Good morning! Today’s passage (Exodus 27-29) continues yesterday’s instructions for the outfitting of the tabernacle and its items, then describes the appearance and preparation of Hebrew priests. You might get either glassy-eyed or grossed out at the details here, but I’ll do what I can to help us find contemporary significance in this ancient haberdashery.
On the one hand, I find it impossible to believe (as the larger narrative suggests) this was given by God on Mount Sinai to a group of ragtag refugees from Egypt. Nomadic people isolated in the wilderness wouldn’t have had the developed agriculture and infrastructure for such things as pressing beaten olives for sacred lamp oil. Rather, the tabernacle design and ritualistic details here give evidence of a highly developed temple practice, perhaps from the royal period of David and Solomon. On the other hand, the fact that such minutiae are in the Bible suggests that God cares about even the most mundane details of everyday custom, including the alternation of pomegranates and golden bells at the bottom of a priest’s robe.
Reading the descriptions in chapter 28 of what the priests wore (especially Aaron and subsequent High Priests), I’m struck by how much it must have weighed. We read about the priestly headgear, ephod, breastplate, robes, sashes, undergarments and various precious stones (including the Urim and Thummim, which were identical stones of different colors, used to divine the will of God when pulled at random from an opaque bag). Perhaps all the ceremonial gear is for the priest as much as observers, signifying the weightiness of the office and ritual. In addition to the feel of that weight, consider all the other senses involved with priestly duties: the smell of sacrifices and incense, the sight of tabernacle fineries, and the sound of the bells on their robes. Serving as priest evoked heightened awareness in all these ways. Some clothing that clergy wear today harkens back to these descriptions, but perhaps the closest modern analogue is a wedding dress, for the way its finery and very limited use set apart the wearer and the occasion from everyday life.
Chapter 29 describes the ordination of priests, but I’m struck in the first place by how their selection differs from today. Unlike modern clergy who have a sense of individual calling to the role, priests then were ordained because it was the family line of business. (Okay, some clergy today would still say the same thing.) Blood was used in ordinations to signify the importance of this ritual—it catches the attention and imagination in a powerful, lasting way.
Finally, as 29:43-46 make clear, the whole point of all this ritual and sacrifice is that God’s presence is made manifest. “I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God.” The elaborate tabernacle, altar, and priestly functions all served as proof of God’s abiding presence. Later Christians would describe Jesus’ incarnation as a “tabernacling” of God on earth once more. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Exodus 30-32. Thanks for reading!