Monday, April 26, 2010

Will God accept me?

Raise your hand if you've had a read-straight-through-the-Bible plan derailed around Exodus 25.

Who can blame you? You've diligently made it through the first 74 chapters of the bible, enjoying the delightful prose narrative, only to have your resolve mightily tested by seven straight chapters detailing (and I do mean detailing) the ins and outs of the tabernacle furniture. If you make it through to Exodus 32, you're rewarded with three more chapters of story, the easier-to-read, but kind of depressing Golden Calf incident. But just as you are picking up steam, Exodus plunges back into six final chapters describing the craftsmanship of Bezalel and Oholiab fashioning the tabernacle. It's a six chapter stretch that only, well, Bezalel and Oholiab's mother's would love.

Many thoughtful Bible readers have pondered why Exodus ends this way. Why are the tabernacle instructions given in such detail, only to be repeated in equal detail as the instructions are being carried out? And why are the two sections separated by the Golden Calf incident?

The first tabernacle episode, chapters 25-31, is still taking place at Mount Sinai. Moses is on the mountain, and he is receiving the instructions for the tabernacle straight from the Lord. The instructions are obviously detailed, and we can begin to get a picture of what everything looked like, and how it was laid out. (although interestingly, scholars who try to reconstruct the furniture from the descriptions are frustrated by the lack of completeness and detail!) The impression made on the reader is one of exactness. Even if we don't know all the significance, or the meanings of the details, we know that God has a very precise pattern in mind for the tabernacle, and it will be important for the Israelites to follow the pattern to the letter. God is a God of precision. He has high standards. And for the people for build a dwelling place for God, they must follow God's instructions exactly, or his presence in their midst will be jeopardized. The section ends with a repetition of the Sabbath law. Not only must the people work as God commands, but they must rest as he commands as well.

However. In contrast to the holy precision of God's instructions, Moses comes down the mountain to find the Israelites engaged in gross idolatry! This isn't the letter of the law, this isn't even close to the law! Moses breaks his tablets, he breaks the calf, and his anger burns hot. While he had been receiving instructions for the tabernacle (to be built mostly from gold), the people were busy putting their gold to another use.

The real tragedy here goes beyond the idolatry, the narrative makes us wonder whether Israel has forfeited its chance to have Yahweh dwell in their midst... Will God still live among them?

Thankfully, in chapter 34 God renews his covenant with the people, and in chapter 35 the craftsmen get to work fashioning the tabernacle. The repetition of material lets us know that they are obeying the instructions to the letter. God will still dwell in the midst of a sinful people, but his presence is mediated through the tabernacle, which must be built exactly according to his specifications.

What this says to me is that the prerequisite necessary for God to dwell with his people is not a perfect people, but a perfect mediator. God took the sanctity of his tabernacle very seriously. It was built according to his law, purified according to his law, and maintained according to his law. And this law was gracious, just as the tabernacle itself was a gracious gift, a way for a holy God to make his dwelling in the midst of a sinful people without the people being destroyed!

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