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  • Stephen HRM

The Tabernacle, Rituals, And The Golden Calf

The Torah portion Terumah is a hard read. In fact, one could be forgiven for calling it boring. Just prior, the Exodus story had unfolded before us as a fast-paced, action-filled, adventure. Now, suddenly, our grand adventure comes to a halt, and we are forced to endure a monotonous and frustratingly repetitive account of how Moses is to construct the Tabernacle. After labouring through this densely worded passage, where its purpose now seems allusive, one can’t help but wonder why someone would write something so uninspiring and boring amidst what had thus far been one of the greatest stories ever told.

The ancient Torah scholar Gersonides pondered this question and was only able to arrive at a tentative conclusion that perhaps such a style was the accepted norm when describing ancient construction projects. It was perhaps a fair explanation, but I suspect one Gersonides felt was the lest bad one. The pervasive use of repetition, as he must have recognised even in his time, rendered his explanation unworkable as instruction manuals did not repeat themselves even then. Moreover, had Gersonides settled on this explanation, he would have then had the difficult task of explaining the poor nature of the instructions themselves, as evidenced in 25:32-25;


On one branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms,


each with calyx and petals


and on the next branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms,


each with calyx and petals


so for all six branches issuing from the lampstand.


And on the lampstand itself there shall be four cups shaped like almon-blossoms,


each with a calyx and petals:


a calyx, of one piece with it, under a pair of branches;


and a calyx, of one piece with it, under the last pair of branches;


so for all six branches issuing from the lampstand.


If this was intended purely as a straight-forward instructional manual one could be forgiven for throwing the manual out. Not only is it unnecessarily repetitious but there are gaps, like for example the missing fourth cup in the above. It is clear then that, despite illusions to the contrary, the author of Terumah did not intend to impart a set of instructions regarding the construction of the Tabernacle and that his intention for seemingly burdening the reader now lay elsewhere.

As is the case when seeking to decipher the meaning of a text, one is often required to focus on more than just the words themselves but must also consider the style employed and the context within which they are employed. It is sometimes easy to do, for example, poetry is almost always intended to convey experiential truth and ambiguity, when used intentionally, provides space in the text for the reader to insert their own subjectivity. In this instance, illuminating the author's intention is not so easy not least because the text appears to be a precursor to the infernal evil that is the Ikea instruction manual.

 An answer to our literary riddle however does reveal itself when we consider the practices within the Tabernacle and the repetitious nature of its description. The Tabernacle held a central role in the ritual life of the Israelites, serving as the designated dwelling place of God. Given this sacred purpose, a meticulous process was necessary to purify the Levites working in the Tabernacle and those presenting sacrifices to God, as the presence of sin in the divine realm resulted in death. The Torah therefore would extensively detail elaborate ritual procedures to prevent such dire consequences, rituals that would later be adopted to the Temple.  

Repetition then assumes a central role within the Tabernacle. As has been well researched by scientists over the years, repetition been recognised as playing a key role in rituals throughout human history and across many different cultures. There have been many reasons as to why this may be the case but the philosopher Joseph Campbell perhaps explained the broader context best. He explained,

'A ritual is the enactment of myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the deep wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom...'.

This explanation by Joseph Campbell is interesting in that he, rightly I would say, observed that when one participates in a ritual, one is connecting to a timeless wisdom (which he thought myths consisted of). Within the context of the Tabernacle, this wisdom was connection to the presence of God. Researchers have also found that repetition in rituals has long encouraged intuitive action, that over time the participation in rituals instils a spiritual identity that becomes an instinctive part of our very being.

The Tabernacle though was more than just a place for God to dwell but was also a representation of the entire cosmos. In this cosmic sense, participating in the rituals within the Tabernacle would gain more meaning than just their specific ritualistic purpose, but serve as a means through which one could connect to God’s divine rhythm of creation. This cosmic connection is most vividly illustrated through the observance of the Holy Days and the weekly Sabbath, forming a divine rhythm whose ebbs and flows would repeat throughout the ages.

We can now begin to appreciate what the author of this portion was doing - the text was not in fact a poorly written instruction manual but was intended to provide for the reader an opportunity to experience the ritualistic rhythms of connecting to God.

There is another purpose to the text when we also consider the wider narrative structure. Terumah distinguishes itself with a degree of detail not often seen in the Bible, in fact, such a degree of detail is a distinctively un-Biblical literary style. It is noteworthy for the reasons I have mentioned but is also noteworthy in that immediately following this part of the Exodus story we come to the Golden Calf. Here Israel commits a great sin, but interestingly, after this incident, the text once again provides, in detail, a description of the Tabernacle. There are some differences, no doubt fodder for those wishing to disprove the Bible, but one important difference is the introduction of Bezalel, a man called by name to construct the Tabernacle.

There are two points worth making here.

Firstly, the constancy of God remains unaltered, irrespective of human actions. God, our Messiah, the Alpha, and Omega, remains unchanged in the past, present and future, demonstrating that God’s Torah does not change, or become done away with, no matter the actions of humans.  What does change is the need to bridge the separation between man and God that sin brings with it. After the Golden Calf, God calls Bezalel. Like our Messiah, Bezalel came from the tribe of Judah, was a descendant of King David and was called by name by God. As the Talmud described him, Bezalel's work was intended to repair the wound that sin inflicted, that is, like our Messiah, Bezalel would repair the most devastating consequence of sin - separation from God. Whereas he did so via a physical construction of the Tabernacle, allowing Israel to connect to God and the rhythm of life he ordained, Jesus would do so spiritually, allowing us to become the Temple’s, He intended us to be.

The second point relates to the text’s revelation regarding the transcendence of God. The Exodus story has so far unfolded swiftly, a tapestry of highs and lows, yet amidst this temporal adventure, a part of God stands above all, eternal and unchanging. Our rituals connect us to this dual nature of God. They connect us to the imminence of God through making us part of the long history of Israel, while at the same time, drawing us into the transcendence of God. This duality permeates our humanity - we exist in time and space - but are also beckoned towards a God who sits above such things. 



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