The portable tabernacle bears witness to a God on the move.
The incident with the golden calf is a close call for Israel. God’s first instinct is to divorce Israel, to invalidate the covenant God has made with Israel, and to start all over creating a new chosen people for himself from the descendants of Moses. It looks as if the story of Israel will end in a tragedy. Because of its folly, Israel will be discarded in the midst of the arid Sinai desert, an image of death.
But no one, possibly even God, had counted on Moses. Moses steps in on behalf of Israel and argues with God–all in an effort to get God to forgive Israel and to continue to travel with Israel. At the end of his herculean negotiation with God, Moses says to God:
If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance. (Exodus 34:9)
Moses will accept from God nothing less than full forgiveness. And amazement upon amazement, Moses succeeds. God grants his request, saying:
I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the LORD; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. (Exodus 34:10)
This story astonishes me every time I read it. It offers a message of hope to everyone who seriously flubs the spiritual challenges of our own lives. That includes every one of us. As the apostle Paul says: …all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… (Romans 3:23). Yet the apostle will go on to assert confidently:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
The apostle has absorbed deep into his spirit the hopeful message of Exodus. It forms the substratum of the New Testament.
Focal Point for Faith
Now that God’s forgiveness is firmly established, work can begin on constructing the tabernacle following the directions God has given Moses on the mountain top. The story of the construction follows in chapters 35-39. These chapters make a repeated point that Israel follows God’s instructions completely, down to the very letter. Because of that, these chapters strike many readers as a tedious repeat of chapters 25-31. Many commentators skip lightly over the construction process. I will do so also.
With chapter 40, we come to the assembling of the finished tabernacle, under Moses’ watchful eye. In no way will the omnipresent God be confined to the tabernacle. Israel will never domesticate God, as temples in the ancient world tried to do. But it will provide a focal point for Israel’s confidence.*
Once the tabernacle is completed and assembled, the text tells us a cloud, symbolizing the presence of the Lord, comes to settle upon the tabernacle. The glory of the Lord fills the sanctuary. And that cloud continues to proceed with the people throughout their journey. Whenever it picks up and moves out, the people move out. When it settles down, they settle down.
The event of the exodus does not come to an end with the ending of the Book of Exodus. The Book of Exodus only covers the first year of what will be a 40-year-long journey. That journey continues on through the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua. But the ending of the Book of Exodus tells us something very important about this continuing journey.
A God on the Move
Moses has received what he had so ardently prayed for. The full presence of the Lord is with Israel in its continuing journey. And the presence of the Lord will remain with them forever.
This God, however, is not a settled God. He is a God on the move, and because of that his people will also be a people on the move. Biblical faith will affirm the goodness of creation and the goodness of daily life. But it will never settle simply for an affirmation of the status quo.
As God speaks through the prophet to Israel in another time of crisis:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18-20)
So it will always be in the life of faith. Life with God will always be full of challenges and calls to change.
I want to end with one more jump to the New Testament. The image of the tabernacle as the locus of God’s continuing presence with his people comes up in the New Testament in one surprising, but important passage.
In the prologue of the Gospel of John, we find the famous statement that we hear read every Christmas eve at the climax of our service of lessons and carols. It goes in the traditional King James Version:
The word that the translators have translated as dwelt is literally in the Greek the word tabernacled. What this text says is that for Christians, Jesus is our tabernacle. In him we experience the presence of God fully dwelling with us and moving with us through the many vicissitudes of life. The story of exodus has become gospel.
* I want to note one interesting but easily over-looked detail about the construction of the tabernacle and all its furnishings. God through Moses places supervision over the construction in the hands of Bezalel the son of Uri and of Oholiab. Both men are said to be superb craftsmen and designers (Exodus 35:30-36:1). But of Bezalel, the text says (Exodus 35:31) that Bezalel will be filled with the Spirit of God as he pursues his work. In effect, Bezalel will be one more of the anointed ones in Israel, taking his place alongside the anointed priests, kings, and prophets. All are anointed with the Spirit as a sign of their being set apart for their specific mission. What this says to me is that we ought to recognize that artists–painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians, poets, weavers–may all receive a special empowerment from God for service to God’s people on a par with the service of priests, ordained ministers, and teachers.