Separation – and reconciliation

The effects of the Fall

Before the Fall of humanity, Genesis depicts God and humankind having unimpeded interaction with each other. After the Fall, the picture is one of Adam and Eve seeking to hide/cover themselves from God’s sight. The Creator and his creatures were now divided by the existence of human [sin3]. In the Old Testament this is symbol-ised by a curtain or veil.

Tabernacle and Temple

The Holy of Holies illustration from the 1890 Holman BibleThe tabernacle was the portable dwelling place of God’s glory while the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. It was essentially a tent, constructed of lavish curtains ac-cording to exacting requirements Exodus 26:1-7. A cube-shaped inner compartment, the ‘Holy of Holies’, contained the Ark of the Covenant and was considered the dwelling place of God Exodus 26:31-33. It was separated from the rest of the Holy Place by a veil and was only to be entered once a year by the High Priest Leviticus 16:15-34, Hebrews 9:6-7.

Once Israel settled in the land of Canaan and made Jerusalem their capital, Solomon built the Temple to be the fixed dwelling place of God’s glory 2 Chronicles 3:1-8. It was designed on similar principles to the tabernacle, including a huge, heavy curtain to separate the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place 2 Chronicles 3:14. No one, other than the High Priest, was allowed to enter (and then only on the Day of Atonement).

Torn curtain

Despite the Temple being rebuilt over the centuries, there was always a thick curtain symboli-cally dividing humanity from the presence of God. This was still the case in the lifetime of Jesus (in first century Palestine), as recorded in the New Testament. However, the gospels record that, at the moment of Jesus’ death on a cross, the Temple curtain was torn in two Matthew 27:50-51. Christians understand this to signify the end of the separation between God and humans: faith in Jesus means that believers are once more enabled to approach God:

Therefore .. we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh,

Hebrews 10:19-20  ESVUK

As a consequence, Christian hope frees them to enter ‘within the veil’ Hebrews 6:19-20.

Paul draws on the same imagery when he describes the message of Christ’s salvation as being ‘veiled’ to unbelievers: blinded to the truth about Jesus, they remain separated from God 2 Corinthians 4:3-4.


Partly the veil is also to protect humans for the force of God’s holiness (as, for example, God warns Aaron in Leviticus 16:2). Following the Fall, only a few people in the Bible are capable of speaking ‘face to face’ with God. The Old Testament leader Moses was one of them, but whenever Moses returned from meeting with God his face glowed so radiantly that the people were afraid to look at him Exodus 34:29-30. So after communicating God’s commandments to the Israelites covered his face with a veil again until his next encounter Exodus 34:31-35.

Paul draws a comparison between Moses’ veil and the idea that the non-Christian Jews are reading the law with metaphorically veiled hearts 2 Corinthians 3:15. Only in Jesus, he says, is the veil lifted so that there is a ‘face to face’ encounter with God in Christ 2 Corinthians 3:16.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 3:18  ESVUK

Curtain/veil in literature

  • Crashaw’s Hymn in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament draws on biblical veil imagery
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet Lift Not the Painted Veil (1824) explores the risks associated with delving beyond the superficialities of life in search of truth. Its final lines contain an al-lusion to the Preacher of Ecclesiastes
  • The 1924 novel The Painted Veil (W. Somerset Maugham) is named after Shelley’s sonnet. It tells the story of the wife of a medical doctor living in the midst of epidemic, as she faces up to the reality of her character and that of the men in her life.
  • Helen Spalding’s poem Curtain (1942) describes the painful separation of two lovers during World War II.
  • In The Curtain by Hayden Carruth (1996) a curtain of snow creates a separation between the couple in their peaceful home and the violence and suffering of the wider world.


  • René Magritte’s 1928 painting The Lovers depicts two people with entirely shrouded heads sharing a kiss. It has been interpreted as signifying the impossibility of truly knowing even those with whom we are most intimate.

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