Study Notes – 1 Kings 8 1-13

We are studying 1 Kings 8:1-13 for Sunday, January 5 – the first Sunday of the new year 2020 bringing us the story of the first day of worship in Solomon’s new Temple for YHWH. The story is told in almost [not quite] identical fashion in 2 Chronicles 5:1-6:2. Here are my notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We might remember from our earlier reading that Kings is the last part of “the Deuteronomistic history” of Israel told in the books of Joshua-Judges-1&2 Samuel-1&2 Kings, and that it offers a specific, theological viewpoint on that history that seems to have been shaped by a later writer’s experience of the exile. That is, 1&2 Kings presents us with a remembered past, that has special lessons for people who are recently aware of both the reality of God’s punishment and of God’s mercy. One overarching lesson the historian(s) of Kings tell is that how Israel’s leaders related to YHWH mattered.

In narrative context, our text comes part-way into the reign of Solomon, which has been established after some significant political maneuvering described in the first two chapters of Kings. The next couple of chapters outline the mixed characteristics of Solomon’s reign: Solomon excels in wisdom, which is a gift of YHWH, but he makes marriage alliances with pagan kingdoms [Pharaoh’s daughter being the first of what will be many], he conscripts labor [which will, among other things, set up the social and political conditions for the secession of the northern kingdom much later on], and he and his large court live a lavish lifestyle which must be supported by the people. Chapter 5 describes some of the preparations for the building project, in particular the agreement with King Hiram of Tyre to procure building materials; chapters 6 and 7 detail the dimensions of the Temple, its construction and its contents – and also, by way of comparison, give some data on Solomon’s palace, which was even larger than the Temple. To be fair, the palace was presumably an administrative center and a residence combined …

After this, the narrative focuses on the issues of the conscription of labor, the visit of the Queen of Sheba (chapter 10), the growing problems with Solomon’s foreign wives and the impact of their religious practices on Solomon’s relationship with YHWH, all culminating in Jeroboam’s rebellion and flight, which sets the stage for the succession dispute that follows Solomon’s death at the end of chapter 11.

Our text concerns in particular the installation of the Ark (of the Covenant, of God, of YHWH) in the Temple, in the space protected by the statues of the cherubim. We’ll recall, hopefully, that the Ark was constructed in the wilderness, according to instructions given by YHWH to Moses (see Exodus 25), has played a prominent role in Israel’s history up to now, and was recently (under David, and in our lessons on 1 Chronicles 15 and 1 Chronicles 16 a few weeks ago) transported to Jerusalem with considerable ceremony. The Ark has, since Exodus, been explicitly a dedicated place for Israel’s priests (Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s descendants) to meet with YHWH, and symbolizes and embodies God’s presence in/with Israel.

[I admit, I noticed that the author specifically mentions in verse 9 that nothing was in the Ark except the tablets of the law, and had to go look up Exodus 16:33 (which mentions storing manna in the Ark), and Hebrews 9:4 (which mentions storing Aaron’s rod in the Ark, too). Is this an issue for us? If so, why?]

This text is another one of the things you wouldn’t know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary, although Solomon’s prayer in verses 22-30 shows up in year B and year C as an option for ordinary time, so we might have heard [of] it in church, if our pastor had decided to preach on Solomon’s prayer, and had decided to include something about this context in that preaching. [In other words, odds are not none, but slim.]

CLOSER READING: The strange wording of v1 – Solomon assembled … to/before King Solomon all the prominent Israelite leaders seems to emphasize the formality of the occasion. [To me it sounds almost like the wording of an invitation … an engraved one, as we might say; not “would you” or “I request” but “King Solomon requests the honor of your presence …”]

Here Zion is equated with the city of David, which seems to have occupied a specific hill in Jerusalem. The precise geographical reference of Zion seems to have shifted over time, and also to have the connotation [at least for us] of God’s heavenly city. Here, however, it seems to refer to a location different from the Temple mount. We just need to remember that usage changes over time.

Verse 2 specifically mentions the timing, which according to Rashi coincides with Yom Kippur as well as Sukkoth or the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles. The name Ethanim for the month is an ancient Biblical name for the month now referred to as Tishri. One Messianic source claims its very name connotes the month of creation. Mainly: the timing is auspicious.

In verse 3, Kings notes that the priests carry the Ark, while 2 Chronicles includes the Levites, which would be more technically correct. Along with the original tabernacle and all its holy objects; Rashi tells us Solomon stored these in the Temple.

That is a lot of sacrificing in v6. We need to remember here that sacrifices had many purposes, including thanksgiving and praise. Thanksgiving and praise seem to be their main purpose here [unless we think they also add to the ceremony of the occasion, which called for lots of ceremony].

In vv7-8, the cherubim are the huge statues described in 1 Kings 6:23-28, constructed of olive wood and overlaid with gold, which then tower over the Ark itself, which has its own cherubim integrated into the “mercy seat” on top of the Ark (Exodus 25:17-22). [Thanks to West’s 1 Kings: For the Person in the Pew (58) for this insight.]

Rashi explains that the poles of the ark pushed and “bulged” the curtain that shielded the ark, rather than protruding from or tearing the curtain. That is: an onlooker could see that they were there, but couldn’t see the poles themselves. It’s an odd detail, that adds to the “eyewitness” flavor of the description, and perhaps also to the legendary, traditioned, “in my day” flavor of the narrative.

The reference to the cloud and the glory of YHWH settling on the Ark should probably remind us of the inauguration of the tabernacle in Exodus 40:34-38, which in turn should remind us of God’s first appearance on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 24, and of the cloud’s guiding presence during the wilderness sojourn. This dramatic sign of divine presence and affirmation signals that the Temple is the approved successor to the Tabernacle, as YHWH’s focal place of presence.

We may want to dwell on Solomon’s cryptic pronouncement in vv12-13 for awhile. What does it mean that YHWH will dwell in thick darkness? That God is mysterious – even when we “know where to look”? Or something more … profound, even than that? And what can it mean that Solomon has built “an exalted house” for God to dwell in? Is the house supposed to be a substitute for the thick darkness, or its address? That is, are these opposed statements, or complementary ones?

This all seems worth meditating on at length, especially because it is so integral to the way the text presents God: near, in one way, yet awesomely distant in another.

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