The Temple Scroll (Ezekiel 41)

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Illustration: Piece of the Temple Scroll (11QTemple)

Arriving at Ezekiel 41, many modern readers come to believe they are facing a portion of Scripture that is nearly pointless and certainly tedious. In addition, we may be confused by the fact that the description of the temple and its rituals given here is unlike anything we have heretofore seen in the law or elsewhere. A famous text from the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, illustrates just how significant the issues of temple and ritual were to ancient Jews. It also shows that the Jews were open to the possibility of a new vision of the ritual of the temple. This critical text is known as the Temple Scroll.

With 66 columns preserved, the Temple Scroll (officially designated 11QTemple) is the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Its authgorship is unknown, and proposed dates of composition range from the fifth century B.C. to the first century A,D.; there are good reasons, however, for dating it at some point within the first century B.C.

This text is a reworking of various legal passages from Exodus 34 through Deuteronomy. The rewritten texts include instructions concerning the destruction of a temple in Jerusalem, regulations for sacrifice and purity and Deuteronomic laws (laws relating to, or in the style of, the book of Deuteronomy). The scroll uses a distinktive type of rabbinical exegesis often called “midrashic” to reconcile difficulties in the Pentateuch and to create a new, unified law.

This rewritten Torah does not merely paraphrase or restate the canonical texts. On the contrary, the author made several notable omissions and additions, conforming these more ancient laws to the ideas of his own community. The scroll radically revised the festive calendar by including several festivals that were not part of the earlier Biblical cycle of holy days. The instructions for the building of the temple, although containing similarities to Ezekiel’s temple, differ from those found elsewhere in the Bible. Also intriguing is that the author changed Moses’ words to the people from the third person to the first person. The result is that the revised instruction are placed on the lips of God Himself!

This style of Biblical interpretation has caused some scholars to suggest that the Qumran community members believed that the Temple Scroll had the same authority as the Old Testament canon itself. The Temple Scroll could in some sense be regarded as a new iteration or version of the law. It appears to envision a new temple and temple worship that would replace the current temple and serve as a kind of interim worship before the beginning of the Messianic Age. The Temple Scroll illustrates the fact that a great variety of failed religious viewpoint, some of which might rightly be called eccentric, had developed in Judaism during the intertestamental period. The Temple Scroll probably represents the viewpoint of an extremist minority.

On the other hand, it is important to realize that the layout, rituals and holy days of the temple were of vital concern to ancient Jews. These issues may seem tedious to modern readers, but this only serves to illustrate the difference between our world and theirs. Ritual laws of the day were a kind of code that served to communicate religious ideas among the ancient Jews. In this sense the existence of texts such as the Temple Scroll is helpful when considering a passage such as Ezekiel 41-48. A new vision of the temple and its ritual signalled for Ezekiel’s early readers a new era. The Qumran Temple Scroll communicated an eccentric and failed vision for future of the people of God. Ezekiel, on the other hand, communicated the orthodox, canonical vision, but he did so within the same cultural world and using the same code as the Temple Scroll. Any credible interpretation of Ezekiel 41-48 must take into account the theological message ancient Israelites would have drawn from this (to us, mystifying) temple description.


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