February 14, 2007

Exodus 39-40: So, what now?

Today's reading is Exodus 39-40 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the construction of the priestly garments; Moses' blessing of everything that had been made; God's instructions for how to set up the tabernacle and consecrate Aaron and his sons; Moses' setting-up of the tabernacle; and the descent of God's glory over the tabernacle.

By the time he or she reaches the end of Ex. 39, I'm sure every reader is thoroughly sick of the tabernacle, its implements, and the priestly garments. We have had so much detail, so many times, that it is nearly possible to recite from memory what furniture was in the tabernacle, what it was made of, and where it should be placed.

So when we arrive at Ex. 40, the last chapter of Exodus, we are all eagerly awaiting something monumental: a miracle of epic proportions, perhaps, to get the narrative ball rolling again. Unfortunately, we do not think like the Biblical redactors.

The first thing we read in Ex. 40 (verses 1-16) is a lengthy series of instructions from God to Moses about how to set up the tabernacle and everything in it. He tells Moses in what order they should be set up, where in the tabernacle the various pieces of furniture should go, and so on. Though we have already heard extensively about the placement in previous chapters, that is apparently no barrier to repeating it again, one last time, to make sure we've got it right. We also hear how Moses should consecrate Aaron and his sons. We've heard this before as well, and in greater detail, in Ex. 29. Consider this a "Cliff's Notes" version of the consecration ceremony instructions.

And then, once this series of instructions is delivered, we read in verses 17-33 how Moses sets it all up. In other words, the text proceeds, in even greater detail, to repeat everything that was in the first half of the chapter. By this point, the whole discussion is beginning to get tedious.

It is only in the last five verses of the chapter that we have any sort of payoff: God, in the form of a cloud, descends over the tent of congregation (the tabernacle). In fact, that descent only takes one verse. The final four verses (Ex. 40:35-38) talk about how Moses can't enter the tabernacle due to God's glory being within in; how the Israelites only travelled when God rose up out of the tabernacle; and how God appeared as a cloud during the day and fire during the night.

In the end, therefore, we receive a one-verse culmination of fifteen chapters of instructions and work. Obviously the authors and redactors had no sense of narrative pacing, because this is the time to bring out the big literary bangs and wow the audience, who has been patiently waiting for something to happen for most of the book of Exodus. The last thing you want, at a time like this, is for your readers to look blankly at each other and ask, "is that it?"

Of course, God's descent into the tabernacle is important. It marks the true beginning of Israel as God's the chosen race. God is among them at last. He is better than an idol or a statuesque representation: he's the real thing, in the flesh (as it were). The importance of this single verse should not be underestimated. Likely the Israelites were feasting and celebrating to mark the occasion. If we have learned nothing else over the course of Exodus, we have learned that the only thing the Israelites liked more than complaining was feasting. But there's no indication of any festivals in the text.

Yet again, the text seems to be silent where we would like it to give description, and gives far too much description where we would all rather it were silent. It is, indeed, a shame that there were no skilled fiction writers among the Israelites, or at least that none of them stepped forward to write this particular section of Exodus. But, for better or for worse, the text is as it is. The best we can do is look at our neighbours, shake our heads, and say, "yup, that's it."

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