God in Heaven and in His Temple: Biblical Difficulty?

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee.” (2 Chronicles 2:6)

Salomon de Bray, “The Queen of Sheba Before the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem,” 1657
Salomon de Bray, “The Queen of Sheba Before the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem,” 1657 )

Dear Lord: Save us from many “Bible scholars.” I recently addressed one of these, of the sort who denies biblical inspiration, and sees alleged ‘biblical contradictions” at every turn of a Bible page. 

He is enthralled with the documentary hypothesis or theory, which holds that there are four distinct writers of the Torah or Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament). This 19th-century relic has been roundly refuted or vigorously criticized and questioned, at the least, by many scholars who accept biblical inspiration and infallibility (though many Catholics — even, alas, popes — continue to use it).

But that’s a huge separate issue. Let’s examine his particular claims in this instance. He contends that the “priestly” writer held that God was present among his people, in the Tabernacle and Temple. On the other hand, he maintains that all of these beliefs are allegedly utterly absent in the writings of the so-called “Deuteronomist,” who held that God resided in heaven, and that only his “name” was in the Temple (Deuteronomy 12:11, 21; 14:23-25; 16:2, 6, 11; 26:2); not his actual presence.

In fact, both things are true. It’s the biblical “both/and.” The Old Testament taught that God was omnipresent (everywhere):

  • 1 Kings 8:27 (RSV) But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee…. (cf. 2 Chronicles 2:6)
  • Psalm 139:7-8 Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
  • Jeremiah 23:24 Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD.

At the same time, the Bible says that God dwells in heaven and also on the earth:

  • Deuteronomy 4:39 the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. (cf. Joshua 2:11; Isaiah 66:1)

And in heaven:

  • 1 Kings 8:30 ... hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place ... [plus seven more times in the chapter; 2 Chronicles 6:27; cf. 1 Samuel 2:10)]
  • 2 Chronicles 20:6 ... art thou not God in heaven? ... (cf. 20:27; Daniel 2:28)

The Bible also talks about God being specially present: in the burning bush, more generally on Mount Sinai, in the pillars of fire and smoke, between the wings of the cherubim on top of the Ark of the Covenant, in the Temple and prior Tabernacle, by means of the angel of the Lord and — in Christian belief — in the consecrated Eucharist and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

It’s not a contradiction because God is everywhere in the first place; therefore he can (non-contradictorily) be said to be in any particular place as well, and he can teach his people that he chooses to be “specially” present in certain places like the Tabernacle and Temple, for the purpose of worship and his people feeling closer to him: 

  • Exodus 25:8 And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst (cf. 29:42-43).

We must understand, moreover, what God’s “name” meant to the ancient Jews. It was a far more robust concept than a mere minimalistic abstract thing. According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (“Name”):

Very frequently, especially in the Psalms and prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, ‘the name’ of God stands for ‘God himself”; to ‘forget his name’ was ‘to depart from him’ (Jeremiah 23:27) ... 

Furthermore, Deuteronomy, too, teaches that God was not confined to heaven, but also specially present in the burning bush, Mount Sinai, the pillars of fire and cloud, the Tabernacle and/or Temple, the Ark of the Covenant and the Israelites’ “camp,” and that he was “with” them in battles:

  • Deuteronomy 4:36 Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you; and on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire. (cf. 5:4; 9:10; 33:16)
  • Deuteronomy 10:8 At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. (cf. 12:18; 16:16; 31:11)
  • Deuteronomy 20:1 “When you go forth to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. (cf. 20:4; 23:14; 31:6, 8)
  • Deuteronomy 31:14 And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, the days approach when you must die; call Joshua, and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, that I may commission him.” . . .
  • Deuteronomy 31:15 And the LORD appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud; and the pillar of cloud stood by the door of the tent.

To salvage such an exceedingly weak argument, one would, in effect be forced now to say, “well, those are simply non-deuteronomist portions later added to the book of Deuteronomy...” It’s the “answer” to everything (hostile or contrary interpolated texts). 

But when a particular ploy or theory or fiction is used for every conceivable difficulty, it is soon seen that it is in fact the solution of no difficulty. A thing can explain too much as well as too little. It’s just not plausible. It’s on the level of a conspiracy theory. In this case, against the inspiration and infallibility of the Holy Bible: God’s revelation to man.

Not every Bible scholar who believes in the documentary theory of the Pentateuch denies biblical inspiration. But on the other hand, virtually every (real or alleged) Bible scholar who denies inspiration, fallaciously uses the documentary theory in order to undermine it.