The seven speeches that described the tabernacle end with a reiteration of the Sabbath command (Exodus 31:12-17). The description of the actual construction of the tabernacle begins with a reiteration of the Sabbath command (Exodus 35:1-3). Building the tabernacle will establish a zone of Sabbath in the midst of Israel, Yahweh’s royal tent where He is always enthroned in Sabbath glory. Building the tabernacle also flows from Sabbath rest, for Israel builds the royal tent because they already share in Yahweh’s Sabbath. Sabbath is the telos of our labor; Sabbath is also the arche of our labor. It is both Omega and Alpha. Having received Sabbath glory, we build toward Sabbath glory.
Exodus 35:1-3 mainly repeats what was prescribed in the earlier text. Both command six days of labor, require a seven day of “complete rest,” and threaten that “whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Exodus 35:2). But 35:3 adds a detail not found in any previous Sabbath command: “You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the sabbath day,” which becomes the grounds for punishing the man collecting sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-41). Jim Jordan pointed out in his Sabbath-Breaking and the Death Penalty that this law doesn’t prohibit cooking or heating on the Sabbath. The fire on the bronze altar was stoked up on the Sabbath with extra offerings, and no Israelite was to stoke up his own hearth-fire to compete with Yahweh’s hearth-fire. Kindling a fire in your own dwelling was a form of idolatry: Israel is to have no other fires before the God who is a consuming fire.
Out of the Sabbath rest, Israel is called to bring a contribution of materials to Yahweh. These are, in part, treasures of Egypt given as tribute to Yahweh, conqueror of Egypt. In part, they come from the Israelites’ own wealth, given freely to form and adorn Yahweh’s house. The list of materials in Exodus 35:4-9 is identical to the list in Exodus 25:1-9:
|Materials||Exodus 25:1-9||Exodus 35:4-9|
|Metals||Gold Silver Bronze||Gold Silver Bronze|
|Tabernacle coverings||Blue, purple, scarlet Fine linen Goat hair Rams’ skin dyed red Porpoise skin||Blue, purple, scarlet Fine linen Goat hair Rams’ skin dyed red Porpoise skin|
|Wood||Acacia wood||Acacia wood|
|Oils & Spices||Oil for menorah Spices for oil Spices for incense||Oil for menorah Spices for oil Spices for incense|
|Precious stones||Onyx stones Setting stones||Onyx stones Setting stones|
Each list moves from metals to fabrics to wood, all of which are used in the construction of the tabernacle and its furnishings. The next items on the list aren’t materials for the tabernacle as an artefact, but materials needed for the ministry of the tabernacle – the oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil, and other spices for the incense that burns on the golden altar. Both lists end with precious stones. The overall logic is: First the furnishings; then the container for the furnishings (fabrics and wood); then the materials for the service of the tent; then precious stones to adorn the garments of the servants of the tent.
To some degree, the list is organized by value: The most valuable items (gold, silver) before those of lesser value (fabric, wood). But that doesn’t explain the entire list. Presumably, the gemstones are of more valuable than acacia wood.
At several points, the lists don’t merely identify materials to be gathered, but the purpose for which the materials will be used. We aren’t told why Yahweh needs the metals or the fabrics, but the oil is “for lightening,” the spices for both the anointing oil and incense, and the stones “for the ephod and for the breastpiece.” Those purpose phrases shape our understanding of the list. It’s not just a list of stuff, but, partially, a list of stuff-with-purpose, stuff that will be given purpose by human labor. The oil, spices, and stones are not just somethings; they’re for-somethings.
Recognizing that the lists insert purpose at several points helps us see how the lists do, and do not, mimic the order of creation. In one respect, the lists follow the trajectory of the creation week; in another respect they deviate from it. Deviation first: Instead of forming then filling, the lists begin with the materials that will be used for specific items in the tabernacle, and then list materials needed for forming. That is, the forming-filling logic of Genesis 1 is (roughly) inverted. We can perhaps link this to the Sabbath command that begins chapter 35: the chapter begins at the end of creation week, and moves backward from filling to forming. Yet when we combine both material and purpose, the lists (somewhat) follow Genesis 1 in moving from inanimate materials (metals) to animal products (goat, ram, porpoise) to plant-with-uses (oil, spices) to man (stones for priestly robes).
Yahweh requests a contribution “from every man whose heart moves him” (Exodus 25:2), and Exodus 35:5 includes a similar phrase: “Whoever is of a willing heart, let him bring.” Both use a form of the root nadav, “to impel, incite, move.” Yet Exodus 35, which describes the actual gathering of materials and not merely the command to do so, reiterates this several times, using the word “heart” seven times (Exodus 35:5, 21, 22, 26, 29, 34; 36:2). Yahweh stirs their hearts, as He will stir Cyrus’s spirit many centuries later (Ezra 1:1), and what they offer comes from their hearts. The tabernacle is at the heart of Israel, and is the heart of Israel, made as it is from the contributions of the heart.
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