The Guild of Thieves

And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:17)

The same word is used of the men crucified alongside Jesus in Mark 15:27.

And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left.

Is this merely coincidental, or is there something deeper going on? Is there a link between the “white collar” Temple crimes and the “blue collar” criminals?

The word itself derives from booty or plunder, so the connotation is theft from the vulnerable.

The link between the Temple and the thieves at the crucifixion is implicit (not explicit in the text as such) but obvious once we take sacred architecture into account, which is a foreign idea to moderns, but nonetheless a consistent type as far as the Bible is concerned.

The original theft occurred in the Garden of Eden, in the first Sanctuary. It was theft from God, with consequences outside the Garden, that is, in the Land then in the World. The Temple itself replicated these three domains: the Most Holy (Garden), the Holy Place (the Land/Israel) and the Gentile Courts (the Nations/World).

Because the Herodian High Priesthood had usurped the authority of God’s commandments, the outflow corrupted the sacrifices and then Israel’s Covenant witness to the nations. The imaging of Yahweh to the nations by His people (as a kind of corporate “Adam”) was inaccurate, corrupt.

We can see this reflected in the structure of the Ten Commandments, which echo the events of Genesis 1-3. Adam stole from God, and God asked Adam for a legal confession of what he had done, that He might show mercy. Theft and legal witness are consecutive commands, followed by commands concerning “house and contents,” or Israel as a shelter, a “Booth” for the Gentiles. (Remember also the true testimony of Jesus and the false witnesses brought against Him by the priesthood.)

The same architecture is inherent in the crucifixion, where the two robbers are “blessing and cursing,” two Covenant witnesses. Christ is the High Priest and these two men take the roles of  Cain and Abel, sons of thieves (and also of the two goats on the Day of Atonement [1]). The one who humbles himself “unto death” in a priestly fashion is the one who will be exalted in the kingdom. The other, who exalts himself as a usurping “king” against the Son of God is the one who will be humbled and receive nothing. So once again we have theft and legal witness tied together.

Finally, “plunder” is a Covenant concept which is also both positive and negative. Obedience to God’s Laws brings a “multiplication” of the heart of those under Covenant. Obedience brings plunder from God’s hand. Disobedience brings plagues from God’s hand. Plunder and plagues were tied together as “swarms” in Egypt (with Israel herself as a kind of “swarm” which plundered the Egyptians). We see it again in the “multiplication” of the victory of the Ark of the Covenant in Philistia, where the gold they sent with the Ark (as plunder) was actually fashioned in the shape of plagues, (bubonic?) tumors and rats.

The theme of vulnerability in all cases is “bridal,” that is, those who are under the priestly representation (of Adam, or Israel), whose offspring, as the future, are at stake in Adam’s mediation on her behalf before God. In Eden, this was Eve, the great “multiplier,” the mother of all. In Israel, it was the tribes under the mediation of a faithful High Priest. In the world, it was all nations under the ministry and witness of Israel as a corporate Adam, “cut” and bloodied to bring the kings of the nations — and their riches — in willing submission to God.

The flipside of “Adamic” theft is “Christian” generosity. What goes on in the World and the Land (from petty crime right up to theft by the state) is a result of what goes on in the Sanctuary. Cultus inevitably informs culture.

Let the thief no longer steal, (Garden) but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, (Land) so that he may have something to share with anyone in need (World). (Ephesians 4:28)

[1] See Remember Me.
ART: Bible images created using Google Earth.

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3 Responses to “The Guild of Thieves”

  • Joe Rigney Says:

    I think the “den of robbers” reference comes from Jeremiah 7:11. Check the context of that passage and it reads like large portions of the NT (Romans 2, etc). Might help fill out the connection between robbers and the temple.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Thanks Joe – that’s still Temple-to-Temple though. The question was the connection between the priesthood and *actual* thieves.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    If you want to round it out a bit more I’d be happy to hear it!