The most striking use of sacred space in the Old Testament appears to be employed to reflect the relationship that exists between God and Israel, His chosen people. The same understanding of sacred space is also apparent in the New Testament where the relationship is between God and ‘spiritual Israel’, through the person of Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:29).
Both Israel and the Christian Church are ideally God-centred communities which have been chosen by God and set apart (made holy) from the rest of the world (Leviticus 29:2; Exodus 19:56; 1Peter 1:15-16; 2:9). If it is the relationship Between God and his chosen people which constutes sacred space, then the rest of mankind who live outside a relationship with God also live beyond the boundary of sacred space and are therefore in profane space. Think of the relationship between God and his people as a circle (God) within a circle (God’s people). Outside of the circle of God’s people (sacred space) are the rest of mankind (profane space). This conception serves as a template for the various examples of this type of sacred space found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.
In both the Old and New testaments this relationship between God and his people is founded on a covenant, which is basically a contract, or mutual agreement, between two parties. According to Genesis, the Hebrew book of beginnings, Adam and Eve, our primordial parents, lived within a specially created garden east of Eden (2:8). The garden of Eden can be seen to correspond with the above model of sacred space, with both Man and Woman living within its boundaries, in a harmonious relationship with their Creator. However, this arrangement was maintained on the basis of a divine command, that man “must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (2:17). When Adam and Eve disobeyed the command, the arrangement was nulified and they were both driven outside the garden into profane space, into a world of death (3:17) that was never meant to be, and no longer in a perfect relationship with God (Genesis 3).
Both the Old and New testaments present a way back for mankind into sacred space (or relationship) with God.
In the Jewish scriptures, the call of Abr(ah)am illustrates the transition from sacred to profane space. The Lord instructs Abraham to leave behind the pagan influences of his fathers household and country, and travel to Canaan where he is promised to become a ‘great nation’ (Genesis 12:1-2; Joshua 24:2-3). According to a certain Jewish commentary on the Pentateuch, this separation was necessary for reasons of spiritual cleanliness (Hertz, J.H ‘ed’, 1960, p.45). And so, Abraham made the transition from The profane realm of idolary into the sacred realm of the true worship of the One True God.
The most memorable account in Biblical history, concerning a transition from the profane to the sacred, has to be the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
The Red Sea can be seen to correspond with the boundary between the sacred and profane spaces. The Israelites, as Gods chosen people, passed through the Red Sea (a kind of mass baptism) to safety, whereas, when the Egyptians attempted to cross over the Red Sea they all perished (Exodus 14:26-30). It would seem that sacred space can be destructive towards those who are not permitted to enter into it.
From the Red Sea the Israelites were led to another area of sacred space at the foot of Mount. Sinai, where Israel willingly enter into a covenant with God (Exodus 19:8). Again, the sacred can be seen as destructive. Limits are placed around the foot of the mountain, setting it “apart as holy” (Exodus 19:23) and any unwarranted approach is to be punished with death (Exodus 19:12-13). Also, the Israelites must be ritually clean before they can approach the sacred area.
The area around Mount Sinai corresponds well with our concept of sacred space. The people must wait outside the boundary of the mountain in profane space until they are ritually pure (Exodus 19:10-11, 14), only then are they permitted to cross the boundary into sacred space.
The mountain itself corresponds with the inner circle where God dwells and manifests himself (Exodus 19:3, 16, 18, 20). Entrance into this sacred space is regarded as “meeting with God” (Exodus 19:17), further illustrating that a relationship between God and mankind is something that takes place within sacred space, in one form or another.
The arrangement of the Israelite camp, during the forty years spent in the desert wilderness also conforms well with our model of sacred space. The twelve tribes were arranged around the Tent of Meeting (numbers 2) where God had made his dwelling (Exodus 25:8; 40:34). Inside the Tabernacle of God there was an area considered to be most sacred known as the Holy of Holies, or Most Holy Place, which was separated from the Tabernacle by a curtain and housed the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 26:33). The high priest of Israel was alone permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, and then, only once a year when he would sprinkle blood over the cover of the Ark, making atonement for the sins of Israel (Leviticus 16). Unauthorised entrance into the Holy of Holies, as at Mount Sinai, was punishable by death (Leviticus 16:4) and also ritual purity was necessary (Leviticus 16:4). The Tabernacle, especially the Holy of Holies, corresponds with the sacred space of the inner circle, the surrounding camp fits with the sacred space of the outer circle, while the profane area, the Desert widerness, lies outside the boundary sacred space. Later, the Temple of Jerusalem came to replace the desert Tabernacle, sharing the same arrangement of sacred space as that of its predecessor, with a Holy of Holies as its most sacred area (1 Kings 6), that served as a dwelling place for God (1 Kings 8:13).
In the New Testament, the above model of sacred space as a God-centered sacred area remains conceptually the same, although there is no specific sacred geographical location such as that at Mount Sinai or the Temple of Jerusalem. Rather, sacred space is located in the invisible spiritual realm (John 4: 20-24). It is now Jesus, as God incarnate who occupies the inner circle, and is the center of attention relative to the Lord God of the Old Testament (Psalm 141:8: Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 2: 9-11). Also, Jesus replaces the function of high priest as mediator and purifier, providing access for God’s people to the inner circle without the threat of death (Hebrews 8:2; 10: 19-22: Romans 5:1-2).
The kingdom of God, which is connected with both heaven and earth (Matthew 6:9; 16:18; 18:18) also conforms to the same model of sacred space.
In the book of Revelation there is a symbolic representation of the kingdom of God, with God’s throne in the centre (the inner-most circle) surrounded by ‘twenty-four elders’ (the outer-most circle) who have been interpreted by New Testament scholar William Hendriksen as “probably representing the entire church of the old and new dispensation” (1995, p.85).
In the gospels there is mention of a profane area beyond the kingdom of God that is described as both a ‘fiery furnace’ and a place of “darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12; 13:41-42).
The final description of God’s Kingdom is found at the end of the book of Revelation. It is described as “a new Jerusalem” descending from heaven:
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. 21:3 kjv
Again we have a clear representation of sacred space as an area of relationship between God and his people. At the centre of the new heavenly Jerusalem is “the Lord God Almighty and the lamb” (21:27 N.I.V). Outside the city wall, in profane space, are all those who do evil and are excluded from the sacred space of God’s kingdom (21:8; 22:15). Also, access to the tree of life is restored indicating that the kingdom of God is a restoration of the untainted relationship mankind had with God in the beginning in the garden of Eden (Revelation 22:14).