Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1 – 38:20)

EXODUS 35:1-20

The Sabbath is related to the tabernacle in the Torah, as it is emphasized in each section of the building of the shrine to God that will be in Israel’s midst that Sabbath precedes in importance the labor of making God’s palace. For this reason, the Sabbath has become known as a palace in time.

We are familiar with the idea of a palace as a space which is designated for a royal purpose. A palace is not just any home, it is a home set aside for a king. Even in modern times, leaders of states and nations tend to live in a “governor’s mansion” or a similarly named special residence. If a private citizen builds a fancier home, using costlier materials, people will still regard the official state dwelling to be greater in importance. The idea is that space is set aside for a leader over the people. And that space is expected to be made of fine materials and to be designed with splendor.

So it is with the tabernacle. It is a palace in space. Its finery designates a particular place on earth as special, as a place fit for the Presence of God to dwell among the people.

But every time the building of the tabernacle is mentioned, the Sabbath is emphasized. The simple explanation, offered long ago by the rabbis, is that Torah is insisting that Sabbath observance is more important than the work of building God’s earthly palace. While this explanation rings true, there is also something else here.

“Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath). “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals” (ibid.). Rabbi Heschel goes on to comment that time is “like a wasteland,” which is to say, unordered time is random and apparently meaningless. But if there were something that gave objective meaning to time, it would change the way we look at it. That something is found in the rich teaching of the Torah about the Sabbath.

If time has no pattern, no meaning, then “it has grandeur but no beauty” but “the seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all.”

Assembling the people to start Tabernacle construction (1), Sabbath reminders (2-3), offerings for the Tabernacle (4-9), elements of the Tabernacle to be made (10-19), the congregation departs (20).

Exodus contains two sections on the tabernacle, which involve a great deal of repetition. As Carol Meyers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) observes, the first section (chapters 25-31) is prescriptive (instructing what must be done) while the second section (chapters 35-40) is descriptive (narrating what was done). She says the emphasis in the second section is on the making, so information about purpose and how items will be used is omitted. Also, the description of the building of the tabernacle proceeds in the order it made sense to build it rather than order of importance of the items.

In both tabernacle sections the Sabbath features prominently as a topic. Sabbath laws form the ending of the first section (31:12-17) whereas they start off the second one (35:2-3). Rabbinic commentary has long contended that the purpose of including Sabbath laws with tabernacle instructions is simple: to emphasize that Sabbath precedes in importance even the holiest work.

The Sabbath statute in Exodus 35 contains a new prohibition, not found anywhere else. No fire should be kindled on the Sabbath. Perhaps this is because starting a fire in ancient times involved more work than with modern methods. It is not clear why this new prohibition is introduced in this particular place, not having been mentioned earlier. Both 31:12-17 and 35:2-3 are from the P source and both relate to tabernacle building, so a new prohibition is unexpected. Sarna (JPS Commentary) explains how the fire kindling prohibition became a controversy between the rabbis and the Karaites in the middle ages. Karaite Jews would remain in the dark on the Sabbath whereas the rabbis permitted lighting fires for light and for heating just before Sabbath began and letting them burn. Eventually the practice of lighting candles at the Sabbath table on Friday nights grew from this and a blessing was instituted to be recited over the candle lighting.

Vss. 4-20 call for an offering of materials for the tabernacle, fulfilling the instructions in 25:1-7 for collecting building materials. The people will respond in 35:21-29. This section also provides a list of the tabernacle elements. In keeping with the numerical symbolism and symmetry used with the tabernacle throughout, this list contains precisely forty items.

EXODUS 35:21-29

A project is only an idea until people come forward and actually carry out the physical necessities to make it a reality. Many good intentions never get off the ground. It is a principle of leadership that moving a group of people to carry out a sacrificial task is difficult.

What moved the Israelites to contribute toward and build something as magnificent as the wilderness tabernacle?

People must believe in something powerfully if they will actually donate toward it and work to make it happen. Some of the Israelites had already shown their powerful dedication to the wrong purpose, giving toward the making of the golden calf. In the case of the golden calf, the motive was the cultural belief, prevalent in the Ancient Near East, that the security and prosperity of a people depended on gods and religion.

The tabernacle, however, was slightly different than the usual religious ideas the people were familiar with. Sure, temples were common, but this temple had no idol in it. Instead, the invisible God would put his Glory (cloud-encased fire) inside it. The people would keep this shrine ritually clean from all the things God defined as “unclean” by followup carefully his instructions for ritual purification using blood and procedures for keeping ritual pollution away from God’s Presence.

Nonetheless, the people caught the vision. They donated this time to a different idea, to one put forward in Torah as the truth, which stands in contrast to the usual way of viewing life, security, and the gods. Their reaction leads us to ask concerning ourselves, is our heart willing? Do we see the vision for God’s Presence on earth turning the order of things upside down? What will we donate? What will we do?

The people respond to the call to give to and build the Tabernacle.

Whereas the instructions for the terumah (free-will offering) for the Tabernacle were given in Exodus 25:1-7, now the people respond to the call. The offering is successful and the Tabernacle construction gets under way.

EXODUS 35:30 – 36:7

The tabernacle in the wilderness was extraordinary, a shrine we would consider small, but exquisitely made. However, the remarkable thing about the tabernacle was not so much the gold or precious items used to make it, but the way it represented God being present with the people. God is very involved in the world, in human experience, in history. Yet God is also transcendent (above everything), omnipresent (everything is in his presence), and without end.

Thus, God endowed the makers of the elements of the tabernacle directly with his Spirit. God himself filled the artisans. The work of preparing skins, weaving tapestries, finely hammering gold over sculptures, planing boards, and crafting metal implements became divine work.

It was not God’s way to make a shrine appear out of thin air, but to fill people, ordinary men and women, with the ability to make something out of this world.

Ultimately God’s shrine is more than a tent and even more than a limestone palace built by a king like Solomon. It is the world, creation, the cosmos. And just as God endowed Bezalel and Oholiab and other men and women to do the work — to make something divine out of the mundane, something sacred out of the common — so his choice is to perfect the world using ordinary people.

Bezalel and Ohaliab, the craftsmen (35:30 – 36:1), the terumah and a call for no more to be brought (36:2-7).

Exodus 35:30-34 are a nearly verbatim repetition of 31:1-6. The craftsmen who work on the Tabernacle are skilled and even divinely endowed for the task. Vs. 31 says literally, “He has filled him [Bezalel] with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in skill, in knowledge, and in every kind of work.” Vs. 33 says his skill was in “every work of thought,” which refers to the ability to see a design mentally and reproduce it with materials.

In Exodus 25:9, God had said to Moses, “In all that I show you, according to the pattern of the tabernacle and its furniture, so you shall make it.” The tabernacle was from a heavenly design, revealed to Moses, but also revealed to the craftsmen who performed the work and could reproduce it.

Meanwhile, the people who had just rebelled against God’s leadership, choosing their own way with the golden calf, are so enthusiastic now about God’s plan, they bring more than is needed. More than enough is collected and the leaders ask them to stop. The overall point is that the Tabernacle work was undertaken with great enthusiasm and skill, to be a treasure in Israel.

EXODUS 36:8-19

No temple can contain him and yet he resided among the children of Israel in a tent. God is at once Omnipresent and actually present, Infinite and humble, Omnipotent and gentle. The structure of the tabernacle was something very ordinary, although care was taken to make it from the finest materials of the time and in the technology of tent making that was known in the Ancient Near East. Even so, God’s earthly “house” was a tent.

How can the Infinite enter finite space? How can the One for whom all things are in his Presence be present in a place?

The ancient rabbis thought about these things. In one parable, we read:

It may be likened to a cave situated by the seashore. The sea rages and the cave is filled with water, but the sea is not diminished. Similarly, the Tent of Meeting was filled with the radiance of the Shekhinah, which was not diminished in the universe.
(Numbers Rabbah, XII.4, Soncino Edition).

And so Moses, on the mountain receiving instruction from God, was told, “Let them make me a sanctuary” (Exod 25:8). A sanctuary is a “holy place,” which in ancient times meant a shrine with an inner room. God said he would show Moses a pattern according to which he was to have it built. And, most importantly, that God wanted it built so he could “tent among them.” The word usually rendered “dwell” is shakhan (the root word for mishkhan/Tabernacle and also for Shekhinah/Presence). In The JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus, Nahum Sarna says, “The verb conveys the idea of a temporary lodging in a tent and characterizes the nomadic style of life.”

God wants to tent among the Israelites. He will leave the heavens and dwell in a place on earth. But no one imagined that this meant God would dwell only in the sanctuary. While dwelling in the tabernacle and later the temple that replaced it, he nonetheless appears in many other places and he never ceases to be the Omnipresent.

Making the inner tent sections (8-9), joining the inner tent sections (10-13), making the goat’s hair covering and the dolphin [or dugong] skin outer covering (14-19).

The order is reversed from the instructions in chapters 25-31. There the articles were described first and then the tent. Here the tent is made first and then the articles. Cassuto says this is simply the ancient preference for a kind of ordering called a chiasm, a literary device in which the order of items follows a pattern (often A-B-B-A). In this case the chiastic pattern of the Tabernacle building is as follows: Articles – Tent – Tent – Articles.

But the rabbis explain this change in order more fancifully with a midrash: Bezalel came to Moses and questioned the logic of his instructions, “It is a universal practice that one first builds a house and then furnished it” (Berachot 55a, cited in Sarna).

EXODUS 36:20 – 37:16

Without work, human participation, divine things do not happen on earth. The people brought the materials and craftsmen built the pieces of the tabernacle. Their labor and skill formed a holy space, a dedicated piece of ground where the Presence would reside in Israel’s midst.

We might think something as important as a dwelling place for God on earth would be removed from human involvement. Can items made by human hands come into contact with the divine? Can people make a footstool for God? Can a tent be filled with the Shechinah (the glorious manifestation of God’s Presence)?

Some of the materials and items were costly and exquisite, gold and silver for example. But many of the articles that formed the tabernacle were more mundane. Planks. Bars. Hooks. Sockets. Leather. Wool. Linen.

The supernatural inhabits the ordinary. A natural structure is endued with the otherworldly. Human effort brings the presence of the divine.

The presence of God is often not felt in a place because no one works to bring him there. It is God’s way to make his presence known where people make room for him. Praise and study and deeds of lovingkindness bring down the Shechinah in our midst.

The planks, silver sockets, and bars of the Tabernacle (20-34), the curtain of blue, purple, and red wool woven with cherubim (35-36), the screen of the entrance (37-38), the Ark and its cover with cherubim (37:1-9), the Table of the Bread of the Presence (10-16).

This passage repeats much of the information from 26:1-37 (the planks, sockets, curtains, and screen of the Tabernacle) and 25:10-22 (the Ark) and 25:23-30 (the Table).

The exact nature of the planks (or wood frames) described in vss. 20-30 is impossible to recover. Each one would be 15 feet long and 2.3 feet wide. No thickness is mentioned. More important are the numbers. The Tabernacle would consist of seventy cubits worth of plank/frame sections (the last ten cubits on the east side were open), with thirty cubits north and south and ten west. The total number of pedestals is one hundred. The structure itself was forty-five feet by fifteen feet by fifteen feet (three cubes of ten cubits each, but only divided into two rooms). Richard Friedman in Who Wrote the Bible has an intriguing theory. If the planks were placed in an overlapping manner instead of flush with each other, the width would have been only six to eight cubits (nine to twelve feet). There is evidence, not conclusive, but suggestive, that the Tabernacle was placed in the Temple under the wings of the large cherub statues Solomon placed in the Holy of Holies (1 Kgs 8:4; 2 Chr 5:5). The planks of the Tabernacle formed a holy space, a place on earth where the Presence was concentrated in the midst of Israel.

The innermost third of the space, the Holy of Holies, was separated by a parokhet (veil or curtain) of fine weaving — blue, purple, and scarlet with designs of the cherubim woven into the pattern. This inner curtain is elsewhere called the “veil of the screen” (parokhet hamasakh) and it hung on gold-covered pillars with hooks of pure gold. By contrast, the curtain at the entrance to the tent-Tabernacle was simply a screen (masakh) of lesser weave called “embroidery,” of the same colors of yarn, but without the pattern of cherubim woven into it.

The Ark was a chest containing the symbols of God’s covenant with Israel, signs of his dwelling among them. It was God’s footstool (Psa 99:5; 132:7-8; 1 Chr 28:2). Kings on their high thrones needed a footstool since their feet would not touch the ground.

Why doesn’t Torah specify what cherubim looked like? This is because it was already well-known. They were winged creatures with four faces (man, lion, ox, eagle) according to Ezekiel. They were similar to the sphinxes of Egypt and Assyria (also called kuribu, often human headed lions or bulls or various other mixtures). The cherubim on the Ark cover might bring to mind those that guarded the Garden in Eden (Gen 3:24), another link between the Creation narratives and the Tabernacle. They looked down toward the Ark cover and did not gaze on God’s Presence. They guarded his Presence and the tablets within.

Some translations call the Ark cover a “mercy seat,” which is a misunderstanding based on the name in Hebrew (kapporet). “Kapporet” is from the same root as “atone” or “cleanse” (kipper). But “kapporet” is based on the Qal form of the verb, which means “cover,” rather than the Piel form, which means “cleanse.” Those translations opting for “mercy seat” also had as support for their rendering the fact that the High Priest would sprinkle blood on the Ark cover at Yom Kippur (thus showing Israel mercy and forgiving the nation’s sin). All this notwithstanding, the term “kapporet” simply means “cover.”

The Table of the Bread of the Presence held twelve loaves of bread which were replaced every week by the priests. In some Near Eastern temples, such a table would represent the people feeding the deity. In Israel, the priests ate the bread and there was not pretense of God eating it. The perpetual presence of bread in the tabernacle symbolized something else, the covenant of bread between God and Israel, since provision of rain in the land meant a supply of bread for the people, which was one of the main promises of the covenant (see Lev 26 and Deut 28).

EXODUS 37:17-29

The tabernacle needed a light, and so the menorah was made. It was not just any lamp stand, but a costly, exquisite piece of workmanship burning only the clearest first pressing of olive oil.

The priests needed a screen between themselves and the divine Presence in the inner room of the tabernacle. To support a brazier and put up a screen of smoke, they did not make simply an ordinary altar, but an extremely costly one, overlaid with pure gold.

Even the incense itself and the anointing oil used in priestly ceremonies were far from ordinary. The ingredients were costly and rare.

So in Judaism it is meritorious to use a little finery in carrying out our work of praise and observance. On the Sabbath, if it is possible, we use a tablecloth. We put out fine candlesticks. We use a costly cup for the wine. We cover the challah with an embroidered cloth.

To beautify the ceremony, to add grandeur to the occasion, is a good thing. It helps us to experience a sense of God’s presence and the effort involved in being prepared is work for the soul.

The menorah of pure gold and beaten work (17-24), the altar of incense (25-28), the holy oil and incense (29).

This section repeats much of the information found in 25:31-39 (menorah) and 30:1-5 (incense altar). The short summary about the anointing oil and the incense simply tells us that the works as carried out (the ingredients are found in Exodus 30).

Composite lamps with multiple wicks, even commonly seven, are known from the ancient Middle East. The idea of putting lamps on a stand is also well-known. What is unique about the Menorah is its costliness, a talent of pure gold (3,000 shekels or about 75 lbs, Exod 38:25-26), and its exquisite workmanship. No lampstand this elaborate in any metal has been found.

Sarna (JPS Commentary) notes that the terminology for the design of the Menorah is Egyptian (where tree-like columns and plant decorations were used). Cassuto points out that no one can reconstruct or picture the original Menorah accurately. The description here is obscure and imprecise. The image from the Arch of Titus in Rome and in Josephus is what the Second Temple Menorah looked like, not the original one.

The incense altar is small (1.5 feet square at the top and 3 feet tall) and has a brazier on which coals from the altar of burnt offering are placed and incense powder is poured on the coals. It figures prominently in Leviticus 16 and the Yom Kippur ritual as its smoke protects the high priest from death in the close proximity to God’s Presence that Yom Kippur entails.

EXODUS 38:1-20

The role of women in the public religious life of Israel is a topic on which the Torah is deficient. Occasionally we read of women playing a role, such as Miriam leading the women in performing the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15). The Torah describes at length the work of the priests and Levites, who were all men of a certain age range. The reader gets the impression that only men had a role.

Then we read Exodus 38:8, בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, bemarōt hatzeva’ōt asher tzave’u petach ōhel mō’ed, “the mirrors of the ones on duty who performed duties at the entrance of the tent of meeting.” These “ones on duty” are women, according to the tense of the participle, so that “women on duty” is a clearer translation to convey the meaning in English. We read similarly in 1 Samuel 2:22 that women served at the entrance of the tabernacle in a later period of time at Shiloh.

Yet Torah says nothing about these women or the duties they performed.

This fact highlights for us two realities about the Bible. One, it presents to us only a fraction of the information about what life, and even religious life, was like at the time. Two, it largely omits information about the role of and perspective of women.

The Bible is human and divine. In the words of Kenton Sparks, from the title of his book on the subject, the Bible is “God’s word in human words.” People of faith too often dismiss the humanness of the Bible and overlook its shortcomings. On a number of topics, Biblical writers present views that seem less than worthy of God. The missing perspective of women is clearly one such area of belief on which the Bible is deficient.

Can a book be divine when it is filled with human limitations? When we get used to the manner in which God reveals himself, enigmatically and in limited perspective through human institutions and cultural ideas, we find this aspect of the Bible’s nature unsurprising. Glory can be revealed through the common, the mundane, the flawed. Culture in biblical times included patriarchy (male dominance in society), genocidal feuds between people groups, slavery, and other features whose moral elements do not align with God’s commandments.

But enough is revealed of God’s moral vision for readers and worshippers to see through such limitations and imagine Torah in the world to come, where it will not be subject to any of these limitations.

The altar of burnt offering (1-7), the bronze laver made from donations by the women who served at the gate (8), the courtyard (9-20).

Vss. 1-7 repeat 27:1-8 almost word for word. Two things are important to understand the altar of burnt offering: it is a frame for an earthen altar (as described in 20:24-25) and it is not a unique design to Torah or Israel. The bronze-covered frame of the altar of burnt offering in 27:1-8 is hollow. The fire is not burnt on a bronze frame, but on the stone that doubtless were piled in the hollow center (Cassuto). The bronze frame described here beautifies the altar of stone and provides horns (triangular projections up from the corners) according to custom.

The bronze laver is described in more detail in 30:17-21. It was for ceremonial washing of hands and feet, which would contract impurity through walking in impure places and touching impurity. To fail to wash was to invite death due to disrespect. Vss. 9-20 repeat 27:9-19. The courtyard of the Tabernacle is about symmetry and numerical harmony.

There are sixty pillars in all covering 300 cubits (60 X 5). The numbers ten and six are both important in the numerical harmony. The number six is the basis of the “sexagesimal system” of the ancient Middle East, as Cassuto discusses often in his commentary. In terms of feet, the courtyard is 150 X 75 (an NFL football field is 300 X 160).

The fence is made of white linen hangings that are seven and a half feet high. This height is such that people cannot see over it from level ground, making the inside of the courtyard a sacred enclosure and giving the message that drawing near to God requires coming inside. Though it is not stated, Cassuto and others theorize that the Tabernacle would be located within the enclosure so that the entrance would be on the center line of the courtyard. If so, the Ark would be in the exact center of the back half and the altar of burnt offering on the center of the front half (think of two 50 X 50 cubit squares with the Ark and altar on the center of each square).

Vs. 8 contains a bit of enigmatic information about women serving at the entrance to the shrine. Carol Meyers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) discusses at length the role women played in household religion (which we know from the archaeological record and not from texts). She speculates that women were performing some function similar to Levites in later texts, though the specifics are unknown. The bronze laver was not made from the general offering of the people, but a special offering of brass mirrors brought by these women who served at the gate. The fact that we have no idea what these women did at the tabernacle highlights the fact that the Bible is told from the perspective of men, yet another clue that the Bible is a very human book limited by the cultural outlook of the communities who wrote these words.