15 December 2012

Temple Symbolism and the Tent of Noah

There are rich thematic connections between the emergence of the dry land at Creation, the settling of the Ark at the top of the first mountain to emerge from the Flood, New Year’s Day, and the temple. In ancient Israel, the holiest spot on earth was believed to be the Foundation Stone in front of the Ark of the Covenant within the temple at Jerusalem: “[I]t was the first solid material to emerge from the waters of Creation, and it was upon this stone that the Deity effected Creation.” The depiction of the Ark-Temple of Noah perched upon Mount Ararat would have evoked similar temple imagery for the ancient reader of the Bible.

In Genesis 9, the “fall” and “judgment” scenes, corresponding typologically to the Fall and Judgment scenes of Adam and Eve, are straightforwardly recited...Looking at the passage more closely, however, raises several questions. To begin with, what tent did Noah enter? Although the English translation says “his tent,” the Hebrew text features a feminine possessive that normally would mean “her tent.” The Midrash Rabbah explains this as a reference to the tent of Noah’s wife, and commentators, ancient and modern, have often seized upon this detail to infer that Ham intruded upon his father and mother during a moment of intimacy.

A very intriguing alternative explanation, however, is offered by Rabbi Shim’on in the Zohar, who takes the he of the feminine possessive to mean “‘the tent of that vineyard,’ namely, the tent of Shekhinah.” Shekhinah is the Hebrew term for “the divine feminine” that was used to describe the presence of Yahweh in Israelite temples. The idea of Noah having erected a sacred “tent of meeting” is perfectly consistent with the previous report that he built an altar and established a covenant with the Lord. Indeed, in a variant of the same theme, at least one set of modern commentators take the letter he in the Hebrew text of Genesis text as referring to Yahweh, hence reading the term as the “Tent of Yahweh,” the divine sanctuary.

In view of the pervasive theme in ancient literature in which the climax of the flood story is the founding of a temple over the source of the floodwaters, Blenkinsopp finds it “safe to assume” that the biblical account of “the deluge served not just as a paradigm of judgment but also as the Israelite version of the cosmogonic victory of the deity resulting in the building of a sanctuary for him.” It is significant that in the old Mesopotamian deluge myth that, according to Blenkinsopp, “could and did function as a creation myth in its own right,” this sanctuary is not located at the top of the mountain, but at the edge of a swamp, an abzu. Similarly, Lucian reports that “the temple of Hierapolis on the Euphrates was founded over the flood waters by Deucalion, counterpart of Ziusudra, Utnapishtim, and Noah.” Consistent with this theme, Psalm 29:10 “speaks of Yahweh enthroned over the abyss.”


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