The Holy of Holies: 
On the Constituents of Emptiness 

While there is no evidence that Pompey understood it, the emptiness he observed upon his intrusion into the Holy of Holies did demonstrate - dramatically - what was so unusual, so holy, about Jewish beliefs.

"The progress of religion is defined," writes the philosopher A. N. Whitehead, "by the denunciation of gods." Under King Josiah in Judah in the seventh century BCE and with the support of Deuteronomy (a text newly "discovered" during Josiah's reign), the Hebrews "denounced" - became atheists with respect to - all gods except one. This was the "Yahweh-alone" movement. Altars - some of which had even shared Yahweh's temple - to Milcom, Chemosh, Ashtoreth, Tammuz and two particularly popular area gods, Baal and Asherah, were, according to II Kings, "abolished"; "defiled"; "shattered"; "burned down"; " dust;" their priests slain. Monotheism was, thus, established.

By the time of Pompey's arrival, the Holy of Holies is, therefore, empty of any trace of worship of other gods.

The Jews also "denounced" the tangible, easily accessible, form in which all gods had been presented. Other temples in the Egyptian/Greek/Roman world featured in their holiest places, their sanctuaries, statues depicting the deities to whom the temples were dedicated. The Jewish religion - with its prohibition, introduced in Exodus and underlined in Deuteronomy, against "graven images" - rested on a more abstract, more elusive view of God.

That prohibition is apparently not absolute. While the second commandment forbids "any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below," God's design instructions, later in Exodus, for the Ark that is to be placed inside this chamber include "two cherubim of gold." Nonetheless, Yahweh himself is scrupulously not represented here - or anywhere.

Indeed, God is very, very rarely seen in the Hebrew Bible, often going out of his way - by coming in a cloud, by ordering people not "to gaze" - to remain invisible. The Holy of Holy is empty - and this is how that emptiness would primarily be understood by those who respected its holiness - of images of God. This is Tacitus' perspective on Pompey's invasion of the Jewish temple: "This incident gave rise to the common impression that it contained no representation of the deity."

Whitehead's "progress of religion" is continuing here. God - a forceful, occasionally violent character in the earliest books of the Bible - becomes, through his invisibility, more ethereal. Consider this intriguing scene involving the prophet Elijah from I Kings:

There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind - an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake - fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.

This is a God who is spending considerable time being "not." Indeed, the only evidence in this scene that he is not "not" is a "soft murmuring sound" Elijah hears after all the hubbub, followed by a "voice" from a cave. Yahweh, the seldom seen, is now Yahweh, the barely heard.

The Holy of Holies is emptier because God appears to be growing imperceptible.