Thursday, July 07, 2011

Boaz and Yachin: Pillars of Creation, Trees of Eden

And he [Solomon] erected the pillars for the portico of the sanctuary, and he erected the right-hand pillar and called it ‘Yachin’, and he erected the left-hand pillar and called it ‘Boaz’. Melachim I 7:21

If the Molten Sea is a puzzle, the significance of the two named pillars on the portico of the Temple (Hechal) is the sod ha-sodot, the mystery of mysteries connected to the great structure.

These two bronze pillars, topped with curved capitals and festooned with a decorative motif of rimmonim (pomegranates) and shushan (lily?), are a genuine puzzle. The complex instructions concerning the capitals, in particular, using terms that appear nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible, introduce considerable uncertainty as to the final look of the pillars, as can be seen by doing a quick image search on the Internet.

Moreover, it seems that the pillars served no structural function, making them, as we would say today, "architectural features," purely decorative objects. The obvious conclusion is that these were symbolic in nature. But the exact meaning of the symbolism has eluded most commentators.

Eluded serious Biblical scholars, that is. More grandiose speculations abound. If you want to know about the role of the pillars in revealing the nefarious Masonic plot, or in warning us about 9/11, there are ample explanations, all offered with relentless certainty. But we do not offer those. So let's review.

One solution is that they are a vestigial element from pagan temple design. There is evidence that Canaanite and Phoenician temples had exterior pillars. The lily motif is one seen on other pillars in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Overlapping this is the idea, a pretty intuitive one, is that they are representation of the divine phallus, symbols of power, vitality, and fertility. Not to be dismissed, but why two? Sheer symmetry?

A slightly better explanation, in my opinion, grows out of the observation of Jon Levenson, who argues the Temple is meant to be a microcosm of the world at its Edenic, pristine phase:

The world which the Temple incarnates in a tangible way is not the world of history but the world of creation...[The Temple and the World, 297].

One can see this idea more explicitly acknowledged in Ezekiel 47, where the messianic temple resembles Eden, complete with four rivers flowing from its precincts. The Temple exemplifies the world at its primordial origin, the ideal cosmos. Therefore, just as the the Yam Mutzak symbolizes the constrained waters, the pillars would be something paired within the paired process of forming the universe (notice in the Gen. 1 account, the world is formed out of paired merisms - light and dark, water above and below, land and sea, etc). That would make them either the [implied] pillars that hold up the heavens, the cherubs who guarded Eden (Gen. 3) or the two trees that sat at the center of the garden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of All Things (a merism usually over-literally translated as the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil")

Of course the correspondence between the Genesis narrative and the Temple pillars is not absolute. If they symbolizes cherubs, why pillars at all, especially when cherubs decorate the interior of the building? and if they invoke the trees, why not more centrally located in the structure? And Genesis does not explicitly mention pillars as a feature of creation. But keep in mind, the Genesis account of the creation is not the only one found in the Hebrew Bible (Pss. 74, 104, Job 38-40), which offers several similar, but hardly identical descriptions. Ancient myths tend to have multiple, variant iterations. Cosmic pillars pop up in other Biblical passages.

Out of all these imperfect solutions, I favor the 'tree' symbolism. The pomegranate has long been a popular candidate for the 'fruit' Adam and Eve consumed (sorry, no apples in the Levant). I suspect the pillars were meant to evoke the twin pillars of divine knowledge and fertility that sustain the universe.

But what about the names? The traditional commentaries are good, sturdy, explanations:

He named the pillars to create a positive omen. They were at the entrance to the Temple, and he called them by names to create a positive omen. He called one ‘Yachin’, an expression of establishment, that the Temple should be established forever, like the phrase, ‘Like the moon, it should be established forever.’ ‘Boaz’ is an expression of strength, a contraction of ‘Bo Oz [strength within]’, meaning that God should place in it strength and endurance, as it is written, ‘HaShem will give His nation strength.’ 21 RaDaK, Melachim I 7:21

Another suggestion that makes me laugh, because its so utterly Jewish, is that these are the names of big donors to the Temple project. Sounds anachronistic, but there is a parallel tradition in rabbinic literature that there were two bronze doors in the Heikhal called "The doors of Nicanor" in honor of their funder.

I'm sticking with RaDaK for the time being, but I welcome reader solutions, so long as they revolve around Osama bin Ladin, the Illuminati, or President Obama.

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


Blogger TheNote said...

thank you for giving us a way to study w/you . . you help me more than you know.

1:49 PM  

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