The Holy of Holies: 
On the Constituents of Emptiness 

The punishment for an improper appearance in the Holy of Holies had been made quite clear by Yahweh. Aaron himself had to wear a specified robe with a golden bell when entering this chamber "that he may not die." The Talmud explains that a "layman" attempting to perform a service in the Holy of Holies would be condemned to "death." And a later tradition held that high priests entered the Holy of Holies with a rope tied around their ankle - in case they were struck down by God for some transgression and their bodies needed to be removed without anyone else daring to enter the space. No doubt, a disrespectful interloper - like the Roman Pompey - into God's own sanctuary, this most private and rarified of places, would suffer at the hands of the Lord a terrible death, a punishment no amount of earthly power could resist.

And Pompey did die under terrible circumstances - he was stabbed while seeking sanctuary in Egypt after being defeated by Caesar. However, this was in the year 48 BCE - about fifteen years after his transgression. And in the interim Pompey had had many successes. It sure looked as if he had gotten away with it.

Belief systems often have to deal with unpleasant facts like this intruder's survival. Good things happen to presumably bad people. Bad things happen to presumably good people: King Josiah, for example, although much beloved by the authors of the Bible for his fidelity to the Yahweh-alone cause, died ingloriously at the hands of Egypt's pharaoh in 609 BCE. This is the problem of evil - one the most powerful of the traditional arguments against belief in a just Deity (or deities).

Believers usually manage to come up with explanations for such apparent glitches in the system of divine reward and punishment: God, they conclude, decided to wait for the proper moment to bring Pompey to justice. Or, when all else fails, they mutter: God works in mysterious ways. Still, the fact that Pompey walked out of the Holy of Holies alive itself contributed to its emptiness.