Emil Heller Henning, author and principal investigator, professional architect and church elder

Are the Two Covenant Axes Biblical?

Some site visitors may have doubts concerning the identification of the two Temple axes with the two sides of the biblical covenant formula—“I will be their God” and “They shall be My people.” Could this be nothing more than an over-active imagination imposing itself on the biblical text?

In this study, the East-West Axis has been portrayed as God’s sovereign, supernatural, saving acts on behalf of His people—His “being their God”—in coming into and filling the Temple, and sending out the miraculous river of grace. The North-South Axis of God’s works in His people to make them His own (“They shall be My people”) is marked by the route of His Spirit-enabled worshipers in response to His mighty acts, as they enter through the north gate and depart through the south, or enter south and depart north. Can a biblical warrant for this identification be shown for the benefit of the unconvinced?

Both the Torah and the New Testament teach that important truths should be confirmed by “two or three witnesses.” Skeptical readers are invited to consider two Scriptural witnesses to the proposed characterization of the two axes from within the nine chapters making up Ezekiel’s culminating vision. One comes from the activities of Ezekiel’s “Prince” inside just one portion of the Temple complex, the other from something outside of the Temple proper in Ezekiel’s new layout for the twelve tribes of Israel.

But before looking at those two witnesses in the pages of Ezekiel 40-48, it may help to consider first how closely Ezekiel’s vision is associated with the two-sided covenant formula in the book of Ezekiel as a whole. His chapter 37 ends with it—“My tabernacle (NJPS: Presence) shall be with them; indeed, I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (37:27 NKJV). This promise of God’s Presence with His covenant people is what the Temple Vision that begins shortly in chapter 40 fulfills. Let’s go back further in Ezekiel, to chapter 11: “Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them…and they shall be My people, and I will be their God” (11:19-20 NKJV). This promise of God’s dwelling again among His people immediately follows Ezekiel’s sad report of the departure of God’s Presence from the idol-corrupted First Temple—the very Presence Ezekiel sees coming into his visionary Temple in chapter 43! In other words, this two-sided covenant formula stands like two gate-posts inside the book of Ezekiel through which his Temple Vision is approached.

The formula also occurs twice in Jeremiah 31’s parallel “new covenant,” one “not according to” the one that God made when He brought Israel out of Egypt (Jer. 31: 1, 31-33)—a covenant promising the same spiritual reality of His law being put in their minds and written on their hearts that Ezekiel prophesies as the foundation for his Temple Vision.

Looking now at the first of the two promised “witnesses” to this covenantal basis for the layout of Ezekiel’s Temple, we will zoom in from the overall Temple complex to the activities of Ezekiel’s “Prince” within its outer court (Ezek. 46). This Prince has a priestly, mediating role there between God and the people which (according to the preceding reasoning) should entitle him to a place on both axes. And indeed, he enters and leaves along with the worshiping people on the N-S Axis, but also has a role on the Divine E-W Axis. He travels on it—crossing at right angles the N-S route of the worshipers—from the inner vestibule of the east outer gate to the opposite gate of the priestly inner court, where he presents certain offerings on behalf of the people. (This involvement with the east outer gate in itself associates him with Israel’s Messiah, since that gate was closed permanently to entry after the Divine Presence came in through it in chapter 43.) Thus the Prince’s dual roles display God at work both in His people (on the N-S Axis) and on behalf of them (on the E-W one)—much like the two main Temple axes themselves.

(For a diagram of what has been described, see Fig. 5 in Part 1 of the author’s “Christian midrash” articles on the Free Articles page, or Fig. 6 in his book, Ezekiel’s Temple: A Scriptural Framework Illustrating the Covenant of Grace on The Book page.)

Perhaps the skeptic will grant the Prince’s activities as being at least a supporting witness for the site’s covenantal description of the two axes, yet not find it independent enough of them to constitute a “proof.” Since his activities lie on portions of the major axes, their echoing those larger axes may not seem surprising. His role on the N-S Axis obviously coalesces with that of the worshiping people, because he is one of them (if just to some extent their worship leader.) On the E-W Axis, however, the situation is less clear. Neither Jewish nor Christian commentators agree among themselves about the ultimate identity of the Prince. At least for those who see him as the Messiah—a full Mediator between God and His people—his place on the E-W axis will seem more than appropriate.

Whatever one thinks about that, the same objection is unlikely to be raised in the second confirming witness, which lies entirely outside of the Temple complex with its two crossing axes. For this we turn to Ezekiel’s unusual, and highly abstract layout for the twelves tribes in a New Israel (Ezek. chapters 47-8). If the intersecting paths of the Prince’s activities is a microcosm of the Temple’s crossing axes, each tribe in Ezekiel’s new layout repeats the same crossing pattern, but completely outside of the Temple. Differing greatly from the Bible’s historic layout of the tribes, Ezekiel’s arrangement has an ideal, abstract order unrelated to the underlying geography of the land—cutting across its natural contours, which run North-South. In Ezekiel, however, each tribe is a horizontal strip extending across the whole width of Israel, generally from the Great Sea on the west to a common border on the east side.

Thus each tribe individually has the East-West orientation of the Temple (which has its own horizontal strip within the unusual arrangement, in between the strips for Judah on its north and Benjamin to its south.) This arrangement portrays each individual tribe—and by extension, each individual citizen—as sovereignly saved by God, and meant to be used individually by Him in the sending out of His Spirit into the desert of the world.

And since every tribal strip extends horizontally across all of Israel, all travel between tribes must pass North-South through any intervening tribal strips, whether one is going just two tribes to the north or south, or to the most distant tribes, requiring passage through as many as ten other tribes (plus the strip with the Temple in it.) Thus in this new arrangement there is one unified N-S circulation spine for all the tribes in the worship of God and service to Him and each other, made by the linking together of the N-S axes of all the individual tribes into one combined axis. It binds them together as a unified people of God.

Ezekiel’s peculiar layout of the twelve tribes thus conforms on its own scale to the bi-axial organization of his Temple—“I will be their God” (E-W Axis) and “They shall be My people“ (N-S). Other than to display and embody these two sides of God’s eternal covenant with His people, it is hard to imagine what purpose Ezekiel’s abstract layout could have. Jewish and Christian commentators have mostly attempted to explain the order in which the particular tribes are assigned (north or south of the Temple) in terms of their descent from Rachel or Leah and her two maids, or the order in which they set out from camp on their desert marches, but without suggesting any reason for the unusual arrangement in the first place. The only commentaries the author has seen that contain, separately, hints of this site’s covenant-axis explanation are those of Iain M. Duguid (p.544), which calls the vertical arrangement of horizontal strips “a way of orienting the entire land along the sacred east-west axis of the temple”; and Daniel I. Block (v. 2, p.722), which says this layout “facilitates intertribal exchange and access for all” to the Temple.

(A partial diagram of Ezekiel’s new tribal layout that shows the two axes discussed above is cycling on the Home Page. For the complete diagram, see Fig. 4 in Part 1 of the author’s “Christian midrash” articles on the Free Articles page, or Fig. 12 in his book, Ezekiel’s Temple: A Scriptural Framework Illustrating the Covenant of Grace on The Book page.)

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