Holy of Holies by William K. Gilders

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.

William K. Gilders, "Holy of Holies", n.p. [cited 27 Sep 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/places/related-articles/holy-of-holies



William K. Gilders
Associate Professor, Emory University

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.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

a priestly clan said to descend from Aaron, the brother of Moses

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

Reconciliation between God and a person, often brought about by sacrifice or reparation.

Annual day of fasting, prayer and repentance. The last of the ten days of penitence that begin with the Jewish New Year.

Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

The innermost part of the tabernacle/temple, which housed the ark of the covenant and the presence of God; only the high priest was allowed to enter it, and then only on the annual day of purgation (Yom Kippur).

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

a site with religious significance

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

1Kgs 6:23

The Furnishings of the Temple
23In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high.

Lev 16:2

2The Lord said to Moses:
Tell your brother Aaron not to come just at any time into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy seat that is upon the ark, ... View more

Lev 16:29-34

29This shall be a statute to you forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citi ... View more

Exod 25:10-21

The Ark of the Covenant
10They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.11 ... View more

Exod 25:22

22There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my com ... View more

Exod 29:43

43I will meet with the Israelites there, and it shall be sanctified by my glory;

1Kgs 6:23-28

The Furnishings of the Temple
23In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high.24Five cubits was the length of one wing of the c ... View more

Lev 1:5

5The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron's sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at ... View more

Lev 16:13

13and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the covenant, or he will die.

Lev 9:23

23Moses and Aaron entered the tent of meeting, and then came out and blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.

Lev 16

The Day of Atonement
1The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died.2The Lord said to Moses:
Te ... View more

Lev 16:2

2The Lord said to Moses:
Tell your brother Aaron not to come just at any time into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy seat that is upon the ark, ... View more

Deut 12:5

5But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there,

1Kgs 5:3

3“You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the ... View more

1Kgs 8:29

29that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your serv ... View more

Deut 12:7

7And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your households together, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God ha ... View more

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