After the action-packed stories of the first one-and-a-half books of the Torah — all of Genesis and the first part of Exodus — the main narrative abruptly changes course in the middle of the book of Exodus. Stories such as the creation of the world, the flood, the lives of the patriarchs, the slavery in Egypt, the plagues, the Exodus and the revelation at Mount Sinai have kept the reader’s attention for week after week in the annual reading cycle.
By contrast, the material that begins with this week’s portion, Terumah, and continues for the next four weeks through the end of Exodus, is clearly less than an attention grabber. The greater part of these chapters is devoted to the construction of the Tabernacle (or Mishkan), the portable sanctuary site that will be the locus of the worship of God. The building process is described in excruciating detail not just once but twice. Chapters 25 to 31 present God’s instructions to Moses as to how the Tabernacle is to be built, then chapters 35 to 40 describe how the Israelites constructed the tent shrine and its accoutrements. The latter section repeats the former in virtually verbatim fashion, often marked only by a change in verbal forms and tenses from “You shall do X” to “And they did X.”
As an example of the kind of detail that is forthcoming from this week’s portion, I note Exodus 26:7-14, with its description of the 11 cloths made from goat skins, each 30 cubits by 4 cubits, to be fastened with loops and clasps, with further instructions as to what to do with the overlapping material once the 11 cloths are hung properly.
I admit there is not much to gain from concentrating on such specifics as these. And yet it would be a mistake for the reader not to pay attention to the overall picture that this portion of the Torah depicts. After all, the fact that the Torah dwells on the Tabernacle to such an extent — the material is longer than the life story of Abraham! — informs us that this structure played a central role in ancient Israel. So we are led to ask the obvious question: Why? Why does the Torah spend so much time with such details?
The key is to be found in the opening words of this week’s Torah reading. Exodus 25:8 reads, “Make for me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” Within the context of the ancient Near East, the final two words — one word in Hebrew, betokham — come as a surprise, for one would expect a phrase such as “that I may dwell in it.” That is to say, in the ancient world, a sanctuary (whether it be the larger temples that dominated urban settings or the smaller shrines of the villages of pastoralist cultures) was believed to be the house of the deity quite literally. A particular god or goddess was believed to dwell in the structure, and the focus of any ancient temple was the idol of the deity placed in it.
Israel, by contrast, had a totally different understanding of its God. For while the Tabernacle, and later the Temple in Jerusalem that would replace the Tabernacle, was considered holy, Israel never deluded itself into believing that God could be restricted to such a small arena. First, quite obviously, there could be no physical representation of God. And second, God was everywhere, He superseded the confines of a small structure, and never could one imagine that the Tabernacle or the Temple was literally God’s home. He would not dwell “in it,” and therefore the verse does not end in such a fashion. Had this been a text written by any other ancient Near Easterner, one would expect such a phrase, but in Israel such was not the case.
Instead, the verse, with its final word, betokham, among them, points to something totally different. The Tabernacle would house first and foremost the Ark of the Covenant, a small wooden box, overlaid with gold, in which were to be placed the two tablets of the Decalogue. The tablets represented the covenant, the pact between God and the people Israel, and this is what would reside in the center of the Tabernacle. As such, Israel’s sanctuary does not serve as God’s house per se, but rather as the symbol of God’s presence among the people. The Tabernacle holds the Ark, and the Ark holds the tablets of the covenant. The covenant means that God is with the people in their journey through history.
When one realizes the symbolism intended by the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant as its centerpiece, one then realizes why the Torah goes to such lengths to describe the construction of this sanctuary. Nothing could be more unique about ancient Israelite religion than its conception of the covenant. The Tabernacle represents the physical embodiment of the ideas behind the covenant, that God is always among the people. In light of this, the reader comprehends why such great emphasis is placed on the building of the Tabernacle.
Gary A. Rendsburg is chair of the department of Jewish studies at Rutgers University.