Exodus 25:1 to 27:19
At Sinai the Israelites witnessed the Eternal and received God’s laws. But when they leave Sinai, will they remember God or turn to other gods? The Golden Calf incident is a warning … The Tabernacle – a home for God – is a response that brings God into the community.
God tells Moses to ask the people for gifts including gold, silver, and copper… fabrics of many types and colors… animal skins… and spices. All are to be used to build a sanctuary where God can dwell among the people. (Ex. 25:1-8)
God then proceeds to give Moses precise oral plans on the contents, shape, and materials to be used in the construction of the structure and all that it will contain.
In his comments following the Torah text, Gunther Plaut states that “most scholars consider the account at least in part as fictitious – a retrojection after the temple was already built: this Torah section was induced to give the sanctuary and its priestly attendants a legitimacy stemming from wilderness days…. Many scholars hold that a good many the materials prescribed for the Tabernacle were available only in a settled, and not in a nomadic, environment. But this too has been disputed. For instance H. M Orlinsky says unequivocally, ‘ There can be little doubt that- these institutions are the product of a nomadic or semi-nomadic society, even if later priestly writers embellished the original account considerably, Acacia wood – cedar, Cyprus, or olive was later used in Canaan – ramskins, lambskins, cloth of goat’s hair and the like are all manifestations of nomadic existence…. We do know that among some nomadic, pre-Mohammedan Arabs portable shrines (sacred tents) were employed.’” (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah – Revised Ed., A Modern Commentary, p.553)
Whether or not, this early Tabernacle – a dwelling place for the Eternal among the people – ever existed…. It serves many purposes in the Exodus story.
The Israelites had just experienced God and the commandments at Sinai. But, now they are about to move on … and away from this holy place. There is a fear that when God is not with them, they will turn to other gods…. In fact they did! As we will read in a few weeks, while Moses was on the mountain with God, the people built the Golden Calf….
The Tabernacle physically demonstrates that God is within the community for all to see. To this point, Rashi theorizes that the accounts of the people at the base of the mountain, and that of Moses on the mountain top are not in chronological order. He feels that the text provides us with chunks of the action … going back and forth between Moses and the Israelites. Rashi feels that the building of the Golden Calf actually preceded God’s instructions on Tabernacle’s construction. Thus, the Tabernacle was a Godly response to the Golden Calf.
So the Tabernacle allows the Israelites to see that God remains with them at all times. But the structure does more. We must realize that the Tabernacle serves many totally different purposes than our present day temples and synagogues. We must realize that this is a people who think that God chooses where to be at a given time. By building this structure, the people make sure that God has a place in their community. This is a home for God. It is not a public building. In the covered portions of the structure, only the priest and Moses are allowed access. They will only enter the center of the Tabernacle on special occasions or when summoned by God.
The Tabernacle is also designed to remind the Israelites of Sinai and the laws that were presented there. Similar to the Sinai experience. the people are only permitted to enter the outer areas… away from God and only the priests and Moses are allowed to enter the structure.. At the center of the Tabernacle is the Ark containing God’s words – the Ten Commandments. This is the area were God resides and communicates with Moses. Just like Sinai. So, in many ways, the Tabernacle is a continuing reminder to the people of Sinai and all it represented.
To further insure that the Tabernacle is the focus of all the people, all the people are involved in two ways. First they are all asked to bring “gifts” to build and furnish the structure. Second, the Tabernacle is the place where the required offerings are made … offerings that bring the people closer to God.
The Eternal will be a prominent part of the community – The Eternal will dwell in a structure located in its center of the community for all to view. Plus, there is a real threat that if God’s commandments are broken, God will exit the community.
The Israelites are ready to journey on …. But first they must build the holy Tabernacle. This is a story that unfolds through the rest of Exodus.