Good morning! Today’s reading from Exodus 24-26 describes the ascent of Moses and other leaders on Mount Sinai, plus detailed instructions from God for what sacred artifacts are to be built as symbols of God’s presence in the wilderness. It’s odd to get architectural blueprints from the Divine, so let’s look for the meaning behind these instructions to see what purpose they serve in the Hebrew community. Throughout, these chapters emphasize holiness through hierarchy.
The opening sacrifice of preparation in Exodus 24 before Israel’s leaders ascend is a sign of how serious and holy the forthcoming covenant is to be for the entire people. The presence of 70 leaders who climb Mount Sinai with those who are named has the effect of creating a sacred procession, and honoring them as more elite than the other Israelites. Moses is beckoned further, along with Joshua (foreshadowing his later role as Moses’ heir). The narrative says all these leaders saw the God of Israel, which puzzles me because there is near-universal witness in the Bible that nobody is holy enough to see God without dying, or at least being forever changed. God is not described here, but still appears to the leaders, though not touching them. Only Moses is invited to disappear into the cloud of God’s glory. For a contemporary example, imagine the multiple layers of access to presidential candidates: one kind of access for volunteers, another for key donors, and another for top staff. The more access a person has, the greater their potential influence with others in the community. I can imagine these 70 leaders, along with their descendants, wore even their partial invitation up the mountain as a badge of pride and a suggestion of their greater holiness.
Chapters 25 and 26 continue the theme of establishing holiness through separation. The tablets of the commandments are given here, along with extended instructions for building the sacred furniture of God’s presence. (Note that the gifts for all of this will come from the people themselves by freewill offerings, suggesting that the resulting distinctions between the sacred and the everyday have the sanction of the people.) Measurements are given by cubit, which was the distance between an adult man’s fingertip and elbow. (One wonders whose body was used as the official cubit measure!) The ark of the covenant, its “mercy-seat” lid, a table for constant offering of bread, and a lampstand (from which Jews still use the symbol of a seven-candled menorah) are all described in turn. Precious commodities are used throughout, emphasizing the highest value of what’s represented here. The cherubim atop the ark are angel figures, often fierce and multi-winged. (The singular “cherub” as a chubby baby angel in modern times reflects a long domestication of what are described in the Bible as fierce angelic servants.) An open space between the cherubim, above the most-holy covenantal law, is where God promises to be present. Note that God remains hidden, and this invisible presence was perhaps the most novel thing about the Hebrew God at the time.
God commands a series of thick curtains made of various materials to surround this most sacred emptiness at the center. This tabernacle (or tent) is the visible marker of God’s presence with the people, protected by curtains from the elements and also from sight. The ark of the covenant itself is curtained off even within all the other tent-coverings. This highlights the holiness and hiddenness of the divine, while the curtains later come to define who can enter and who cannot. The mysterious cloud and fire of God atop the mountain are reproduced on the plane of everyday people, as are the hierarchies of access to God. The “Priestly” writers of this section of Scripture likely also wrote the first account of creation in Genesis 1—biblical scholars note the hierarchies of holiness and other common elements in both sections of Torah.
I hope this overview will be helpful as you dig into these elements of Jewish ritual life, and I particularly welcome any great visual depictions you might find for what these sacred elements might have looked like. Please post images or links on the Facebook page, or in the comments below. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Exodus 27-29. Thanks for reading!