At Mount Sinai, after the people heard God’s own voice speaking the Ten Commandments, they then asked Moses to listen to God on their behalf. God then spoke to Moses the “Book of the Covenant”, a legal constitution for the new nation of Israel (Exodus 21–23). The nation agreed to these laws (ch 24), so God told Moses to come back up Mount Sinai to collect the two inscribed stone tablets that would serve as reminders of this covenant, one copy for God and the other for Israel. Both copies would be kept in the same place where God and Israel would meet with each other – the Tabernacle. This parasha is the first of three that cover the detailed instructions God gave to Moses about creating that Tabernacle and its priesthood, before He gave him the stone tablets as promised (31:18).
In this parasha, God first tells Moses to collect from all the people a voluntary “contribution” (teruma) of different sorts of materials, out of which the Tabernacle would be built. There are then a series of detailed instructions giving the blueprints for each part of the Tabernacle: First, the Ark of the Covenant and its golden lid decorated with statues of cherubim, under which the stone tablets would be kept. Then, the Table on which the bread of the Presence would be put, and the golden Lampstand (menorah) opposite the Table. Then the colourful curtains around the Tabernacle, the coverings over the Tabernacle of goats’ hair and rams’ skins and porpoise skins, and the boards and sockets that gave the rectangular shape to the Tabernacle. Finally, the embroidered curtain separating off the innermost Holy of Holies with its Ark of the Covenant from the Holy Place with its Table and Lampstand, the woven screen at the eastern doorway of the Tabernacle, the bronze altar outside the doorway of the Tabernacle where the sacrifices would be offered, and the woven hangings that formed a larger courtyard around the Tabernacle.
It is likely that many people reading this passage will start to get bored with the details, wanting the story to start moving forward again. Others, the artists and architects and engineers, will probably be delighted to discover that this sort of thing is also in the Bible! But why does God care so much about putting up a tent? First, there are lots of close similarities between His construction of this sacred tent and His creation of the earth and its surroundings in Genesis 1. God is a god of order and beauty and variety of form and function – that is just how He does things. Second, this Tabernacle would become a movable Mount Sinai, a place of glory and holiness and revelation where God Himself would be accessible to His set-apart people. Something that sacred would have to be constructed to the very highest standards, and appear suitably precious in the eyes of the Israelites camped around it. Third, this sacred tent resembled the tent used by the Egyptian Pharaoh during his war campaigns, and like that royal tent, this one would have to be taken apart, carried easily, and reassembled multiple times, every time the Israelites moved location in the wilderness. The level of detail in the instructions was thoroughly practical, because all of the various Levite clans responsible for carrying and setting up the different parts of the Tabernacle would need to know how their part fit with everything else.
But there are two crucial sentences in this parasha, without which none of it properly makes sense. The first appears three times, separating different sections of the instructions (25:9; 25:40; 26:30) – Moses is told to make everything “according to the pattern which was shown to you on the mountain”. The writer to the Hebrews (8:5) picks up on this, and points out that the Tabernacle was just a scale model, an earthly replica of the heavenly throne room of God that Moses was shown up on Mount Sinai. The more we study the instructions for the Tabernacle and its priesthood, the better we will understand the glorious realities of God’s presence, of which the Tabernacle was only “a copy and a shadow”. For example, the stone tablets were kept underneath the golden Mercy Seat within the Holy of Holies; this tells us something about how holy God considers the words He speaks, which are the foundation of His relationship with us.
The second vital sentence is found right near the start of the parasha. After listing the types of materials needed for the Tabernacle, which Moses is to invite all the Israelites to donate, God then explains, “Let them construct a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell among them” (25:8). Notice, God does not say, “that I may dwell in it”. The most that actually “dwelled” there was His Name (Deuteronomy 12:11; 1Kings 8:27-30). God does not live in temples built by human hands (Acts 17:24). Instead, our own freely-given contributions for the glory of His name make us the dwelling place for God to dwell in, by His Spirit (1Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19-20; 1Peter 2:5).
Rather than longing for another physical temple to be built in Jerusalem, let us pray that the people of Israel will look to the Cornerstone, Jesus, and offer themselves freely to be living stones in His spiritual temple, filled with the Holy Spirit as a whole nation, and part of God’s beautiful and well-ordered new creation. Let us also in our own nations offer whatever different skills or possessions we might have, for Jesus to use them in building His Church of glory and holiness where He can meet with humanity (Matthew 16:18). He is our King leading us into battle, and even the gates of death itself will not be able to stay closed against our attack!
The European Coalition for Israel is a unique grassroots movement, which is seeking to promote better relations between Europe and Israel through advocacy and education. More information: www.ec4i.org