“At this small, lonely place in the midst of the chaos of the wilderness, a new creation comes into being. In the midst of disorder, there is order. The tabernacle is the world order as God intended writ small in Israel.”
– Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation Commentary)
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As Walter Brueggemann observes in his OT Introduction, the book of Exodus has three major divisions.
- The first tells the story of Israel’s redemption through the Exodus from Egypt (ch. 1-18).
- The second part is the account of the covenant God made with the Hebrew people at Mt. Sinai, including the laws he gave them (ch. 19-24).
- The final division, also set at Mt. Sinai, involves the instructions for and the building of the tabernacle, the site where God made his presence known among his people (ch. 25-40).
Genesis 1 tells the story of God ordering the chaos of the world by preparing a good land and transforming it into his “cosmic temple” (John Walton’s term). This liturgical narrative of creation celebrates the one true and living God, who made the universe back in the beginning. It also tells us that God prepared a special place in the world, a land, to be his temple. Like a King and master workman, he first prepared the site for this land by transforming an uninhabitable wilderness (“formless and empty”– Gen. 1:2) into a “good” (habitable) place. He then filled it with essential elements for life and worship, formed living creatures to dwell in it, and blessed them. He made humans in his image, blessed them, and made them his royal and priestly representatives to care for the land and its creatures. The blessing he gave to humans, to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth,” shows that he intended his blessing to be extended throughout the whole world. At the completion of his work, God took his place of rest, sitting down on the throne in his temple to rule and receive the praise of his creatures.
In Genesis 1 (as well as chapters 2-3) there is pervasive temple imagery. It is not surprising then, to discover that the narratives about building the tabernacle (Israel’s “wilderness temple”) should contain a number of verbal and thematic ties with the creation story. The world of Genesis 1 reflects the sanctuary. The sanctuary of Exodus 25-31/35-40 reflects creation.
Here are seven parallels between the creation account and the tabernacle narrative:
1. There are seven “words” given by God to build the tabernacle.
- 25:1. “The LORD said to Moses…” — the pattern for the tabernacle and the priests
- 30:11. “The LORD said to Moses…” — the atonement money
- 30:17. “The LORD said to Moses…” — the bronze laver and washings
- 30:22. “The LORD said to Moses…” — the anointing oil
- 30:34. “The LORD said to Moses…” — the incense
- 31:1. “The LORD said to Moses…” — Bezalel and the craftsmen
- 31:12. “The LORD said to Moses…” — the Sabbath
2. The final word is about the “Sabbath.” (31:12-17, note the explicit reference to Gen. 1)
3. The work is undertaken in the Spirit. (31:3)
4. At the end of his speaking, God “finished,” and at the end of the story the tabernacle was “finished.” (31:18, 39:32)
5. The account of building (35-40) closely follows the words of instruction (25-31). This is the same pattern we see in Gen. 1 — “And God said let there be…and it was so…and God made…”
6. In the end, Moses “saw” that they had done all the work as God commanded. (39:43)
7. In the end, Moses “blessed” the people. (39:43)
In the creation account of Genesis 1, God’s Spirit hovered over the “wilderness” of darkness and water that was formless and empty, uninhabitable by life. He spoke seven words (“Let there be…”) and brought order to the chaos, forming it and filling it. He created a temple and furnished it with priests “in his image” to represent him. He “saw that it was good” and “blessed” his living creatures. When he “finished” his work, he rested and blessed the seventh day as a Sabbath.
In the tabernacle account of Exodus 25-31/35-40, God instructed his people to build a tent for worship in the wilderness. He chose Bezalel, who was filled with the Spirit, as its chief craftsperson. He gave seven words of instruction to Moses about the tent and its priests, concluding with a seventh word about the Sabbath. After he “finished” speaking his word, Moses had it “made” exactly according to the pattern God gave him. When they had “finished” their work, Moses “saw” the good work the people had done and “blessed” them.
So then, both of these stories tell how God established his own holy, royal residence in the midst of the wilderness.
Terence Fretheim further observes that the dedication of the tabernacle was held on Israel’s new year’s day (40:2, 17), which in their mind corresponded to the celebration of the first day of creation. Also, both the world and the tabernacle are products of God’s divine command. “This is one spot in the midst of a world of disorder where God’s creative, ordering work is completed according to the divine intention just as it was in the beginning.”
In addition to this creation theme, the tabernacle is one more step toward the new creation.
In the final form of Exodus, an important story has been placed between God’s instructions and the making of the tabernacle. It is the story of the Golden Calf, Moses’ intercession, and the renewal of the covenant. In other words, it is a “fall” and “redemption” story of sin, judgment, and restoration. It should be noticed that, just as in the first account of sin, when Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden, in the tabernacle the way back to God is mediated through cherubim that guard the altar (Gen. 3:24, Ex. 25:17-22).
The narrative about the Tabernacle is thus structured as a story of creation/fall/new creation. The tabernacle is not only the place where Israel finds order in the chaos of wilderness. It is also sets forth the path of redemption and renewal by which Israel can return to God after they have sinned.
If, as is likely, these texts were shaped into their final form in the exilic and post-exilic communities, then they provided for those dispirited people yet another example of Israel’s bigger story, as well as how they might find their way back to God and covenant renewal, restoring their identity as the people of God.
Perhaps these texts also fueled motivation for a project of rebuilding the Temple and making sure they followed God’s specific instructions upon their return to the Promised Land.