The city of Arad
As far back as 3,000 BC, a large Canaanite city stood in the Negev, where the small town of Arad sits today. This city probably existed when Abraham and his family lived in Beersheba, a nearby desert region.
Arad was eventually destroyed, possibly by Joshua, and then rebuilt and fortified as part of Israel's southern flank. The Old Testament Jews of Arad worshiped at a temple built in their city; archaeological remains indicate that they were exclusively devoted to Yahweh.
During King Hezekiah's reign, the people of Arad were told to destroy their temple. In an effort to end pagan worship, Hezekiah ordered the destruction of all high places, except for Jerusalem's temple, regardless of whether they were built to honor God or Baal (2 Kings 18:22).
The devout worshipers at Arad did not want to tear their temple down or use if for everyday purposes. Instead, they covered it with earth. Discovered thousands of years later, the remains of this temple are a treasure for biblical archaeologists.
Although smaller in size, Arad's temple was modeled after Jerusalem's temple. It had a people's court, priest's court, and an altar of the exact dimensions given in Exodus 27.
The people of Arad also built a Holy of Holies, which represented God's dwelling place in the temple of Jerusalem. Inside were two stone tablets symbolizing the Ten Commandments. These special objects reminded them of their covenant with God.
Worship followed a set pattern. A priest placed bread on a table and offered prayers of thanks to God for providing food. Another priest said prayers for the congregation at the altar of incense and poured incense over hot coals. Standing outside the priest's court, people watched the rising smoke and pictured their prayers ascending to heaven.
Sacrifices played a key role in temple worship. The priests killed an animal and sprinkled its blood at the base of the altar. On one special day of the year—Yom Kippur—the blood was sprinkled in the Holy of Holies.
Sacrifices were made each day around 9 AM and 3 PM. At the time of sacrifice, a shofar (ram's horn) was blown. The people around the city heard the sound and were reminded of God's promise to forgive.
Israel's sacrifice system was rooted in the covenant formed between God and Abram in Genesis 15. God told Abram that if he would be obedient, Abram would have land and descendants, and all nations would be blessed through him. Abram believed God, and so they sealed the agreement with a covenant ceremony.
When forming a covenant in ancient days, two parties gathered animals, cut each into two parts, and then placed them on the ground so their blood flowed into one stream. Each party walked through the blood, symbolizing that they would pay with their life if they broke the terms of the covenant.
God made his covenant with Abram in this familiar way. Abram created a bloodpath using a goat, heifer, ram, pigeon, and dove. God, in the form of a smoking firepot, walked through the path and affirmed his promises to Abram.
Abram was filled with "a thick and dreadful darkness" (v. 12). This Hebrew expression was used to describe someone who was scared to death. Abram knew that he could not live up to the terms of God's covenant: He could not live in perfect obedience and he would have to pay with his life when he broke the covenant.
But instead of making Abram walk the bloodpath, God, this time in the form of a blazing torch, walked through the path for him. Knowing Abram couldn't keep the covenant, God's actions effectively said, "If either you or I break this covenant, I will pay for it with my own blood."
For later Israelites, animal sacrifices were a visual reminder of God's covenant promise. Each time an animal was sacrificed, the people symbolically said, "God, I know I've sinned, but remember your covenant. Let this sacrifice be for me."
In ancient times, it was common for two parties to create a summary of their covenant together. Two copies were made and each party brought their copy to a sacred place.
The Ten Commandments provided a summary of God's covenant with Abraham. When the tablets were complete, God gave Moses both copies, saying in effect that his most sacred place would be the sacred place of his people.
The Israelites celebrated these commandments as a wonderful picture of God's love. They did not see the law as a burdensome list of do's and don'ts. Rather, it reminded them that their God cared enough to make a covenant with his people and live among them.
God later commanded Moses to build the ark of the covenant, where the Ten Commandments would be kept, and where God could dwell among his people. The ark was kept in Israel's most sacred place, the Holy of Holies. On the lid of the ark, between the wings of the cherubim carved there, God lived among his people.
Eventually, the ark of the covenant and the temple were destroyed. But God's faithfulness to the covenant did not waver. He once again chose to dwell among his people, this time in the form of a human person.
Jesus' crucifixion took place at the same time as the afternoon sacrifice. At the very moment the sound of the shofar filled Jerusalem, reminding the people that sacrifices had been made, the Messiah shouted, "It is finished!"
Jesus' life was over at that moment. But more importantly, the need for sacrifices was over. The people no longer needed to remind God of his promise: He had fulfilled the covenant and paid the bloodpath price with his own life.
In the moments after Jesus' death, the temple curtain tore apart. The Holy of Holies had suddenly and supernaturally been ripped open.
Through this event, and later during Pentecost, God showed his people that priests were no longer needed as mediators before God. From that moment on, he would not live in the Holy of Holies, but would dwell directly within his people.
God's Dwelling Place Today
One broadcast of the nightly news gives a sobering look at our world. All around us, people are hurting. Some hide it with bright smiles and great accomplishments. Others bury the pain in sinful rebellion.
Whether they admit it or not, they all need God.
Christians today have good news for such a spiritually needy world: God isn't a far off power waiting for us to mess up so that he can punish us. He's the God who walked the bloodpath for us, a God who keeps his promises, even when it costs his life.
Our amazing God has decided to live within us. And the way he reveals himself to our hurting world today is through his believers. Amidst our hectic schedules and never-ending activities, we should consider each day as an opportunity to show God's presence to a watching world.
What do people see when they watch you? Does your life make God's loving presence known to the world?