Tackling the Tabernacle

Over the weekend a student question led me to think about the inconsistencies of ancient thoughts of holiness and how it fits into a naturalistic world. The question concerned the tabernacle as described in the Torah. The Levites were responsible for the grunt work of physically breaking down and carrying the holy furniture such as the menorah, table, incense altar, and ark of the covenant. One of the reasons for this was that the holiness on a sacred object clung to anything or anyone that touched it, causing a potentially catastrophic mix. At the same time, there were also prohibitions against touching the furniture or even seeing it. By the time the poles were inserted to avert the former danger, the latter prohibition would have already been violated. How did they do this?

Overall, the Israelites did not push ideas to logical extremes. In other words, the extension of holiness to other objects (and people), while it clearly happens, does not always follow a logical direction and culmination. If special ritual precautions were taken, the danger of approaching holy objects was removed or at least temporarily neutralized. Since there is not logical way out of this conundrum, the Bible itself simply doesn’t address the issue. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” also apparently applies to the holy. When describing set-up and take-down procedure for the tabernacle, the Bible simply ignores this puzzling issue.

Probably the most salient point of all concerning ancient texts is that concerning intent. If the Torah is describing literal, historical events then this is a scientific problem to be resolved. If, however, the tabernacle is a foreshadowing of the temple in the wilderness, a literary metaphor reflecting Israel’s history back into a non-historical setting, then the question becomes a literary one. No archaeological evidence exists for the exodus or wilderness wanderings of the Torah, causing many to suggest they were not so much historical events as they might have been theological explanations. They are “foundation stories” like those all nations have. These stories helped to explain why the monarchy failed to achieve perpetuity – the chosenness of the Israelites only lasted so long but not forever – according to those who are theologians.

I appreciated the question. It is only by thinking seriously about the implications of Bible stories that we are able to get a handle on what might have been originally in mind for those who gave us our religious heritage.

Gabriel L. Fink's tabernacle from WikiCommons

6 thoughts on “Tackling the Tabernacle

  1. I think that there is a bit more consistency in the Priestly material than you are giving credit. The priests enjoy (or are burdened with) a greater degree of holiness than the rank and file or even the Levites. This special status is enacted in their commissioning as priests. While the Levites too have a special status, it is purely hereditary and not enacted through a ritual status change.

    Numbers makes plain that the Levites can’t handle the items until they’ve been wrapped up by the priests. The priests can handle the items because of their greater holiness. The covers placed upon the accouterments acts as a barrier that allows the Levites to carry them. The Ark, of course, is too hot to handle by anyone (poor Uzzah). But, there really is a system behind the priest’s view of holiness that is played out even in the Tabernacle’s movement.


  2. rey

    Or, perhaps the whole account with all these regulations was written to keep moderns (at the time of the writing) from barging into the old tabernacle and seeing that in reality it was built to worship Molech who was depicted inside (per Amos 5) despite the fact that it was now publicly proclaimed to have always been a shrine to YHWH.

    Amos 5:25-27 “Have ye offered unto me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel? (26) But ye have borne the tabernacle of your Moloch and Chiun your images, the star of your god, which ye made to yourselves. (27) Therefore will I cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus, saith the LORD, whose name is The God of hosts.”

    If they took up the tabernacle of Moloch in the 40-year wilderness wandering, then the tabernacle from Exodus and the tabernacle of Moloch must be one and the same. I guess Amos disregarded the rules and barged in?


    • The whole existence of Moloch is highly debated these days and the text of Amos 5:26 is a text-critical nightmare. Based on inscription finds,”moloch” might be the name of a type of sacrifice (namely, human) rather than the name of a deity. The text in Amos is likewise problematic with the LXX and DSS giving different versions and the consonantal text of the MT allowing for several interpretations as well. My bet is more that the “tabernacle of MLK” here is more closely related to the king “melekh” than to a hypothetical deity. In light of the fight between Amos and the priests in chapter 7, there seems to be a lot of royal ideology in play up in Samaria.

      However, I think you are right about the power of this taboo. The priests are definitely attempting to hold tightly to their hegemony of the cult, ostracizing even the Levites who used to be able to serve (a la Deuteronomy). Can’t have outsiders barging into the domain of the priests!


      • rey

        That is interesting, but whether MLK is pointed to refer to an angel, a king, or Moloch, Amos’ point that the tabernacle was idolatrous is still clear.


  3. rey

    BTW, this view would also explain the “redemption” of the firstborn (Numbers 18). Moloch was a god that people offered their children in sacrifice to, right? Assumedly the firstborn would be the offering. Why would YHWH have people “redeem” their firstborn from him? Because originally it was Moloch who was worshiped in the tabernacle in the 40-year wandering with sacrifices of firstborn, and later a reformer who replaced Moloch with YHWH also replaced that barbaric practice with this “redemption.”

    A possibility anyways. Yet, there is also a possibility that the Recabite law was the original law of Moses and the reason that they wandered in the wilderness to begin with was the Recabite prohibition of building houses or planting vineyards, i.e. requiring a nomadic life. But after 40 years they got tired of that and decided to steal the Canaanites’ land and make up a new law to backpropagate to Moses’ mouth.


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