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“The Fall Thereof was Exceedingly Great”: A Note on the Symbolism of the Great and Spacious Building

A Depiction of Solomon's Temple
A number of scholars have proposed that the “great and spacious building” seen in Lehi’s dream was the corrupted Jerusalem temple of late pre-exilic Israel. Theologian Joseph M. Spencer, for instance, saw the great and spacious building as “a reflection of the corrupt temple of Lehi’s day, from which the wealthy Jerusalem elite would have mocked the wild-eyed prophets who dared to retreat into the wilderness to eat of the fruit of the tree of life.” Thus, Spencer concludes, “Lehi’s dream of the tree of life was at least in part meant to be understood as a critique of the self-satisfied Jerusalem establishment.”[1] Writer D. John Butler expands on this argument by suggesting a number of wordplays. First, Lehi’s comparison to the field as a “world,” possibly ʿolam (עלם; ʿlm), he suggests is a world play on ʾulam (אלם;ʾlm), the term used for the temple porch or courtyard. Second, he notes that the term hekal (היכל; hykl), is often used to refer to the temple, in its most basic meaning is literally “big house,” or, “large building.” Lastly, he notes that the people in the building are dressed in “exceedingly fine” clothing, while in the Old Testament fine is the most common description of the priestly garments. Butler also suggests that the mists of darkness could be the incense from the temple, burned daily by the priests, suggesting that the corrupt Jerusalem establishment was daily leading the people astray.[2]

In this reading, the great and spacious building filled with finely dressed people would stand for the Jerusalem elites. This contrasts with the field and the tree of life, which connects to Asherah and the wisdom tradition.[3] This juxtaposition properly reflects the religious and social dynamics of the day: While the Jerusalem elite were reforming worship practices to exclude Asherah, “She was especially venerated in the countryside.”[4] Independent researcher Pedro Olavarria comments:

In Lehi’s dream, the Asherah and the faithful are found in a spacious field whereas the mockers are found in an urban setting: they wear fine clothes and reside in a great and spacious building. If the old religion persisted in the countryside then the older views would have been seen as backward by Jerusalem’s religious elites, becoming a source of shame for some (1 Nephi 8:25).[5]
   The strength of this interpretation can be seen when we look at Nephi’s interpretive vision. There, Nephi sees the great and spacious building in the first century ad, rather than his own early sixth century bc time period (see 1 Nephi 11:35–36). The case has been made that Christianity marked the reemergence of the pre-exilic religion of the Judean country folk,[6] and the New Testament documents the opposition it faced from the Jerusalem elites. Thus, a similar social dynamic as that seen in Lehi’s day was at work. And, sure enough, the temple had been corrupted. So much so that the Savior declared it a “den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13; cf. vv. 12–13; Mark 11:15–17; Luke 19:45–46; John 2:14–16).
            After the crucifixion of the Savior, Nephi prophetically sees “a large and spacious building, like unto the building which my father saw” (1 Nephi 11:35). The angel informs Nephi that the multitude he sees in the building was “the house of Israel [which] hath gathered together to fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (1 Nephi 11:35). Significant to a reading of the building as the Jerusalem temple, Nephi sees this building fall. “And it came to pass that I saw and bear record, that the great and spacious building was the pride of the world; and it fell, and the fall thereof was exceedingly great” (1 Nephi 11:36). When the Romans ransacked Jerusalem in ad 70, Herod’s temple fell, just as the building Nephi saw. Speaking of 1 Nephi 11:36, John W. Welch suggested, “This prophecy could then well relate to the destruction of Jerusalem [and its temple] in ad 70 at the conclusion of the Jewish War, which was similarly prophesied by Jesus himself (Mark 13:1–2; Luke 21:20–24).”[7]
            While other interpretations of the great and spacious building have been offered — most notably that of Hugh Nibley, further advanced by S. Kent Brown, seeing it as representative of south Arabian architecture[8] — reading it as representative of the corrupted Jerusalem temple has the advantage of fitting both the context Lehi’s own pre-exilic world and the first century Christian context prophetically provided by Nephi.

Notes


[1] Joseph M. Spencer, An Other Testament (Salem, Oregon: Salt Press, 2012), 99 n.2. Also see Olavarria, “The Great and Spacious Building,” The Blade of Averroes, January 27, 2014, at http://averroes2.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-great-and-spacious-building.html (accessed January 27, 2014).
[2] See D. John Butler, Plain and Precious Things: The Temple Religion of the Book of Mormon’s Visionary Men (Lexington, Kentucky: self-published, 2012), 52–61.
[3] Daniel C. Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/2 (2000): 16–25.
[4] Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah,” 19.
[5] Olavarria, “An Open Letter to Dale Baranowski: Regarding Your Uncritical Look at The Book of Mormon,” The Blade of Averroes, August 15, 2013, at http://averroes2.blogspot.com/2013/08/an-open-letter-to-dale-baranowski.html (accessed August 22, 2013) cf. Olavarria, “The Great and Spacious Building.”
[6] Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister/John Knox Press, 1992).
[7] John W. Welch, “Modern Revelation: A Guide to Research about the Apostasy,” in Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: FARMS and BYU Press, 2005), 106, brackets mine.
[8] Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Deseret/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 44; S. Kent Brown, “New Light: The Queen of Sheba, Skyscraper Architecture, and Lehi’s Dream,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11 (2002): 102–103. 

Comments

  1. Fascinating. I wonder what Margaret Barker would say.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good post Neal. I wonder why D. John Butler's book(s) are self published. Tangent from your post to be sure, but the information you supplied from his book is very interesting, and it seems like Interpreter or other publisher would have been a great venue for this type of publication. I'm always leary of self-published works...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Tim, I am leery of self-published books too, but I think it is more his style than anything else. I heard of his books because Robert Boylan recommeneded them, and I respect Robert. I would certainly recommend them to you, but they aren't the kind of book I recommend to just anybody who wouldn't know any better, if that makes sense.

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  3. 1. Students of the Babylonian Talmud have associated the "tower which flies in the air" with defilement (Chagigah 15b).
    2.In the dream visions of 1 Enoch (89:50-54) the temple that Solomon built became a "great and spacious, a lofty building" it was later (after the Deuteronomic reforms, Isa 24:5) that the "sheep" strayed and "abandoned the house of the Lord and his tower...and their eyes became blindfolded."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this.

      Delete

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