Commentary on Exodus 25-31

Last updated: February 22, 2011

Biblical translations are from the ESV

Exodus 25-31 describes the blueprint for the Tabernacle and its furnishings. Keep in mind that, even with the rather detailed descriptions provided here, we do not know exactly how the Tabernacle looked. The meaning of some of the Hebrew words in this passage is uncertain. It may be helpful to find artistic representations of the Tabernacle as you read this passage but keep in mind the above caveats. William H. C. Propp makes the interesting suggestion that the author did not intend the description to be exhaustive so that we do not attempt to make a Tabernacle ourselves.1

25:1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me. 3 And this is the contribution that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, 4 blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, goats’ hair,

The blue and purple yarns were created using dyes from the murex, a marine snail. The snail exudes a yellow fluid that becomes a dye when exposed to sunlight. It required thousands of snails to produce sufficient dye for one robe. Fabrics dyed in this way were marks of wealth, nobility, and royalty. Scarlet yarn was created with dye produced from the eggs of scale insects from the Coccidae family.2

25:5 tanned rams’ skins, goatskins, acacia wood,

Hebrew tehashim (sing. tahash) [goatskins], with one exception, always refers to the coverings of the Tabernacle. Its exact meaning is uncertain. In rabbinic times the tahash was invested with mythical association and identified with the unicorn. Because of the similarity with Arabic tuhas, duhs, which denote both the dolphin and the dugong found in the Red Sea, modern scholars have variously identified the biblical creature with one or the other. A suggestion to equate the term with Akkadian dusu (= tahsia), the name of a precious stone of either yellow or orange color, seems more plausible since that word is also used to describe leather that is dyed and tanned the color of the stone. Significantly, only the hides of goats (and sheep) were so treated.3

25:6 oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, 7 onyx stones, and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. 8 And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.

Careful analysis of the language used here is essential for a proper understanding of the underlying concept and role of the sanctuary. First, the text speaks of God dwelling not “in it,” that is in the sanctuary, but “among them,” that is, among the people of Israel (v. 2). Then, the verb “to dwell” is not the common Hebrew stem y-sh-v but the rarer sh-k-n, which has a different connotation. This verb conveys the idea of temporary lodging in a tent and characterizes the nomadic style of life. That is why the structure is called a mishkan (e.g., v. 9) and why the verbal form is frequently used together with ohel, the common word for “a tent,” and in connection with nomads. The noun mishkan is often employed in synonymous parallelism with ohel, and the other designations of the wilderness Tabernacle are the “Tent of the Pact” and the “Tent of Meeting.”

Thus, the sanctuary is not meant to be understood literally as God’s abode, as are other such institutions in the pagan world. Rather, it functions to make perceptible and tangible the conception of God’s immanence, that is, of the indwelling of the Divine Presence in the camp of Israel, to which the people may orient their hearts and minds. A postbiblical extension of this image of the verb sh-k-n is the Hebrew term shekinah for the Divine Presence.4

25:9 Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.

God had a “pattern,” or a plan, for the tabernacle and the things that were to go in it (ark, altars, table, lampstand, preistly garments worn by those who attended him in his tabernacle) that he would specially reveal to Moses and that must be followed exactly. What was the point of such a demand for precise adherence to a revealed design? It was to create a longing for and hope of heaven in the hearts of God’s people – a desire to live in his presence forever. Hebrews 8:5 refers to the tabernacle as “a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven,” adding, “This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: ‘See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.'”

Does this therefore mean that there is another tabernacle, a heavenly one, of which the earthly one was a symbol? Indeed, one must surely understand Heb 9:11-12 in such a way (“When Christ came . . ., he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption”). What one must be careful not to do, however, is to assume that the Mosaic tabernacle was intended to be an exact copy, if perhaps a small version, of a tabernacle in heaven. Instead, the tabernacle was a symbolic representation of the realities of heaven, a relatively simple earthly reflection of God’s actual dwelling place, designed to point to the greater and more eternal opportunity to live with God and not merely to create an expectation for a comparable but nondegradable tent structure in heaven.5

25:10 “They shall make an ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. 11 You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and you shall make on it a molding of gold around it. 12 You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. 13 You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14 And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. 15 The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it.

The poles allowed the ark to be transported easily. Presumably the poles were to always remain in place so that no one would ever touch the ark directly. In a similar fashion the “feet” of the ark would keep the ark from touching the ground.

25:16 And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you.

25:17 “You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth.

The translation of the Hebrew term kapporet as “mercy seat” is problematic on two counts. First, although elsewhere the Hebrew stem k-p-r is linked to atonement and expiation, it is not inherently part of the word kapporet.6 Second, the word “seat” implies that God is symbolically seated whereas we are most likely to think of God as symbolically standing on a pedestal or standing platform.7 The kapporet is a solid gold slab that covers the ark and so should be translated as a “cover.”

25:18 And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. 20 The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. 21 And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. 22 There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.

25:23 “You shall make a table of acacia wood. Two cubits shall be its length, a cubit its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. 24 You shall overlay it with pure gold and make a molding of gold around it. 25 And you shall make a rim around it a handbreadth wide, and a molding of gold around the rim. 26 And you shall make for it four rings of gold, and fasten the rings to the four corners at its four legs. 27 Close to the frame the rings shall lie, as holders for the poles to carry the table. 28 You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold, and the table shall be carried with these. 29 And you shall make its plates and dishes for incense, and its flagons and bowls with which to pour drink offerings; you shall make them of pure gold.

The Hebrew does not include any mention of incense in verse 29. Its inclusion in the ESV is a matter of interpretation.8

25:30 And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me regularly.

25:31 “You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand shall be made of hammered work: its base, its stem, its cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it. 32 And there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; 33 three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on one branch, and three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on the other branch—so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. 34 And on the lampstand itself there shall be four cups made like almond blossoms, with their calyxes and flowers, 35 and a calyx of one piece with it under each pair of the six branches going out from the lampstand. 36 Their calyxes and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it a single piece of hammered work of pure gold. 37 You shall make seven lamps for it. And the lamps shall be set up so as to give light on the space in front of it. 38 Its tongs and their trays shall be of pure gold. 39 It shall be made, with all these utensils, out of a talent of pure gold. 40 And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.

26:1 “Moreover, you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them. 2 The length of each curtain shall be twenty-eight cubits, and the breadth of each curtain four cubits; all the curtains shall be the same size. 3 Five curtains shall be coupled to one another, and the other five curtains shall be coupled to one another. 4 And you shall make loops of blue on the edge of the outermost curtain in the first set. Likewise you shall make loops on the edge of the outermost curtain in the second set. 5 Fifty loops you shall make on the one curtain, and fifty loops you shall make on the edge of the curtain that is in the second set; the loops shall be opposite one another. 6 And you shall make fifty clasps of gold, and couple the curtains one to the other with the clasps, so that the tabernacle may be a single whole.

26:7 “You shall also make curtains of goats’ hair for a tent over the tabernacle; eleven curtains shall you make. 8 The length of each curtain shall be thirty cubits, and the breadth of each curtain four cubits. The eleven curtains shall be the same size. 9 You shall couple five curtains by themselves, and six curtains by themselves, and the sixth curtain you shall double over at the front of the tent. 10 You shall make fifty loops on the edge of the curtain that is outermost in one set, and fifty loops on the edge of the curtain that is outermost in the second set.

26:11 “You shall make fifty clasps of bronze, and put the clasps into the loops, and couple the tent together that it may be a single whole. 12 And the part that remains of the curtains of the tent, the half curtain that remains, shall hang over the back of the tabernacle. 13 And the extra that remains in the length of the curtains, the cubit on the one side, and the cubit on the other side, shall hang over the sides of the tabernacle, on this side and that side, to cover it. 14 And you shall make for the tent a covering of tanned rams’ skins and a covering of goatskins on top.

26:15 “You shall make upright frames for the tabernacle of acacia wood. 16 Ten cubits shall be the length of a frame, and a cubit and a half the breadth of each frame. 17 There shall be two tenons in each frame, for fitting together. So shall you do for all the frames of the tabernacle. 18 You shall make the frames for the tabernacle: twenty frames for the south side; 19 and forty bases of silver you shall make under the twenty frames, two bases under one frame for its two tenons, and two bases under the next frame for its two tenons; 20 and for the second side of the tabernacle, on the north side twenty frames, 21 and their forty bases of silver, two bases under one frame, and two bases under the next frame. 22 And for the rear of the tabernacle westward you shall make six frames. 23 And you shall make two frames for corners of the tabernacle in the rear; 24 they shall be separate beneath, but joined at the top, at the first ring. Thus shall it be with both of them; they shall form the two corners. 25 And there shall be eight frames, with their bases of silver, sixteen bases; two bases under one frame, and two bases under another frame.

26:26 “You shall make bars of acacia wood, five for the frames of the one side of the tabernacle, 27 and five bars for the frames of the other side of the tabernacle, and five bars for the frames of the side of the tabernacle at the rear westward. 28 The middle bar, halfway up the frames, shall run from end to end. 29 You shall overlay the frames with gold and shall make their rings of gold for holders for the bars, and you shall overlay the bars with gold. 30 Then you shall erect the tabernacle according to the plan for it that you were shown on the mountain.

Moses did not just hear words. He saw pictures. The words he heard from Yahweh, or at least his precis of them, are what we find in the text of Exodus as it describes the tabernacle design. But Moses actually saw what we might call the “blueprints” as well. Thus when he came back from the mountain and passed on God’s instructions to Bezalel, Oholiab, and their coworkers, he not only told them what to make and how to make it, but he also knew how to recognize its finished look because he had been shown what the various tabernacle components were to look like. The partial information provided in the written text represented no problem to them, even though it can be confusing at places to us, because Moses had seen a visual supplementation of the spoken words and knew exactly what Yahweh wanted for his house.

Thus the tabernacle was not merely an interpretation of a general concept. It was a precise build-out of a revealed design. Yahweh therefore, in effect, built his own house among the Israelites, though he did it through the workmanship of Israelite craftsmen. It was his design they followed previously. They did not think up a house and offer it to him, but rather he revealed what his house was to be like and graciously allowed them to build it for him.9

26:31 “And you shall make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. It shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it. 32 And you shall hang it on four pillars of acacia overlaid with gold, with hooks of gold, on four bases of silver. 33 And you shall hang the veil from the clasps, and bring the ark of the testimony in there within the veil. And the veil shall separate for you the Holy Place from the Most Holy. 34 You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place. 35 And you shall set the table outside the veil, and the lampstand on the south side of the tabernacle opposite the table, and you shall put the table on the north side.

26:36 “You shall make a screen for the entrance of the tent, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, embroidered with needlework. 37 And you shall make for the screen five pillars of acacia, and overlay them with gold. Their hooks shall be of gold, and you shall cast five bases of bronze for them.

27:1 “You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits broad. The altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits. 2 And you shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze. 3 You shall make pots for it to receive its ashes, and shovels and basins and forks and fire pans. You shall make all its utensils of bronze. 4 You shall also make for it a grating, a network of bronze, and on the net you shall make four bronze rings at its four corners. 5 And you shall set it under the ledge of the altar so that the net extends halfway down the altar. 6 And you shall make poles for the altar, poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with bronze. 7 And the poles shall be put through the rings, so that the poles are on the two sides of the altar when it is carried. 8 You shall make it hollow, with boards. As it has been shown you on the mountain, so shall it be made.

27:9 “You shall make the court of the tabernacle. On the south side the court shall have hangings of fine twined linen a hundred cubits long for one side. 10 Its twenty pillars and their twenty bases shall be of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets shall be of silver. 11 And likewise for its length on the north side there shall be hangings a hundred cubits long, its pillars twenty and their bases twenty, of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their fillets shall be of silver. 12 And for the breadth of the court on the west side there shall be hangings for fifty cubits, with ten pillars and ten bases. 13 The breadth of the court on the front to the east shall be fifty cubits. 14 The hangings for the one side of the gate shall be fifteen cubits, with their three pillars and three bases. 15 On the other side the hangings shall be fifteen cubits, with their three pillars and three bases. 16 For the gate of the court there shall be a screen twenty cubits long, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, embroidered with needlework. It shall have four pillars and with them four bases. 17 All the pillars around the court shall be filleted with silver. Their hooks shall be of silver, and their bases of bronze. 18 The length of the court shall be a hundred cubits, the breadth fifty, and the height five cubits, with hangings of fine twined linen and bases of bronze. 19 All the utensils of the tabernacle for every use, and all its pegs and all the pegs of the court, shall be of bronze.

27:20 “You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn.

The oil listed in 25:6, like the other items mentioned there, refers to a one-time donation for the making of the Tabernacle. The present prescription mandates an ongoing obligation. Oil extracted from olives is specified because several other sources of oil, including sesame seed, flax, and animal fats, were utilized in the ancient Near East. The oil used for the Tabernacle lamps had to be “clear” (Heb. zakh), that is, refined so as to be free of lees. This condition was obtained by pounding the olives in a mortar with a pestle rather than by grinding them in a mill – hence Hebrew katit, “beaten.” The oil was passed through a strainer, resulting in a clear, refined grade that yields a far brighter light and produces a minimum of smoke. The category of zakh oil is used in the Bible exclusively for the Tabernacle lamps. Bahya points out that this is contrary to everyday practice in which the clear olive oil of this grade was reserved for culinary purposes, while the cruder type was used as fuel for lamps, that is, “lampante oil.” . . .

Hebrew tamid may mean “with unfailing regularity” or “uninterruptedly.” Thus, the olat tamid refers to the burnt offering brought twice daily, while esh tamed is the first that burns perpetually on the altar and is never extinguished. Regarding the present case, verse 21 and Leviticus 24:3 explicitly state that the lamps are to burn from evening until morning. Further, 1 Samuel 3:3 mentions that “the lamp of God has not yet gone out” in the sanctuary of Shiloh. Accordingly, as Rashi and Ibn Ezra recognize, ner tamid means a lamp kindled on a regular basis each evening. However, Josephus, referring to the Second Temple, records that on the lampstand “there is a light which is never extinguished by day or night.” Ramban is of the opinion that the ner tamid is indeed a perpetually lit lamp from which light was taken at dusk each day to kindle the menorah.10

27:21 In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel.

28:1 “Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. 2 And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. 3 You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood. 4 These are the garments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons to serve me as priests. 5 They shall receive gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen.

28:6 “And they shall make the ephod of gold, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and of fine twined linen, skillfully worked.

Following the pattern of the prescriptions for building the Tabernacle, the institutions for the priestly vestments commence with the most important item, the ephod. Its preeminence is indicated by its utilization of all five colors. And here again the definite article implies an object already well known. This is borne out by the use of the word in the cognate form ipd in Ugaritic, where it refers to some kind of expensive robe, and in the form epattu in Assyrian and Akkadian, where it also signifies some costly garment.

An ephod is mentioned several times in the Bible, but the name seems to apply to different kinds of cultic objects, some of them idolatrous. It is connected with teraphim in many passages, and also with sculptured and molten images, all of which are illegitimate in the religion of Israel. Gideon is said to have made a golden ephod after which “all Israel went astray” and which “became a snare to Gideon and his household.” In I Samuel 21:10 it is related that an ephod had a fixed place in the sanctuary of Nob and that Goliath’s sword was kept behind it. Elsewhere the ephod was an object that could be “carried” in the hand and that was “girded on” the body. It is explicitly stated that it was used to ascertain divine will. This is particularly pertinent to the understanding of the function of the ephod as a vestment of the High Priest because the “breastpiece” (Heb. hoshen) in verse 29 was attached to it and served a similar purpose.

It is not easy to reconcile all these varied references to the ephod. It may quite possibly have been an item of apparel that was once widespread among the upper classes in the Near East and that eventually became outmoded. The innate conservatism of religious institutions made for its retention in ecclesiastical circles alone, where it developed into a sacral vestment. A modern analogy to this process would be the distinctive dress of Hasidim, which evolved from the one-time attire of the Polish gentry. The association of the ephod with idols may derive from the pagan practice of robing the god.

The biblical description of the priest’s ephod includes four elements: the main body of the garment, two shoulder straps, and a richly decorated band. Left unclear is whether the ephod covered the lower and/or upper parts of the body and whether the back and/or front. Josephus, himself a priest in the last days of the Second Temple, likens the ephod to the upper part of a woman’s tunic that had shoulder straps and sleeves and was fastened by brooches – a sort of waistcoat. Rashi compares the ephod to a pinafore worn by upper-class Frenchwomen when they went horseback riding; that garment fully covers the upper part of the back. Rashbam describes it as being wrapped around the body from the loins down.11

28:7 It shall have two shoulder pieces attached to its two edges, so that it may be joined together. 8 And the skillfully woven band on it shall be made like it and be of one piece with it, of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen. 9 You shall take two onyx stones, and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel, 10 six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth. 11 As a jeweler engraves signets, so shall you engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel. You shall enclose them in settings of gold filigree. 12 And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord on his two shoulders for remembrance. 13 You shall make settings of gold filigree, 14 and two chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; and you shall attach the corded chains to the settings.

28:15 “You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work. In the style of the ephod you shall make it—of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen shall you make it. 16 It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth. 17 You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle shall be the first row; 18 and the second row an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; 19 and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; 20 and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold filigree. 21 There shall be twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel. They shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes. 22 You shall make for the breastpiece twisted chains like cords, of pure gold. 23 And you shall make for the breastpiece two rings of gold, and put the two rings on the two edges of the breastpiece. 24 And you shall put the two cords of gold in the two rings at the edges of the breastpiece. 25 The two ends of the two cords you shall attach to the two settings of filigree, and so attach it in front to the shoulder pieces of the ephod. 26 You shall make two rings of gold, and put them at the two ends of the breastpiece, on its inside edge next to the ephod. 27 And you shall make two rings of gold, and attach them in front to the lower part of the two shoulder pieces of the ephod, at its seam above the skillfully woven band of the ephod. 28 And they shall bind the breastpiece by its rings to the rings of the ephod with a lace of blue, so that it may lie on the skillfully woven band of the ephod, so that the breastpiece shall not come loose from the ephod. 29 So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the Lord. 30 And in the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart, when he goes in before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel on his heart before the Lord regularly.

It is quite clear from the association with “the breastpiece of decision” [the breastpiece of judgment] and “the instrument of decision” [the judgment of the people of Israel] that [the Urim and the Thummim] constituted a device for determining the will of God in specific matters that were beyond human ability to decide. The reference in Numbers 27:21 spells this out: “He shall present himself to Eleazar the priest, who shall on his behalf seek the decision of the Urim before the LORD. By such instruction they shall go out and by such instruction they shall come in, he and all the Israelites, the whole community.” In I Samuel 28:6, it is told that “Saul inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets.” And Ezra 2:63 (= Neh. 7:65) reports that among those Jews who returned from the Babylonian exile following the Cyrus Declaration were some who could not substantiate their claim to priestly genealogy. They were therefore forbidden to eat of the most holy offerings “until a priest with Urim and Thummim should appear,” through whose instrumentality a divine decision would be obtained.

The use of the definite article with the Hebrew terms in this passage indicates that the Urim and Thummim are not an innovation here but are already well known. This conclusion is reinforced by the instruction “you shall place” instead of the usual formula, “you shall make.” While the function of this device is clear, neither the above-cited texts nor the only other references to it in the Torah – Leviticus 8:8 and Deuteronomy 33:8 – carry a description of it or of the technique employed in its use. A revealing text is 1 Samuel 14:37-41, which tell that King Saul had “inquired of the Lord” without success, and he then begged the Lord to “show Thammim [sic].” The Greek version of this text reads as follows: “Why have You not responded to Your servant today? If this iniquity was due to my son Jonathan or to me, O Lord God of Israel, show Urim; and if You say it was due to Your people Israel, show Thummim.” This reading is apparently based on a tradition that each object was a kind of counter and that the required decision depended on which one the priest drew out of the hoshen, or breastpiece, in which the two were kept. This procedure is similar to the casting of lots, which is mentioned several times in the Bible. Although numerous pagan divinatory devices are condemned, the Urim and Thummim, like lots, are permitted. There is no mention of them ever being used in an idolatrous context. They are in the exclusive possession of the priest and are always administered on behalf of the leader of the people in matters of national import.

This mode of discovering the divine will never appears beyond the Davidic age. Ezra 2:63, cited above, implies that it was not available in early Second Temple times. Josephus reports that it had ceased to operate two hundred years before his time, in the days of the Hasmonean High Priest John Hyrcanus (135-104 B.C.E.). Mishnah Sotah 9:12 relates that “with the death of the first prophets, the Urim and Thummim ceased”; but it is unclear precisely to which period this refers. Yoma 21b claims that they were present in the Second Temple but did not function as before.

The meaning of the two terms remains obscure. Yoma 75b connects Urim with Hebrew ‘or, “light,” that is, “they made their words enlightening,” and Thummim with tam, “complete,” that is, “they fulfilled their words.” The Septuagint understands “instruction of truth,” that is, “true instruction.” The Vulgate similarly renders doctrina et veritas.12

28:31 “You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. 32 It shall have an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a garment, so that it may not tear. 33 On its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, around its hem, with bells of gold between them, 34 a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, around the hem of the robe. 35 And it shall be on Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the Holy Place before the Lord, and when he comes out, so that he does not die.

The purpose of the bells is not known. Any deviation from the prescribed rules in verses 31-35, not just the matter of the bells, will invalidate the service and make the priest an unauthorized person in the sacred precinct. Such an encroacher (zar) faces the death penalty.13

28:36 “You shall make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ 37 And you shall fasten it on the turban by a cord of blue. It shall be on the front of the turban. 38 It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall bear any guilt from the holy things that the people of Israel consecrate as their holy gifts. It shall regularly be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord.

Because the Hebrew expression nasa avon may mean both “to remove sin” and “to bear sin,” that is, incur responsibility, the present verse is ambiguous. Analogous texts like Leviticus 22:15-16 and Numbers 18:1 indicate that the reference is to the High Priest’s assumption of responsibility for any infraction of the rules governing the sacred offerings. The wearing of the [plate] inscribed with the legend “Holy to the Lord” helps to concentrate his thoughts on his duties and on his accountability. At the same time, this consciousness effectively secures atonement for such offenses.14

28:39 “You shall weave the coat in checker work of fine linen, and you shall make a turban of fine linen, and you shall make a sash embroidered with needlework.

28:40 “For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty. 41 And you shall put them on Aaron your brother, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. 42 You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. They shall reach from the hips to the thighs; 43 and they shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him.

29:1 “Now this is what you shall do to them to consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. Take one bull of the herd and two rams without blemish, 2 and unleavened bread, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers smeared with oil. You shall make them of fine wheat flour. 3 You shall put them in one basket and bring them in the basket, and bring the bull and the two rams. 4 You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and wash them with water. 5 Then you shall take the garments, and put on Aaron the coat and the robe of the ephod, and the ephod, and the breastpiece, and gird him with the skillfully woven band of the ephod. 6 And you shall set the turban on his head and put the holy crown on the turban. 7 You shall take the anointing oil and pour it on his head and anoint him. 8 Then you shall bring his sons and put coats on them, 9 and you shall gird Aaron and his sons with sashes and bind caps on them. And the priesthood shall be theirs by a statute forever. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons.

29:10 “Then you shall bring the bull before the tent of meeting. Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the bull. 11 Then you shall kill the bull before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting, 12 and shall take part of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and the rest of the blood you shall pour out at the base of the altar. 13 And you shall take all the fat that covers the entrails, and the long lobe of the liver, and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them, and burn them on the altar.

The “long lobe of the liver” refers to the lobus caudatus.

The requirement to remove and burn this part is quite likely a reaction against the great importance attached to the liver in ancient Near Eastern divination, a reference to which appears in Ezekiel 21:26. Numerous clay models of the liver have been uncovered in Mesopotamia, some divided into fifty sections and inscribed with omens and magical formulas for the use of diviners.15

29:14 But the flesh of the bull and its skin and its dung you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering.

29:15 “Then you shall take one of the rams, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram, 16 and you shall kill the ram and shall take its blood and throw it against the sides of the altar. 17 Then you shall cut the ram into pieces, and wash its entrails and its legs, and put them with its pieces and its head, 18 and burn the whole ram on the altar. It is a burnt offering to the Lord. It is a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the Lord.

29:19 “You shall take the other ram, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram, 20 and you shall kill the ram and take part of its blood and put it on the tip of the right ear of Aaron and on the tips of the right ears of his sons, and on the thumbs of their right hands and on the great toes of their right feet, and throw the rest of the blood against the sides of the altar. 21 Then you shall take part of the blood that is on the altar, and of the anointing oil, and sprinkle it on Aaron and his garments, and on his sons and his sons’ garments with him. He and his garments shall be holy, and his sons and his sons’ garments with him.

29:22 “You shall also take the fat from the ram and the fat tail and the fat that covers the entrails, and the long lobe of the liver and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them, and the right thigh (for it is a ram of ordination), 23 and one loaf of bread and one cake of bread made with oil, and one wafer out of the basket of unleavened bread that is before the Lord. 24 You shall put all these on the palms of Aaron and on the palms of his sons, and wave them for a wave offering before the Lord. 25 Then you shall take them from their hands and burn them on the altar on top of the burnt offering, as a pleasing aroma before the Lord. It is a food offering to the Lord.

29:26 “You shall take the breast of the ram of Aaron’s ordination and wave it for a wave offering before the Lord, and it shall be your portion. 27 And you shall consecrate the breast of the wave offering that is waved and the thigh of the priests’ portion that is contributed from the ram of ordination, from what was Aaron’s and his sons’. 28 It shall be for Aaron and his sons as a perpetual due from the people of Israel, for it is a contribution. It shall be a contribution from the people of Israel from their peace offerings, their contribution to the Lord.

29:29 “The holy garments of Aaron shall be for his sons after him; they shall be anointed in them and ordained in them. 30 The son who succeeds him as priest, who comes into the tent of meeting to minister in the Holy Place, shall wear them seven days.

29:31 “You shall take the ram of ordination and boil its flesh in a holy place. 32 And Aaron and his sons shall eat the flesh of the ram and the bread that is in the basket in the entrance of the tent of meeting. 33 They shall eat those things with which atonement was made at their ordination and consecration, but an outsider shall not eat of them, because they are holy. 34 And if any of the flesh for the ordination or of the bread remain until the morning, then you shall burn the remainder with fire. It shall not be eaten, because it is holy.

29:35 “Thus you shall do to Aaron and to his sons, according to all that I have commanded you. Through seven days shall you ordain them, 36 and every day you shall offer a bull as a sin offering for atonement. Also you shall purify the altar, when you make atonement for it, and shall anoint it to consecrate it. 37 Seven days you shall make atonement for the altar and consecrate it, and the altar shall be most holy. Whatever touches the altar shall become holy.

The final sentence of v. 37 as it appears in the NIV (and nearly all other English versions) is mistranslated. There is no automatic transfer of holiness by mere contact with a holy object in the Old Covenant, and the translation “whatever touches it will be holy” would infer. Indeed, the opening point of Haggai’s third oracle (Hag 2:10-19) is based squarely on the fact that while defilement is transferable, holiness is not. What most English translators have failed to recognize is the modal meaning of the imperfect verb form usually (mis-)translated here “will be holy.” It should be rendered gerundively, that is, “whatever touches it must be holy.” This is a prescription rather than a description, a requirement that unholy things not be brought into contact with the consecrated altar so as to deconsecrate it and require it to be consecrated all over again.16

29:38 “Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old day by day regularly.

The daily offerings were of male lambs (rams).17

29:39 One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight. 40 And with the first lamb a tenth seah of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and a fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering. 41 The other lamb you shall offer at twilight, and shall offer with it a grain offering and its drink offering, as in the morning, for a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the Lord. 42 It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. 43 There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. 44 I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests.

The Tabernacle as such contains no innate sanctity, nor does the regimen of ritual produce it. No efficacious magic derives from them. The sacred status of the priests and of the edifice, with its furniture and utensils, flows solely from Divine will.18

Nevertheless, the rituals were important, as v. 44 states. The ultimate means of sanctification is God’s presence, but the proximate means was obediently carrying out the ritual consecration actions for the “Tent of Meeting” (tabernacle), “altar,” and “priests” as the chapter earlier describes. With the tabernacle, as well as its place of expiation through sacrifice (altar) as well as God’s servants (priests) to help the people benefit from that expiation, all in place, God could properly “dwell among the Israelites and be their God” – protecting them, blessing them, receiving their worship, and bringing them along toward their eternal salvation. This is the meaning of “I will . . . be their God.”19

29:45 I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. 46 And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.

Verses 45-46 reiterate much of the language of promise initiated in Exod 6:7 (“I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians”). The question might be asked, “Why would the Israelites need to know that their God was Yahweh and that he was the one who had brought them up out of Egypt? How could there be any doubt in their minds?” And the answer is: Indeed, there was doubt, confusion, and a powerful cultural predisposition against the kind of faith in Yahweh that he was trying to teach them to have. While Moses was hearing these very words, directly from God on Mount Sinai in fact, the Israelites at the bottom of the mountain were already grumbling that he had disappeared and that they would need new gods. . . .

Virtually all those gathered at Sinai had grown up as polytheists, pantheists, and syncretists in Egypt – just as they would have if they had grown up anywhere else in the ancient world for that matter. They had little difficulty in believing that there could be a god named Yahweh who was one of many gods and goddesses. But to believe that he was the only God, superior to the most powerful gods they had once believed in, the Creator of the world and their Creator through many miracles as a people – that was harder for them. Sixty-eight times in the Old Testament God told his people that he wanted them to “know that I am Yahweh.” This was a different concept from knowing that Yahweh existed; it was a sort of semantically “loaded” shorthand for the assertion: “Know that I, who created and control all things, and have all power, and have been providing all these supernatural blessings for you that you have been witnessing, am Yahweh – there is no other god doing these things but only me, Yahweh. Give up your polytheism, pantheism, and syncretism and believe that I am the only God and place your full faith in me, obeying my covenant.”

What is especially important about the current expression of this theme is its assurance that the Israelites could know Yahweh in their worship of him. That worship was the only true, correct, spiritual worship taking place anywhere on the planet. Its implementation through the instructions given in this chapter fulfilled God’s original calling promise to Moses in 3:12, “This will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you [singular, i.e., Moses] have brought the people out of Egypt, you [plural, i.e., Isreal] will worship God on this mountain.” Now he in fact was proposing to dwell among them and was saying overtly “I am their God.” If they would properly and consistently worship him, with all the covenant obedience that proper and consistent worship implied, they would be a people who knew the only true God as their God.20

30:1 “You shall make an altar on which to burn incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. 2 A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth. It shall be square, and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it. 3 You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and around its sides and its horns. And you shall make a molding of gold around it. 4 And you shall make two golden rings for it. Under its molding on two opposite sides of it you shall make them, and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it. 5 You shall make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 6 And you shall put it in front of the veil that is above the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is above the testimony, where I will meet with you. 7 And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, 8 and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations. 9 You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it. 10 Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.”

30:11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. 13 Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the Lord. 14 Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering. 15 The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the Lord’s offering to make atonement for your lives.

The contribution of the half-shekel has two purposes: to support the work of the Tabernacle and to effect expiation for each individual. The Tabernacle belongs equally to every Israelite, irrespective of one’s social status or wealth. As all human beings are equal before God, there is to be one standard contribution from all, to be neither exceeded nor reduced.21

30:16 You shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the Lord, so as to make atonement for your lives.”

30:17 The Lord said to Moses, 18 “You shall also make a basin of bronze, with its stand of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, 19 with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. 20 When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. 21 They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations.”

30:22 The Lord said to Moses, 23 “Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh 500 shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, 250, and 250 of aromatic cane, 24 and 500 of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil. 25 And you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil. 26 With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the testimony, 27 and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, 28 and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils and the basin and its stand. 29 You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy. Whatever touches them will become holy. 30 You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. 31 And you shall say to the people of Israel, ‘This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. 32 It shall not be poured on the body of an ordinary person, and you shall make no other like it in composition. It is holy, and it shall be holy to you. 33 Whoever compounds any like it or whoever puts any of it on an outsider shall be cut off from his people.’”

30:34 The Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), 35 and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy.

Salt was commonly added to incense in the ancient Near East. It enhanced the rate of burning and smoking.22

30:36 You shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you. It shall be most holy for you. 37 And the incense that you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves. It shall be for you holy to the Lord. 38 Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.”

31:1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, 4 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 5 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.

Verse 3 does not say that God gave Bezalel four things (“Spirit of God, . . . skill, ability and knowledge”) but correctly translated says that he gave Bezalel mainly one thing: his Spirit, which then perfected Bezalel’s wisdom, insight, knowledge, and work performance in general. The clearest translation of the Hebrew might be: “I have filled him with God’s Spirit in [regard to] wisdom, in insight, in knowledge, and in every sort of work.” In other words, the way the filling of the Spirit of God affected Bezalel was to enable him to be wiser, more insightful, more knowledgeable, and more capable of any sort of work to which God assigned him. The wording cannot be understood to mean the he would receive the Spirit of God and, then, other things in addition but rather the Spirit of God in a way that provided the amounts of the other things needed so that Bezalel’s tabernacle work would be up to God’s standards.23

31:6 And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you: 7 the tent of meeting, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is on it, and all the furnishings of the tent, 8 the table and its utensils, and the pure lampstand with all its utensils, and the altar of incense, 9 and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin and its stand, 10 and the finely worked garments, the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments of his sons, for their service as priests, 11 and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense for the Holy Place. According to all that I have commanded you, they shall do.”

31:12 And the Lord said to Moses, 13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’”

Hebrew va-yinnafash is derived from the noun nefesh, a multivalent term that can refer to a person’s life essence, vitality, psychic energy, or essential character. The verbal form used here conveys the notion of a fresh infusion of spiritual and physical vigor, the reinvigoration of the totality of one’s being. Of course, as applied to God, it is an anthropomorphism, the ascription to the Deity of human characteristics. But such language has a didactic purpose: to impress upon the Israelite an awareness of the transcendent value of Sabbath observance. Thus, the same verb is used in 23:12 to describe the invigorating consequences of the Sabbath rest: “that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed [ve-yinnafesh].”24

31:18 And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.

The reason for the two tablets has nothing to do with the length of the commandments as opposed to the size of the tablets (as if it were necessary to employ two tablets to fit all the commandments onto them, half on one and half on the other). The full text of the Ten Words/Commandments was written on each tablet, one copy being God’s and one copy being Israel’s. This reflects the standard ancient Near Eastern treaty covenant practice of providing a copy of the covenant both to the vassal and to the sovereign. The fact that the two tablets were eventually placed together in the ark (Deut 10:5; 1 Kgs 8:9; Heb 9:4) further symbolized the ark’s role as a point of contact for God and his people, the place where his covenant relationship with them was symbolized by, among other things, the law, obedience to which linked Israel to Yahweh and Yahweh to Israel.25

Bibliography

Propp, William H.C. Exodus 19-40. Yale University Press, 2006.

Sarna, Nahum M. Exodus. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1991.

Stuart, Douglas K. Exodus. Holman Reference, 2006.

1Propp, Exodus 19-40, 497.

2Sarna, Exodus, 157.

3Ibid., 157-158.

4Ibid., 158.

5Stuart, Exodus, 565-566.

6Sarna, Exodus, 161.

7Stuart, Exodus, 570.

8Ibid., 574.

9Ibid., 589-590.

10Sarna, Exodus, 175-176.

11Ibid., 178-179.

12Ibid., 181-182.

13Ibid., 183.

14Ibid., 184.

15Ibid., 188.

16Stuart, Exodus, 629.

17Ibid.

18Sarna, Exodus, 192.

19Stuart, Exodus, 631.

20Ibid., 631-632.

21Sarna, Exodus, 196.

22Ibid., 199.

23Stuart, Exodus, 650.

24Sarna, Exodus, 202.

25Stuart, Exodus, 656.

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