EXODUS 38:21 – 39:1
For a while, in its infancy, the nation of Israel possessed sacred items which bore witness to God’s covenant with them. They were referred to as “the testimony.” Housed inside a chest of acacia wood on which rested a sculptured golden cover featuring cherubim (sphinxes), were two stone tablets bearing words received from God’s mouth by Moses on Sinai. That is, the tablets of the commandments were stored in the Ark of the covenant.
The priests of Israel in particular referred to the tablets as “tablets of the testimony,” even calling them at times simply “the testimony.”
Perhaps this terminology bears witness to a reality which the priesthood of Israel dealt with regularly. God was invisible. Whereas other cultures had statues and a religious cult based on things that could be seen, Israelites were asked to believe in and worship a deity whose image was hidden and invisible inside the innermost room of the closed shrine. Perhaps people wanted something more tangible to believe in.
The priests could point to the reality of what all the worship and regulations pointed by assuring the people that inside were two tablets received directly from God by Moses on Sinai. These were the testimony of Israel, a witness to an event that forever changed a people and set it on a path so very different from the surrounding religions and cultures.
A record of the metals offered for the Tabernacle (21-31), the wool yarn for the high priestly garments (39:1).
The tabernacle here is referred to with terminology preferred by the P source, one of the source texts which was used in combination with others by a final editor (perhaps Ezra the scribe) to form what we now know as Torah. In a number of references to the tablets of stone which Moses brought down from Sinai, the P source refers to them as “tablets of the testimony” (31:18; 32:15; etc.). Sometimes they refer to the tablets, placed inside the Ark, simply as “the testimony” (25:16). Exodus 38:21 represents the one and only time the entire tabernacle is referred to as “the tabernacle of the testimony.” The idea, perhaps, is that the tablets housed within were “testimony” or “a witness” to the miraculous manifestation of God seen at Sinai.
This passage goes on the inventory the precious metals donated for the building and operation of the tabernacle. A “talent” corresponds to about 76 lbs, bringing the total gold offering to nearly 3,000 lbs.
39:1 is included with the portion in the ancient Jewish divisions of the text because it concerns the materials gathered for holy purpose to use in making priestly vestments. Like the inventory of precious metals, this verse describes the materials gathered whose uses will be enumerated in the rest of the chapter. While wool was common and affordable, the dies used to color them were not. They were as costly in ancient economies as precious metals.
Aaron, who featured prominently in the first section of Exodus about the priestly garments, has been diminished. In Exodus 28 the name Aaron occurs eleven times. The ephod, breastpiece, robe, the frontlet for the headdress/turban, the fringed or checkered tunic, the headdress/turban, the sash, and linen breeches are all described and repeatedly the function of these impressive garments is related to the person of Aaron who serves as Israel’s very first high priest.
But in Exodus 39, the name Aaron occurs only three times.
What happened in between? The answer, as Carol Meyers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) points out, is the incident of the golden calf. Aaron was complicit in that departure from God’s instructions. As a high priest, he damaged his standing and his credentials by doing the opposite of what was fitting for a priest of Adonai.
This fact about Aaron’s name and the frequency with which it is used in the two chapters about the priestly garments is also interesting evidence about the historical value of the golden calf incident. Richard Friedman (Who Wrote the Bible?) explains at length the theory that the golden calf incident never happened. It was a fiction created by the E source, he says, with two purposes in mind: to allow the E author to comment on the sacrilege of Jeroboam and his golden calves (which happened much later in Israel’s history) and to justify the Shiloh priesthood which was related to Moses and not Aaron (with E being one of the Shiloh priests).
While Friedman’s theory makes sense in many ways, the fact that P (the author of both Exodus 28 and 39) has diminished the role of Aaron suggests that P was also aware of the golden calf scandal. Maybe the making of the golden calf in the Sinai wilderness really happened.
Meanwhile, in Exodus 39 the name of Moses occurs twelve times. Exactly twelve times. Not only is twelve a significant number in the Torah, but it also happens to be exactly one more time than Aaron’s name was mentioned in Exodus 28. In terms of ongoing importance, Moses has become magnified and Aaron has diminished.
The high priestly ephod and breastpiece.
This section repeats chapter 28 about the high priestly vestments. The eight vestments are: ephod, breastpiece, robe, the frontlet for the headdress/turban, the fringed or checkered tunic, the headdress/turban, the sash, and linen breeches. Ephod (אֵפֹד) is an unusual word. It comes from a root meaning “to put on tightly” and its description leads commentators to guess it was an apron. In some texts it is clear that an ephod is a priestly garment, whereas in some other texts it is associated with idolatry and there is no clear association with a garment (see Judg 8:27; 17:5; 18:14, 17). Perhaps the priestly apron, since it was used only for sacred duties, could in and of itself by used as an idol by those who did not comprehend God’s purposes.
King David wore a linen ephod (2 Sam 6:14), perhaps not as ornate as the high priest’s, but apparently to signify that he regarded himself as a priest-king (see Psa 110 for a Davidic understanding of the priesthood according to Melchizedek). The high priest’s ephod was linen woven with gold thread and blue, red, and purple yarn. The stone brooches which fastened the apron on the shoulders contained the names of the tribes engraved, perhaps on lapis lazuli (like epaulets). The choshen or breastpiece is a woven pouch with a gold frame and twelve stones with the tribes engraved on them. Inside it carries the Urim and Thummim. The Urim and Thummim give the high priest answers from God in making decisions and knowing truth (see Numb 27:21).
Carol Meyers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) notes that in this section, as opposed its parallel in chapter 28, the name Aaron is mentioned only three times. By contrast, he is mentioned eleven times in chapter 28. Both texts are from the P source, so the difference is not explicable in terms of a difference in authorship. She proposes that Aaron’s role is downplayed, and Moses’ role is emphasized, in light of the golden calf incident which happened in between the sections. Indeed, Moses is mentioned twelve times in chapter 39. This literary fact is evidence against the view (proposed, for example by Richard Friedman) that the golden calf incident never happened but was an example the E source retrojecting Jeroboam and his golden calves back into the earlier history of Israel. At the very least, we see some evidence that P was aware of a scandal involving Aaron.
“And so all the work of the tabernacle was completed” (וַתֵּכֶל כָּל־עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד vateichel kōl-‘avōdat mishkan ōhel mō’ed).
The reader is about to enter the final chapter of Exodus. The story has been stalled for many chapters with a repeat of the tabernacle instructions focused on how the chastened people of Israel, following the golden calf, are obedient to do everything God said about making the shrine. But the story will advance in chapter 40, describing how God will come and fill the tabernacle with his glory.
But just prior to that turn in the story, we get this summing up of the creation of the tabernacle. It is a “creation” in that God has filled Bezalel and Oholiab and other craftsmen and women with his Spirit to make the work happen.
Carol Meyers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) says rightly, “The tabernacle is the microcosm of the universe, and language linking the human construction of God’s earthly dwelling with the divine creation of the world recurs in the dedication and completion sections that bring Exodus to a close.”
She is referring to the parallel between Exodus 39:32 and Genesis 2:1, which reads, וַיְכֻלּוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ וְכָל־צְבָאָם vayechullu hashamayim veha’aretz vechōl-tzeva’am, “And the heavens and earth and all that is in them were completed.” The verb for “complete” is the same root as in Exodus 39:32. Both verses function as the summation of a process of building. There can be no doubt that the verses are related, especially since the author of both is P.
God’s earthly dwelling is a small version of earth itself. This is a well-documented belief symbolized not only in Israel but in other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. The tabernacle’s features are viewed as a smaller replica of the world. One implication of this is that the universe in its entirety is actually God’s palace and we are all living in it. For now, the territory is unclaimed and God’s kingship is something he is waiting for us to receive. The fact that God’s dwelling is limited to a tabernacle is a sign that the divine plan is in process, is as yet incomplete.
But when it is complete, everything will be holy and no place will seem to be outside of his Presence. What is he waiting for? It seems he is waiting for us to become enlightened and realize his kingship.
The robe, tunics, and frontlet for the headdress/turban of the high priest (22-31), completion of the Tabernacle (32).
The instructions for the high priestly garments were originally given in ch. 28 and are now being carried out. The robe is worn under the ephod (apron) and is techelet (תְּכֵלֶת, the unique blue of Israel made from dye derived from snails). Its neck is reinforced, probably with leather as in some Egyptian garments (Sarna), which is the meaning of the unusual reference in vs. 23 (lit. “like a coat of mail”).
Around its hem are yarn pomegranates alternating with golden bells. The purpose of the bells is so that God will hear the sound. But it is unusual that this is required for the high priest and not ordinary priests (who wear a linen tunic, but not the robe with bells). This has led to speculation that the bells were especially for Yom Kippur when the priest went into the inner sanctuary (this could be the meaning of 28:35, “when he comes into the sanctuary before Adonai”).
On the high priest’s turban is a golden frontlet inscribed with kodesh l’Adonai (קֹדֶשׁ לַיהוָה, holy to Adonai). Later tradition says the frontlet was two fingerbreadths wide and extended from ear to ear (Sarna, JPS Commentary).
The tunic or kettonet is worn under the robe and is white linen with fringes at the hem (ordinary priests wear one as well).
The turban is white linen and a sash/belt is embroidered and we know from 39:29 it includes red, blue, and purple yarn (Sarna).
Vs. 32, about the completion of the Tabernacle, is almost identical to Genesis 2:1, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them” (Cassuto). The Tabernacle is a microcosm of creation, representing the fact that the universe is God’s sanctuary (Carol Meyers, New Cambridge Bible Commentary).
The documents that were joined together to form the Torah arose in the days of the monarchy in Israel. The nation had seen many failures. It was natural for the people to look back on the days of the ancestors, when things were simpler, with a kind of nostalgia and even perhaps a longing to relive those days. Of course, the Exodus and wilderness stories show a record also of failures and in no way represent the people of Israel as perfect. Nonetheless, there is a sense of longing in Torah for the days when Moses was alive and the tabernacle was first built.
The sacred items making up the tabernacle and its courts and its furniture were all precious to them. They were simpler and smaller than what the people later knew from experience in the temple. God inhabited a tent in the desert and the people camped all around it. Even more compelling was the fact the the divine Glory appeared not only inside the shrine, but also outside it in those days, in the pillar of cloud-encased fire.
When Moses saw the completed, but not yet divinely filled, tent shrine, he verified that it was complete, that all had been done according to the pattern God showed him on Sinai (Exod 25:8-9). He saw that it was complete. The language echoes the way God himself paused at the completion of creation and “saw all that he had made, and found it very good” (Gen 1:31).
One day God will inhabit the earth with the intensity and glory that was once bestowed on the tabernacle. All of the ground we walk on will be the Holy of Holies. Adonai will be one and his name will be one. As the Psalmist prayed, “Be exalted, O God, over the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!” (Psa 57:6).
Moses inspects all the work of the Tabernacle and blesses the workers.
This section is a sort of catalogue of all the articles that together formed the tabernacle and is very similar to 35:11-19 (and a shorter version of the same is found in 31:7-11). Cassuto calls the use of such lists, and their repetition, typical of Near Eastern literature. Though modern readers may find it wearisome, for them these were matters of foundational importance. The tabernacle is the foundational context for the temple in Israel’s later generations. Looking back to the tabernacle is vital to establish for Israel the antiquity and divine origins of its worship tradition. A catalogue of sacred items is a comforting thing to read, helping the reader to understand the reality of a tent in the wilderness where God manifested his Glory.
Vss. 42 and 43, much like vs. 32, allude to the creation story in Genesis. Compare vs. 42 with Genesis 2:2, “On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing.” Compare vs. 43 with Genesis 1:31, “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good.” In Genesis, God “saw” the work he had done in creation and here Moses “saw” that they had performed all the commanded tasks (Carol Meyers, New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Similarly a blessing accompanies the completing of creation in Genesis 1:28 and here in the completion of the tabernacle, Moses blesses the workers. Once again we see that they regarded the tabernacle as a microcosm of the universe and anticipated God dwelling in the world in the same manner he dwelt in the tent shrine.
There are things on earth that correspond to greater realities in heaven. The supernatural and natural merge in certain locations and in certain events.
When Moses was on Sinai, in a highly enlightened state of being, God showed him a pattern. Somehow that pattern of heavenly things is imitated in the design of the tabernacle.
Exodus 25:9 commanded Moses to have it made כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אוֹתְךָ kekōl asher ‘and mar’eh ‘ōtcha, “according to all that I show you.” The pattern he saw was תַּבְנִית הַמִּשְׁכָּן tavnit hamishkan, “the pattern of the tabernacle.” Exodus 25:40 served as a reminder to have it all built “according to the patterns I have shown you.” Later, referring to something as mundane as the boards of the tabernacle, God says “make it as I have shown you” (27:8). Finally, in Numbers 8:4, the magnificent golden lamp stand (the menorah) was made according to what “Adonai had shown Moses.”
In one sense, we can say it was merely a tent shrine, a modest though expensively made little place of worship. This hardly seems fitting given the centrality of the tabernacle to the Torah as a whole. The tabernacle is a small beginning. The habitation of God among men began as a humble, small thing, though richly made.
In another sense, we can say what the tabernacle symbolized is nothing small at all. Divine habitation. How much do we long for that? What would it mean for all the ground and sky to be in the Presence of the Eternal, to be a place where we encounter him. C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce pictured “heaven” (a vision of earth remade) as a place where God’s voice might speak to us from a cloud or a waterfall. What if the world was his tabernacle?
Given the parallels between the tabernacle and creation, and the fact that God had Moses base the tent shrine on a heavenly pattern, we would have to say that Torah does anticipate the world becoming God’s tabernacle.
Assembling the Tabernacle (1-8), anointing and consecrating it for service (9-11), installing Aaron and anointing his sons (12-16).
The Tabernacle is to be assembled by Moses’ direct supervision since he alone saw the pattern according to Exodus 25:9, 40; 27:8 and Numbers 8:4 (Sarna, JPS Commentary). The timing of the Tabernacle’s inauguration is symbolic: New Year’s Day, which is symbolic of Creation (Sarna). Many features in the tabernacle sections connect with the creation account. The P source, an unknown priestly author in Judah during the monarchy period, lies behind Genesis 1:1-2:3 as well as these tabernacle narratives.
It happened, just two weeks two weeks short of the anniversary of the Exodus (two weeks before Passover), that the tabernacle assembly began. The assembling of the tabernacle started from the Ark of the Covenant and proceeded from the holiest quarters out to the courtyard (Sarna). The method of assembling and disassembling the tabernacle will always involve dealing with the Holy of Holies (or Most Holy Place) carefully.
In the first month of the year, going by the older calendar of Israel which began in spring a few weeks before Passover, the tabernacle was erected. It was exactly one year to the day from the beginning of the Exodus. As Torah had said, “This month will be the beginning of months for you” (Exodus 12: 2). Since the New Year could be taken as a symbol of the newness of the creation of the world, this was a fitting day to set up the tabernacle which was a microcosm of the entire world.
Curiously the text, written by the P source (an unknown priest from Judah, probably during Hezekiah’s reign), emphasizes that Moses alone set up the tabernacle. Of course it would be impossible for one man literally to set up this tent, carry all its furniture, etc. Perhaps the emphasis on Moses himself doing it was to assert historically and theologically that the tabernacle (and its successor, the temple) were directly tied to the Torah given to Moses himself. The priests wanted it known that the shrine of Israel was not a later addition to the covenant between God and Israel, but a part of it from the beginning.
In vs. 31 (which technically comes in the next section) we read another example of Moses being inserted into the text in an unusual manner. Up to now, the laver (a basin of bronze used by priests on duty to wash hands and feet) has been for the use of “Aaron and his sons.” But in Exodus 40:31 it is stated to be for “Moses and Aaron and his sons.”
Cassuto theorizes that while Moses usually did not act as priest in the shrine, the exception to this general rule was the initial setting up of the tabernacle. Torah insists that Moses, not Aaron, installed and inaugurated the tabernacle.
Why would a national shrine be part of a covenant between God and the priestly kingdom of people? In the minds of some late theologians (especially Christian theologians) the moral and prophetic texts are more worthy of a pure religion than the bloody and tedious rituals of the Israelite temple. Put in simpler terms, many people would say, “If God spoke to us, we’d expect him to tell us to live by a higher moral code, but giving us rituals and symbolic rites seems beneath him.”
This invented God who cares about morals and does not emphasize rituals is not the God of Torah. The rituals may be perplexing. They may seem outdated and even ghastly at times. But perhaps we need to press in deeper and see what they might mean and why it would be so emphasized from the outset that “Moses set up the Tabernacle.” That is why Torah continues with Leviticus, interrupting the ongoing story of Israel’s journey.
Summary of Moses completing God’s design.
It is affirmed in this section that Moses completed all the parts as instructed. The section begins with vayyehi (וַיְהִי, and it was), a way of indicating a dividing point in the story. The catalogue of the things Moses accomplished follows the divine orders given in vss. 3-8, and Cassuto observes it also brings in many details from the earlier chapters about the structure and its parts.
Each section ends with “as Adonai commanded Moses” (Cassuto). There are exactly seven subsections with this closing formula (Cassuto). Seven has been throughout the ideal number, symbolizing the completeness of the tabernacle and the serendipitous nature of its design. As creation was made in seven “days,” so the earthly copy of the heavenly sanctuary is assembled in seven stages.
The story of the Exodus and tabernacle ends on a high note. A cloud covers the tent of meeting. Adonai’s Glory fills the tabernacle. The pillar of cloud in which God’s fiery manifestation is encased follows Israel in their wanderings.
The story very easily could have ended in disappointment. The people of Israel in that generation (has any generation in any nation since been better?) lacked appreciation and failed to keep the simplest instructions to show loyalty to the God who set the nation free. Failure is written all over the events of Israel’s Exodus and journey.
Yet the story remains optimistic. As readers we have to ask ourselves why.
The answer lies in God’s nature, not in human nature. While it is common in religion to emphasize the dangers of human disobedience and to issue calls for repentance based on “fear of punishment” (yirat ha’onesh, one possible meaning of the common biblical trait known as “fear of the Lord”) the Bible depicts God as long-suffering and redeeming. A true understanding of his nature calls up within us something deeper than yirat ha’onesh, namely yirat haromemōt, “awe for the majesty” (another possible meaning of “fear of the Lord”).
A sermon from a classic age of the rabbis (a midrash from Babylon in the early centuries of the common era) has it that the Shechinah (divine Presence) continues to dwell in exile with the Jewish people. God is not ashamed of his people or their flaws. He does not give up on his people. He does not punish forever. He is, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “God in search of man.”
Our search for him is an illusion. He is seeking us. And there can be no doubt, he will find whatever he seeks for and we will be changed by his eternal nature and unlimited compassion.
Moses completes the assembly of the outer court and furnishings of the Tabernacle (28-33), the Glory fills the Tabernacle (34-35), the cloud and fire in the journeys of Israel in the wilderness (36-38).
The tabernacle narratives parallel the account of creation in Genesis 1. In part this is because the P source (an unknown priestly author, probably from the time of Hezekiah) is behind both Genesis 1 and the tabernacle narratives. It is also because the tabernacle is meant to foreshadow a time when God will fill the world with his Glory.
Thus, it is no surprise when Exodus 40:33, a statement about the completion of the tabernacle, is written in order to bring Genesis 2:2 to mind, “on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done” (Cassuto).
With the tabernacle completed and assembled for the first time and its furnishings anointed for consecration, the Glory comes down. Vss. 34-38 are written in poetry, with the usual Hebrew parallelism, to communicate the majesty of the descent of God’s Glory to dwell with the people. We see this parallelism, for example, in vs. 34. “The cloud covered” in the first half parallels “the Glory of Adonai filled” in the second. The cloud covered “the tent of meeting” and the Glory filled “the tabernacle.”
The book ends with the note that the Glory followed Israel throughout the wanderings. This is remarkable since Israel’s time in the wilderness was one of rebellion and faithlessness. So a later midrash says that the Shechinah still dwells in exile with the Jewish people today (Talmud, Megillah 29a). This is what God had said was his desire and plan in Exodus 29:45: to live with his people. The Tabernacle, parallel to creation, is God’s desire to dwell with us, all of his children.