February 11, 2007

Exodus 36-38: Have we been here before?

Today's reading is Exodus 36-38 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the offerings given by the Israelites for the tabernacle; the building of the tabernacle, ark, table, lampstand, incense altar, burnt offerings altar, and courtyard; and the materials used in the aforementioned construction.

My more astute readers, in reviewing the previous list, may be wondering why it looks so familiar. I point them to Ex. 25-27, where God lays out the plans for all these constructions. Indeed, reading through today's chapters is almost like re-reading Ex. 25-27, except instead of God commanding "thou shalt make..." these verses read "he made..." It was, in fact, extremely difficult to come up with a topic for today's essay without rehashing a previous discussion.

So let us turn to the few new pieces of information in today's reading: Ex. 36:1-7, in which the Israelites bring their offerings for the tabernacle, and Ex. 38:21-31, which totals the amounts of material used in its construction.

In the readings for the previous essay (Ex. 35:4-29), we read that the Israelite community brought many gifts for the tabernacle: gold jewellery, dyed linen, goat hair, skins, silver, bronze, acacia wood, precious stones, olive oil, spices... everything that was needed to build the tabernacle, its furniture, and its various accessories. Today, in Ex. 36:1-7, we read that they brought so much that it was actually more than required for the construction.

Other statesmen, in a position when too many people were giving too many gifts, would be tempted to take advantage of the situation. There are innumerable examples in history of extra taxes being put to new uses unrelated to their original purpose. However, Moses does not do this. Instead, he issues a commandment to the people to stop bringing gifts, and the people obey. Perhaps God's instructions were so detailed, it would have made little difference whether there were extra materials: the workmen knew exactly how much they needed. Any surplus could only have been used for personal gain by Moses or the other elders, and Moses rightly wanted to distance himself from such an accusation, especially after the recent debacle with the golden calf.

What materials, then, did the people bring for the construction of the tabernacle. A list is given in Ex. 38:21-31. In brief, it is:

  • 29 talents, 730 shekels of gold (just over 1 metric ton)
  • 100 talents, 1775 shekels of silver (3.4 metric tons)
  • 70 talents, 2400 shekels of brass (2.4 metric tons)

No small amount! To put this in perspective, the lampstand alone was one talent of gold -- about 75 pounds (34 kg). Furthermore, the Israelites would need to carry the tabernacle with them, albeit in a broken-down form, when they travelled. In other words, they were carrying seven metric tons of equipment with them on their journeys. Assuming the average horse can carry approximately 90 kg (200 pounds) -- a number, I hasten to add, that I found by only cursory research -- the Israelites would need at least 75 horses to carry the equipment for the tabernacle.

On the other hand, while this is an impressive amount of gold, silver, and brass, it in fact works out to very little per person. Ex. 38:26 tells us that each man in the community, after the census had been taken, gave a half-shekel of silver, or 5.5 grams (1/5 oz). The text tells us that there were 603,550 men in the Israelite camp, so some quick multiplication actually yields the 3.4 metric tons of silver.

Five and a half grams of silver is, in fact, very little. According to my jewellery box and kitchen scale, it is about the weight of two thin bracelets or one pair of light hoop earrings. For a more standard measure, the American quarter is 5.670 g, or almost exactly the same weight given by each Hebrew man to the construction of the tabernacle. For the Canadians in the audience, a nickel (3.95 g if minted after 2000) and dime (1.75 g after 2000) combine to form approximately the same weight. So, while it may seem unfair that the Israelites were asked to contribute so much to the tabernacle -- 7 metric tons of precious metals -- it in fact worked out to very little per person.

The moral of this episode, I believe, is the power of numbers. The amount of material in the tabernacle was certainly impressive. However, it seems likely that no one was too inconvenienced by their portion of it. This is especially true given that most of the Israelites had taken jewellery and precious metals from their Egyptian neighbours before the exodus. (Ex. 12:35-36) I wonder how the Egyptians would have felt to know that their jewellery was being used to build a home for the Hebrew God. Perhaps they would have considered it a small price to pay to be rid of the plague-bearing Israelites.

1 comment:

Damien said...

For more comparison, in later times the standard silver penny -- denarius in Rome, penny in England -- was 1.55 grams, cut from an early 3ish gram coin (which latter weight survived in Arabic coinage). And a silver penny was at one point standard wage for a day laborer -- modulo payment more likely being in room and board, and ancient wages being lower. So, 3-4 days work, or maybe more for inflation, or less given actual farm production (oh wait, still mobile, yes?) Still, yeah, not that much. The gold would have been more expensive: about 1/3 the weight of the silver, but gold is 10x the value of silver, or more, so 10-12 days, for a total tax of about two weeks labor. If they'd actually had an economy going.

(Or if any of this were true. 600,000 men out of Egypt, hah!)