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Holy of Holies

The Holy of Holies is the innermost chamber of the temple noted for its connection to God’s presence.

Heinrich Bünting

In the ancient Near East, temples were understood to be earthly habitats for deities, places where their presence was manifest for human beings. Ancient Israelites shared this understanding of temples with their neighbors. Israelite temples, including the one in Jerusalem, were identified with the presence of Israel’s god. Similar to other temples in the region, Israelite temples had an inner room, access to which was strictly limited. A common designation for this room was the “Holy of Holies” (qodesh qodashim), a superlative construction that means “most holy” or “holiest.” This designation indicated the unique character of the room in distinction from other parts of a temple to which wider degrees of access were permitted. Another Hebrew designation for the room is devir (“inner sanctuary”; 1Kgs 6:23). Many scholars use a Latin technical term for the inner room, adytum, which derives from the Greek adyton, “not to be entered.” According to Lev 16:2, Lev 16:29-34, only the head priest Aaron and his successors in that office could enter the adytum and on only one day each year, the Day of Atonement.

What objects marked the special character of the space?

The adytum contained material representations that evoked God’s heavenly throne room. Aaronide priestly descriptions of the tabernacle (a prototypical temple) specify that its adytum contained a box (“ark”) with images of supernatural beings, cherubim, atop it (Exod 25:10-21). This object functioned as the meeting place between God and the Israelites (Exod 25:22; Exod 29:43). In the description of the Jerusalem temple built by Solomon, the inner room is said to have contained large statues of cherubim fashioned from olive wood overlaid with gold (1Kgs 6:23-28).

How was God’s presence in the room understood?

Israelite groups or schools of thought whose writings are preserved in the Hebrew Bible differed over the nature of God’s presence in the Holy of Holies. Some Aaronide writings state that God is fully present in the room, but not in any way limited to it. These texts repeatedly refer to ritual actions at the tabernacle being performed “before the Lord” (e.g., Lev 1:5; Lev 16:13). They also refer to God’s presence as kavod, which is commonly translated “glory” (as in NRSV and NIV; see, e.g., Lev 9:23) but can also be rendered “presence” (as in NJPS). The basic meaning of this term is “weight” or “heaviness,” indicating something substantial. The most explicit Aaronide declaration about God’s presence in the Holy of Holies is in the instructions for the Day of Atonement in Lev 16, where God declares, “I appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat” (Lev 16:2) within the adytum. In contrast to Aaronide priestly texts, Deuteronomy and literature influenced by it assert that God places or sets God’s “name” in a temple as a dwelling place (see, e.g., Deut 12:5; 1Kgs 5:3; 1Kgs 8:29), apparently to deny that God was substantially present; rather, God was honored in this place through the invocation of his name. At the same time, Deuteronomy refers to ritual activity as being conducted “before the Lord” (Deut 12:7) just as do the Aaronide priestly texts.

  • gilders-william

    William K. Gilders is an associate professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University. His research and teaching focus on cultural history, especially its religious dimensions, ranging from the ancient Mediterranean world to twenty-first century North America. He is the author of Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) and several articles on ancient Israelite religious practice interpreted from the perspective of anthropology and ritual theory.