of God in a dark cloud and the ten commandments and so on.The temple measurements were not huge by any means.In fact, the size was smaller than most temples.This is not to say the temple was not beautiful in comparison.Vos shares this comparison:

The temple of Solomon was not large, compared with other temples of antiquity.But to some degree it made up for the lack of size with quality and expense of decoration.Its dimensions were 75 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 45 feet high.Its measurements were somewhat influenced by divine instruction, being double those of the tabernacle, which had been built according to God’s specific directions.

He goes on to compare the size with some temples in Athens:

By comparison, the well-known Parthenon in Athens was 238 feet long, 111 feet wide, and 65 feet high.The nearby temple of Jupiter was 354 feet long, 135 feet wide, and over 90 feet high.

Israel rebels against God and does not honor Him as the One and only true God.The temple is destroyed and the people are dispersed and taken captive.It is here we have the book Daniel written.In this book there is a vision of a mountain not cut with human hands that expands over the whole earth.This is to reminisce Genesis and the original temple that was lost being regained.Under the reign of the Persians, Israel is given the freedom to go back to their land and build their temple and walls.By this time there is confusion to where and who the people of God are.Scott comments on this Dilemma saying:

Some Jewish traditions associate the Samaritans’ building of a temple on Mount Gerizim with Nehemiah’s expulsion of Tobiah form the Jerusalem Temple.Others ascribe the building of the Samaritan temple to the time of Alexander the Great.Undoubtedly, the controversy between Samaritans and Jews over the place of worship and other matters was aggravated (if not begun) when both Samaria and Judea were parts of the Persian province called Beyond the River.

Much more could be said in comparing the temples in the ANE.However, this should be a sufficient amount of information concerning the requirements of the paper.A doctorate could be easily written on this paper and most likely has by someone. However, this will conclude the section on comparing the temple of God’s people with the pagan temples in the ANE.

Application to what was taught concerning sacred space.

In the past 8 pages, we have looked at how the temple of God is similar to and different than the temples made to false gods.When one reflects and sees the similarities of the temples in the ANE.One can see the sovereignty of God, how God uses the nations and the people for His purposes.When we look at the differences, we see how lost we would be had it not been for God who has chosen to show us mercy and compassion.

But more important that all of that is that we are now God’s people.And He calls us holy ones in which His glory now dwells.We are a temple.No longer is land necessary for worship or fellowship with God.For wherever we go the Spirit is with us and we now worship God in “Spirit and in Truth” There is no need of some physical building to represent God presence with His people, because those things were shadows to point to something greater!Although, we do not see the fullness of the beauty of this temple whose architect and builder is God, we hope with joy inexplicable.John Walton put it this way:

God’s presence does not dwell in a sanctuary today- there is no building that is sacred space.The temple is no more, and church buildings do not represent sacred space.It is fair to say that sacred space has not been a central plank in the theological platform of Protestant Christianity.There is, of course, good reason for that generation before the temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, a remarkable event took place.The Gospels report that at the moment Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn in two.Often Christians do not recognize the significance of this event because we have so little understanding of sacred space.

Because that curtain has been torn in half we can now approach God, whenever and wherever we desire to.There is no “right place”, there is not wrong time.The holy of holies now dwells in the saints.This is truly, AWESOME!


In this paper I have contrasted and compared the temples in the ANE.I showed where the idea of sacred space came from and what it means.I have also shown, the development of the idea of sacred space as well as it’s redemption the sacred space that was lost at the fall.I trust that paper has met the requirements given in the syllabus.Thanks and God bless!

G.K. Beale, “The Temple and the Church’s Mission”, NSBT, ed. By D.A. Carson, (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter Varsity Press, 2004)

Ephraim Stern, “Archaeology of the Land of the Bible” , ( New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001) 2: 1: 118

Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, “ Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome”, (New York, NY:Facts on File Inc., 1994) pg. 251

Dalley, S. (1991) 1991:234, Myths from Mesopotamia, Oxford:Oxford University Press; see also the translation of Heidel 1942: 19

G.K. Beale, “The Temple and the Church’s Mission”, NSBT, ed. By D.A. Carson, (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter Varsity Press, 2004) pg. 64

G.K. Beale, “The Temple and the Church’s Mission”, NSBT, ed. By D.A. Carson, (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter Varsity Press, 2004) quote in Beales quote is taken from a book by Levenson 1988:110-111

G.K. Beale, “The Temple and the Church’s Mission”, NSBT, ed. By D.A. Carson, (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter Varsity Press, 2004) pg. 52 quoting Breasted 1906:4:115$ 192

G.K. Beale, “The Temple and the Church’s Mission”, NSBT, ed. By D.A. Carson, (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter Varsity Press. 2004) pg. 88 quotes Breasted 1959: 46 and Budge 1951: 72,82,87,93-94,98,102,106,304

Carol L. Meyers. P.H.D., Harpers Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul Achtemeier,(San Francisco, CA.: HarperSanFrancisco) pg. 1026

Richard Allan Tomlinson, “The Oxford Classical Dictionary 3rd Edition”, ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) pg 1482

Ephraim Stern, “Archaeology of the Land of the Bible” , ( New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001) 2: 1: 70

G.K. Beale, “The Temple and the Church’s Mission”, NSBT, ed. By D.A. Carson, (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter Varsity Press, 2004) pg. 149

G.K. Beale, “The Temple and the Church’s Mission”, NSBT, ed. By D.A. Carson, (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter Varsity Press, 2004) pg. 59

G.K. Beale, “The Temple and the Church’s Mission”, NSBT, ed. By D.A. Carson, (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter Varsity Press, 2004) Pg. 59 and60

God recorded by Moses, “The Reformation Study Bible”, ed. By R.C. Sproul, (Orlando, FL:Ligonier Ministries, 2005) pg. 144

God recorded by Isaiah, “The Reformation Study Bible”, ed. By R.C. Sproul, (Orlando, FL:Ligonier Ministries, 2005) pg. 1007

G.A. Barrois, “ The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible” ed. By George Authur Buttrick, ( Nashville, TN:Abington Press, 1962) R-Z pg.566

G.K. Beale, “The Temple and the Church’s Mission”, NSBT, ed. By D.A. Carson, (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter Varsity Press, 2004) pg. 96

Howard E. Vos, “ Nelson’s New Illustrate Bible Manners and Customs”, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999) pg. 177


J. Julius Scott Jr. , “Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament”, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995) pg. 77

Jesus recorded by Apostle John, “The Reformation Study Bible”, ed. By R.C. Sproul, (Orlando, FL:Ligonier Ministries, 2005) pg. 1516

John H. Walton and Andrew E. Hill, “ Old Testament Today” (Grand rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004) pg. 121-122


One thought on “Sacred Space in the Bible and the Ancient Near East

  1. This is a helpful summary of the sacred space theme in Old testament and in ANE cultures. Understanding these concepts help understanding the Scripture a lot.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s