Tearing of the Curtain

A little familiarity with Jewish symbolism steers us away from the idea that the Temple’s rent veil heralds the abolition of the sacrificial system.

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "Blood and Water". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

As Yeshua died, the priesthood continued the work of sacrificing the Passover lambs. The Levitical choir still chanted the Hallel in the Temple courts.

Suddenly the earth trembled, the sun burst through the darkness, and “the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38).

Interpreters almost invariably misunderstand the tearing of the Temple veil as an indication of God’s dissolution of the Levitical sacrificial system and abandonment of the Temple. Preachers and commentators alike speak of the tearing of the veil as Jesus striking the Temple from the cross and nullifying the old covenant.

If the apostles believed that the death of Yeshua canceled the sacrificial system or abolished the Temple worship, they failed to say so, and they also failed to desist from further participation in the Temple worship.

The inner veil of the Temple partitioned the holy place from the holy of holies. The Mishnah describes it as consisting of two parallel curtains, each forty cubits long and twenty cubits wide, with a cubit of space between them forming a narrow corridor running north to south. Each curtain was a handbreadth thick and embroidered with cherubim. The outer curtain extended all the way to the north wall but left access for the high priest on the south wall. The inner curtain extended all the way to the south wall but left access to the holy of holies on the north. On Yom Kippur, the high priest entered the corridor between the veils by means of the partition on the south, turned right and walked the length between the two parallel curtains, and then entered the holy of holies through the partition of the second veil on the north wall:

The fabric of the veil was a handbreadth thick, woven of seventy-two strands, and each strand consisted of twenty-four threads. The veil was forty cubits long and twenty cubits wide, and it was made by eighty-two young girls. They made two new veils every year, and it took three hundred priests to immerse it. (Talmud)

The priesthood probably replaced the veil immediately. (The Mishnah indicates that they replaced the veil annually.)

Replacement theology interprets the tearing of the Temple veil as a sign of God’s displeasure with the people and the Temple. That’s not the meaning. But if the tearing of the veil does not indicate the cessation of sacrifices, what does it symbolize? It symbolizes access to God through the death of the Messiah, the Almighty’s mourning over the Son, and an omen of the coming exile.

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