Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 26

In this chapter, the LORD directs the construction of the tabernacle in its various stages.

Before anything else, I'd like to note that the word tabernacle is also a KJV word, just like I was talking about "mercy seat" and "ark" in the previous chapter.  Tabernacle is not a wrong translation, but it is outdated, and only remains in bible translations because of historical precedence.  You ask someone today what a tabernacle is, and the only answer they know how to give is religious (i.e. here in the bible or church names), because that's the only place this word still exists in modern language.  The Hebrew word "mishkan" can be reasonably translated "habitation" or "residence".  The primary characteristic is "as a place where [someone] lives or dwells".  Strong's Lexicon notes that this would include, "a shepherd's hut, an animal's lair, figuratively, the grave, and the Temple".

We had already seen the generally abiding presence of the LORD in the cloud of fire and smoke that was with Israel coming out of Egypt.  Now we're seeing that the LORD intends to construct a much more specific dwelling place, where he can "live" amongst the Israelites.  We can call this "the tabernacle", but I could just as accurately call it "the residence".  Just as I discussed in the last chapter, this is yet another reversal of the curse of Adam from Genesis 3, which fractured man's relationship with God by driving man out of his proper dwelling place, where God also dwelt.  Now it appears that God is seeking to construct a new dwelling place for himself, which is accessible to man.  However, as we can begin to see, it does not have the same freedom of the Garden.

First we see 10 curtains of woven fabric which form the basis of the residence.  There are cherubim woven into the fabric, which recalls the cherubim guarding the entrance to the Garden in Gen 3, similar to the ark of the covenant in the previous chapter.  There are clasps of gold, but no other gold is referenced in part of this construct.

Next is a nearly identical covering of goat's hair, which is slightly larger than the woven fabric.  That's because the goat's hair is laid over the inner fabric to protect it from weather damage.  Its clasps are made out of bronze, which is generally cheaper and tougher than gold.  (Bronze is a very durable metal alloy, while pure gold is extremely soft and easily damaged.)  This covering is itself covered by yet another layer of rams' skin and porpoise skin, which would protect the inner layers from water damage.

Next is a set of wooden boards which are the framework of the residence.  It is around this framework that the prior curtains of woven fabric, hair and skins are to be laid.

The NASB has yet another KJV loaner word here, "tenon".  This is a word that is still in use in modern English, but I still think that the other major translations (NIV, NLT, Message) do a better job here of using idiomatic English that is just as accurate at capturing the underlying Hebrew.  Anyway, the idea is that these are pegs or small extensions which are used to secure the silver bases, which hold the planks upright.

This passage gives us a very good idea for the dimensions of the residence.  There are 20 boards on each side and 6 boards in the back, meaning it is roughly three times as long as it is wide.  It is also ten cubits high (probably 15 feet, as a cubit is probably a unit of 18 inches).  The boards and crossbars are to be overlaid with gold, which is consistent with all of the golden overlays of the last chapter.  We can combine this information with the sizes of the ten curtains to see that the tabernacle is probably about 15 cubits long (~22 feet) and 5 cubits wide (~7 feet).  From my perspective, this seems pretty small, but remember they had to carry this building (deconstructed of course) around with them on the journey, so it makes sense that you wouldn't want it to be too big.

Next is the veil, which is woven almost identically to the initial curtains, using the same material with the same cherubim pattern.  There are four more pillars used to hold up this veil, and it separates the residence into two areas, the "holy place" (Hebrew "kodesh") which is outside the veil (i.e. closer to the entrance) and the "holy of holies" (Hebrew "kodesh kodesh") which is beyond the veil (i.e. towards the back).  The ark goes in the back (in some unspecified position, probably towards the back end, but the text doesn't say), and the table and the lampstand go in the front, opposite of each other.

Last, there is yet another screen constructed for the entrance, which is held up by five wooden pillars.  It's not clear to me if this screen would be outside the residence or inside.

All of these things form the enclosure for the "holy of holies", which is in an immediate sense the residence of the ark of the covenant, but obviously the bigger picture is that it is where the LORD "will meet you" and the resident for this residence is obviously intended to be the LORD.  As we will see in the future, this is correct.  I think a reasonable reader would wonder what is the purpose of the various ornaments, the ark of the covenant, the table and the lampstand.  These are questions that will be partially answered later, so I will reserve my commentary on this front.

What I would like to discuss now, however, is the sense of constraint that I get from reading this.  The holy of holies is the intended dwelling place of the LORD, but there are so many layers and screens separating the LORD from his people.  In fact, we aren't even done with all of the layers yet.  There are more still to come.  In the garden, man dwelt freely with God, but here, there are many barriers.  Even within the residence itself, there is a holy place and an even more holy place.  If the goal is the reversal of the curse of Adam, this feels like a very poor substitute already.  Before the residence, there was no permanent dwelling of God amongst man, so this is still an improvement.  But I think even now we can start to wonder exactly how accessible this divine communion will be, if it must be sheltered from curious eyes by so much.  More on this subject in the coming chapters and books.

Note: Going forward, I will call the residence "the tabernacle".  This is not because it's more accurate, but to be less confusing to any readers who skip this chapter but read the next ones and only know of this structure by its archaic KJV name.

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