Friday, May 18
Exodus 33: Now comes the order to depart from Sinai (verse 1). It is now the second month of the second year of Israel’s journey (Numbers 10:11-12). The Israelites had arrived at the mountain during the third month after their crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 19:1), so they have been in this site for almost a year.
The Lord’s angel will continue to lead them to the Promised Land (verse 2; cf. 23:20). The reason given here, however, is that the Lord is still so displeased with the Israelites that He wants to keep some distance from them, so that He won’ destroy them (verse 3). Learning this, the people put away their jewelry, lest it remind God that the incident with the golden calf! (verse 4) One may also note that, not wearing them, they will more readily part with them when the time comes for this jewelry to be employed in the adornment of the tabernacle.
There follows a story of Moses’ regular visits to speak with the Lord a new tabernacle (verses 7-11). This new tabernacle is not a liturgical shrine, but a sort of oracular place, where Moses can confer with God. Unlike the earlier tabernacle, which was placed at the center of the camp (25:8), this one is set up outside the camp. Moses goes there from time to time, to speak with the Lord in great intimacy (Numbers 10:4-8; 17:7-9). When he arrives, he awaits the coming of the Lord in the cloudy pillar of the exodus. The other Israelites observe these encounters from the entrances of their own tents.
This new tent becomes the permanent dwelling of Joshua, the Ephraemite that in due course succeeds Moses in the leadership of Israel.
Speaking to the Lord in this new tabernacle, Moses now asks something for himself (verses 12-22), confessing that the coming journey may be simply too much for him to endure unless the Lord gives him sufficient light to make coherent sense of it. God answers this prayer by granting him a special experience of the divine presence, described as a sort of oblique glance at God, catching sight of the Lord’s glory as it passes by. This description is as close as Moses can come to telling of this fleeting and indirect experience of God’s presence, which has been granted to many of the saints in all ages. St. Augustine (Questions on the Heptateuch 2.154) interprets “I will pass before you” as a reference to the Resurrection of the Lord. No man has ever seen God, except the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father. To the rest of us is given to perceive the glory of God shining on the face of Christ (cf. John 1:14-18; 2 Corinthians 3:7 — 4:6; 2 Peter 1:16-19).
Saturday, May 19
Exodus 34: We observe that the Israelites, notwithstanding the command to depart from Sinai at the beginning of the previous chapter, are still at the site (verse 2). It is clear that they will remain there for some time yet.
Moses, we recall, had broken the original tablets of the Decalogue when, in anger because of the golden calf, he had flung them on the ground (32:19). That physical “breaking” of the Law symbolized the true breaking of the commandments by the idolatrous Israelites. Now these stone tablets must be replaced (verse 1).
It is to be remarked that the two stone tables verses 1-9, though to the naked eye they may seem lifeless and hard, actually embody the awesome experience of Moses described in these verses. Regarded in faith and in the context of the covenant, they are alive with the divine presence.
Verses 10-28 are joined by the common theme of the purity required for an exclusive fidelity to God.
The Christian theological meaning of verses 29-35 is explained by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:7 — 4:6. This is our earliest Christian commentary on the scene here in Exodus: “But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious. Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech– unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.”
Sunday, May 20
Exodus 35: These final chapters of Exodus (35—40) tell of the execution of the sundry directions given in chapters 25—31. Moses simply repeats, mostly verbatim, the directions he had received on the mountain, and the Israelites strive to comply.
This section of Exodus seems to have undergone extensive editing, an impression strengthened by the great divergence of order between the inherited Hebrew text and the ancient Greek version handed down in the ancient manuscripts of the Christian Church. The traditional Greek version was clearly based on a Hebrew text greatly at variance with the Hebrew text handed down from the Middle Ages.
Although these instructions in this chapter are quickly given (verses 1-19), one should probably think in terms of several months for their accomplishment (verses 20-29). There was evidently a great deal of hustle and bustle in progress at the foot of Mount Sinai.
After the instructions, the building and proper appointing of the tabernacle must begin with the gathering of the materials. As we shall see in due course, something in the neighborhood of eight tons of precious metals and stones would be required in this work. In addition, there would need to be wood and various kinds of expensive cloth. The present chapter describes how this vast array of materials is assembled by the generosity of the people. This tabernacle would be the consecration of their own material resources, the fruit of their labor.
Because the tabernacle and its appointments were to be modeled on Moses’ vision of the heavenly and eternal tabernacle of heaven, the construction of all these things was dependent on the grace of the Holy Spirit, who would inspire and guide the minds and hands of the artisans (verse 31).
Monday, May 21
Exodus 36: In the account of the gathering of the various materials for the tabernacle, there is considerable stress laid on the people’s generosity. It is a rare thing that God’s people have to be told, as they are told here, to “stop giving!” (verses 5-7) One suspects that this eager generosity in the present instance was in part prompted by the people’s shame and fear at the recent defection and the divine punishment that ensued.
One may compare the singular generosity of the Christians in Philippi in Macedonia who, during the three weeks that St. Paul spent in neighboring Thessaloniki (cf. Acts 17:2), sent offerings on two occasions for the maintenance of his ministry (cf. Philippians 4:16). The Apostle would be speaking about that Macedonian generosity for years to come (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:1-5).
Particularly to be noted in this chapter is the use of the “veil” in all of Israel’s worship. Even as God reveals (a word that literally means “unveils”) Himself, He is manifested, not as an object open to direct regard, but as supreme Mystery, chiefly to be adored. When God and man are finally reconciled by the death of Jesus on the Cross, this symbolic veil of the Old Testament is rent asunder (Matthew 27:51). The sacrificed Jesus Himself enters behind the veil of the heavenly tabernacle (Hebrews 6:19). In another sense of the same image, because it houses His divine person, the very flesh of Christ is also called the veil of the divine presence (Hebrews 10:20).
Tuesday, May 22
Exodus 37: This chapter narrates that the ark, the table of the presence bread, the lamp stand, and the incense altar were constructed according the specifications that Moses received in his Sinai vision of the heavenly sanctuary.
This distinction between the earthly and heavenly sanctuaries was important to the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who made it the framework for his soteriological exposition. He speaks of the very elements we find in the present chapter of Exodus: the Ark of the Covenant, the table for the Showbread, the golden lamp stand, the altar of incense. He disappoints us (if one may be completely frank) by finishing his description with the comment: “Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (Hebrews 9:5). One wishes he had gone on to speak of these things at much greater length!
The author’s point in the Epistle to the Hebrews, however, is not to satisfy our curiosity with the respect to the tabernacle that Moses made. He is interested, rather, in directing our attention to that heavenly sanctuary, “the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation” (9:11). It was into this heavenly tabernacle that Christ entered, unto the fulfillment of our redemption.
This heavenly sanctuary is the one that Moses, in mystic vision, saw on the mountain. It is the one that St. John saw when the door opened into heaven (Revelation 4:1). It is to this eternal and heavenly sanctuary that Christians, in their prayer, have eternal access, because Jesus entered into it as the culminating act of our redemption.
Thus, the various appointments in Moses’ tabernacle corresponded to heavenly models. The seven-branched candlestick (verses 17-24) is modeled on that which John beheld in his vision on the isle of Patmos (Revelation 1:12). So too the altar of incense (verses 25-28 and Revelation 8:3-4) and the Ark of the Covenant (verses 1-9 and Revelation 11:19).
Wednesday, May 23
Exodus 38: We come now to the construction of the sacrificial altar (verses 1-7), the basin for washing (verse 8), and the outer court (verses 9-20).
When, at their departure, the Israelites “borrowed” silver, gold, and precious stones from their Egyptian neighbors, the text (11:2) did not indicate just how large was the amount. Now we begin to gain a staggering idea of it (verses 21-31). Although the measurement of the ancient talent varied somewhat, it has been reasonably approximated at over 75 pounds, with three thousand shekels to the talent.
Thus, even on the most conservative estimate, we are dealing here with an enormous amount of precious metal: more than a ton of gold, three and a half tons of silver, nearly three tons of bronze. Moreover, if the weight is being computed according to the later temple measurements, these figures may need to be adjusted up to 20% higher.
We surmise that some of this treasure came from the head tax mentioned earlier (verse 26).
Thursday, May 24
Exodus 39: The text moves now to the vestments of Aaron and his priestly sons. Worthy of particular notice among the priestly vestments is the ornate “breastplate” to be worn by the high priest for purposes of divining (verses 8-21). Its twelve polished stones are arranged according to the marching order of the twelve tribes that they represent. Thus, when he appears before God, the high priest is adorned in such a way as to represent the whole chosen people. These stones are themselves symbolic, of course, of the great foundational stones of the heavenly city, the final company of the redeemed (Revelation 21:19-20).
The construction of this tabernacle out in the desert of Sinai was a feat of mammoth and nearly unparalleled difficulty. Aside from all the vestments, hangings, instruments, etc., just the metal for the construction of the tabernacle apparatus has been estimated at around eight tons. Recalling that it was to be carried through the desert for the next forty years, one will think enhanced respect of the Levites who were to carry it!
The completion of this work provides an occasion to list an inventory of all of it (verses 32-43).
This chapter’s final verse, in which Moses “looked over all the work, and indeed they had done it; as the LORD had commanded, just so they had done it,” is strikingly reminiscent of the end of Creation itself: “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” Indeed, the following comment, “And Moses blessed them,” puts the reader in mind of the blessing that follows the completion of Creation: “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.”
Friday, May 25
Exodus 40: Moses thus did “everything that the Lord commanded him” (verses 16,19,21,23,25,27,29,32). Israel has now been at the base of Sinai for about nine months (verse 17) and has already received, as we saw earlier, its marching orders (33:1). They are nearly ready to depart.
Everything is to be anointed with consecratory oil (verses 9-15). The Christian will read these verses in the awareness that the tabernacle itself is a prefiguration of Christ, the Anointed One. The Son of God, anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows, is the permanent presence of God to humanity.
The glory of the divine presence descends into the tabernacle (verses 34-38). This glorious cloud, associated with both the passage through the Red Sea and the giving of the Law on Sinai, is now a feature of God’s ongoing presence with His people. Both events become permanent and “institutionalized” in the Mosaic tabernacle. The divine overshadowing will in due course be transferred to the Solomonic temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:10-11), as well as the second temple (Haggai 2:6-9).
All of these manifestations of the divine presence, as well as the rabbinical speculations regarding the cloud (shekinah), are properly taken as prophetic of the Incarnation, in which God’s eternal and consubstantial Word definitively “pitched His tent (eskenosen) among us” (John 1:14). Thus, all of the earlier overshadowings are but prefigurations of that by which the Holy Spirit effects the mystery of the Incarnation in the Woman who served as the tabernacle of God’s presence in this world (Luke 1:35).