Scriptural References

Exodus 26:31-37

You shall make a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen; it shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it. You shall hang it on four pillars of acacia overlaid with gold, which have hooks of gold and rest on four bases of silver. You shall hang the curtain under the clasps, and bring the ark of the covenant in there, within the curtain; and the curtain shall separate for you the holy place from the most holy. You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant in the most holy place. You shall set the table outside the curtain, and the lampstand on the south side of the tabernacle opposite the table; and you shall put the table on the north side. You shall make a screen for the entrance of the tent, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, embroidered with needlework. You shall make for the screen five pillars of acacia, and overlay them with gold; their hooks shall be of gold, and you shall cast five bases of bronze for them.
 

As we can see from this description, the Tabernacle, and more particularly the Holy of Holies, was lavishly decorated and detailed. All this wealth and splendour devoted to the Holy of Holies was both symbolic - the blue being representative of heaven, and the purple representative of kingship - and used to proclaim the Israelite's devotion to their glorious God. For the Holy of Holies was seen as God's real and actual place of residence on the mortal earth, and as such was both worshipped and feared.

 

 

Holy of Holies representation

An image to represent the Holy of Holies, showing roughly what is described in the Book of Exodus.

Matthew 27: 50-51

Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

It could be suggested that the tearing of the curtain, and the baring of the Holy of Holies, represents the removal of the barrier between man and God, made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus. Perhaps also, we might see it as representative of the apparent better way to God - through Christ - and indeed a foreshadowing of the destruction of the temple by the Romans in the Jewish-Roman war of 66-73 CE.

This better way though Christ, which encouraged beliefs of supersessionism, can be seen in 'There is salvation in no one else [Christ], for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved' (Acts 4:12)

By tearing the curtain the heavenly and the earthly are no longer separate, and the sacred and the profane are mingled; this could be linked to Jesus' message regarding the misdirection of Jewish beliefs concerning purity and impurity (Mark 7:17-19).

The curtain and the Holy of Holies it covered where the most sacred part of the Jewish Temple, which was the most important aspect of the Jewish faith. By describing it as being torn, it could be suggested that Matthew is making a very clear symbolic statement about the new faith of Jesus Christ.

Curtain torn in two

An image resembling the account of the curtain being torn in two immediately after the death of Jesus as described in Matthew's Gospel. (Image by goodsalt.com)

Gospel of Philip

The term ‘Holy of Holies’ does not occur in the canonical gospels, however early Christians still saw its significance. The non-canonical Gospel, The Gospel of Philip, equates the “bridal chamber”, which was thought to be the location of a person’s reunification, with the Holy of Holies. Paul Foster has written that the text’s author is making a comparison between “the soul’s spiritual journey… [and] the physical progression into the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple” (The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction, 2009, P46).

It would make sense that early Christians would recognise the Holy of Holies' signifiance, at least in specific communities, as we might suggest that at first much of the Jewish tradition and belief was kept by those Jews converted to Christianity.

Image of The Gospel of Philip

This is an image of a page from the text called The Gospel of Philip. The text was found along with several others at Nag Hammadi. A section compares what is called the 'bridal chamber' with the Holy of Holies.

Exod. 19:23

"The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.'" 

Mt. Sinai, the Tabernacle, and the Jerusalem Temple all had different layers of holiness associated with them, and every person was restricted by their position in society as to how far they could enter or ascend. These layers are shared between all three holy places, though the temple did have further layers to accomodate women and the gentile population.

First the Outer Court, then the Holy Place, then the Holy of Holies - a place that only Moses was allowed to visit on Sinai and in the Tabernacle (and the respective high priest thereafter). The Israelites could enter the Outer Court to conduct worship and offer sacrifice; the priests could enter the Holy Place to perform rituals and the like; and the High Priest was allowed into the Holy of Holies - the only one to be so - and even then this was on a single day a year: the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest would cleanse the Holy of Holies of Israel's sins.

These boundaries were strictly enforeced, as to break them would incur the wrath of both God and the people; for bringing impurity into the holy presence of God was likely to cause death, and worse, the breaking of the covenant between Israel and the Lord. As a result all Israelites, from the common man to the High Priest, were required to undergo purification before entering their respective areas of the Mountain/Tabernacle/Temple.

Tabernacle/Mt. Sinai

A basic representation of the relationship between Mt. Sinai and the Tabernacle.

Leviticus 10:1-2

"Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord."

It was the belief that if the regulations were broken or ignored in regards to the Holy of Holies then disasterous situations would occur. Indeed, a daily offering called the 'tamid' was made to keep the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, clear of any sin and impurity the Israelite might otherwise sunder it with: thus ensuring the preservation of God's presence among the Israelite people.

This then, is an example of the strict rules and rituals that I have mentioned above - and what happens when they are broken.

Sons of Aaron

An image which depicts the sons of Aaron preparing to offer 'unholy' fire to the Lord. The action which resulted in their death. (Image from a 1907 Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company).

Scriptural References