Superficially, the sequence of instructions in Exodus 25-27 moves from the furnishings of the interior of the tent (ark, table, menorah) to the tent fabrics, boards, and bars, before moving out to the courtyard to describe the bronze altar (Exodus 27:1-8) and the court hangings (Exodus 27:9-19).
At that level, this sequence inverts the sequence of creation. In Genesis, God forms first and then fills; He shapes a three-zoned world and then populates each zone. In Exodus 25-27, God first instructs Moses about the things that will fill, and then he describes the environment that will be filled. To put it sharply: Moses is told to build the ark before He’s told there will be a Most Holy Place to put it; he’s given instructions about the table and menorah before there’s even a hint about the Most Holy Place.
Why this arrangement? Yahweh tells Moses to follow the “pattern (tabnit) of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture” (Exodus 25:9). The actual instructions invert that order, forming a chiastic structure:
A. Pattern of tabernacle, Exodus 25:9
B. Pattern of furniture, Exodus 25:9
B’. Pattern of furniture, Exodus 25:10-40
A’. Pattern of tabernacle, Exodus 26
Further, the word tabnit encloses the first set of instructions, about the furniture (Exodus 25:9, 40). Those items – ark, table, menorah – are structurally set apart. If Moses were to follow the order of the text in carrying out Yahweh’s instruction, he would first make the furniture, then raise a tent and install the furniture in the tent. In Kings, Solomon forges the furniture outside the temple, in the earth, and then brings them into the temple (1 Kings 7:46).
This follows a creation sequence, not from Genesis 1 but from Genesis 2: Yahweh forms Adam outside the garden and then places him in the garden (Genesis 2:7-8). The order of presentation in Exodus assumes the tabernacle will be an Eden, which will house the anthropomorphic furniture. Adam is an ark, a table, a lampstand, created as a throne for God, to offer bread and wine to God and man, to illumine earth with light corresponding to the heavenly luminaries. Or, shifting the imagery slightly: In the new garden, the new Adam, Aaron, will find food and a tree of light, and a promise of eventual advance into the throne room.
Given the framing references to the heavenly tabnit (Exodus 25:9, 40), we can tease out another thread of symbolism. The items described in 25:10-40 are portrayed as having a heavenly origin. It’s as if they descend from the mountain, and Moses needs to erect a tent on earth in order to receive them. Ark, table, and menorah come from above to inhabit the tent. They literally tabernacle within Israel, as later heavenly Bread, the Light of the world, and the Throne of God will pitch His tent among us so we can see His glory.
That all comes from a surface structural analysis of Exodus 25-27. The deep structure of the passage, as I’ve explained before, is borrowed from the seven days of Genesis 1:1-2:4. Chapters 26-27 fall into the “Day 5” section of Exodus 25-30. That’s odd. How are curtains and screens parallel in any way to the fifth-day creatures of Genesis 1, birds and fish? Earlier, I suggested a visual analogy. In other seven-day sequences, incense occurs in the fifth slot. Fish and birds swarm, forming a complex unified entity, a school or a flying flock, visually similar to a cloud of incense smoke, visually similar too to the billowing curtains of the tabernacle and the court.
We might venture a further analogy. The inner curtain of the tabernacle – the one actually called “tabernacle” (mishkan) – is decorated with winged cherubim (Exodus 26:1). The outer covering of the tabernacle is made from dugong (tachash) skin, or the skin of some other aquatic mammal (Exodus 26:14). The innermost covering has bird-like decorations; the outermost covering comes from creatures of the sea. The tabernacle thus hints at the Day 5 creatures.
Yet the tabernacle inverts the structure of creation. In Genesis 1, birds and fish inhabit the highest and lowest extremities of the inhabited and inhabitable earth. Birds fly on the face of the firmament, fish swim in the deep. In the tabernacle, the dugong skin is uppermost and outermost, while heavenly creatures are lowest and innermost. As if to say: When heaven descends, it slips secretly into the heart of the earth. The place beyond all places becomes a hidden chamber at the center of earthly space. The roof of the world becomes its foundation.
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