A veil or curtain is a symbol mentioned in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. In all three faiths it signifies the boundaries related to God-human relationships and also participates in the reality it indicates. A veil is also an artefact because in the case of the OT and the NT, we speak about the physical curtain made by human hands that gained a symbolic meaning.
In the OT description of the temple, a physical curtain separated the Holy of Holies from other parts of the temple (Ex. 26:33). Behind the curtain was the Ark of the Covenant. No one could enter except the High Priest, and he could enter only once a year to atone for his own sins and for the sins of Israel. To enter the space behind the veil, the priest had to go through rituals. That curtain divided God’s holiest, intense, and unapproachable presence — symbolized in the Ark of the Covenant — from the world.
Although the curtain was a physical object between two parts of the temple, it became a symbol because of its function as a wall that literally demarcated the limits to approaching God’s presence. It marked the boundaries and the modes of communication between humans and God’s earthly presence, known as Shekinah. The ancient Jews could pray, sacrifice, and praise the Lord, but they could never get closer to God than the veil. Moreover, the curtain does not just define the distance in space; it also hides that which is behind the curtain from human eyes. That curtain amplified the holiness and purity of God and reminded the Jews that no human eyes could see his holy presence.
We find this curtain again in the New Testament and in the Qur’an. In both sacred texts, the image retains some similarities to the OT description but also has its own differences. The Qur’anic mention of the curtain (v. 42:51) resembles the OT description if not in detail, then in the way it functions. First, in the Qur’an, the curtain seems to be a name and a symbol for one of the ways that God communicates with humans. At least, that’s what traditional exegesis (tafsir) claims, and from that perspective the veil does not refer to a physical object. But even if we set aside the traditional interpretation, the veil mentioned in the Qur’an and the veil mentioned in the OT come closer to each other than the physical and symbolic veil mentioned in the NT. In the context of the sublimity of Allah described in the Qur’an and the co-text (not context, mind you!) of the verse (v. 42:51), the Quranic text demarcates the limits of communication between Allah or God and humans.
According to the Qur’an, there are several modes of communication between God and humans, one of which is specified as “from behind veil” (v. 42:51). When God speaks to his servants “from behind a veil,” a prophet hears God’s voice (without angels mediating) yet does not see God. The other two modes (through dreams and through messengers or angels) include the possibility of God’s communicating to prophets via insight and intuition. But none of these ways allow seeing God or interacting with the Creator as interacting with another human.
The NT inherits the image of the veil as the physical object and symbol from the OT. However, it uses the image to signify the elimination of the restrictiveness and distance in God-human relationships described in other sacred texts. Moreover, the NT enriches the symbol by bringing in new layers of meaning. The scripture of Christianity employs the image for opposite purposes and does so in more complex ways: here the image of the veil becomes a tension-filled symbol. On one hand, the curtain typifies a restricted access to God (later transcended by Jesus). On the other hand, the curtain acts as a door to a closer space between God and humans established by a new covenant. According to the NT, when Jesus Christ breathed his last on the cross, the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple “was torn in two from top to bottom.” The torn curtain is the first in the list of events indicating this opening and rapture: “rocks were split… tombs broke open…” and “holy people… were raised to life” (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). Here the physical torn curtain symbolizes the elimination of that which had separated and restricted our access to God.
In the context of the whole NT (Eph. 2:13; Hebrews 9–10), the torn curtain indicates a new covenant established by Jesus Christ, the covenant that gives us a deeper and more intimate access to God. The Letter to Hebrews explores this idea of Jesus’ entering into the Holy of Holies through his self-sacrifice, and it’s perhaps the only text in the NT (aside from the gospels) that uses the symbol somewhat consistently. In one case, the body of Jesus Christ is said to be the curtain through which a new and living way was opened for believers to draw nearer to God (Heb. 10:19). The verse merges the image of Christ, the priest of the open path, with the image of the veil, the symbol of separation and restriction. It also implies parallels between the torn curtain of the temple and the pierced body of Christ, both of which indicate an opening from one space into the other. In a sense, the image of Christ redeems and transforms the image of the curtain from being a symbol of distance into the image of a door towards an intimacy with God.
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