Abraham, David and the Eben Shetiyah

Let's continue with legends surrounding Golgotha. As we noted then, Jerusalem is a city built on seven hills, one of those hills being Golgotha. A neighboring hill is Mount Moriah, which has its own legendary history. Mount Moriah is famous as the location of Solomon's temple.

1 Then Solomon began to build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to David his father, at the place that David had appointed, on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. (2 Chr 3:1)

This text points back to a previous story, the story of King David's chief sin (no, it’s not about Bathsheba).

1 Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to number Israel. 2 So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, "Go, number Israel, from Beer-sheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number." 3 But Joab said, "May the LORD add to his people a hundred times as many as they are! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord's servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should he bring guilt upon Israel?" 4 But the king's word prevailed against Joab. So Joab departed and went throughout all Israel, and came back to Jerusalem... 7 But God was displeased with this thing, and he smote Israel. 8 And David said to God, "I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, I pray thee, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly." (1 Chr 21:1-8)

King David took a census and it resulted in a very grave punishment. Why was a census bad? Because, the purpose of a census was to count the number of able-bodied men who could fight in battle. God had already handed over many victories to David in battle, yet David still lacked trust in God and preferred to trust in his army. So God inflicted a plague on Israel that cost 70,000 lives. This plague was carried out by an angel:

15 And God sent the angel to Jerusalem to destroy it; but when he was about to destroy it, the LORD saw, and he repented of the evil; and he said to the destroying angel, "It is enough; now stay your hand." And the angel of the LORD was standing by the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. 16 And David lifted his eyes and saw the angel of the LORD standing between earth and heaven, and in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell upon their faces. 17 And David said to God, "Was it not I who gave command to number the people? It is I who have sinned and done very wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Let thy hand, I pray thee, O LORD my God, be against me and against my father's house; but let not the plague be upon thy people." (1 Chr 21:15-17)

Then David bought the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite, where he prepared for his son Solomon to build the Temple. But this site has another historical meaning, going back to Abraham.

After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." 2 He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." (Gen 22:1-2)

It has always been believed that this "land of Moriah" and "Mount Moriah" above are one and the same place; that the Temple sacrifices of the Law of Moses were offered on the same location where Abraham prepared the sacrifice of his only son. Let’s notice that in this story of Abraham and Isaac, Isaac asked his father regarding the animal to be sacrificed; Abraham responded, “God will provide himself the lamb” (Gn 22:8). And Abraham named that place “The Lord Will Provide” (Gen 22:14); or, in Hebrew, Yahweh Yireh. Now when we consider that this hill is Mt. Moriah of Jerusalem, then we realize that in Abraham’s day this place was already know as Salem (see essay on Golgotha). When we combine the two names of Yahweh-Yireh and Salem (and drop the Yahweh), we get Yireh-Salem: Jeru-salem.

An important point about sacrifice: an altar is required. In the story above of David, after David prays for mercy, he offers a sacrifice on the threshing floor of Ornan. A threshing floor is a very large flat rock for threshing wheat. This rock was the altar David used to offer his sacrifice. According to legend, this rock was also the altar upon which Isaac would have been sacrificed. This rock is legend; it is called the Eben Shetiyah - the foundation stone. Ancient Judaism has many legends concerning it. It ultimately became the foundation stone of the Temple. That temple is gone now, replaced by a mosque, known today as The Dome of the Rock; here Muslims venerate this ancient rock, so closely associated with their father Abraham.

One legend that is of critical interest to Christians concerns its role as the foundation on which the Temple was built. According to this legend, Solomon's engineers studied the very large, flat rock embedded in the ground to determine if it could be a stable foundation for the huge building they were planning. They dug tunnels from the sides to underneath; when they did so, water came up - they had tapped into the ancient Deep, which they believed all dry ground rested upon. With the waters came a host of demons who plagued Jerusalem; the Levite priests exorcised the demons back underground with the help of the Ark of the Covenant which they carried about in procession. The tunnels were filled up again and it was now clear that the Eben Shetiyah was a cap blocking the gateway to Sheol. The Temple was built on a rock which covered the gate to Sheol.

Compare this legend with Christ's words to Simon:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. (Mt 16:18)

The phrase "powers of death" is a poor translation of the original Greek; a literal translation is "gates of Hades," Hades being the Greek word for Sheol. As the OT church was built on a physical rock which was effectively a gateway to Sheol/Hades which, at least in Solomon's time, was prevailed against, so the NT church will be built on a different kind of rock - a man, against whom the gates of hell shall not prevail. To emphasize this, Jesus changed Simon's name to Peter (rock).

[A bit on this name change: Matthew's Gospel was written in Greek, and Simon's new name was Petros which we anglicize to Peter. But Jesus did not speak Greek with His Apostles; He spoke Aramaic. In Aramaic, the word for rock is Kepha. This word is transliterated into Greek as Cephas, which we see in Jn 1:42, 1 Cor 9:5, 1 Cor 15:5, Gal 1:18, Gal 2:11 and elsewhere as the real name of Peter. I mention this because some anti-Catholic detractors point out that in Mat 16:18, Jesus calls Simon "Petros" which is the Greek word for stone, not rock. Therefore, they say, the rock (petra) upon which Jesus builds his church cannot be the stone Peter (Petros). Our reply is simply that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek, and Simon's new name was Kepha as proven elsewhere in the NT; there is no debate that the word kepha means rock, not stone. He is, therefore, the rock upon which the church is built. Why then did Matthew translate Kepha as Petros instead of Petra? Because petra is a feminine noun and would have been inappropriate as a man's name; it needed to be made masculine. A Greek would understand this. A similar English scenario would be if a mother chose to name her daughter after her father Robert; she would use Roberta, the feminine form.]

Let's also note that when Jesus spoke these words, they were nowhere near Mount Moriah; they were at Caesarea Philippi, near another famous rock. This rock was a large hill and on its pinnacle, the tetrarch Phillip (son of King Herod) had built a temple to honor Caesar, his Roman overlord. If we consider the symbolism: Philip, representing the Jewish state, submits to the Roman state which replaced it. At this same location, Jesus establishes the Petrine Office, where the old covenant led by the Jewish high priest is replaced by the new covenant led by the future bishop of Rome. And, as is sometimes seen in the OT, this change of covenant is further symbolized by a change of name: Simon to Peter.

That’s a lot in one post. In summary: In the OT, an important character was a great rock called the Eben Shetiyah. It played an important role in the OT sacrifices, from Isaac to the Temple; ancient Judaism surrounds it with legends. Using one of these legends, Jesus teaches us that the New Covenant sacrifices (the sacraments) will involve a new kind of priest, represented by the bishop of Rome. Isn’t it beautiful how Scripture can tie so many different stories and ideas together into one?