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The Legacy of Lament, Part I

14 March 2010

Beit Ha-Mikdash, aka the Temple

An interesting bit of trivia for you fellow Zeppelin lovers. Beit/Beis/Beth Ha-Mikdash, whichever might be more familiar to you, means “house of the holy.” Now pluralize that. If you’re a fan of “Over the Hills and Far Away” or “Dancing Days,” this is your Grammy-winning album. I don’t think there’s any backward masking (as in, “my sweet Satan”) in that album, but I could be wrong.


The year was 538 B. C. E. Cyrus II, the Great, was king of Persia. Zerubbabel and Joshua were governor and high priest, respectively, of the returning remnant authorized by Cyrus’ edict. Solomon’s Temple, Beit Ha-Mikdash, destroyed by the Babylonians around 586 B. C. E., was rubble, perhaps without even a visible trace other than the mountain itself, known as Zion. (A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; all the more reason for it to be destroyed by invaders!)

Ezra 3:8ff tells us that the 128 Levites in the remnant were named to oversee the rebuilding effort.

When the builders laid the foundation of the Temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the LORD with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house…

Ezra 3:10-12a (NRSV)


The prophetic critiques of Israel were acid on the tongue. In Hosea, perhaps the bitterest word was Lo-Ammi, “not my people,” the name given to one of Gomer’s sons by the great prophet (Hosea 1:9). The rebuke resounded deeply, with overtones extending all the way back to Abram’s covenant.

YHWH’s covenants always contained, either explicitly or implicitly, the formula “you shall be my people, and I shall be your God.” Or, “I will be with you,” as in the covenants with Isaac (Gen. 26:2-5) and Jacob (Gen. 28:13-15). But Israel’s failure of obedience, which was directed at being a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:2-3), had brought the LORD to the piont of exasperation. Not once, but many times. And by the time we get to Hosea, the exasperation takes human form: Lo-Ammi, the pathetic child-of-the-harlot who is named “not my people.” By implication, the LORD is “not their God.”


Sennacherib's Prism

Sennacherib's Prism, which mentions the siege of King Hezekiah of Judah.

Eventually, within about 20 years of Hosea’s call, the wrath of God took the form of Assyrian incursions from the north, eventuating in the overthrow of King Hoshea by Shalmaneser V (who died during the siege of Samaria) and Sargon II(his successor) in 722 B. C. E. The Northern Kingdom, given birth by Jeroboam’s revolt against Rehoboam – the son and heir of Solomon – was now no more. Sennacherib of Assyria would later turn his attention to the Southern Kingdom, Judah – the home of Beit Ha-Mikdash, the Temple. What Sennacherib failed to accomplish in 700 B. C. E., Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon would finish in 587 B. C. E. with another siege, this time of the Holy City, Jerusalem.

Lo Emmanu-El: “The LORD is not with us.”


The Temple was, of course, central to Jewishness and to Judaism. Since Sinai, when Moses is presented as having received the tablets of the covenant, the LORD had had a physical “presence” with the people, first a portable house befitting a nomadic people, and finally a glorious dwelling conceived by David and built by Solomon as the dynasty and society consolidated their hold on Jerusalem (I Kings 5). This Temple was a continual reminder of what the LORD had promised the exiles as they left the leeks, melons, and garlic of Egypt (Numbers 11) for fifty years of living hand-to-mouth in the relentless heat of the Negev: I will always be with you, in a cloud by day, in streaks of lightning by night. As you wander, you will carry my house with you; when you are peacefully established in the Land of Promise, my servant Solomon will build me a permanent dwelling-place among you. And you shall at last be a light to the nations rather than a reproach to your Creator.

Beit Ha-Mikdash, the house of the holy, the Temple. Emmanu-El: The LORD is with us. And we are with him, engaged with the LORD in redeeming a creation gone terribly wrong, a creation wracked by violence, treachery, idolatry, falsity, perversion, and death. A creation in which, now, evil is rewarded and goodness penalized, a creation of dismaying moral asymmetry.

Built by royalty and superintended by a priesthood, Beit Ha-Mikdash will stand as a visible sign of the LORD’s covenant promise to set the world to rights once again, a testimony to his unrelenting presence among his people bringing ever-abounding justice and beauty into a new and eternal creation.


Four hundred years later, it lay in ruins as a little band of Levites and their servants began to lay a new set of foundation stones under the hopeful, wistful, careful eyes of aged men who had been little boys when the caravans left for Babylon, the great capital city upstream from the ancient Sumerian city-state Abraham had left behind. From the Euphrates delta to Zion, to the Nile under Pharaoh, back to Zion under the judges and kings, back to the Euphrates with the Chaldean army, and now, back once again to Zion under the seal of Cyrus the Great. One stone after another, recut and reset, preparing to rebuild a dwelling-place for the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But some of the lookers-on remember what it once was. They were there when the Chaldeans broke through the walls and burned Beit Ha-Mikdash to the ground. In fact, the images are indelibly seared into their otherwise fading memories. Some things you just don’t forget.


One Comment leave one →
  1. 16 March 2010 11:19 am


    Well, yeahhh! And are these memories also filled with not a little anger or what? Especially verse 9.

    Psalm 137

    1By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

    2We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

    3For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

    4How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

    5If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

    6If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

    7Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

    😯 daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

    9Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

    Blessings (anyway)!

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