Friday, May 27
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.”)
Psalm 106 (Greek and Latin 105): This poetic narrative, which summarizes much of the Books of Exodus and Numbers, deals with the period of the Desert Wandering as a source of negative moral example: “Don’t let this happen to you.” Such is the approach to that period through much of biblical literature, from Deuteronomy 33 to 1 Corinthians 10.
The value of this perspective is that it tends to discourage a false confidence that may otherwise deceive the believer. Never has there been missing from the experience of faith the sort of temptation that says: “Relax! God has saved you. You are home free. Once saved, always saved. Don’t worry about a thing. Above all, no effort.”
This temptation was recognized by certain discerning men in the Bible itself. Thus, the Prophet Jeremiah saw it working insidiously in the hearts and minds of his contemporaries near the end of the seventh century B.C. They reasoned among themselves that God, because of His undying promise to David, would never permit the city of Jerusalem, to say nothing of His temple, to fall to their enemies. After all, had not the Lord, speaking through Isaiah a century earlier, promised King Hezekiah that such a thing was unthinkable? And had not the Lord, at that time, destroyed the Assyrian army as it besieged the Holy City? Even so, reasoned Jeremiah’s fellow citizens, there was no call now to fear the armies of Babylon. Thus, fully confident of divine deliverance, they permitted themselves every manner of vice and moral failing. After all, once saved, always saved. Much of the message of Jeremiah was devoted to demolishing that line of thought.
The identical sort of temptation seems likewise to have afflicted the first readers of the Epistle to the Hebrews, whose author also took the period of the Desert Wandering as exemplifying their moral dilemma. Repeatedly, then, he cautioned those early Christians of the genuine danger of stark apostasy facing those who placed an unwarranted, quasi-magical confidence in their inevitable security. This entire book is devoted to warning believers that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31).
The gravity of this temptation, of course, arises from its resting on a solid truth. God is faithful to His promises; He will never abandon those who place their confidence in Him. The danger here is not that of excessive trust in God’s fidelity, but of insufficient vigilance against man’s infidelity. Just as the Galatians were warned against forsaking the Gospel of pure grace, they were also instructed that “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7).
Saturday, May 28
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 a 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 against 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 29
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 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 draped a shawl with a hole for the head and neck, a sash, and an ephod (or apron), over which was hung a 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 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 he is 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 the 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 31
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 1:8-11; 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’s 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 oil smelled sweet and pungent. 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, June 1
Exodus 31: The manifold gifts of the Holy Spirit include the special charism that enables certain chosen individuals among the saints to adorn the instruments of the divine worship. Two of these, 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, ikonographers, 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—philergeia—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 exceptions of Hesiod in Greece and Virgil in Rome, love and respect for work were not features of our pagan classical heritage. In that culture physical labor was chiefly regarded as demeaning and the proper 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 these 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, is “marked by a sign”). These signs are components that God placed in created nature: the rainbow and the day of rest.
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). According to 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.
The 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, because 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, June 2
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, June 3
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 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 for this “mediation,” however, is the Lord’s displeasure with the Israelites; He wants to keep some distance from them, as though He could not trust Himself not to destroy them! (verse 3) Learning this, the people put away their jewelry, lest the sight of it remind Lord of the incident with the golden calf (verse 4). One may also note that, by not wearing it, the Israelites 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), which is not so much a liturgical shrine as a sort of oracular place. In short, it is a 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 which first appeared at the time of the exodus. The other Israelites observe these encounters of the Lord and Moses from the entrances of their own tents.
This new tabernacle 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).