As I had earlier promised I am delving deeper into the elements of Christian liturgy. Christian liturgy is not only important in spiritual worship but it marks our identity. We are a people who possess the scriptural heritage reworked around the person of the Messiah. As such there is continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament yet there are important distinctions.
The Shekinah is the tangible manifest presence of God among his people. The Hebrew word, which was originally coined by the rabbis, is not found in the Old Testament but its verbal form shakan, which means to dwell or inhabit, is.
“This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet you to speak with you. “And there I will meet with the children of Israel, and the tabernacle shall be sanctified by My glory. “So I will consecrate the tabernacle of meeting and the altar. I will also consecrate both Aaron and his sons to minister to Me as priests. “I will dwell (Hebrew – shakan) among the children of Israel and will be their God. “And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.” – Exodus 29:42-46 NKJ
The manifest presence was often called the glory of God. When God came to deliver his people from servitude in Egypt, he worked miraculous signs and wonders in the land to show he was present and mighty to save. The Shekinah showed God was with them. So from the marvels in Egypt they were led by a supernatural pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They reached Sinai, the place where Moses first experienced the Shekinah in the burning bush (Exodus 3.) God descended on the mountain in fire and smoke, thunder and earthquake. The scripture describes that as God’s glory resting (shakan) on the mountain (Exodus 24:16.) It is at Sinai that God commanded they should build a sanctuary so that he could dwell (shakan) among his them (Exodus 25:8.) How was the God of heaven going to fit into a man-made structure? It was by his glorious presence being found in the tabernacle they had constructed for him. The Shekinah was an observable sign that YHWH, the God of Israel, was among his people.
The Shekinah was very important theologically because it meant the covenant relationship was intact. Since they were his people, and he was their God, he gladly dwelt among them. It meant the covenant promises and blessings were assured. In the Ten Commandments he commanded them not to make images of him. Instead, he would tangibly show himself as the one true God and not a conceit of the human imagination. When Solomon’s Temple was built it only began to function as the house of the Lord, a place where prayers could be offered to the true and living God, when the glorious Shekinah filled the temple (1 Kings 8.) Instead of an abstract theology of immanence they had tangible signs of his presence and distinctiveness among his creation through his people. God’s glory is a recurring theme throughout the Old Testament.
Now when the covenant relationship was broken through Israel’s unfaithfulness the Shekinah left. The prophet Ezekiel witnessed the swift vertical take-off of God’s glory from the Temple. In the final part of his vision, after heavy judgment had fallen on them, he sees the glory return to a new and restored temple. In his prophetic vision Ezekiel showed that God would not forsake them even though they had forsaken him. He would not forget the covenant he made with their ancestors or the promises he had given them. He will restore them to be a faithful people once again.
N.T. Wright, a prominent New Testament scholar, argues that in the Second Temple period no one thought the Shekinah had returned. When the first temple was destroyed, like the capture of the ark in 1 Samuel, it was understood that the glory had departed (1 Samuel 4-5.) For them it was a severe sign of judgement. The construction of the Second Temple was then a major sign of restoration. Yet the temple was not complete until his presence was found with in it as it was the in dedication of the first. As far as the Bible is concerned it was not only a national crisis but a cosmic issue.
The presence of a deity in any temple was crucial component of worship in the ancient Near East. John Walton, a professor of the Old Testament and the ancient Near East, explains that Genesis is a cosmic temple building narrative. Temple’s in those days functioned as a microcosm representing the entire creation. After God made everything he rested on the seventh day. “Rest” is temple language for a deity inhabiting a temple so it can function as sacred space. The prophet Isaiah asks on behalf of God, “Heaven is my throne, earth is my footstool, who shall build the place of my rest?” (Isaiah 66:1.) Temples were a deity’s headquarters.
Genesis 2 continues the story of Genesis 1 that YHWH is the rightful Lord of all who is due undivided worship. The way God “rests” in the cosmic temple of created space is by planting the garden sanctuary in Eden. Ancient sacred spaces were often modelled as garden sanctuaries. It represented the gods at work in the natural order. The floral theme of the Tabernacle in the wilderness suggests it is an allusion to the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Like other ancient deities God places his image in the sanctuary. Unlike them it was not a lifeless idol but a living, breathing human couple. Not only that we are told that you could hear God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. In other words the Shekinah was present in the sanctuary. When humans sinned they were expelled from the sanctuary and they no longer had access to the Shekinah.
When we get to Abraham in the Genesis account, the story of humanity had now been focused on one family. His presence in Israel did not only mean they were redeemed, it meant the restoration of humanity through them, and through humanity the rescue of the entire creation.