Commentary on Exodus 35-40

Last updated: April 1, 2011

Biblical translations are from the ESV

Exodus 35-40 largely details the construction of the Tabernacle whose blueprints were revealed in chapters 25-31. The reader may want to refer back to that post as I will not be repeating myself here. This post will comment on material not found in chapters 25-31.

35:2 Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.

The Sabbath takes priority over the building of the Tabernacle. In other words, the Israelites were not to build the Tabernacle on the Sabbath.

35:3 You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”

The manner in which the prohibition against kindling fire on the Sabbath is worded led the rabbis of the Talmud to understand that fire may not be kindled on the Sabbath itself; however, fire lit before the Sabbath and not refueled on the Sabbath is permitted. The Jewish sectarians known as Karaites rejected this interpretation and spent the day in darkness, although some later adherents did accept the rabbinic practice. It was probably to demonstrate opposition to the early Karaite view that the kindling of lights on the eve of Sabbath gradually became obligatory. To this end, the geonim, the post-Talmudic heads of the Babylonian academies, instituted the recital of a blessing over them.1

35:34 And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan.

Bezalel and Oholiab are inspired to teach others how to build the Tabernacle.

38:8 He made the basin of bronze and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the ministering women who ministered in the entrance of the tent of meeting.

The exact role of the “ministering women” is not known (their only other mention is 1 Samuel 2:22). The Hebrew implies that they performed some kind of menial labor. “The idea here is that even these women at the bottom of the occupational and social scale displayed unselfish generosity and sacrificial devotion in donating their valuable bronze mirrors.”2

38:21 These are the records of the tabernacle, the tabernacle of the testimony, as they were recorded at the commandment of Moses, the responsibility of the Levites under the direction of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest.

The inventory described here is in accord with Egyptian practice. Egyptian art depicting scenes of metalworking regularly features the master weigher weighing the metals on balances and the scribes recording the results in their ledgers before issuing the materials to the artisans.3

39:43 And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the LORD had commanded, so had they done it. Then Moses blessed them.

This finale is patterned after the Creation narrative of Genesis, in which the completion of the work evoked divine approbation followed by a blessing. A rabbinic tradition formulates Moses’ blessing as follows: “May the divine spirit rest upon the work of your hands.”4

40:2 “On the first day of the first month you shall erect the tabernacle of the tent of meeting.

The Tabernacle is to be erected just two weeks short of the first anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt, and exactly nine months since arriving at Sinai. This is New Year’s day, a date which forges another link with the Creation narrative.5

40:32 When they went into the tent of meeting, and when they approached the altar, they washed, as the LORD commanded Moses.

The NIV wording of v. 31, “Moses and Aaron and his sons used it to wash their hands and feet,” could seem to suggest that then and there Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons washed their hands and feet, that is, on the occasion of the erection of the tabernacle on the first day of the first month of the second year.

A better translation of the Hebrew, one that would make clear that such a washing was in the future – not necessarily immediately upon the assembling of the tabernacle – would be, “Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons were to wash their hands and feet from it.” Verse 32 continues that future perspective with its main verb in the imperfect, thus anticipating the washing actions described in the ordination of the priests (Lev 8:6). Just as 40:12 was predicting what Moses would eventually do once the tabernacle was entirely set up, so the present paragraph also looked forward to Lev 8, the upcoming consecration/ordination of Israel’s priests. This is shown in the NIV’s wording in v. 32, “whenever they . . . .” describing recurring actions not yet initiated.6

40:34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.

The function of the Tabernacle was to create a portable Sinai, a means by which a continued avenue of communication with God could be maintained. As the people move away from the mount of revelation, they need a visible, tangible symbol of God’s ever-abiding Presence in their midst. It is not surprising, then, that the same phenomenon as occurred at Sinai, related in 24:15-17, now repeats itself.7

40:35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.

“It is unclear whether entry was literally hindered, or was impermissible, or that he simply dared not enter.”8 Working under the assumption that entry was impermissible, Douglas K. Stuart writes:

It was no more appropriate now for Moses to enter the tabernacle, even though he had been all through it as its building supervisor, than it would be for a house builder in modern times to retain a key and enter at will a house that he had built once it was sold to its occupying owner. When the new owner enters, the new house is exclusively his – not the builder’s. Later Moses and Aaron would be able to enter the tabernacle, and provision would be made for the high priest to enter it, even the holy of holies, periodically. This was possible because the glory cloud did not continue to stay inside the tabernacle but mainly hovered on top of it, as vv. 36-38 state overtly. But by the present act of occupying his house through his glory and temporarily keeping all others out, God showed Moses and all Israel that the house was now his and his alone and indeed his truly and entirely, the very thing they had built it to become.9

40:38 For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.

The Book of Exodus, which opened with a tale of misery and oppression, closes on an auspicious note. Israel is assured that, day and night, the Divine Spirit hovers over it, guiding and controlling its destiny.10

Moses’ very next words in the Pentateuch continue the tabernacle story (Lev 1:1, “The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting”), confirming that the tabernacle was the place from which God would communicate with him and through him to Israel from then on. The invisible, only true God no longer spoke at a distance, on Sinai, but now to Moses, the people’s honored and accepted representative, from within their very midst.11

Bibliography

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

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

1Sarna, Exodus, 222.

2Ibid., 230.

3Ibid., 231.

4Ibid., 235.

5Ibid.

6Stuart, Exodus, 789-790.

7Sarna, Exodus, 237.

8Ibid.

9Stuart, Exodus, 792-793.

10Sarna, Exodus, 237.

11Stuart, Exodus, 794.

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