I apologise for I ought to have given forewarning that I would be terribly occupied over the month of June: the end of the financial year coupled with final exams at college does not present itself as an altogether good opportunity to write regularly. But to provide some closure that I have indeed been busy (and also because knowledge gathered quickly goes to waste if it is not shared), I will publish some of the essays I wrote for college.

Woohoo
10/10 this is how I felt coming out of my final exams. Praise God.

There is an intuitive sense in which the “presence” (Heb. פָּנֶה, פָּנִים; Gk. πρόσωπον; both possess similar semantic ranges) of God is understood, but little appears to have been said with respect to the development of this theme. That is to say, is there an essential biblical-theological paradigm by which “the presence of God” can be meaningfully understood? The priestly nature of God’s people appears to have an especially strong theological bearing upon the theme of God’s presence, and it is a particular touchstone by which some clarity might be afforded.

Genesis to 2 Kings has correctly been treated by scholarly consensus as a distinct literary unit: the Primary History or the Enneateuch.[1] This arrangement not only chronologically simplifies the biblical narrative, but also makes better sense theologically since the Former Prophets are necessarily coloured by the themes in the Pentateuch. In particular, Deuteronomy[2] forms an important backdrop to which Israel’s raison d’être is understood: both Torah observance and Israel’s expulsion from the Garden, the Promised Land, and more generally, the divine presence are catalysts by which subsequent generations are urged to repent and call upon YHWH, their God (1 Kings 8:22-53).[3]

Although YHWH is no tribal deity with localised sovereignty (v. Psalm 22:28; “God rules among the nations”), the ontological identity of Israel is the presence of God in their midst (cf. Jeremiah 14:9).[4] Moses later confirms this identity in Exodus 33:15-16: “Is it not in your going with us … that we are distinct?” and Israel’s function necessarily hinges upon their identification with YHWH (Deuteronomy 4:7-8; 33:29). To this end, McKelvey writes the following: “[Israel] could survive without the hope of a Messiah, but never without the hope of God’s dwelling with His people.”[5]

Theologically, the Pentateuch arguably focuses on the presence of God more than any other book in the biblical corpus. In fact, the Pentateuch is incorrigibly resolved to its ultimate end: the reestablishment of God’s presence among His people (cf. Genesis 21:22; Exodus 3:12; 15:17; 29:45-46; Numbers 35:34; Deuteronomy 2:7) – a legacy that is continued by later books of the Hebrew Bible (cf. Joshua 1:5; Psalm 22:27; 46:7, 11; Isaiah 1:16-20; 41:10; Habbakuk 2:14; Zechariah 14:9). What the biblical account clearly demonstrates is that God’s promises for Israel’s future are inextricably connected with His deeds of the past.[6] Thus, throughout the Primary History, the major strand of continuity appears to be the reinstatement of free, full, and unmediated access to God’s presence.[7] The tabernacle, the sacrificial system, the return into the Promised Land all point to the ultimate eschatological objective of Israel. To this end, on the very fringe of Canaan, Israel is left with a number of complementary resolutions to either accept or reject as a whole: remain faithful to the covenant and receive Canaan as the new Eden where God’s presence dwelled; keep the law, and in so doing become the kingdom of priests who, in God’s presence, could stand (Exodus 19:6; 29:45-46; Numbers 35:34).[8]

But the phrase, “kingdom of priests” warrants attention for it is the priestly identity of Israel that illuminates the conditions for and nature of God’s presence with His people. I draw significantly upon the work of Smith[9] and Herring[10], though the brevity of this paper does not allow detailed discussion. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Pentateuch is concerned with the priestly character of Israel with respect to God’s presence: Leviticus lays the necessary priestly conditions that must be upheld for God to dwell among the people; the Sinaitic narrative is essentially a reiteration of Israel’s priestly character; and post-lapsarian theophany is only afforded by divine sanctuary spaces.[11] Prior to The Fall, priestly humanity (Genesis 2:8-15) safely dwelled in YHWH’s presence (3:8), but Adam’s sin necessarily disqualified him from both his priestly duties, as well as spatial-spiritual proximity to his God (3:23). Of course, the legacy of this division is still very much borne throughout the Primary History: Cherubim guard the entrance into the Garden presence (3:24), the tabernacle (Exodus 26:31; 36:8), and the walls of the Jerusalem Temple (1 Kings 6:23-29; cf. Exodus 37:7-9; 2 Kings 19:15).

The Sinaitic experience is a particularly interesting account of the efficacy of priestly humanity to secure God’s presence. Israel is, in one sense, given the opportunity to incubate their identity (Leviticus 18:1-5), though in the presence of a good, but dangerous God whose holiness determines their livelihoods (cf. Numbers 1:53). Even in the barrenness of the Sinai desert, the redemptive overtones of God’s presence as in Genesis are reproduced: “I will put my dwelling place among you … I will walk (הִתְהַלַּכְתִּי֙; cf. Genesis 3:8) among you and be your God” (Leviticus 26:11; cf. Deuteronomy 23:14). Israel eventually leaves Sinai with the ark of the covenant, the manifestation of YHWH par excellence, but even the ark goes into exile on account of a corrupt priesthood (1 Samuel 4:1-11) before being returned to Jerusalem. It is only after Solomon builds the Temple on Mount Zion that the ark (and the people) is brought to rest (1 Kings 8:56). But as they are wont to do, priestly humanity yet again fails in its divine prerogative as “a kingdom of priests”: anti-temples are built in the North under the headship of Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:32; 13:33), worship of Baal proliferates under Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 16:29-31), the prophets of the LORD are rejected (1 Kings 18-19; 2 Kings 2:12; 13:14, 20), paganism is introduced into the Jerusalem Temple (2 Kings 16; 21), and the people exceed the nations before them in corruption (2 Kings 21:9). The dividends of Israel’s abortive actions to uphold their priestly heritage precipitates God’s rejection of Israel and subsequent exile, not of the land, but of His people.

In conclusion, Israel’s liturgical and doxological identity was that of a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), and the fulfillment of this office was the prerequisite for God to dwell among His people. Stemming from the creation of mankind (Genesis 1:26-31 ff.), Genesis defines this strand of continuity, while the rest of the Primary History develops Israel’s priestly role. Israel’s access to God’s presence, though jarred and maimed by The Fall, looks forward to a time when God will definitively reinstate Adam and Eve’s priestly office to His people through the person of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 3:1; 4:14; 6:20).

 

[1] Cf. D. N Freedman and B. Kelly, ‘Who Redacted the Primary History?’, Sefer Moshe: The Moshe Weinfeld Jubilee Volume (Eisenbrauns, 2003) at 39-47.

[2] Cf. Erich Zenger et al., Einleitung in Das Alte Testament (Kohlhammer, 2001) at 177-78. Here, Zenger argues for an exilic history stemming strongly Deuteronomic influences.

[3] Arie Leder, ‘Presence, Then the Covenants: An Essay on Narrative and Theological Precedence’, Dutch Reformed Theological Journal, 53/1 (2012) at 181.

[4] Ryan Lister, The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives (Crossway, 2014) at 150.

[5] R. J. Mckelvey, ‘Temple’, in Desmond Alexander (ed.), New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000) at 810.

[6] Scott Hafemann, ‘The Covenant Relationship’, in Scott Hafemann and Paul House (eds.), Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007) at 36.

[7] Cf. Roy Ciampa, ‘The History of Redemption’, ibid. at 267-68.

[8] Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1991) at 149.

[9] Mark Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (Fortress Press, 2010).

[10] Stephen Herring, ‘A “Transubstantiated” Humanity: The Relationship between the Divine Image and the Presence of God in Genesis 1:26f.’, Vetus Testamentum, 58 (2008), 480-94.

[11] Leder, ‘Presence, Then the Covenants: An Essay on Narrative and Theological Precedence’, (at 185.