Memes are a modern phenomenon that we associate with social media. But in a way, memes are as old as human culture. In this post, I want to think about the idea of “temple” as a meme in the ancient Near East that served as a way for people to understand their place in creation, especially their place in relation to God. We’ll see how the idea of temple, like a meme, was transferrable to different contexts. Then we’ll be ready for the next post, when we’ll see how Genesis 1 uses the temple meme to communicate theological truths about creation.
The Power of the Meme
Before we look in detail at the inclusio that Gen 1:1 and Gen 2:1–3 form around the six days of creation (Gen 1:2–31), it will be helpful to get a good grasp of what a meme is and how it works. To start off, take a look at this clip from the 2004 German film Downfall. The film is German so you’ll probably want to make sure that the subtitles are turned on by clicking on the CC in the bottom right corner of the player.
Even if you don’t know German and have never seen this film, you can probably guess this clip shows Hitler getting bad news about the war and that his fate is likely sealed. This is his last outburst of anger at those close to him in leadership as he finally succumbs to his fate.
Now watch this clip, where everything is the same but someone has changed the subtitles (there is some mildly offensive language–it was hard to find a completely clean version).
A meme starts with something as simple as a sentence, or a clip from a film or an image that we all have in our cultural banks. We’re not just familiar with it; it evokes a whole set of shared experiences and emotions. When I take that one sentence or image and transfer it to a new context, I take all those shared experiences and emotions to the new context as well.
In the example here we have a clip from a film that depicts the moment when Hitler receives the news that causes him to realize he has lost the war. This is a widely known historical event that is deeply rooted in our cultural history. This event, for Hitler, is the ultimate moment of disappointment and loss. In the clip he goes from rage to despair—par excellence. Shortly after this he will commit suicide, the German Nazis will be defeated and the war in Europe will be over, so defining the course of history unto this day.
The second clip takes all the rage and disappointment of this moment and transfers it to another event in history or in someone’s personal life. So in the second clip we have “Hitler finds out about black Friday strikes.” Another variation is “Hitler finds out Trump was impeached” or, “Hitler finds out there is no Santa.” Again, all of Hitler’s rage is transferred into these new contexts.
That is the power of the meme.
The Bible is Full of “Memes“
Now I want to use this idea of memes loosely and apply it to Scripture because Scripture is full of “memes” or things like memes.
In John 1:1–5, John the apostle is using the creation account in Gen 1 as a meme. In Revelation 12 he’s using Gen 3:15 as a meme. When Matthew starts his Gospel with “This is the genealogy of Jesus Christ,” he’s using the genealogy headings of Genesis and Chronicles as a meme. And it’s not just Genesis or Chronicles, and it’s not just Matthew or John—it’s all over the New Testament AND the Old Testament.
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, ... She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon... And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. Rev 12:1–4
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring... Gen 3:15
In fact, the Bible doesn’t just use memes from other parts of the Bible, it uses memes from the culture of the ancient Near East. In Genesis 1:21 it says God created “the great sea creatures” and uses a word that means serpent (Ex 7:9) or sea dragon (Is 27:1). This is a meme from the ANE where the creator god had to defeat the goddess of the sea, a great sea dragon, in order to bring order, or cosmos, out of chaos (the sea). In Gen 1:21, this sea monster does not need to be defeated, it is instead just another creature of God’s creation. In this way, Moses uses a cultural meme and turns it on its head. There is no dragon to be defeated, whatever dragons exist are God’s creation just like everything else.
He does the same thing with the temple meme in Gen 1. The question is, how does he do it?
The Temple as an Ancient Near Eastern Meme
Just like we first need to understand the historical situation that Hitler found himself in, we need to begin with an understanding of what temples meant to people in the ancient Near East (ANE).
When I talk about the temple as a meme, I mean the temple building, since temples were to be found all over the ANE, but also the temple as a basic way of understanding one’s place in the world. Temples, it turns out, show up in different ways in different genres of ANE literature.
For us, a temple (aka, a church) is a place we go to worship God. Churches have pews where we can sit and gather together in the presence of God. They’re also full of art, architectural features and furnishings like altars or organs for worship activities meant to help the worshiping community interact with God. There were no pews or organs in the temples of the ancient Near East, nor artwork meant to communicate directly to worshipers. That should alert us to the fact that ANE temples played a different role in ANE society than they do in ours.
In the ANE, the temple was the dwelling place of the god who was transcendent and holy. People, who are mortal and sinful, cannot go into the presence of a holy god. Hence, ANE temples had no worship accoutrements (stained glass windows, organ, prayer candles) because they were not to be entered by worshipers, they were strictly for the god himself. In that sense, the temple was like a bridge joining heaven and earth.
Actually, our temples and church cathedrals are also bridges between heaven and earth, but in a different way.
Imagine yourself in Europe on summer vacation in a crowded square in Vienna or Rome with tourists roaming around, talking and taking pictures of the sights. There on the square is a great cathedral and you decide to go in and explore. As you open the door to the cathedral and step across the threshold, you have a sense of entering another world. At first you’re hit by a darkness that your eyes only slowly adjust to, and then a coolness from the stone interior. As you step further in, the gaiety of the square outside transforms to the solemnity inside. Some people cross themselves as they approach the altar, all walk slowly and reverently.
For us, these are mere cultural norms, perhaps just bygones of a more superstitious age. But this effect was intentional, designed to communicate the idea that you are crossing a threshold of every day life and into the presence of God.
ANE temples were fundamentally different because they did not serve as a place for us to enter into the god’s presence. Instead God came down to us. He dwelt in the temple but we did not enter into his presence. Think of it as Sinai in a box. In Exodus, when God’s presence was atop mount Sinai, no one but Moses could go up into the presence of God. God even instructed them to set up a boundary that no one could cross. If they crossed it, they would come into contact with the Holy and die (Ex 19:12).
Even the pagans knew that their god would not dwell in temples built by human hands. And even a king could not presume to build a house for the god. The building of the god’s dwelling place had to be the initiative of the god, who appeared to the king in a dream and gave very specific instructions as to how the temple should be built.
Since gods don’t live in houses, the temple was full of imagery indicating that this dwelling place was a microcosm of creation or even a microcosm of heaven—the true dwelling place of the gods.
The temple itself, and texts describing temples, are rich in symbolism. Symbols point to the fact that the physical building reflects a deeper reality. So all the materials, their colors, the temple furnishings and ornaments, and even the sacrificial system, all these point to a reality that goes beyond what the eye sees. The temple is supposed to communicate a reality that is real even if not immediately and physically present.
One symbol often used in association with the temple is the mountain. Just like a mountain reaches up from earth, almost like a bridge to the heavens, the temple is a bridge between heaven and earth. Sometimes temples themselves are described as being as high as mountains or sometimes they are built on high places. Either way, temples are described as buildings here in our midst that connect us to the heavenly realm.
The number seven is another symbol often used in association with temples, perhaps as a number of completeness. So, for example, it often took seven years, or a multiple of seven years to build the temple. Once built, a ceremony that lasted seven days (or a multiple of seven) was performed to prepare the temple for the god. Also, texts like the Gudea cylinders shown above can be divided into seven parts. The Enuma Elish story of how the god Marduk becomes the chief god of Babylon is written on seven tablets.
Along with being the dwelling place for the god, the temple is also the god’s throne, or the place from which the god rules over his or her realm. In fact, the Gudea cylinders above seem to indicate that the temple is built once king Gudea has successfully established his kingdom. Now that Ningursu has brought victory to Gudea, a temple can be built where the god Ningursu can come sit on his throne and rule over his people and so bring blessing and peace and rest. Similarly, in the Enuma Elish document, once Marduk has successfully defeated his enemy and established the creation order and rest, then the other gods build him a temple from where he will rule over all the gods and all creation and where he can be celebrated.
The Temple as Meme
In the text above I mentioned the Gudea cylinders and the Babylonian Enuma Elish. These are texts full of temple imagery. But they’re two very different texts.
The Gudea Cylinders describe how Ningursu reveals himself to king Gudea and gives him instructions on how to build Ningursu’s dwelling place in Lagash, the city where Gudea’s rule is centered. This is a temple building text.
The Enuma Elish, on the other hand, is a narrative that tells the myth of Marduk and how he became the chief god in the Babylonian pantheon. He alone was able to defeat Tiamat, the goddess of the sea, or chaos. In doing so, he brought about the creation order that brings rest to creation. In the end, the gods build him a temple to celebrate his rule.
These two texts are different kinds of texts with different, though similar purposes. Both of them work in different ways to bring legitimacy to the king or the nation above other kings or nations because the earthly king or nation is actually reflecting a reality that is rooted in the heavenly realm.
These two texts, are not just different kinds of texts, they use the temple “meme” in different ways.
In the Gudea cylinders, king Gudea actually builds this temple and places these cylinders in deposit in the temple (perhaps like the ark of the covenant in the biblical temple). This text might be loosely compared to the instructions for building the tabernacle and then the actual building of the tabernacle in the book of Exodus.
We have quite a few other temple building texts comparable to Gudea’s cylinders. This temple building meme is a lot like the Hitler clip above where the temple building text is applied once to Sumeria, another time to Babylon and another time to Assyria or Egypt or Israel.
The temple in the Enuma Elish is more abstract. This temple is described as a part of the narrative or myth of Marduk defeating Tiamat and then the gods celebrate him by building him a temple. All of this happens in the heavenly realm, even though it’s supposed to legitimize an earthly reality.
This seems to indicate there’s a lot of flexibility in the application of the temple “meme.” In fact, in Enuma Elish, the temple is a theme used in connection to other themes or symbols like “rest,” “seven,” “cosmic battle with chaos,” or “creation.” It looks like these ancient thinkers from all over the ANE and from just about every time period, shared a vocabulary of memes that they applied in a variety of ways to communicate different worldviews.
The goal of this post was simply to introduce the ancient Near Eastern temple “meme.” The temple was more than just a special building, it provided people a way of understanding their place in the world, especially in relation to their god(s). God is holy, we are not and we cannot go into his presence just like that. In that sense, the temple is a bridge between us and the gods.
There is a lot of symbolism associated with the temple. The number seven is common and temples and creation almost always show up together since the temple is the culmination of creation. As such, temples are places where the gods rest and they are the throne room from which they rule over their creation. Temples are also thought of as sources of blessing or life, and then also as mountains or bridges that connect heaven and earth.
In the next post, I’ll bring together the last two posts. That means we’ll look at the inclusio of Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 2:1–3 and see how it serves as a lens that makes us read the six days of creation as a temple.
The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum: Navigating the Scylla and the Charybdis
- The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum: Navigating the Scylla and the Charybdis
- Designed for Order: The ANE Wisdom Worldview
- The Fear of Yahweh is the Beginning of Wisdom: The Israelite Wisdom Worldview
- Consilience: The Unity of Science and Scripture in the Matrix of Wisdom
- Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, How I Wonder When You Are
- The Structural Symmetry of the Six Days of Creation
- Creation is a Temple: Reading Creation through the Proper Interpretive Lens
- Creation is a Temple: The Temple as a Meme in the Ancient Near East and Genesis 1
- Creation is a Temple: Moses’ Brilliant Literary and Theological Move in Genesis 1
- When a Day Might not be a Day
- Reading Genesis 1 as Literature and the Three Problems it Creates for Evangelicals
- How Can a Text like Genesis 1 be Both History and Literature?
- Did the Church Really Get This Text Wrong for Two Thousand Years?
- The Paradox of Perspicuity: How Would a Regular Person Ever Understand Genesis 1 This Way?