Sacred Real Estate
1 Kings 3: 1-3; 5-6
Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt; he took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David, until he had finished building his own house and the house of the Lord and the wall around Jerusalem. The people were sacrificing at the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the Lord. Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.
At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.
Among the Maori people in New Zealand, archaeologists have found no evidence of any permanent building structures used in religious ceremonies. Instead of constructing grand and imposing temple edifices, like that of King Solomon, the Maori designated their sacred spaces with items found in the natural world, such as a mound of sticks or a neatly placed pile of stones. Or a latrine. In traditional Maori culture, the village latrine is regarded as sacred space because it marks the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The gods were said to frequent the latrine in large numbers, since excrement was considered to be the food of the dead. At the latrine, the veil that separated their world from the spirit world of their ancestors somehow felt thinner, so if someone fell ill, then she or he would head to the latrine and bite the beam of the latrine, to transfer the illness from the body of the sufferer back to its origins in the world of the dead. From the Maori perspective, the village latrine is a ritual space, a sacred place, where the divine and the human worlds intersect so closely that they almost touch, and yet, there’s no escaping the obvious fact, it’s still a latrine.
Today’s Scripture reading illustrates, and probably even exaggerates, the architectural quality of the original temple complex in ancient Israel, which King Solomon built in the capital city of Jerusalem, as a house for Israel’s God - as an earthly dwelling place, for the God of Israel. Chapter six lists the unique architectural features and components of the exterior of the building, highlighting the intricate stonework and the exotic cedar roofing, and takes the reader on a virtual tour of the structural layout from the entryway porch, to the main hall or sanctuary, and into the inner shrine, the holiest space in the temple, capturing in precise detail the ornate wood carvings, overlaid with gold, which decorated the temple walls and fashioned the opulent interior design of this magnificent house. At the time, its dimensions would have made it the largest religious structure in all of Palestine, at 90 feet long by 30 feet wide, with soaring 45 foot ceilings. Including the portico, it would have been even larger, closer to 100 feet by 50 feet. And as for location, it occupied the highest elevation in the city, sitting atop Mount Zion just north of the city, which became known as the Temple Mount, on which the entire royal complex was situated. The cost of such a building project is estimated to be around 36 billion dollars by today’s standards. Without a doubt, Solomon’s Temple would have been featured on the ancient world’s hit HGTV show, Fit for a Deity, as the luxury dream home of the 10th century, BCE.
At first glance, the text reads like an administrative report or survey, not unlike a modern day real estate property title or deed, except that it was produced by the king’s own marketing department, with its own royally creative spin, quite similar to today’s real estate agencies multiple listings. If you’ve been on the market recently, looking to buy a new home or condo, as Ginny and I have, or are looking for a new apartment, you’ll know exactly what I mean. A landlord or seller may describe a property in glowing terms as if it’s Solomon’s Temple, but upon closer inspection or appraisal of the unit, the buyer may discover that it’s really a latrine. Or that it used to be. Especially the basement. The hope is that they figure it out before they buy or move in, rather than afterwards. That’s why an agent is so crucial to the process – not only does a buyer need someone to represent their interests in property transactions, to guide them through the complicated process, but also to help them discern what’s really going on underneath the surface of a given transaction. To be successful, it’s important to know the whole context, what the market conditions are, who the players are, and what the true value of a property really is.
But what makes a piece of real estate sacred? What makes any geographic place or physical space sacred? In the case of the Israelite temple, our text offers a very simple answer: a place is made holy by the indwelling presence of God within it. But the author of our text, the Deuteronomist, also has another agenda. He would have us believe in the legitimacy of the temple as the holiest place on earth, as the one single place on earth where God dwells, and as such, the only appropriate place from which to worship God. We also know that in ancient times as well as modern times, religion isn’t so much about what is espoused in theory; it’s more about what people actually do – it’s the religious behavior that is actually practiced by the people that matters, and the two are often very different things. And not everyone agrees on the way it ought to be. For example in chapter three, we still observe the people of Israel and even King Solomon himself continuing to worship God in the former sacred places of old, even after the temple is built. And why not? Once a person has a mystical encounter with the divine in a particular place, that place becomes a sacred place, a place of meeting, meaning, and connection, which cannot be easily abandoned or forsaken. In fact, sacred places are often built on or near the exact locations where people have experienced God in a new or profound way. They serve as a reminder of that event, to mark it, not only for themselves, but for all those who will follow, to call attention back to God, and back to that divine encounter, over and over, again, and again.
Underneath the surface of our text, there’s a much more vexing question posed: what makes a building project itself sacred? And can a building ever be considered a sacred place, if unjust means are employed to build it? If workers are abused and exploited in the process? As you might imagine, there’s far more to the story of the temple’s construction than first meets the eye. In the ancient near east, political authority and religious authority were inextricably linked. There was no separation of church and state. Kings ruled by divine right, and Solomon was no exception. Solomon’s political authority was bolstered by his spiritual authority, and vice versa. A ruler like Solomon could find himself at the helm of an empire, tempted to invoke spiritual authority to support his own political and personal ambitions, which he then carried out in the name of God.
Solomon’s father David had desired to build a house for God, but he was unable to do so, as his rule was beset by a long series of wars. Therefore the task fell to his son Solomon to complete. Solomon’s name is derived from the same Hebrew root as shalom, meaning peace. But it was a false peace that marked the reign of Solomon, much like the Pax Romana, which had been achieved only through the violence and spoils of war. Solomon’s accession to the throne had not been an easy one – after the death of his father David, Solomon and his supporters had to eliminate the competition, with a bloodbath, in a true Game of Thrones. Imagine the HBO version as reality television. The scandalous and gory details of the plot to seize Israel’s Iron-Age throne can all be found in chapter two of 1 Kings.
And that was just the beginning. As we follow Solomon’s rise to prominence, we begin to observe exactly what his reign will require of him. To achieve international status, Solomon needed to form political alliances with the major foreign powers such as Egypt and Phoenicia, alliances which would lead him into a series of moral and ethical compromises necessary to maintain Israel’s newly earned diplomatic status. But perhaps worse of all, was the enslavement of his own people: 30,000 Israelites, plus an additional 150,000 Israelite workers, used as cheap labor, to create the workforce that would be needed to construct the temple for the God of Israel, the very same God of the Exodus, who had just rescued the Israelites from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, and brought them into freedom in a new land.
Whatever his original intentions were, Solomon had established his own political and economic empire that was not unlike that of Pharaoh’s production/consumption society, in which workers were valued only according to their ability to produce wealth for someone else, for something else, and supervisors only for their ability to motivate the others to be more productive, rather than to develop their own capacity to live in relationship with each other, and with God, in community, and in harmony with the natural world. Even a worthy project, done for all the right reasons, can go astray, if personal agendas, questionable deals, and oppressive costs, are allowed to drive the operation.
Scripture offers us a choice between Empire and Exodus – one offers a false sense of security and power, be it military, political, economic, social, or even religious power, which oppress; but participation in the other represents a call to life as it was meant to be lived, in freedom, peace, abundance, and community, a theological re-imagining of the way things could be – in other words, a call to build the kingdom of God on earth.
Unfortunately, ancient Israel chose the path of empire. When the book of Kings was compiled into its final form, the people of Israel had found themselves the victims of another empire, a bigger, stronger empire, in the Babylonians. In 587 BCE, they destroyed the city of Jerusalem and burned Solomon’s glorious temple to the ground, only 400 years after it was built. The Israelites were taken as captives, to live as strangers in a foreign land, a thousand miles away from Jerusalem, a thousand miles away from home, from their ancestral roots. Whatever their status in the Israelite social order, their Babylonian captors held them in no regard; the people were slaves, casualties of Empire. They longed for a return to the glory days of the reign of Solomon, before the fall of the city of Jerusalem, before the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, before their worlds were shattered, and their lives forever changed. Writing from Babylon in exile may even explain why such an elaborate description of Solomon’s Temple is provided in the text.
We get a glimpse of what life in exile must have been like for them, in Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. (Zion, you’ll recall, refers to Mt. Zion, the temple mount). Our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors, saying ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ But how can we sing the Lord’s song, in a foreign land?” Indeed how, if God’s presence were confined to a particular edifice that has been destroyed?
Has there been a negative event in your life that changed you forever? Do you ever find yourself looking back to a golden age that perhaps wasn’t so golden after all?
The Israelites had become the victims of an edifice complex by associating the presence of God with the temple complex in Jerusalem, which was part and parcel of the underpinnings of empire. By placing the temple and the palace side by side, political authority was dressed up in the guise of religious language which served only one purpose: to support the mission of the empire. In our day, it’s easy to identify the similarities. Imagine a politician using Washington National Cathedral as a backdrop, as he requests support for a particular program or platform. During this season of political campaigning, observe how many times a politician will couch his own agenda in theological terms, or declare a particular position to be a moral or religious issue, in order to gain support for her own cause.
But it was also during that same period of Babylonian Exile that the Israelite people were able to re-imagine their theology of the sacred and find God anew, often through the prophets such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and 2nd Isaiah. As the prophets re-imagined sacred space, and envisioned a new temple, they were reminded that God’s presence goes with God’s people, wherever they go, even into exile, even in a foreign land.
In exile, the Israelites renewed their faith in God, and eventually they were able to return home, (thanks to the defeat of the Babylonians by the Persian Empire), and they rebuilt the temple, only this time, the Second Temple stood alone, architecturally speaking, without the palace. After the destruction of the temple, the Israelites had to reorient themselves theologically as to what the presence of God among them might look like. They had learned the hard lesson that the path of Empire leads only to exile, as opposed to the way of Exodus, which always points toward home.
Like the ancient Israelites, we too must theologically re-imagine sacred space, and ask ourselves the question: What constitutes sacred space for us, today? Where are the sacred places in your life?
For a church in transition, like Old Cambridge Baptist, in the midst of our discernment, we must ask ourselves, Are we a sacred space? What does the presence of God look like, here at OCBC? Is God visible, here, among us?
Is our building a sacred place? Does it point to a reality beyond ourselves, that is more Exodus than Empire? Are we a house of prayer, for all the people of the earth? Does our architecture express our theology? Are we sacred real estate? In God’s name, Amen.