A Seeming Contradiction

I note what seems to be a contradiction in the description of Solomon's Temple. According to the book of Kings wooden doors separated the Holy of Holies from the main hall of the Temple (1 Kgs 6:31). On the other hand, Chronicles speaks of heavy curtain (2 Chr 3:14). Could this explain a seeming contradiction in the biblical record?

December 27, 2001

I note what seems to be a contradiction in the description of Solomon's Temple. According to the book of Kings wooden doors separated the Holy of Holies from the main hall of the Temple (1 Kgs 6:31). On the other hand, Chronicles speaks of heavy curtain (2 Chr 3:14). Could this explain a seeming contradiction in the biblical record?

The possibility of finding inconsistencies in the Bible should not alarm us. Sometimes, and for diverse reasons, prophets preserved for us information that was not necessarily complete and which to the modern reader appears to contain incorrect data. Yet, that situation does not jeopardize the revelation that God was communicating to His people. The real problem for those who would like to press this issue is not that there may be inconsistencies or contradictions in the Bible, but rather that it is extremely difficult to identify them.

Very often what may appear to be contradictions and errors are simply the result of lack of information or our incapacity to understand what the biblical writer was trying to say. An example may be useful. For many years scholars argued that it was impossible to put together a reliable chronology of the kings of Israel and Judah because of the inconsistencies, contradictions, and errors found in the biblical text. But the truth was that they did not understand the system used by the biblical writers to record the reign of each king. After careful study one of our own scholars was able to decipher that system and it became clear that what appeared to have been unintelligible was in fact very intelligible (see Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1951]).

With respect to the question under consideration, there are two possible answers. First, one of the biblical writers was mistaken while the other was right. Which one was right? Second, they are both right because their statements can be harmonized. On what basis can they be harmonized? There is a third possibility, namely, they are both wrong. We do not take this last one seriously because information from other books of the Bible clearly indicate that in the original tabernacle a veil separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy. In other words, there was a partition between the two apartments. The question remains: Did Solomon make a partition of wood or linen? Choosing between the two means that one of the writers made a mistake. And that should not be a big problem because what they are both affirming is consistent with what we find in Exodus: There was a partition between the two apartments.

The other possibility is harmonizing the two accounts. There are many risks in attempting to harmonize parallel accounts containing apparent discrepancies. The main problem is the lack of objective controls. By combining information we come up with a picture that is not explicitly present in any of the two accounts and that could reveal the creativity of the interpreter rather than the real intent of the biblical writer. It could very well be that in some cases harmonization per se is not needed because one of the writers is intentionally omitting some information in order to emphasize a point he or she is making. The ideal situation is to find within the biblical text enough indicators to justify a particular harmonization. But this is not always possible. Nevertheless, harmonization is grounded on the principle that the Bible is its own interpreter and it is, therefore, a valid approach in biblical interpretation.

Should we then conclude that in the passages under consideration we confront a real contradiction and that we should accept it as such? Is there any room here for harmonization and if so on which grounds? Harmonization would mean that Solomon separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place by booth a wooden door and a veil. This sounds a little strange but not necessarily impossible. Let us begin with Chronicles. The first thing we should do is to be sure that we understand the verse. In this particular case the passage is very clear. We do not find there a textual problem or a translation problem. In 2 Chr 3:14 we are clearly told that Solomon placed a veil between the two apartments. Next we go to 1 Kgs 6:31. Again, the passage is very clear: Solomon placed two doors of olive wood between the two apartments.

Second, there is some other information that we should take into account. The writer of Chronicles knew that there were doors separating the Holy from the Most Holy place and he mentions it in the context of the building of the temple. This is found in 2 Chr 4:22. This means that when dealing with apparent discrepancies we must pay close attention to the context of the passage. In this case harmonization is required because the biblical text itself supports it. According to the Chronicler Solomon's temple had both, a veil and wooden doors.

Then, why did Kings mention only the doors and not the veil? This is more difficult to explain. Perhaps a partial answer could be found by noticing that Kings put the emphasis on the use of wood overlaid with gold in the construction of the temple. This led him to describe the door covered by gold rather than the veil. Also, there is the possibility that he decided to emphasize the doors because they were a new structural element in the temple as compared to the sanctuary.

Another piece of evidence that we should take into consideration in answering our question is found in 1 Kgs 6:21. We are informed that "he [Solomon] extended gold chains across the front of the inner sanctuary." Since the interest of the biblical writer is in the use of gold we are not informed about the purpose of those chains. The text indicates that they were placed where the doors were located. One could suggest that they were used to hang the veil to the Most Holy Place.
It is impossible to say whether the veil was placed on the doors themselves hanging by the golden chains or whether it was separated from the doors. Perhaps the doors were left open and the veil covered the entrance. We really do not know the details. But it is obvious that there was no contradiction between Kings and Chronicles on this topic. They complement each other.
Perhaps we need to realize that it is not our task to search for contradictions and discrepancies in the Bible, but rather for the amazing unity that characterizes it in message and doctrine. Discrepancies identified by Bible students are in many cases trivia, but deserve some attention. However, they should not determine our understanding of revelation and inspiration.