Is a “den of robbers” a place where robbers go to steal, or a place where robbers go to hide?
Perhaps one of the most famous actions attributed to Jesus in the gospels of the New Testament, the account of the so-called “Cleansing of the Temple” is one that most Christians, devout or otherwise, are familiar with.
Theologians and historians have been picking apart this story for centuries, but my purpose here is not to give a detailed analysis of the story itself. Instead, I want to focus on one of the more famous lines from the story, uttered by Jesus: that the Jerusalem temple had become a “den of robbers.”
To give but a brief background, the story takes place during Jesus’ last week of life in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The gospel of John also relates the story, but places it early in Jesus’ ministry, most likely for thematic reasons. Most historians agree that the event most likely occurred near the end of Jesus’ life. Indeed, Mark tells us explicitly that Jesus’ actions in the temple led directly to his arrest and execution: “And when the chief priests and scribes heard [Jesus’ pronouncements against the temple], they kept looking for a way to kill him” (Mark 11:18a).
In the story, Jesus enters the temple during the week of Passover and begins to “drive out those who were selling and those who were buying,” going so far as to “overturn the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves” (Mark 11:15). In John’s account, Jesus actually brandishes a whip! After he is finished, he quotes from two of the great Jewish prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah. From Isaiah, he states that the temple is to be “a house of prayer for all the nations” (Isaiah 56:7), but has instead become, from Jeremiah 7:11, a “den of robbers.”
This scene has traditionally been interpreted in quite simple terms: Jesus created a scene because he was angry to find the temple being treated like a marketplace – people buying, selling, and changing money, rather than worshipping and praying and sacrificing. In this perspective, Jesus’ reference to a “den of robbers” implies that in addition to not showing the right kind of respect to the sacredness of the temple, the merchants there were robbing people – charging exorbitant fees, making unfair exchanges, and applying unreasonable prices. Indeed, this idea of the merchants being unscrupulous has been behind countless interpretations of this story over the centuries. A quick Google search on “cleansing of the temple” turned up a bible study lesson from bible.org as its first site: “Of course, the dealers in cattle and sheep would be tempted to charge exorbitant prices for such animals. They would exploit the worshippers…The money-changers would charge a certain fee for every exchange-transaction. Here, too, there were abundant opportunities for deception and abuse. And in view of these conditions the Holy Temple, intended as a house of prayer for all people, had become a den of robbers.”
I like to call this sort of interpretation a “Sunday School answer” – it fits a very widely-accepted model, not too deep, easy to digest, easy to believe, and, I believe, utterly wrong.
First and foremost, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that prices placed on sacrificial animals in 1st century Jerusalem were tightly regulated. By the time of Jesus, an increasing number of Jews no longer had their own herds from which they could bring a sacrificial animal, and many who did still retain herds could not afford to use one for a sacrifice. Additionally, even those who could bring along their own animals were frequently loath to do it, because the journey to Jerusalem was hard enough without toting along a slew of sacrificial animals, particularly since the animals given for sacrifice were supposed to be unblemished. For the average Jew, it would have been next to impossible to make it to Jerusalem with an unblemished animal. For all these reasons, the sale of sacrificial animals in Jerusalem was a big business, one that made money for the temple treasury and which offered a much needed service to the average Jew. Since it was such a big business, prices were tightly regulated. There simply isn’t much evidence to suggest wide-spread price-gouging or wide-spread discontent among average Jews about having to buy sacrificial animals in the temple. Those commentators, like the one quoted above, who argue that corruption was widespread, are simply making wild, and certainly unsubstantiated, guesses based on understanding the story out of context.
Second, when we consider what the phrase “den of robbers” actually means, and apply it to the historical context of Jesus’ life and message, it becomes clear that this event had nothing to do with accusing temple merchants of robbery, or suggesting that financial transactions had no place in the sacred space of the temple.
As noted above, the phrase first appears in Jeremiah, where the prophet stands before the temple and indicts its leaders for not staying true to God’s justice. Jeremiah, speaking with the voice of God, lists a number of sinful things that the temple authorities routinely engage in, then accuses them of believing they are safe in the temple: “Will you [commit these sins], and then come and stand before me in this [temple]…and say ‘we are safe’ – only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this [temple]…become a den of robbers in your sight?”
The Hebrew word translated most commonly as “robbers” actually has a more violent meaning to it. It is more akin to “destroyer,” and is often used to describe a wild animal. In its original setting, it has nothing to do with simple theft at all. Consider its usage in Ezekiel 18:10: “If he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood…” The word is question is translated in this passage as “violent,” but it’s the second phrase – “a shedder of blood” – that indicates exactly what this word means. It is not a simple “robber” who steals things, but a violent person – someone who commits acts of violence against others – which may, of course, include violent robbery. But in the context of robbery, think of a mugger who clobbers someone over the head with the butt of a gun, then steals her purse, rather than a thief who sneaks into a house, steals a TV, and sneaks out unseen.
So when Jeremiah says that the temple has become a den of “robbers,” he is saying that it has become a place full of “violent people.”
The second, and perhaps more poignant, aspect of this phrase is the word “den.” The Hebrew word means “cave.” As such, Jeremiah is talking about a place where violent people congregate – literally a hideout. The temple, then, is not a place where violent people go to commit violence, but a place where violent people go to hide. Robbers, after all, don’t rob inside a cave. They hide inside a cave. The context of the passage makes this clear. As seen above, Jeremiah says that these people commit violent acts of sin, then go to the temple and say “we are safe.” Thus, as Jeremiah notes, they have turned the temple into a hideout for violent people – a “den of robbers.”
With this context in mind, Jesus’ use of the phrase becomes clear. The buyers and sellers, who represent the powerful Jewish elite, have turned the temple into a “den of robbers.” They don’t go to the temple to commit crimes; they commit crimes, and then hide in the temple. The phrase, then, does not implicate the Jewish elite for being robbers, it implicates the entire domination system that oppresses the Jewish population in the name of the temple – that is, in the name of God.
This, of course, is perfectly consistent with the context of Jesus’ overall message. As I have described elsewhere, Jesus spent his life fighting against a domination system – a system of Roman overlords whose “dirty work” was carried out by powerful Jewish collaborators, namely, the high priests, client-kings, and local authorities who ruled the Jewish homeland on Rome’s behalf. Rome’s imperialism oppressed the average Jew, and the Jewish elite – those very leaders who were supposed to be watching out for the best interests of God’s people – collaborated with Rome’s oppression.
In summary, when Jesus “cleansed” the temple, it was not an attempt to purify the temple from unscrupulous merchants or impious business practices. His action was a sociopolitical statement: you oppress God’s people and mock God’s justice, then you screen yourself inside the temple, making the temple itself little more than a hideout for violent robbers.
This, of course, sheds a whole new light on our own era. Is the modern Church working within Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God – a kingdom of justice, love, and acceptance? Or is it a den of robbers – a hideaway for those who would pervert God’s love and oppress God’s people?