I Kings 7: At the Library

I’m at the library right now for my weekly quiet time.  Today, I studied I Kings 7.

What can I say about I Kings 7?  I guess I’ll start with the brass sea.  I Kings 7 talks about a sea of brass, which contains water and is perched on top of twelve brass oxen.  Four of the oxen face north, four face the south, four face east, and four face west.  I Kings 7 says that the sea has 2,000 baths of water, whereas II Chronicles 4 states that it has 3,000 baths.  Fundamentalists try to reconcile this by saying that the sea had the capacity to contain 3,000 baths, but that only 2,000 baths were actually in it.

I don’t know how much a bath is, and, to be honest, I’m too lazy to look it up right now.  Plus, even if I knew how many gallons a bath was, that wouldn’t help me form a mental picture, since the sea of brass was so big.  I wonder, though, how much of a difference 1,000 baths make.  Let me explain.  According to II Chronicles 4:6, the purpose for the sea of brass was so that the priests could wash themselves before they used the altar, which they’re commanded to do in Exodus 30:18-21.  That’s why the drawing of Solomon’s temple that I saw in The Biblical World: An Illustrated Atlas places the sea right next to the bronze altar.  But if the sea could hold 3,000 baths yet only had 2,000, how far did the priests have to stretch to wash their hands and their feet?  The sea would serve them a lot better if it were filled to the brim; otherwise, they’d reach down to wash themselves and end up falling into the sea!  So maybe we can resort to another popular conservative Christian explanation for biblical contradictions: scribal error!

Another significant detail about the sea of brass is that I Kings 7:23 and the parallel passage in II Chronicles 4 get pi wrong.  According to these passages, the diameter of the sea is ten cubits, and its circumference is thirty cubits.  Because the circumference is pi times the diameter, these passages apparently assume that pi is three, not 3.14.  I checked Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties, and he gave two solutions in his attempt to uphold the Bible.  One is that the Bible is close enough: it’s giving us an approximate figure, not an exact one.  His second solution is that, if you take a rod that’s five cubits and go around the circle, you’d do so six times before you came back to your starting point.  And six times five is thirty, so the circumference is thirty, in a manner of speaking.  So, yay, the Bible is right!

One can point to this as a reason to reject the Bible.  I’m not a fundamentalist, but I doubt that the biblical authors were stupid: they had some reason for saying what they did.  At the same time, did they know geometry?  And yet, even though “it’s close enough” is a pretty bad explanation—especially when we’re dealing with a book that fundamentalists dogmatically assert is inerrant in every detail—I Kings 7:23 is close on how much the circumference would be if the diameter were ten cubits.

Another explanation was one I heard in a class on medieval Jewish commentaries.  It’s that the circumference in I Kings 7:23 measured the inner circle, but there was a thick outer rim around it. You had the inner pool, and the surrounding rim.  So that’s where the extra inches went!

II Corinthians 7:1 came to my mind in the course of my prayer time.  It says that, having these promises, we should cleanse ourselves from the defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.  The promises are defined in the previous chapter: being sons and daughters of the Most High.  The reason this passage came to my mind was that the priests used the sea of brass to wash themselves before they could worship, and a Christian commentary I read affirmed that we should cleanse ourselves from worldly defilement in order to serve God.

My mind turned to the whole faith vs. works debate.  Here’s why: in front of the temple were two pillars, named Yachin and Boaz.  Scholars have debated whether or not the pillars actually held anything up or were primarily there for show, but many of them agree that the pillars were communicating a message.  Based on a number of Psalms, that message may have gone something like, “Yahweh will establish (yachin) thy throne forever,” and “In the strength (boaz) of Yahweh shall the king rejoice.”

The pillars communicated that God would be eternally faithful to the Davidic dynasty, and also that the king could rejoice in God’s strength (faith).  And the pillars could serve as a place where God’s promises became manifest.  When Queen Athaliah thought she had destroyed the Davidic dynasty and tyrannized Judah, the Davidic heir, Joash, stood beside one of the pillars (II Kings 11:4).  God was faithful to David’s line!

But the pillar was not just a place to trust in God’s faithfulness and strength (faith): it was also a place where the king covenanted to obey God’s commandments (II Kings 23:3).  Protestant thought has tended to polarize law and grace, faith and works, largely because Paul distinguished between the two (Romans 4).  But, in the Hebrew Bible, the pillars that represented God’s grace and strength to those who believe were a site to affirm obedience to the law, works.

I’m not sure what to say about this.  The topic makes me uncomfortable, to be honest.  People may say that God shows his grace to those who obey, making grace conditional on our obedience.  Others contend that grace motivates us to walk in God’s will, but their implication seems to be (in my eyes) that obedience is optional: God loves us, no matter what, regardless of how we act, but it’s a good idea not to sin.  I suppose you can find proof-texts for both outlooks within the Bible.  God punished Israel severely when she sinned, but she was always his people.  But saying that God’s grace is for the obedient strikes me as probation, not salvation (to echo Felix).  Probation is trying not to screw up because you can be tossed into jail, and some view salvation as similar to that: we’re free, but we need to be on our best behavior, otherwise God will toss us into hell after we die.  Is there a way to rejoice in God’s strength and faithfulness, while also valuing obedience, with the recognition that God takes morality seriously (meaning it’s not optional)?

As far as cleansing myself from the world goes, I have a hard time with that.  For one, what’s it mean?  That I have to give up Desperate Housewives?  Second, I personally don’t try to become perfect before I worship God.  When I started my quiet time this morning, I was not perfect—far from it!  I was moody and resentful and a bunch of other things.  But as I did my quiet time, my mind became cleansed.  Right now, I’m still not perfect, but I feel a little more “in my right mind” (Mark 5:15—I was already clothed!).  So it’s not so much a matter as me cleaning myself up to approach God.  It’s God cleaning me up as I spend time in his presence. 

Does this contradict our text, or what it symbolizes: that the priests needed to wash themselves before they could approach the altar?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Hebrews 9:14 affirms that the blood of Christ cleanses us from dead works so we can serve the living God.  It’s recalling the ashes of the red heifer in Numbers 19, which were put in water so that the Israelites could purify themselves from corpse contamination and worship God at the Tabernacle.  Here, at least, the Old Testament purity system foreshadows what Christ does for us through his blood, not our efforts to become morally pure.  We cleanse ourselves, though, when we trust in what Christ has done for us, in his grace and love.   

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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