January 30, 2007

Exodus 25-27: The Bible's first interior decorator

Today's reading is Exodus 25-27 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers detailed instructions for the construction of the tabernacle: the ark of the covenant, its lid ("mercy seat" in KJV), the table, the menorah (lampstand or candlestick), the tabernacle itself (including its curtains and framework), the altar, and the courtyard.

Get together an architect, an interior designer, and an engineer. Tell them to design God's dwelling place on Earth, in as much detail as possible. The result might read something like Ex. 25-27. Even a quick glance through these chapters will reveal its incredible level of detail. Everything about the tabernacle is covered in extensive, perhaps even tedious, description: the materials to be used, their dimensions, even the decoration scheme (almond buds and flowers for the menorah, cherubim for the curtains and mercy seat).

The first question that arises from this passage, therefore, is why? When so many stories from Genesis are less than a single chapter, why is so much space devoted to what amounts to an ancient IKEA instruction manual? The answer to that question lies, perhaps, in the word "instruction." Many of the stories earlier in the Bible were, indeed, used as a form of moral instruction. But these chapters are literal, physical instructions for the Israelites to follow. They need to be as complete as possible, so that the Hebrews can be sure they are following them correctly. In fact, several times in today's passage it appears God showed blueprints and plans to Moses while he was on Mount Sinai, just in case the written directions were not clear enough. (Ex. 25:9, 25:40, 26:30, 27:8)

But, in the manner of inquisitive toddlers everywhere, the question might still be asked, "why did they have to make it so perfect?" The answer is likely because of its sanctity. This was no ordinary temple: this was the literal dwelling-place of God, where God would descend to commune with the Hebrews. (Ex. 25:22) If you're inviting your god down to Earth, to live among his people, you had best ensure that his home is as perfect as you can make it. If God has a particular home in mind, you'd best be sure you build it exactly as he would like it. This is the reason the instructions were so detailed that even today it is possible to recreate with a high degree of accuracy what the tabernacle may have looked like.

So let us examine a few features of the tabernacle and its components.

One of the first things we notice in the description, after its level of detail, is the high quality of material to be used in the construction. All the materials used in the tabernacle were precious. There was an abundance of gold, silver, bronze, and brass. The menorah alone was beaten out of a single piece of gold weighing approximately 75 pounds. (Ex. 25:39) The table, ark, and carrying poles were all gilded with gold, and most of the utensils and instruments were made of it. The altar, a 7 1/2 foot square, 4 1/2 feet high, was gilded with brass. (Ex. 27:1-2) The interior of the tabernacle must have gleamed with all the precious metals.

The curtains were also of the highest quality: generally linen dyed in expensive colours (blue, purple, and scarlet). Most of the curtains and hangings were also embroidered, some with cherubim. (Ex. 26:1, 26:31, 26:36) There were also goat-hair curtains. And, if you don't think this sounds high-quality, remember that cashmere and mohair (angora) are both made from goat-hair.

Between the metals, fabric, and workmanship that went into the tabernacle, it would truly have been worthy of the supreme deity.

Another notable feature of the tabernacle is its portable nature. Far from being a permanent dwelling-place, the tabernacle was designed to be moved from place to place. Most of it was designed in sections: the framework and tapestries were all designed to be dismantled in pieces and reassembled elsewhere. The altar, table, and ark were all designed to be carried on poles set in rings on the sides of each. True, the chore of taking down and putting up the tabernacle would have been an undertaking (the curtains were tied with 50 clasps each, for example), but it was doable.

It should be apparent why the tabernacle was designed to be moved from place to place: the Hebrews were nomadic for forty years in the desert before settling in Canaan. They were constantly on the march, and a permanent temple would have been of little use to them. Especially if it were filled with all the precious materials listed above, a permanent temple would have been easy prey for thieves. As it is, the Israelites could travel with their god in the midst of their camp.

The value of portability goes deeper, however. The ark of the covenant, the most precious possession of the Israelites, was kept in a constant state of readiness: its poles were never to be removed from the rings set in its side. (Ex. 25:15) It could be picked up and carried away at a moment's notice. Later Jewish history is an exercise in expulsions and forced marches. Even the exodus from Egypt took place quickly, over the course of a single night. If the Israelites were forced to flee, they could at least take the ark with them: it was always ready.

We see, then, that God's blueprints served both a theological and a practical purpose. It was detailed and expensive, to suit its supernatural inhabitant. But it was also portable, so that the Israelites might take their god with them on their journeying. Spiritual and practical all in one package: perhaps some modern interior designers might want to take notes.

1 comment:

James said...

This portable Tabernacle and its services also pointed to the Messiah’s work. The outer court represents this earth where he lived, ministered, was baptized and died as a suffering sacrifice.

The inner court with the Holy and Most Holy represent Heaven. Where Christ our High Priest is now ministering. Heb.4:14

The menorah: I am the Light of the world. Jn.8:12

Table of shewbread: I am the Bread of Life. Jn.6:48

Altar of incense: I will pray the Father for you: Jn.16:26

Ark of the Covenant: For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: Heb. 9:24