This month’s TextMessage is the third installment in a five-part series featuring the writing of seminary president Lynn Jost, as he shares some insights from his doctoral study on the book of 1 Kings.—Eds.
Israel was formed as a nation in the crucible of the exodus from Egypt, described in Exodus 12–14 as nothing short of a revolutionary emancipation. Before Israel entered the promised land of Canaan, Moses provided the people with a constitution, the statutes and justice (mishpat) we call Deuteronomy. The constitution of Israel was anti-imperial, Egypt upside-down. In the mishpat of Yahweh, people were not enslaved but set free from slavery.
But Canaan offered its own set of problems. With the discovery of the Amarna letters in Egypt, we now have documents contemporary with the second Israelite revolution and their entry into Canaan under Joshua. The Amarna letters give us a snapshot of the relations between the Egyptian empire and Canaanite city-states ruled by military elites. Egypt benefited from a Canaanite mishpat in which the locals worked as slaves, providing surplus for the empire.
As Israel invaded Canaan, Joshua was guided by the constitutional rule of Deuteronomy, which strictly forbade any alliances with Canaanites (7:1–6). Even before Israel entered Canaan, they broke a strict interpretation of the constitution by making a treaty with Rahab “and her family.” The Gibeonites also made a treaty with Joshua (Joshua 9). If these events were the rule rather than the exception, we begin to understand that Yahweh’s mishpat was so attractive to Canaanites that large numbers of them switched allegiances and joined Israel. Empires began to be replaced by egalitarian legislation which protected the poor from injustice.
This is the context for Solomon’s temple construction. God’s intention about temple building was always somewhat cloudy. In 2 Samuel 7, God forbade David to build a house for God. God concedes that David’s son would build such a house, but nowhere is he given explicit instruction to do so.
Temples in ancient kingdoms served propaganda purposes to show off the king’s wealth (see 1 Kings 6–7). Temple gold came either from tribute won in wars fought by conscripted peasants, or through trade of agricultural products produced by the same people.
Similarly, Solomon’s temple construction was complicated by the kind of policy (mishpat) that had characterized Canaan and Egypt. Solomon’s treaty sent Israelite wheat and olive oil to King Hiram in exchange for Lebanese cedar. Additionally, Solomon conscripted 183,300 Israelites as “forced labourers” for this state project.
Israelite farmers depended on an agricultural system in which seeding and harvest were spread over long seasons. If labourers were away building temples, the peasants’ capacity to produce food necessary for survival would shrink at the same time Solomon was taxing peasants for wheat and olive oil to trade for building materials. 1 Kings 5:12 reminds us that Yahweh gave Solomon wisdom, but the mishpat (policies) described in 1 Kings 5 look anything but wise.
During the temple building, Yahweh’s word came to Solomon: “As for this temple you are building…” (6:12–13). What do we expect God to say next? Surely it will be instructions about temple architecture. Perhaps God will remind Solomon of the dimensions of the tabernacle from Exodus 35–40.
But God says, “As for this temple you are building, if you follow my decrees, observe my laws and keep all my commands and obey them, I will fulfill through you the promise I gave to David your father. And I will live among the Israelites and will not abandon my people Israel” (6:12–13). God’s concern has nothing to do with temple specifications and everything to do with egalitarian justice.
God’s concern is not with extravagant styles to bring him honour. God’s focus is on justice for oppressed people. God’s pride is in systems and laws that protect an egalitarian economy, not a royal mishpat that makes a worthy empire.
What does this story teach us about justice priorities today? The biblical prophet might say, “As for this church you are building….” Our minds might go to the building constructed for congregational gatherings. Isn’t this our church? The temple building story in 1 Kings 6–8 reminds us that the people of God are to be characterized by heeding God’s ordinances, praying faithfully, and repenting after failure. The buildings we frame will never “contain” the Lord (1 Kings 8:27). The church gathers in order to be empowered to go, evangelize, and make disciples. When Christ builds his church, it serves his mission of battering down even the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18).
–Lynn Jost is president of MB Biblical Seminary and lives in Fresno, Cal.
1 Kings 6:11–13 (link to BibleGateway.com)
The word of the LORD came to Solomon: “As for this temple you are building, if you follow my decrees, observe my laws and keep all my commands and obey them, I will fulfill through you the promise I gave to David your father. And I will live among the Israelites and will not abandon my people Israel.”