Beds in Scripture are sick beds (Hezekiah) or death beds (Jacob, David). Beds are also analogous to altars. In 2 Kings 4:8ff, the woman who sets up a room for Elisha quips the room with a table and a menorah and a chair and a bed. This is an upper room for the man of God, who bears the presence of God with him, and the upper room resembles a sanctuary. It has the furnishings of a sanctuary: There is a table in the holy place, along with the menorah; Yahweh is enthroned on the ark, a chair. But the bed doesn’t seem to have any corresponding furniture in the temple.

The bed is the altar. We lie on a bed to die, to offer our final sacrifice; we lie down each night in a kind of death, so that we can rise up again. In the Elisha story, the bed becomes a place of resurrection, when Elisha puts the dead boy on his own bed, lies on the child, and revives him (2 Kings 4:29-36).

To make this more plausible, we should recalls some things about altars.

Altars are not only places of slaughter; in fact, slaughter is not the main function of an altar. The word for altar in Hebrew is mizbeach , which comes from the verb zavach , which means “slaughter” but especially “slaughter for a peace offering, slaughter for a meal.” This is the verb usually translated as “sacrifice,” but this word has a narrower sense in Scripture than in English: It refers specifically to that form of ritual slaughter that leads to a common meal between God and the worshiper. An altar thus is a “communion site,” the place where God’s bread turns to smoke and where the worshiper receives some of the crumbs that fall from his table.

As an altar, the bed is a place of communion with God. This is depicted in a couple of Psalms (4:4; 149:5). The altar is the place of communing with God and singing his praise in the day. The bed is the place for communion with God in the night. It is obviously also a place for communion of a husband and wife, for sexual communion. But that sexual communion is a parable of the union of God with His people, and so the bed is a suitable symbol for a place of communion with God.

For the bride of the Song of Songs, the bed has become a place of absence (3:1). Instead of providing a cover for intimacy, night is full of the terror of distance. Yet the desire of her soul drives her out into the night to find her beloved and bring him back to her communion site.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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