Sacred Space

In a recent video, David Larsen of Heavenly Ascents and David Tayman from Visions of the Kingdom, present a view of sacred space that was common among ancient temples. This is the first in a series of videos that seek to explore the nature, function, doctrine and ritual within these temples.

YouTube Preview Image

Donald W. Parry discussed the difference between sacred and profane space. Sacred space is intimately connected with temple space, while profane space is chaos and means space that is outside the sanctuary or common. In “Demarcation between Sacred Space and Profane Space: The Temple of Herod Model” he wrote the following:

Sacred space is intimately connected with temple space—they are often one and the same. The very meaning of the term temple in the Hebrew language demonstrates this idea. In the Hebrew Bible1 one of the principal roots from which the English words sanctuary and temple originate is *QDS, which has the basic meaning of “separation” or “withdrawal” of sacred entities from profane things.2 Specifically, the Qal verbal form of *QDS denotes something that is “holy” or “withheld from profane use.” The Niphal form of the same root refers to showing or proving “oneself holy.” The Piel verbal form speaks of placing a thing or person “into the state of holiness” or declaring something holy. In the Hiphil verbal form, the root letters *QDS have reference to the dedication or sanctification of a person or thing to sacredness.3 In all instances, the meaning of the Hebrew root *QDS pertains to separation from the profane.

Definition of Profane Space: Sacred and profane are not conterminous but represent “two antithetical entities.”4 Sacred space is temple space, and profane space is chaos. However, as mentioned above, we can appreciate sacred space fully only when we understand its relationship to the profane. The Latin word profanum (English “profane”) literally means “before” or “outside” the temple, formed from pro (meaning “outside”) and fanum (meaning “temple”).5 The equivalent Hebrew word is hôl, which, according to Marcus Jastrow, has the meaning of “outside of the sanctuary, foreign, profane, common.”6 If the temple is the consecrated place created “by marking it out, by cutting it off from the profane space around it,”7 then the profane space represents unconsecrated space, the peripheral area that remains after the sacred has been removed… The Jews that belonged to the Second Temple period were well aware that sacred space was set amidst profane space.8

Sacred space is demarcated in a variety of ways. For example,

The enclosure, wall, or circle of stones surrounding a sacred place – these are among the most ancient of known forms of man-made sanctuary. They existed as early as the early Indus civilization (at Mohenjo-Daro, for instance, cf. § 97) and the Ægean civilization. The enclosure does not only imply and indeed signify the continued presence of a kratophany or hierophany within its bounds; it also serves the purpose of preserving profane man from the danger to which he would expose himself by entering it without due care. The sacred is always dangerous to anyone who comes into contact with it unprepared, without having gone through the “gestures of approach” that every religious act demands. “Come not nigh higher,” said the Lord to Moses, “put off the shoes from thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.”9 Hence the innumerable rites and prescriptions (bare feet, and so on) relative to entering the temple, of which we have plentiful evidence among the Semites and other Mediterranean peoples. The ritual importance of the thresholds of temple and house is also due to this same separating function of limits, though it may have taken on varying interpretations and values over the course of time.

The same is the case with city walls: long before they were military erections, they were a magic defence, for they marked out from the midst of  a “chaotic” space, peopled with demons and phantoms (see further on), an enclosure, a place that was organized, made cosmic, in other words, provided with a “centre”.10

Carrying on the temple motif, Margaret Barker began her seminal paper “Fragrance in the Making of Sacred Space – Jewish Temple Paradigms of Christian Worship” by stating:

Sacred Space Gold, frankincense and myrrh were the gifts brought to Jesus by the wise men. They were also the three symbols of worship in the original temple. The vessels and furnishings of the temple were made of gold; frankincense and myrrh were the main ingredients of the two perfumes used in the holy of holies. The specially blended incense – known as the incense of spices [qtrt smym]- was  based on frankincense, and the specially blended anointing oil [smn msht qds] was perfumed mainly with myrrh. . . .

A simple incense of pure frankincense was used in the outer part of the temple, set with the shewbread (Leviticus 24.7). The blended incense, however, was only used in the holy of holies (Exodus 31.11). Since the holy of holies was the place of the presence of God, the blended incense must have been associated with the presence of God. In fact, both the perfumed oil and the incense were entrusted only to the high priests (Numbers 4.16). The blended incense was ‘most holy’ (Exodus 30.36), which means that it imparted holiness. Anything touched by the incense became holy, consecrated.

The high priest took the blended incense into the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement, and the smoke from the incense covered the mercy seat above the ark. It was there, in the cloud of incense, that the Lord appeared to the high priest. The perfume of the incense summoned the presence of the Lord, and presumably that is why it was not to be used for other purposes.11

Sacred places are often characterized by sacrifice. In fact, the word sacrifice means literally “to make sacred” or “to render sacred.” Dennis B. Neuenschwander taught:

The words sacred and sacrifice come from the same root. One may not have the sacred without first sacrificing something for it. There can be no sacredness without personal sacrifice. Sacrifice sanctifies the sacred.12

Under this expanded definition, whole nations, cities, temples, sanctuaries, churches and even homes can become sacred space. Perhaps that is what Zechariah had in mind when he wrote:

In that day shall there be upon the bells of the horses, HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD; and the pots in the Lord’s house shall be like the bowls before the altar. Yea, every pot in Jerusalem and in Judah shall be holiness unto the Lord of hosts: and all they that sacrifice shall come and take of them, and seethe therein: and in that day there shall be no more the Canaanite in the house of the Lord of hosts. (Zechariah 14:20-21.)

Please leave your comments at New Article on Sacred and Profane Space.


  1. See Yehoshua M. Grintz, “Bet ha-Miqdas” (in Hebrew), Encyclopedia Hebraica, ed. B. Natanyahu, 20 vols. (Jerusalem: Encyclopaedia Printing, 1957), 8:555, where the different names of the temple as they appear in the Hebrew Bible are listed: bet Yhwh, bet E’lôhîm, hekal qôdes (Jonah 2:5[4]); hekal Yhwh (2 Kings 24:13); and miqdas. The usual name in the Mishnah and related literature, i.e., the Tosephta, is Bet ha-Miqdas. Of this name the encyclopedia states, “this name is found only one time in the Bible” (555). The Targum of Jeremiah calls the temple the “house of the Shekinah” (2:7; 3:17; 7:15; 14:10; 15:1).
  2. Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), 871.
  3. See Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros (Leiden: Brill, 1953), 825-26.
  4. Davies, “Architecture,” 1:384.
  5. Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 372.
  6. Marcus Jastrow, Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli, Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature (New York: Judaica, 1975), 433.
  7. Mircea Eliade, Patterns of Comparative Religion (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958), 368; hereafter Patterns.
  8. Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994. 416-417.
  9. Exodus 3:5.
  10. Patterns. 370-371.
  11. This paper was read at the conference on Sacred Spaces convened by the Research Centre for Eastern Christian Culture, Moscow, 2004.
  12. “Holy Place, Sacred Space”. May 2003. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 2 May 2010.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Comments are now closed.