Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 25

In this chapter, the LORD details the construction of the ark of the covenant, the table of showbread and the golden lampstand.

First, the LORD establishes a voluntary offering for the materials needed.  Sometimes the sacrifices in the Law of Moses are voluntary and some are mandated.  This one is voluntary.

I could spend a lot of time talking about the sourcing of these various materials, how different spices are produced and so forth, but I'll leave that out for now.  What I will mention is that with the Israelites departing Egypt and just freed from slavery, they would not have the materials to donate except for how they "plundered the wealth of Egypt" during the exodus.  The ultimate purpose of all this is described in verse 8, that the LORD "may dwell among them."

Beginning with the ark of the covenant, we can see that it is constructed for a desert lifestyle.  It is built with poles to allow it to be carried around, as would be necessary for a nomadic people.  We also see it is built with acacia wood, which is a type of tree that grows in the Sinaitic desert.

Next, I would like to point out some unusual language and what we can learn from it.  First is the word ark.  This is a similar Hebrew word to what we found in Genesis 7 describing the ark that Noah built to escape the flood (which is the Hebrew "tebah": lit. box).  In this case, it is the Hebrew "aron", a box, chest or coffin, with the connotation of "a container used for gathering"  This is perhaps fitting, given that a variety of different objects will eventually be "gathered" into the ark of the covenant.  The first object is stated here, which is the testimony, or a written record of the covenant that the people just agreed to.

I'm not sure if ark is the best translation here (which is probably why The Message translates it as "chest"), but in this case "ark" is the King James translation of "aron", and what happens a lot of the time is that modern translations use KJV translations for well-known phrases or names, to maintain consistency with people's expectations.  For instance, if you say to someone, "ark of the covenant", it conveys images in their mind of Indiana Jones and this whole historical background that pervades our culture.  If you say the somewhat more accurate, "chest of the testimony", my bet is that a lot of people would not immediately know what that is.  This is also true to a certain extent for proper names like Zechariah, which could be rendered Zekariah for a slightly more phonetic spelling since the "ch" sound might be soft in English, but it must be hard in Hebrew.  Yet nearly all translations adhere to the KJV standard in regards to this name.  We also see the continuing influence of KJV translations in the term "mercy seat", which I address below.  It's interesting to see how even translations that avoid many of the KJVs mistakes are still bound in some ways to the KJV through historical precedence and how that shapes reader expectations.

This leads to a very interesting, but inconsistent, position of where major bible translations will use KJV translations for well-known terms like "ark of the covenant", but prefer more accurate and idiomatic language for all of the obscure passages.  I mean really, do people even use the word "ark" in casual conversation anymore?  We don't talk about "steam-arks" or "cruise-ark", or "hey guys, I'm going on an Alaskan ark tour".  The word is boat, or ship.  Ark is still accepted English, to be sure, but it's not idiomatic, which is the whole point of modern translations.  Even so, I understand why they made these decisions and can respect that point of view.

The second is the term mercy seat (NASB), or atonement cover (NIV and Message).  In this case, I was surprised to discover that the NASB translation is less true to the original text, because the Hebrew word "kaporet" does not actually refer to a seat, but rather roughly means "thing of covering/atonement", and from this is derived the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, which means "day of atonement".  This is another instance of the NIV and Message adhering to modern English, while the NASB used the term from the KJV, because this is a broadly known bible term and it would confuse some readers to change it.  In fact, the NIV 1984 edition has a note that "traditionally, [this is translated] a mercy seat".  For whatever reason, this note was removed from the NIV 2011 edition.

Either way, it's very interesting that the "thing of atonement" is to be placed directly on top of the "ark of the testimony", which contains the record of Israel's covenant with the LORD.  This is yet another sign that Israel's protection from God's wrath in the Passover is strongly and directly associated with its divine covenant.  We have not yet been told the process whereby Israel is supposed to use this "thing of atonement", but spoiler alert, it involves the shedding of animal blood from ritual sacrifice.  Perhaps we can see that, not only should Israel celebrate a Passover every year in remembrance of their departure from Egypt, but the LORD is now building a process for other "Kippurs" to occur in the context of their covenantal relationship with him.

Continuing with the implied theme of the "mercy seat", however, is the LORD's implication in verse 22 that he will "meet with you... from above the object of atonement".  This is one reason that "mercy seat" is not entirely unfounded, because from v. 22 we can imagine the LORD as if he were sitting on top of this atonement piece when he "meets with" the Israelites.  Later we will see the significance that the ark of the covenant and the atonement cover play in Israel's interactions with the LORD.

The last term I want to jump on is the somewhat unexpected re-emergence of the cherubim.  The first time we saw a cherub was in Genesis 3, protecting the garden of Eden from any encroaching humans.  The second time is here.  This implies what we've already seen, that Genesis is largely focused on a physical history and does not concern itself with spirits, and even the miracles in Genesis are usually pretty muted.

More specifically, in Genesis 3 we are told nothing about the appearance or form of the cherubim.  Here, we are told they have wings.  Even more, we now know that the Israelites would know what a cherub looks like, because they are told to sculpt two of them.  Unfortunately, what the author and his ancient readers could take for granted, we have to piece together from the incomplete historical records of books like this.  But yeah, wings.  Maybe this is where the mythos about angels having wings comes from?  I wonder.

Also, the text implies that the cherubim are guarding or overshadowing the LORD, when he appears "between the two cherubim".  This is similar to their role as guardians of Eden in Gen 3.  Interestingly, in this case the cherubim do not prevent man (as represented by Moses and the Hebrews) from approaching the LORD, while in Gen 3 there was no way back in the fellowship of the garden.  Here, the LORD "will meet with you" when people approach him on the basis of a covenant and through the application of sacrificial blood.  In this respect I would almost say that the cherubim on the ark are a deliberate allusion to Gen 3, creating a contrast between the uncompromising denial of the latter with the openness (under proper conditions) of the former.

Edit: I just recently read the commentary of John Wesley and he notes that the cherubim show the unity of their purpose by facing towards each other and towards the mercy seat.  I agree.  They show unanimity in their devotion as well, both looking towards the appearance of the LORD, from which we can hypothesize that all the angels of heaven look towards the LORD for their purpose.  They live in service, waiting upon him.

Next, the Hebrews are to make a table of acacia wood and covered in gold, which by material sounds very similar to the ark.  While I think it's reasonable that everything would be made out of the same kind of wood, I think it's notable how both the ark and the table are to be completely covered in gold.  Even the carrying poles are covered in gold.  So far, gold has not played much of a role in the bible thematically.  It's used in various places to describe objects of wealth or value, so for instance we are told that Abraham was a man who was "very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold". (Gen 13:2)  These are clearly some of the top measurements of ancient wealth in their culture, and this is how it has been used in most every other place.  So I suppose we can take this to describe the richness or ostentation of these objects, that everything should be covered in gold.

Other than that, I don't think the table is notable.  We are told that the "bread of the presence" should be placed on it, but this sentence is left unexplained.  In this case, the author is writing about something we have not yet been told, the ritual of the "showbread" (another KJV term, fortunately not used by the NASB in this instance).  Since the bread of the presence is explained later, I will also reserve my commentary for when we read about it (Lev 24).

Lastly (for this chapter), we read about the golden lampstand.  I've read this passage a bunch of times and what's always stood out most to me is 1) how incredibly detailed the appearance of the lampstand is, 2) how hard it is to figure out what the lampstand looks like.  The best I can tell, there are three branches coming out on each side and each branch is covered with three almond blossom cups, and then the base has another four almond blossom cups?  And then there are seven "lamps", which I guess means one for each branch and another mounted on top of the base?  I'll be honest, I just looked for an illustrated bible which has a picture of the lampstand for me, and studied that.  The point is, there are almond blossoms and lamps.  It's all made out of gold, and there's nothing else that's important here.

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