Friday, May 15
Exodus 26: The construction of the Tabernacle is described in the first part (verses 1-14) of this chapter. It had four coverings, divided into workable sections. The first covering was made of linen, over which were coverings of goats’ hair, rams’ skins dyed red, and dugongs’ skins. Two things are noteworthy about this last: First, the dugong, or sea cow, is a native of the Indian Ocean. The availability of this product indicates the extensive trade carried on through the Red Sea. One speculates that the sea-going power of Sheba was the medium by which this product reached Egypt. Second, the skin of the dugong, which sat uppermost over the Tabernacle, rendered it rainproof.
Next are described the wooden side-frames of the Tabernacle (verses 15-30), indicating that this shrine stood about 14 feet high, was 62 feet long, and measured over 42 feet wide.
Finally comes the internal division of the Tabernacle between the holy place and the Holy of Holies (31-37), the latter measuring about 14 feet square. It contained the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets of the Decalogue (cf. Hebrews 9:3-4).
The division within the tabernacle was later duplicated and further developed within the Jerusalem temple. Indeed, the sense of separated space is intrinsic to the very notion of a “temple,” a word derived from the Greek temno, meaning “to divide.” A shrine of any kind is already a section of space devoted to the things of God, and divisions within a shrine are related to the ordered structure of the community that worships there. The building reflects the congregation’s conception of itself. In the case of Israel and the Christian Church, the ordered structure of the worshipping community is “hierarchical,” meaning that its organizational structure is holy and reflects a divinely appointed order.
This hierarchical aspect of biblical worship, that is to say, is enacted even in architecture. (Indeed, if one looks closely, both “hierarchy” and “architecture” are formed of a common root, a Greek word meaning, roughly, “a principle that gives structure and explanation to reality.”)
Saturday, May 16
Exodus 27: We come now to the sacrificial altar, the court in which the Tabernacle stood, and the perpetual flame that was to burn before the Holy of Holies.
The frame of this hollow altar, which was, of course, portable, was to be made of light wood overlaid with bronze (verses 1-2). Its construction was to be large: its top about 7 feet square and its height about 4 feet. The corners of the altar were to be extended into horns. Although we can say that these adornments, like all horns, signified strength, their more precise meaning is now lost to us. We do know, however, that similar fixtures adorned many altars in antiquity, from Assyria to Greece. In Israel they took on a social and even political significance (cf. 1 Kings 1:50; 2:28). In the ritual itself, these horns were smeared with the blood of the sacrificial animal.
It is possible that stones were placed on this altar, to provide a surface on which to burn the sacrificial victim. Otherwise it is uncertain how the bronze could withstand the fire of the sacrifice.
Under and around the altar was a bronze grating for the purpose of receiving the ashes from the fire (verses 4-5). Inasmuch as the altar was portable, staves were provided, with which to carry it.
The Tabernacle stood in a court area that measured roughly 142 by 71 feet (verse 18). This area too was set apart by a system of linen partitions (verses 9-17). This was a consecrated area, separated from profane use.
A perpetual flame, fed of olive oil and cared for by the sons of Aaron, was to burn before the Holy of Holies (verses 20-21). The idea behind a perpetual flame is very old and has symbolic value immediately understood by almost all men. As a symbol of the human spirit standing in vigilance over the forces of darkness, it is found in world literature from Homer to the novels of William Golding. As a religious symbol of man’s standing in prayer before God, it is nearly universal. A sustained flame has burned near the altar in Christian churches virtually from the first day they were built.
Sunday, May 17
Exodus 28: This chapter is chiefly concerned with the vesting of the priests. The design and production of these vestments are not arbitrary. While their number and fundamental design are explicitly prescribed, their final elaboration is effected through the inspiration of the “spirit of wisdom” (ruah hokmah–verse 3), an expression that the Septuagint translates as “esthetic spirit” (pnevma aistheos). The numbered list of them is explicit in the Torah itself—to wit, a tunic, over which was a shawl with a hole for the head and neck, a sash, and an ephod (or apron), over which hung the breastplate suspended from the shoulders. The head was adorned with a miter. One easily recognizes in this description some of the standard Eucharistic vestments traditional in the Christian Church, both east and west.
The ephod, or apron, was a piece of apparel not unexpected on a person that offered blood sacrifices (verses 6-7). To it was attached a linen box, which hung from the shoulders, its suspending cords adorned with two onyx stones, on which were inscribed the names of Israel’s 12 tribes (verses 9-12).
Inside this box were the divining tokens by which God’s will was discerned in certain specific questions. For this reason the device was called “the breastplate of judgment” (hosken mishpat–verses 15,30).
The front of this box was adorned with rows of twelve precious stones, representing the tribes of Israel. This design signified that the priest, when he entered into the presence of God, carried with him in symbol the whole of God’s people. Their names are borne over his priestly heart unto their remembrance before the Lord (verse 29).
The high priest’s robe was adorned with bells, which tinkled when he walked (verse 35).
While its basic design is prescribed in verses 27-31, the priestly robe actually became more elaborate over the years and, in some respects at least, more symbolic. Eventually the robe of the high priest was adorned with stars and various pictures of objects from the whole earth, symbolizing the cosmic proportions of Israel’s intercessory mediation before God. When the high priest thus entered into the Holy of Holies, he represented all the created world.
Just as the crown was the particular sign of the king, a specially designed miter or turban was the distinguishing mark of the priest (verses 32-35). This adornment of the head is especially appropriate, because each office involves a ministry of “headship.” In the case of the priest, the miter bears a small golden plate with an inscription on that may be translated “sanctuary of the Lord” or “consecration of the Lord” (hagiasma Kyriou). In early Christian literature this word hagiasma is used to designate church buildings, altars, the relics of the saints, holy water, oil lamps, and a variety of sacred objects, including (in Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Wonderworker, and John of Damascus) the Holy Communion.
Monday, May 18
The Epistle to the Ephesians: The epistle that we begin today seems to have been written during the two years (probably autumn 58 to autumn 60) that Paul the apostle spent in prison at Caesarea (cf. Acts 24:27). Likely written within days of the epistles to Philemon and to the Colossians, this letter appears to have been sent originally to the Christian church at Laodicea, another of the churches of Asia Minor. Indeed, this identification was made by Marcion in the 2nd century, and in the earliest manuscript copies of this epistle (a 2nd century papyrus and both of the early 4th century parchments) the mention of “Ephesus” in Ephesians 1:1 is missing.
From the Book of Revelation (1:1
1 – 3:22) it is clear that the various churches of Asia Minor were accustomed to sharing letters they received from the apostles, so it should not surprise us to find it in this instance as well. Addressed originally to the church at Laodicea, then, this epistle made its rounds to the other Asian churches, beginning at Colossae (cf. Colossians 4:16). Since the largest of these churches was at Ephesus, the latter would soon possess the largest number of copies. It was natural, then, that our epistle came gradually to be called the Epistle to the Ephesians, the name that first appears in the manuscripts of the 5th century.
In the letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians, written during Paul’s two year imprisonment at Caesarea, there now appears an important theological concept not found his earlier epistles: the truth that Christ is the “head” of his body, the Church. As early as the spring of 55, to be sure, Paul had repeatedly referred to the Church as the body of Christ (I Corinthians 10:16f.;12:12-27), a theme that he took up again a couple of years later in the Epistle to the Romans 12:1-5. He continues this same theme in the letters to the Colossians (3:15) and Ephesians (2:16; 4:4,12; 5:30).
Exodus 29: This chapter covers two subjects: the priestly ordination (1-9), including the sacrifices attendant on that ordination (verses 10-37), and the daily sacrifices of evening and morning (verses 38-46).
Although in the Old Testament membership in the priesthood was determined by bloodlines, the proper exercise of the priesthood also depended on an elaborate ordination. The priest was a consecrated person, and in the Bible virtually all acts of consecration are celebrated and effected in the context of an appropriate ritual. In the case of the Old Testament priests, the consecration lasted one week, as long as God’s act of Creation (verses 35-37). A more ample account of the ordination is found in Leviticus 8:1-38.
The first sacrifice of the ordination was the immolation of a bull as a sin offering (verses 1-14; Leviticus 4:1-12). This was a substitutionary sacrifice, in which the sins of the new priests were symbolically transferred to the animal by the imposition of hands (verse 10). Most of the animal was burned outside the camp (verse 14).
As Christians believe, Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophetic dimension of the Old Testament sin-offering, as of all the Old Testament sacrifices. In this case, the burning of the sin-offering “outside the camp” was seen in the early Church as particularly symbolic, inasmuch as “the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Hebrews 13:11-13). Historically, of course, Jesus was executed outside the city because that was the prescribed place of execution (cf. Leviticus 24:14; Numbers 15:35f; 1 Kings 21:13; Acts 7:58), but the author of Hebrews saw that—whatever His executioners intended—this circumstance of Jesus’ death was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy (cf. also Matthew 21:39; Luke 20:15; John 19:20).
The sacrifice of a ram followed suit (verses 15-18). Unlike the sacrifice of a bull, this was a holocaust, meaning that the fire of the altar consumed the entire victim. Once again, hands were first imposed on the animal as a symbol of substitution.
There followed the sacrifice of a second ram, the blood of which was used for anointing the priests and their vestments (verses 19-21). Then comes a description of those parts of the sacrifice that were normally eaten (verses 22-34). It was through that sacred meal that those consuming the sacrifice communed with the holiness of God’s altar. Those sacrifices are properly thought of as “Old Testament sacraments.”
Especially to be noted in verses 15-21 is the consecratory anointing with sacrificial blood. This ancient rite is the prophetic background for the powerful biblical image of being “bathed in the blood of the Lamb” (Hebrews 9:12-14; 1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5; 7:14).
The sacrifices of morning and evening (verses 38-46) eventually contributed to the structure of the daily life of prayer. They are the historical background of what eventually came to be called Matins (or Orthros) and Vespers (or Evensong) in the Church, the two major “canonical hours” of daily Christian worship. It is important to observe, however, that already in Judaism these two times of prayer became joined with another at noon (cf. Psalms 55:17; Daniel 6:10-13; 8:26; 9:21).
Tuesday, May 19
Exodus 30: The use of incense (verses 1-10,34-38) in connection with sacrificial worship may originally have served the purpose of disguising the very unpleasant aroma of the burning flesh of the sacrificial animals. In due course, however, the heavenward rising of the smoke gave the burning of incense an independent meaning as a symbol of man’s prayer rising to God (cf. Psalms 140:2; Luke 1:1:8-11; Revelation 8:3-5).
Thus, even in places as remote as India and Tibet, worshippers have continued to burn incense as a common religious symbol long after animal sacrifice was discontinued. The use of incense in man worship is as universal as the raising of the hands in praise and supplication. Indeed, when used often in prayer, the smell of incense, as of aromatic oils, has been known to work on the deeper stores of one’s memory in order to put the worshipper into a prayerful disposition, even before the prayer begins. Not surprisingly, the ritual burning of incense in Christian worship is at least as old as the construction of church buildings.
The collection of money to support the divine worship (verses 11-16) is not something alien or extraneous to the worship. It is itself a dimension of the proper worship of God. Indeed, whether used directly for the worship, or for the general support of the ministry, or for the relief of the poor, tithes and offerings are always an important component of our worship (cf. Philippians 4:18; Hebrews 13:16). Theognostos of Alexandria speaks of the “sacrifice of almsgiving.”
The use of aromatic oils in connection with worship (verses 22-33) was already so old that its significance is presumed in the text. First, the oil was consecratory. Serving the several purposes of nourishment, healing, and light, oil provides one of the richest symbols in human experience. Kings, prophets, and priests are all anointed with it to indicate and effect their consecration to service in God’s name. (In the twelfth century, Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, preaching on the text “Thy name is as oil poured out” from the Song of Solomon, gave his monks a remarkable meditation on this threefold purpose of oil as symbolizing the invocation of the holy name of Jesus: the name of Jesus nourishes, it heals, it enlightens.)
Second, the sweet and pungent odor. Like certain sights (icons, stained-glass windows, etc.), sounds (psalmody, hymnody, etc.), and tastes (the Holy Communion, the blessed bread, etc.), certain smells can be deeply associated in the human psyche with past memories of worship. Ironically, man’s sense of smell can provide one of the most stable and enduring experiences of his religious memory. The worshipper worships God with his whole being and all his senses, including his olfactory sense.
Wednesday, May 20
Exodus 31: The gifts of the Holy Spirit are manifold, and they include the special charism that enables certain special individuals among the saints to adorn the instruments of the divine worship. Two of them, one from Judah and the other from Dan, are remembered here. The Holy Spirit did not stop granting that charism at the end of the Old Testament period, and even today God’s people very much depend on the enhancement of divine worship by architects, iconographers, precious metal workers, book binders, glass blowers, wood and stone sculptors , designers of vestments, needle workers, and other artificers of God’s temple.
There seems to be no end of the number of times that God must remind the Israelites about the Sabbath (verses 12-17; See also 35:1-3 presently). Someone remarked that the people of the Bible manifested such devotion to work that they could be kept from it only by the threat of death!
While this remark may be only a witticism, it does indicate that the love of work and respect for honest labor that are such distinguishing features of Western Civilization (and the major explanation of its superior material prosperity) come chiefly from the Bible. It must be said that, with the exception of Hesiod in Greece and Virgil in Rome, love and respect for work were not features of our pagan classical heritage, in which physical labor was chiefly regarded as the function of slaves.
The Sabbath is the sign (’oth) between God and Israel (verses 13,17). More specifically it is the sign of the “perpetual covenant” (berith ‘olam–verse 16). This descriptive vocabulary with respect to the Sabbath is similar to, even virtually identical with, that which describes the sign of the covenant between God and “all flesh” in Genesis (9:9-12,5-17). The sign, the ’oth, in that case was the rainbow (Genesis 9:12-17), which signified the “perpetual covenant” (berith ‘olam–9:16).
It is instructive to observe three points with respect to the similarities between Genesis 9 and Exodus 31: First, they are intentional and deliberately invite a theological comparison between the two covenants as they appear in the history of salvation: the covenant with mankind at the conclusion of the Flood and the covenant with Israel at the conclusion of the exodus.
Second, both “signs” in these covenants are built on the structure of nature itself. This is true not only of the rainbow, but also of the Sabbath. It is clearly the teaching of Genesis 2:2-3 that the Sabbath pertains to the natural structure of that creature known as “time.” Thus, each of these covenants is signified (that is to say, marked with a sign) by a component that God placed in created nature.
Third, in the case of the covenant with Noah following the Flood, God Himself preserves the sign of the covenant. He places His bow in the heavens (Genesis 9:13). In the Mosaic covenant, in contrast, the maintenance of the covenant sign depends on Israel. It is Israel that is charged to preserve the Sabbath. Thus, the similarities between these two covenants introduce a contrast.
These two tables of the covenant (verse 18), written with the finger of God, were to be preserved in the Ark of the Covenant. In writing His law on tables of stone, God was also answering a deep need in the human spirit, for the stone inscription symbolizes the permanence of the established moral norm. There are numerous historical parallels testifying to this basic human need, such as the ethical inscriptions of Asoka in ancient India, and the precepts carved into the walls of the temple of Apollo at Delphi.
Ascension Thursday, May 21
Ascension Thursday: This day, the fortieth since Easter, marks the celebration of the Lord’s ascent into heaven as recorded in the Book of Acts 1:1–11. As a divinely revealed mystery of the Christian faith, this heavenly glorification of Jesus Christ as the Lord of history and the destiny of the nations is beyond all human description. In the New Testament, nonetheless, there are several ways in which it is spoken of. Of these, we may draw particular attention to certain images of posture: the glorified Christ is portrayed in heaven as both sitting and standing, and each of these postures adds certain dimensions to our understanding of this feast.
First, sitting. Jesus now thrones at God’s right hand. Psalm 110:1 was a major Old Testament text that the early Christians regarded as both prophetic and interpretive of his glorification: “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit thou at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Hardly any other line of the Hebrew Bible was dearer to the early believers in Jesus. He himse
lf had quoted it to his enemies, trying to get them to consider his own identity as God’s true Son (cf. Matthew 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42). This reference of the Psalter to Christ’s enthronement was also quoted in the first sermon of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:34) and became the foundation of some of the most important pronouncements of the New Testament about Christ and our salvation (cf. Mark 16:19; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2).
Similarly, this psalm’s reference to the subjecting of Jesus’ enemies beneath his feet was intended to lay the basis for important things that the New Testament would have to say about the end of history (cf. Acts 2:35-36; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 10:12f; and perhaps 1 Peter 3:22). When the Bible describes Jesus as “sitting” in heaven, the emphasis is placed on his role as king and judge. His throne is for ever and ever (cf. Hebrews 1:8).
But the Lord is also said to “stand” in heaven. Though this image appears less often, it is found in two texts of great majesty and drama. Both places describe ecstatic visions of individual Christians. Thus, we read, in Acts 7:55f, that Stephen “looked up steadfastly into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.’” The other passage is found in the Book of Revelation, which describes a vision of the Apostle John: “And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the Throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb was standing, as though slain” (5:6). In the culture of the Bible, standing is the normal posture for prayer. It would appear, then, that in these texts that describe Jesus as “standing” in heaven that the accent is on his role as our intercessor and mediator at the Throne of the Father.
Exodus 32: Chapters 32-34 return to the sequence left off in 24:14-18, where Moses (with two companions) had ascended to the top of Mount Sinai. It was during his time on Sinai that there occurred the incident of the golden calf, to which we come in this chapter.
Not least among the features endearing the prophet Moses to the mind of a believer is the memory of his efficacious and powerful intercession for God’s people in the hour of their apostasy. Thus, when St. Symeon the New Theologian sought to praise someone for this same quality, he could do no better than to compare him to Moses. “I know a man,” he wrote, “who desired the salvation of his brethren so fervently that he often sought God with burning tears and with his whole heart, in an excess of zeal worthy of Moses, that either his brethren might be saved with him, or that he might be condemned with them. For he was bound to them in the Holy Spirit by such a bond of love that he did not even wish to enter the kingdom of heaven if to do so meant being separated from them” (Book of Divine Love, Homily 54.1).
The biblical text St. Symeon has in mind here is verse 32 of the present chapter, where Moses prayed for sinful Israel in these words: “Yet now, if You will forgive their sin—but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written!” That fervent prayer was more than a bare intercession; it was Moses’ generous self-offering by an association himself with the people’s guilt. It was Moses’ prayer that made the “atonement” (verse 30).
The context of that prayer is worth a detailed examination. There is, to begin with, a two-leveled scene: Moses is on top of Mount Sinai with God, while Aaron is down in the valley with the Israelites. Just prior to the prayer, two things have been transpiring simultaneously, both of them having to do with Aaron. On the mountain Moses has been receiving from the Lord a series of ordinances and statutes governing the consecration, vestments, liturgical instruments, and other matters concerning the Aaronic priesthood (Exodus 25-31).
Meanwhile, however, Aaron was down in the valley proving himself unworthy of that priesthood, for the Bible describes his complicity in the construction and cult of the golden calf. At the people’s first idolatrous impulse, Aaron acceded to their wishes. “Break off the golden earrings,” he instructed them, “which are in the ears of your wives, you sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And when they did so, “he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf.” (verses 2-4).
In this whole episode Aaron is portrayed as craven and double-minded, a hireling and no shepherd. Though very much involved in the people’s sin, he would never admit this association in their guilt. He becomes, rather, a classical example of rationalizing an infidelity, not regarding his action as the apostasy it was, but rather (as the saying goes) as “accepting people where they are.” “You know this people,” he would tell Moses, “they are set on evil” (verse 22). Refusing thus to assume responsibility, Aaron attempts to disentangle himself from the people’s sin.
In a line that the biblical author must have regarded as a kind of mockery, the irresponsible and cowardly Aaron endeavors, moreover, to minimize his own considerable role in the matter, claiming that when the Israelites gave him the gold, “I cast it into the fire and this calf came out!” (verse 24)
Actively taking part in their apostasy, Aaron did not love the people enough to resist them. His attitude is described as the very opposite of that of Moses, whose prayer united him to the guilt of the people, even though he himself had not shared in their sin.
The self-sacrificing prayer of Moses, in which he deliberately associates himself with the guilt of the people, demonstrates an important quality of intercessory prayer in Holy Scripture. The biblical intercessor never stands apart from the state of those for whom he prays. Moses’ wish to be blotted from God’s book rather than see the Israelites perish is clearly repeated in the soul of St. Paul who wrote of those same Israelites: “I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3).
The Bible’s supreme and defining example of this sacrificial intercession is that of the Suffering Servant who “was wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5), and “was numbered with the transgressors” (53:12), and who, though He knew not sin, became sin for us, “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Those guilty of the sin of apostasy will perish in a plague (verses 34-35). It was in reference to this plague that the Apostle Paul speaks of 23,000 casualties (1 Corinthians 10:7).
Friday, May 22
Exodus 33: Now comes the order to depart from Sinai (verse 1). It is 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 crossing 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’t destroy them (verse 3). Learning this, the people put away their jewelry, lest it remind God of the incident with the golden calf! (verse 4). One may also note that, by not wearing it, they will more readily part with it 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 of 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, who 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).