Exodus 35-40
February 10, 2021

The description of the tabernacle in Exodus 25-31 is organized in seven speeches, each of which begins with “Yahweh spoke” or “Yahweh said.” After the golden calf incident, we read another description of the tabernacle, but it’s not organized in the same way. In Exodus 32-40, “Yahweh spoke” is used only three times (Exodus 32:7; 33:1; 40:1), and “Yahweh said” only six times (Exodus 32:9, 33; 33:17, 21; 34:1, 27).  Only one of these is directly linked to the construction of the tabernacle (Exodus 40:1).

Instead, Moses, the one to whom Yahweh spoke in Exodus 25-31, now becomes the spokesman who gives instructions concerning the tabernacle. After assembling the people, he relays the instructions to the sons of Israel: “Moses spoke” to instruct the people to raise a contribution (Exodus 35:4) and “Moses said” Bezalel was called to carry out the work (Exodus 35:30). The tabernacle plans, like everything else that Yahweh spoke on Sinai, is related to Israel through Moses.

Because it lacks discourse markers, Exodus 35-40 is not as clearly or neatly organized as Exodus 25-31. It describes the actual assembly and construction, which is commanded but not carried out in the earlier section. Exodus 35-39 is organized in twelve large sections:

1. Contributions and skilled workers, Exodus 35:4-36:7

1a. Call for contributions, Exodus 35:4-9

1b. Call for skilled workers, Exodus 35:10-19

1a’. People’s heart stirred to make contributions, Exodus 35:20-29

            1b’. Moses introduces Bezalel and Oholiab, Exodus 35:30-36:2

1a’’. Contributions are excessive, Exodus 36:3-7

2. Tabernacle, Exodus 36:8-38

            2a. Tabernacle curtains, Exodus 36:8-13

            2b. Goats’ hair cover and porpoise skin, Exodus 36:14-19

2c. Boards and sockets, Exodus 36:20-30

2d. Bars and rings, Exodus 36:31-34

2e. Veil and screen, Exodus 36:35-38

3. Ark of the covenant, Exodus 37:1-9

4. Table of showbread, Exodus 37:10-16

5. Menorah, Exodus 37:17-24

6. Incense altar, Exodus 37:25-29

7. Altar of ascension, Exodus 38:1-7

8. Laver, Exodus 38:8

9. Court pillars and hangings, Exodus 38:9-20

10. Tabulation of materials used, Exodus 38:21-31

11. Priestly garments, Exodus 39:1-31

11a. Ephod and shoulder pieces, Exodus 39:1-4

11b. Band, Exodus 39:5

11c. Onyx stones, Exodus 39:6-7

11d. Breastpiece, Exodus 39:8-21

11e. Robe of the ephod, Exodus 39:22-26

11f. Tunics for Aaron’s sons, Exodus 39:27-29

11g. Golden crown, Exodus 39:30-31

12. Summary list of the completed items, Exodus 39:32-43

After this twelve-fold, all-Israel description of the components of the tabernacle, Exodus 40 records the actual construction of the ark on the first day of the first month. This sequence is suggestive: First raw materials are gathered; then Spirit-endowed craftsmen form the raw materials into component parts; then Moses assembles the parts into a system. There seems to be a faint echo of the movement of the creation account, and a faint anticipation of the mission of the church.

Exodus 35-39 is enclosed with lists of the items that constitute the tabernacle system. The first (Exodus 35:10-19) anticipates the overall structure of the passage: The selection of skillful men, the tabernacle itself, the ark, the curtain, the table, the lampstand, the incense altar, the altar of ascensions, the court hangings, and the priestly garments. The second list (39:32-43) follows the same order. Overall, the section is organized in a simple chiasm:

A. List of items to be made, Exodus 35:10-19

B. Items made, in roughly same order as list, Exodus 36:4-39:31

A’. List of items to be made, in same order as A, Exodus 39:32-43

Though not arranged in an explicit heptamerous pattern, creation numerology is still at work in this section of Exodus. The components of the tent itself (#2 above) can be reorganized into a seven-fold list:

1. Tabernacle curtains, Exodus 36:8-13

2. Goats’ hair cover, Exodus 36:14-19a

3. Porpoise skin cover, Exodus 36:19b

4. Boards and sockets, Exodus 36:20-30

5. Bars and rings, Exodus 36:31-34

6. Veil, Exodus 36:35-36

7. Screen, Exodus 36:37-38

The list moves in three waves of inner-outer: The interior curtains to the outmost covering; the boards and then the outer bars that hold the frame in place; the inner veil separating the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place and then the screen.

The description of items of priestly clothing also is also seven-fold. Some of the items on the list match the days of creation in Genesis 1. The breastpiece in the fourth slot is adorned with precious gems that sparkle like stars in the firmament. Aaron’s sons are mentioned in the “Day 6” slot, as helpers meet for Aaron. And Aaron’s crown, the symbol of his entry into Sabbath rule, is described in the seventh slot. Importantly, in each repetition of the list of tabernacle items, the priest is in the climactic position. The tabernacle system reaches its telos in the ordination and investiture of the Aaronic priests.

By grouping some of the specific sections together, it’s possible to see a sevenfold order in the entire section, which both follows and deviates from earlier sections of Exodus:

Exodus 25-31Exodus 25-30 (first speech)Exodus 36-39
First speech: Contribution, ark, tabernacle, priestsContribution, ark, table, lampContribution, Bezalel, tabernacle
Second speech: Atonement moneyTabernacle curtainsArk
Third speech: LaverAltar and courtTable
Fourth speech: Anointing oilOilLamp
Fifth speech: IncenseGarmentsIncense altar
Sixth speech: BezalelPriestsCourt, bronze altar, laver
Seventh speech: SabbathIncense altarPriest

The correlations aren’t obvious, but the remarkable consistency of oil/lampstand in the fourth section suggests this is worth further reflection.

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