The Holy of Holies: 
On the Constituents of Emptiness 

The Holy of Holies actually was not supposed to be, as Pompey found it, empty. The Ark of the Covenant - a gold-covered box containing those tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, originally designed for the Tabernacle - was meant to be kept inside this space at the heart of the Jewish temple. Indeed, the Ark was said to be the highlight of Solomon's legendary first temple. Lamentations calls it "the beauty of Israel" (although that "beauty" would have been seen by only one person on only one day each year). Somehow the Ark and the tablets had gotten misplaced by the time the second temple was constructed - as material evidence of miraculous events always, somehow, gets misplaced.

In this the experiences of the Hebrews are far from unique. When asked for proof, the supernatural usually fails to produce.

Here, from I Kings, is how we want it to be: Elijah, prophet of the God Yahweh, challenged the prophets of the competing (but lowercase) god, Baal, to prepare a bull for sacrifice but leave responsibility for the fire to cook the meat to their god. Baal's prophets "invoked Baal from morning until noon." They "performed a hopping dance about the altar....They gashed themselves with knives and spears." But the meat remained uncooked on the altar. Then Elijah places meat from his bull atop twelve stones (for the twelve tribes of Israel) on an altar to Yahweh and prays. Presto! "Fire from the Lord descended and consumed the burnt offering."

More commonly, however, if I may begin my unholy leaping from one culture to another, the supernatural fails to rise to such challenges. Mbira, a member of the Azande tribe in the Sudan, once decided to give some of the local witch doctors a test. According to the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard, writing in 1937, Mbira placed a knife in a covered pot and invited four witch doctors to use their powers to divine what was in the pot. Three danced themselves into a properly ecstatic state for "the better part of the day" and then made "wildly incorrect" guesses. The fourth kept dancing until, since the sun was going down, Mbira insisted that he make his guess. Then Mbira went into a hut. The witch doctor snuck in behind him and, "so that he could save his reputation," pleaded with Mbira to tell him what was in the pot.

I do not mean to imply that supernatural beliefs never receive confirmation. Sometimes after the shaman holds a séance the patient does improve. But outside of the hazy, legendary realm of Moses, Solomon, Elijah and the distant ancestors of innumerable peoples around the world, unassailable proof of the supernatural - the tablets with the Ten Commandments themselves, fire from the Lord descending and consuming when requested - generally fails to arrive.

Some anthropologists have suggested that, as a result, many human believers sense that witchcraft and gods do not belong to the same reality as men, women and animals. "The everyday world of common sense objects and practical acts is the paramount reality in human experience," states Clifford Geertz. For all its drama, the world of spirits and omens represents, by this way of thinking, something less than that. "The majority of men live in it only at moments," Geertz adds.

His example is a member of the Bororo tribe in South America who announces, "I am a parakeet." Such supernatural beliefs are taken very, very seriously. People, as we have often enough seen, are willing to kill or die for them. However, Geertz argues, they are taken seriously in a different "province of meaning" than that which "makes up the commonsensical." That Bororo man, as Geertz notes, never seeks to mate with parakeets.

When Pompey barged into the Holy of Holies, the Ark was already missing. This absence of physical evidence of God's existence, this negation, helped create the emptiness Pompey confronted. That void may have been deepened by a sense even among the Hebrews, with all their tales of divine intervention, that the "province of meaning" occupied by their God is not a province that can provide physical evidence, that the Holy of Holies, had it not been destroyed, would have remained forever empty.