Back to the Future: The Tabernacle in the Book of Exodus

Article excerpt

It is not the details in the account of the tabernacle that make up its significance but the underlying notion that God elects to be present with God's people. In both the ritual of liturgy and the commonality of daily life, God's presence is an act of grace, made in sovereign freedom.

THE PENTATEUCH DEVOTES more verses to the tabernacle than to any other object. Within the Book of Exodus, all of 25:1-31:18 and 35:1-40:38 deals with the tabernacle, its furnishings, its priesthood, and related issues. Next to the exodus itself and the revelation of the law, the tabernacle forms the third great theme in the book. Not to be missed is the fact that Yahweh's instructions to build the tabernacle and Israel's implementation of those instructions take place at Sinai, where Israel remains from Exodus 19:1 to Numbers 10:12, and where God's laws for Israel are revealed. The law and the tabernacle-centered worship are the central institutions of Israel's identity.

Scholars agree on assigning the account of the tabernacle to the priestly materials (P) and in dating those materials to exilic or post-exilic times. Even those who date P earlier, perhaps to the time of Hezekiah, admit that P played no public role until the exile or later. During the last century, historians have debated whether the tabernacle was a pious fraud Julius Wellhausen) or whether it represents an authentic historical memory (Frank M. Cross). No critical scholar accepts that the account in Exodus is a literal account of the desert shrine: the tabernacle seems far too heavy to be a truly movable sanctuary and the 1.25 tons of gold, 4 tons of silver, and 3 tons of bronze that were used in its construction are unrealistic.1 Rather, the tabernacle account may reflect idealized versions of the later tent shrines at Shiloh2 or the tent of David.3 Embedded within this account, many believe, lie memories of an authentic and simpler shrine going back to the ancestors of Israel before they entered the land. Menahem Haran and Richard Elliott Friedman have done much to clarify the architectural and cultural history of the tabernacle. Taking his clue from the Books of Chronicles, Friedman believes that the tabernacle may have been stored in the Solomonic temple, perhaps under the wings of the cherubim, in the Holy of Holies, until its destruction by Babylon in 587 BCE. If his speculations about the size and construction of the tabernacle are correct, the tabernacle can no longer be understood as a half-size model of the Jerusalem temple.4 Still, it surely incorporates in some fashion aspects of Solomon's temple.

Comparison with other parts of P clarifies the theological importance of the tabernacle from the priestly perspective, as will be shown below, but the account of the tabernacle is also now part of the Book of Exodus, and this larger context must be considered in any contemporaneous reading of the text. The tabernacle, according to the Book of Exodus, was given to a former group of slaves, who had been miraculously liberated by Yahweh from Egyptian bondage. At Sinai, these emancipated slaves entered into a covenant with their God Yahweh, who had given them the laws we now call the Decalogue and the Covenant Code. The Decalogue was placed in the ark, which occupies the holiest space in the tabernacle. Concern for the sabbath, a central issue in exilic and post-exilic times, appears at the end of the tabernacle commands (31:12-18) and, chiastically, at the beginning of the account of their implementation (35:2-3). In many ways, the tabernacle provides a defense against idolatry and a critique of the golden calf incident. By the end of the Book of Exodus, worship and service to God have replaced slavery and service to Pharaoh.5 Instead of their forced labor on Pharaoh's building projects, the people gladly participate in the building of the tabernacle. Hence, there are clear links between the tabernacle account and all the rest of the materials in the Book of Exodus. …