Exodus 25: Holy Things for Holy Space

Exodus 25: 1-9 A Voluntary Offering for the Tabernacle

The LORD said to Moses: 2 Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me. 3 This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, 4 blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats’ hair, 5 tanned rams’ skins, fine leather,1 acacia wood, 6 oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, 7 onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece. 8 And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. 9 In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.

For many Christians Exodus 25-31 and 35-40 are portions of scripture they either pass over or perhaps read without much reflection. Yet, particularly in ancient literature where the documents must be hand copied by a scribe, the dedication to such a significant amount of space, ink and time to the preservation of this vision of the tabernacle should make us slow down and take notice. In contrast, the construction of the temple in 1 Kings occupies only two chapters.

Perhaps because I have spent a lot of time over the past two years planning and working with an architectural firm on an expansion for my congregation I have a greater appreciation for the level of detail that goes in taking a vision and attempting to communicate it in text to the people who will construct the expansion. The term tabernacle comes from the Hebrew word which means to dwell and the project they will be constructing will be a place the LORD can dwell with the people. In one sense, it is attempting to create a bit of heaven on earth: the use of the finest resources and specific patterns to emulate in some small way the visions of the throne room of God that Moses and others will see. In another sense, it is a modeling of what creation was supposed to be. There is a creation narrative pattern where the order is brought together and God comes to dwell with humanity in a recreated garden space. Probably both heaven and earth become models for this dwelling place and the greatest resources of the earth are used for this act of creation of a sacred space.

The offering for the space is voluntary not compulsory. Unlike the temple, where Solomon’s building activity places a heavy burden on the people including compulsory labor, the tabernacle will utilize the gifts people freely bring and the divinely gifted artisans that God provides. Unlike the golden calf of Exodus 32 which is hastily molded and cast and whose worship quickly devolves into reveling and disorder, this will be a space where the orderly worship parallels the orderly vision of creation in Genesis.

As we move through the individual components set aside for the tabernacle and the construction of those elements I do believe the construction of this holy space is an act of devotion and worship. There have been times within Christianity where the focus has been upon the building and the collection for those building would also put a high toll on the faithful. My tradition, the Lutheran Church, emerges out of a conflict over the raising of funds through indulgences which would ultimately go to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But as people of faith we do need sacred spaces, places where God promises to dwell among us. It is faithful for people to give of their own wealth and resources and talents to build these places that are a little taste of heaven here on earth.

James Tissot, Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle (1896-1902)

Exodus 25: 10-22 The Ark of the Covenant

10 They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. 11 You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a molding of gold upon it all around. 12 You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side. 13 You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 14 And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, by which to carry the ark. 15 The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. 16 You shall put into the ark the covenant1 that I shall give you.

17 Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width. 18 You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 Make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other; of one piece with the mercy seat you shall make the cherubim at its two ends. 20 The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings. They shall face one to another; the faces of the cherubim shall be turned toward the mercy seat. 21 You shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you. 22 There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.

Rather than an image of the LORD the people of Israel have a chair or footstool marking where God’s presence will meet them in this holy space. The ark also serves the additional purpose of being a storage space, like a chest, for the covenant or the law. The very best materials are used in this item that will occupy the central and holiest place within the tabernacle. Acacia wood and pure gold form the box and the elaborate lid for the ark of the covenant.

The ark will become a central representation of God’s presence among the Israelites in the time of Joshua, the Judges, King Saul and King David. It is brought out into the battlefield with the armies of Israel. At times when it is captured it bring calamity to the nations who are not the LORD’s priestly kingdom and who place the ark within the pantheon of gods that they worship. It is a place where God’s holiness is reflected to the people and some manner of God’s presence dwells. The ark, which is roughly forty-five inches long and twenty-seven inches wide and deep, (Myers, 2005, p. 227) becomes a mobile seat of God’s presence. Interestingly the mentions of the ark of the covenant disappear during the time a permanent temple is built and it is not mentioned from Solomon’s reign onward. The lost ‘ark of the covenant’ has occupied the imagination of writers of fiction along with items like the holy grail or Noah’s ark as a powerful relic of ancient times.

It is also notable that while the mentions of the ark of the covenant disappear in the time of the monarchy so do the references among the kings to the covenant itself. It is only when the high priest Hilkiah rediscovers the book of the law in the temple that the covenant is for a moment renewed prior to the Babylonian exile. During the exile as the people no longer have the physical structures of the temple to be a place where they can be brought close to God’s presence the written copies of the Torah and other writings become the center of life for the Jewish people. It is during this time without a tabernacle or temple, ark of the covenant or any of the other items used in the worship of God that the Jewish and later Christian followers of God would become people of the written word.

Exodus 25: 23-40 The Table and Lampstand

23 You shall make a table of acacia wood, two cubits long, one cubit wide, and a cubit and a half high. 24 You shall overlay it with pure gold, and make a molding of gold around it. 25 You shall make around it a rim a handbreadth wide, and a molding of gold around the rim. 26 You shall make for it four rings of gold, and fasten the rings to the four corners at its four legs. 27 The rings that hold the poles used for carrying the table shall be close to the rim. 28 You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold, and the table shall be carried with these. 29 You shall make its plates and dishes for incense, and its flagons and bowls with which to pour drink offerings; you shall make them of pure gold. 30 And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me always.

31 You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The base and the shaft of the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its cups, its calyxes, and its petals shall be of one piece with it; 32 and there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; 33 three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on one branch, and three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on the other branch — so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. 34 On the lampstand itself there shall be four cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with its calyxes and petals. 35 There shall be a calyx of one piece with it under the first pair of branches, a calyx of one piece with it under the next pair of branches, and a calyx of one piece with it under the last pair of branches — so for the six branches that go out of the lampstand. 36 Their calyxes and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it one hammered piece of pure gold. 37 You shall make the seven lamps for it; and the lamps shall be set up so as to give light on the space in front of it. 38 Its snuffers and trays shall be of pure gold. 39 It, and all these utensils, shall be made from a talent of pure gold. 40 And see that you make them according to the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.

Before we have the design of the building we have the details of some of the central items that will occupy the space that will be designed around it. The ark, the table and the lampstand have symbolic and functional purposes. The table is also to be used for holy things and so it is made from acacia wood and pure gold. It may not occupy the same type of visual imagery within the people of Israel’s imagination as the ark of the covenant will, but it does hold a very practical purpose of being a place where the twelve loaves of the bread of the Presence are placed as offering. Bread was the basic element of food for the Jewish people and the twelve loaves probably symbolized the produce of the twelve tribes before God visually. It is these loaves that David is given to eat since there is no other bread in the temple when he is fleeing from King Saul in 1 Samuel 21, which apparently were normally eaten by the priests who worked in the tabernacle.

The lampstand with six branches, three on each side with lamps on each branch and in the center, artistically crafted from gold to look like almond blossoms while serving a practical function of providing light in a time before electricity would also come to serve a symbolic function. Even though the ark disappears from imagery and writing once the temple is built the lampstand would remain and become a central image of Judaism to the present day. For example, when the temple is destroyed in 70 C.E. and items from the temple are brought in procession in Rome one of the easily recognizable images is the lampstand and it becomes reproduced on the arch of Titus in Rome (see below). The Menorah, as this type of lampstand will later be known, is still the Emblem of the State of Israel.

Roman triumphal procession with spoils from the Temple, depicted on the inside wall of the Arch of Titus in Rome

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