Exodus: Holiness Made Visible

The wilderness tabernacle creates a visible image of holiness.

A modern Israeli reconstruction of the Sinai tabernacle.

If a people are to survive as a distinct social entity through the many vicissitudes of life, they must have traditions and institutions that sustain their identity through the generations. That was true of ancient Israel just as it is true of nations today.

One element in Israel’s survival is the story it tells over and over again of its liberation from bondage in Egypt and its journey, under God’s guidance, to a new homeland. That story is enshrined in the five books of Moses along with Joshua—and also in the annual festival of Passover.

A second element is the laws that govern its life with God and with one another. We encounter an initial deposit of those laws in Exodus 20-23, where we encounter the Ten Commandments and the so-called Book of the Covenant. As we work our way through the rest of the five books of Moses, we will find the deposit of law growing, as more and more regulations are laid down. 

But we need to notice an important point in how the authors of those books present them. The laws of Israel are not seen as creations of human beings, but as gifts from God. God is the law maker. Law is one of his blessings upon the people. The laws are not meant to oppress life, but to enable life to flourish. We see this sense of the divine goodness expressed in the gift of the Torah celebrated most ecstatically in Psalm 119

Sustained through Worship

A third element essential to Israel’s existence is its traditions and institutions of worship. The gift of them is presented to us in the next chapters in Exodus, chapters 25-31, and then after a break, again in chapters 35-40. (Regulations on worship continue in the following book, the book of Leviticus.) The fact that these 13 chapters constitute nearly a third of the text of the Book of Exodus gives us some idea of how important the authors/editors of Exodus regarded these institutions of worship. 

They likewise, like the laws of Torah, are a gift of God. God gives detailed instructions on what the Israelites are to construct as a focus of their worship life and how they are to construct it. This is underlined in Exodus 25:9 by these words spoken by God:

In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.

That Israel is faithful in following this revealed pattern is stated emphatically at the end of the process of construction, in Exodus 39:42-43:

The Israelites had done all of the work just as the Lord had commanded Moses. When Moses saw that they had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded, he blessed them.

Icon of Holiness

Throughout the texts on the construction of the tabernacle, we find two words repeated over and over again: the noun holiness and the adjective holy. The wilderness tabernacle and everything related to it becomes a locus of holiness. This becomes the rationale for why God commands Moses in Exodus 30 to anoint every item going into the tabernacle and the priests who serve there with a holy anointing oil. For God says: …you shall consecrate them, so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy (Exodus 30:29)

The very design of the tabernacle is, in fact, to present an image of holiness. One of the striking features of that design is how the layout of the tabernacle complex is carefully structured upon the repeated use of the square. This is shown in the following diagram:

The outer courtyard of the complex composes two squares side by side, each measuring 50 cubits on each side. The tabernacle proper is composed geometrically of three squares. Two squares side by side compose the outer chamber, the Holy Place. A third square forms the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies in fact composes a perfect cube. Its length, width, and height are all equal–ten cubits on each side.

This geometry of the complex becomes sacred geometry. It expresses the progressive sanctification that we encounter as we enter more deeply into the structure. That progression is reinforced by the value of the construction materials. The hardware for the fixtures used to hang the outermost curtains that define the courtyard are bronze. The fixtures used for construction of the Holy Place are silver. And the fixtures for the Holy of Holies are gold. 

Let me call special attention to the fact that the Holy of Holies composes a perfect cube. Throughout many cultures, the square and the cube as well as the circle and the sphere become sacred symbols of perfection. It is not by chance, I believe, that the Holy of Holies is a cube.

The belief was that this inner chamber formed the dwelling place of God within Israel. It was God’s throne room. The ark of the covenant is either regarded as the throne of the invisible God or his footstool on which the invisible God rests his feet. This God is absolute holiness. This is expressed in the choice of the cube as the shape of his residential chamber.

The Symbolic Importance of the Cube

Why the cube? (Or for that matter, the sphere?) Why is either a good visible representation of perfection? Because both visibly represent perfect wholeness. All dimensions are in balance and form a unity. And maybe we can say that the essence of holiness is wholeness. Human beings lack that perfect wholeness both in their inner individual lives and in their outer communal lives. We live in the tension and conflicts of disparate forces seeking to come into unity, but we never fully achieve it. Such wholeness, such unity, however, lies at the essence of God. It constitutes God’s holiness. It is also why the psalms describe that holiness as beautiful. 

A striking parallel to the Holy of Holies as a cube in found in the New Testament in the vision of the new Jerusalem that the elder John sees in Revelation 21. There he sees the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven at the end of days when God creates a new heaven and a new earth. 

This new city composes a perfect cube, although a gigantic cube. It measures 1,500 miles in length, width, and height. We cannot imagine a city constructed this way literally, but then the vision is not of a literal, physical city. It is a symbol of the human community that will flourish in that new creation. That community will be a perfectly united community. It will be balanced. It will be whole. The visible expression of that unity is rightly a cube. 

God’s Dwelling with Fences

The holiness of God, however, can be a danger to sinful humanity. In our unwholesomeness we can experience that holiness as judgment and threat.It becomes necessary for the welfare of imperfect Israel for the tabernacle to place progressive fences around the inner core of the sanctuary. And only the High Priest alone is permitted to enter the Holy of Holies and then only once a year at the great Day of Atonement.

Yet paradoxically the tabernacle complex composes the center of the Israelite encampment. The tribes of Israel erect their tents around it in another square, three tribes each making up one of the four sides of the encampment. 

When the tabernacle is finally erected in chapter 40, God takes up residence, a residence symbolized by the pillar of fire/cloud that hangs over the tabernacle. God dwells at the intimate heart of the Israelite encampment and yet God does not dwell with them in a cozy complacency. God is not Israel’s best buddy. God is always Israel’s loving father, but also Israel’s majestic king. 

Israel is assured that God goes with them. This is the significance that Israel’s sanctuary is a tent, not a stationery stone structure (like Solomon’s later temple). Yet Israel can never be perfectly relaxed with God’s presence with them. God is a principle of mystery. Israel is in awe of this God, but can never be complacent. Maybe that is why the Hebrew Bible aptly describes perfect piety by the phrase the fear of the Lord.

Note: I recognize that in this posting I am trying to express a delicate and perfectly attuned balance that the symbolism of the tabernacle is intended to express. It is easy to distort this balance by choosing inappropriate words. If I have fallen into distortion, please forgive me. It is not easy to express the amazing beauty of the conception of the human relationship to God that we see given concrete expression in the construction of the tabernacle.

Exodus: Ratified in Blood

The covenant making at Sinai ends in a ritual ceremony.

Mosaic of the sacrifices of Abel and Melchizedek in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. 6th century.

Beginning with chapter 19, the Book of Exodus recounts the making of the covenant between God and the people of Israel. That account extends over the next five chapters. It includes the giving of the Ten Commandments and the laws that scholars now call the Book of the Covenant (chapters 21-23). 

The account comes to its conclusion in chapter 24, which recounts the formal ratification of this agreement between God and Israel. That ratification ceremony contains details that will resonate into the New Testament. 

That ratification begins with Moses reviewing with the assembled people the words God has spoken (the Ten Commandments) and the ordinances he has given Moses (the Book of the Covenant, chapters 21-23). These are the specific provisions of what we might call the contract between God and Israel. Will the people of Israel accept them?

The ratification ceremony contains details that will resonate into the New Testament. 

The people respond unanimously: All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do (Exodus 24:3).* By these words, the people have announced their consent to the covenant God offers. Negotiations (if I might call them that) have come to an end. All that is left is the official ratification. By analogy to procedures we would follow today, the contract has been laid out on the table. Now all the participants must sign and seal it.

“Signing” the Covenant

That “signing” (again if I may call it that by analogy) occurs through a ritual ceremony. Israel builds an altar and sacrifices on it oxen as a burnt offering. Moses takes some of the blood of the slaughtered animals in basins and dashes it against the altar. This seems to represent God’s ratification of the covenant. 

Then he takes more basins of the blood and dashes it on the people, saying: See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words (Exodus 24:8). This splattering of blood seems to represent the people’s ratification of the covenant. Now we might say the covenant has been signed by both parties–in blood. 

Israel is now–by their own consent–committed to being God’s people and to the mission of being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, as God proclaimed that mission in chapter 19. This mission will have significance for the whole world. What it will mean, however, for Israel will only become clear as Israelite, and then Jewish, history unfolds. 

This ratification in a bloody sacrifice may strike many readers today as distasteful and primitive. It seems to have been expected in the ancient world, as we read of accounts of other covenant “cutting” (as it was called) in other ancient nations. It was followed in the ratification of the covenant between God and Abraham recounted in Genesis 15. There Abraham cuts a heifer, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon into halves and lays out the halves in parallel lines. In a mysterious event during the night God passes between the two lines, signifying his ratification of the covenant he has made with Abraham. 

We should also keep in mind the significance blood can have in many cultures. In American mythology when we talk about two friends becoming blood brothers, they signify that by each friend puncturing a vein in his wrist and then mingling his blood with the other’s. They are now committed to the welfare of each other for life.

Once this ratification ceremony is complete, God summons Moses, Aaron, two of Aaron’s sons, and 70 elders of the people to ascend Mount Sinai. There they are given a ineffable vision of God. We are not told just what they saw. The text says they saw beneath God’s feet a transparent pavement of sapphire.** The wording may suggest that all they saw of God was his feet, but we cannot be sure. What is amazing about the vision is that all of them live, for it was the rule that no one could see God and live. They have been granted an experience of enormously condescending grace. 

After that they all enjoy a celebratory feast on the mountain. One thinks of the kind of feast that concludes a wedding ceremony. 

Resonances in the New Testament

As I said earlier, this account has resonances in the New Testament. At the Last Supper, Jesus takes bread and wine and serves them to his disciples giving these elements new meaning. We need to note especially the words Jesus uses as he hands the cup to his disciples. They vary slightly depending upon which gospel account we are reading. But here they are:

Matthew 26:27-28

Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 

Mark 14:23-24

Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.

Luke 22:20

And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

1 Corinthians 11:25-26

In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

In all these four accounts Jesus associates the cup of wine with his death. And he gives significance to his death by linking his death to the blood that was used in the Exodus account to seal and ratify the covenant between Israel and God. He says that his death will usher in a new covenant. 

We who are Christian have heard these words so many, many times in celebrations of the communion service that we can lose touch with what Jesus is saying. By his death, Jesus is ratifying a new covenant. But just what is this new covenant? 

Proclaiming the New Covenant through the Eucharist

It is a new development in the old covenant God entered into with Israel at Mount Sinai. In this new covenant God opens up the exclusive covenant he established with Israel to embrace the Gentiles as well. The exclusive covenant with Israel becomes a covenant universal in scope. We Christians are wrong to say the new covenant replaces the covenant God has with Israel. Rather the new covenant preserves that covenant, but now enables Gentiles to share in its benefits and responsibilities.

The one who seems to have first grasped the full significance of this development is the apostle Paul. He expounds upon it throughout his letters, but most especially in his Letter to the Galatians and his Letter to the Ephesians. And in this development God was fulfilling his promise to Abraham that in him (Abraham) that all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:3).

The Eucharist proclaims the message of Christianity. We call it Gospel…

It is this new development in God’s covenant with Israel that we Christians commemorate in our repeated celebrations of the communion service, which Christian tradition calls the Eucharist. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharisto, which means to give thanks. In the Eucharist, we give thanks to God for the astounding blessing that God has conferred upon humanity in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. 

The Eucharist proclaims the message of Christianity. We call it Gospel (god spell in old English or good news in modern English). In Jesus God was at work to open up the exclusive covenant he made with Israel at Sinai (the old covenant) to embrace all of humanity (the new covenant).*** Now all of humanity can share in the privileges of the covenant and also in its responsibilities of being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. 

The death of Jesus becomes the sacrificial blood that signs and seals that new covenant. As a Christian, I can only respond: Thanks be to God!


* The people had previously said these words in chapter 19:8 when Moses first reveals to the Israelites God’s intention of establishing a covenant with Israel. But they speak in ignorance. They do not yet know any of the specific provisions of the covenant. After chapters 20-23, with the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant, they now know something of the specifics of what they are agreeing to. When they speak in chapter 24, they speak, therefore, from a more informed basis. This gives much more heft to their promise.

** There is an allusion to this transparent pavement in the vision the elder John has of God’s throne room in heaven as recounted in Revelation 4. There John sees the pavement in front of God’s throne as something like a sea of glass, like crystal (Revelation 4:6).

*** The Latin word used to translate the Hebrew word for covenant (berith) is the word testamentum. It is the origin of the English names we give to the two parts of the Christian Bible: the Old Testament and the New Testament.