Back to the Future: The Tabernacle in the Book of Exodus

Ralph W. Klein


THE PENTATEUCH DEVOTES more verses to the tabernacle than to any other object. Within the Book of Exodus, all of 25:1-31:18 and 35:1-40:38 deals with the tabernacle, its furnishings, its priesthood, and related issues. Next to the exodus itself and the revelation of the law, the tabernacle forms the third great theme in the book. Not to be missed is the fact that Yahweh's instructions to build the tabernacle and Israel's implementation of those instructions take place at Sinai, where Israel remains from Exodus 19:1 to Numbers 10:12, and where God's laws for Israel are revealed. The law and the tabernacle-centered worship are the central institutions of Israel's identity.

Scholars agree on assigning the account of the tabernacle to the priestly materials (P) and in dating those materials to exilic or post-exilic times. Even those who date P earlier, perhaps to the time of Hezekiah, admit that P played no public role until the exile or later. During the last century, historians have debated whether the tabernacle was a pious fraud Julius Wellhausen) or whether it represents an authentic historical memory (Frank M. Cross). No critical scholar accepts that the account in Exodus is a literal account of the desert shrine: the tabernacle seems far too heavy to be a truly movable sanctuary and the 1.25 tons of gold, 4 tons of silver, and 3 tons of bronze that were used in its construction are unrealistic. Rather, the tabernacle account may reflect idealized versions of the later tent shrines at Shiloh or the tent of David. Embedded within this account, many believe, lie memories of an authentic and simpler shrine going back to the ancestors of Israel before they entered the land. Menahem Haran and Richard Elliott Friedman have done much to clarify the architectural and cultural history of the tabernacle. Taking his clue from the Books of Chronicles, Friedman believes that the tabernacle may have been stored in the Solomonic temple, perhaps under the wings of the cherubim, in the Holy of Holies, until its destruction by Babylon in 587 BCE. If his speculations about the size and construction of the tabernacle are correct, the tabernacle can no longer be understood as a half-size model of the Jerusalem temple. Still, it surely incorporates in some fashion aspects of Solomon's temple.

Comparison with other parts of P clarifies the theological importance of the tabernacle from the priestly perspective, as will be shown below, but the account of the tabernacle is also now part of the Book of Exodus, and this larger context must be considered in any contemporaneous reading of the text. The tabernacle, according to the Book of Exodus, was given to a former group of slaves, who had been miraculously liberated by Yahweh from Egyptian bondage. At Sinai, these emancipated slaves entered into a covenant with their God Yahweh, who had given them the laws we now call the Decalogue and the Covenant Code. The Decalogue was placed in the ark, which occupies the holiest space in the tabernacle. Concern for the sabbath, a central issue in exilic and post-exilic times, appears at the end of the tabernacle commands (31:12-18) and, chiastically, at the beginning of the account of their implementation (35:2-3). In many ways, the tabernacle provides a defense against idolatry and a critique of the golden calf incident. By the end of the Book of Exodus, worship and service to God have replaced slavery and service to Pharaoh.' Instead of their forced la- bor on Pharaoh's building projects, the people gladly participate in the building of the tabernacle. Hence, there are clear links between the tabernacle account and all the rest of the materials in the Book of Exodus.

The commands to construct the tabernacle are given in seven speeches of Yahweh to Moses, but it is the people who erect the tabernacle, in perfect obedience to the divine command, and then present it to Moses. So generous were they in contributing to the tabernacle that Moses had to give them explicit orders to stop giving since they had already brought more than enough to do all the work (36:3-7). Their implementation follows the divine commands in excruciating detail, and this has the effect of signaling both their obedience and the overwhelming importance of this material. The reasons why the order in the section on implementation is different from the section on commands escape us in some cases. Still, whereas the section on commands puts such holy furnishings as the ark, the mercy seat, the table for the bread of the presence, and the lampstand at the head of the list, the section on implementation places the construction of the tabernacle itself first, where it logically belongs. There are also small differences of order in the summaries provided in 35:10-19 and 39:32-41, and the Septuagint departs remarkably from the order of the Hebrew text. Consider the following table:

Implementation Section

Commands Section

tabernacle itself, 36:8-38

the 26:1-37 (after commands for the furnishings)

the ark, 37:1-5


the mercy seat, 37:6-9


the table for the bread of the presence, 37:10-16


the lampstand, 37:17-24


the altar of incense, 37:25-28


the anointing oil and incense, 37:29


the altar of burnt offering, 38:1-7


the bronze basin, 38:8


the great court surrounding the tabernacle, 38:9-20


the ephod, 39:2-7


the breastplate, 39:8-21


the robe, 39:22-26


the tunic, 39:27-29


the rosette of the holy diadem, 39:30-31


Yahweh's seven speeches to Moses in chapters 25-31 recall the seven days of creation, suggesting that the ultimate goal of creation is God's full presence with God's people .7 Similarly, just as the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters at creation, so Bezalel and Oholiab are filled with the spirit of God and supplied with God-given skills to construct the tabernacle (31:1-11). The tabernacle is dedicated on New Year's day (40:2, 17), which corresponds to the first day of creation. As Terence E. Fretheim has noted: "The worship of God at the tabernacle is a way for the community of faith to participate in the divine creational work. God's continuing work in and through the worship of Israel is creative of a new world for Israel."

Between the section on commands and the section on implementation appears the account of the golden calf, which threatens the whole tabernacle project. Only intercession by Moses and Yahweh's renewal of the covenant after Israel's fall make the construction and dedication of the tabernacle plausible and possible. just as God had gone ahead with the plans for the tabernacle after his forgiveness of Israel's apostasy, so P's audience might feel reassured that God would recreate a sanctuary through their efforts after the disaster of the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE.

Alternate Views of God's Presence in Exodus

Chapters 32-34 report three events of divine presence that complement and enrich the book's central focus on the tabernacle. At times, these events show the superiority of the divine presence in the tabernacle, while at other times they clarify the tension between immanence and transcendence in Israel's theology.

In 33:7-1 1, in the wake of the breach caused by the golden calf incident, there is a brief account of another, simpler tent shrine. Moses pitched this tent outside the camp, rather than at its center (cf. Num. 2:2), and he went out there from time to time to consult with the deity. Whenever Moses went to this "tent of meeting," all the people would stand at the entrance of their tents in reverent attention, watching Moses' procession into the tent. Yahweh's presence there was signaled by the pillar of cloud that stood at the entrance of the tent when Moses was inside. Yahweh used to speak to Moses there, face to face, as one speaks to a friend. The occasional character of this divine presence contrasts with the ongoing presence of God in the tabernacle.

In the course of Moses' subsequent intercession with Yahweh in the latter part of Exodus 33, Moses and Yahweh carry on a dialogue that results in Yahweh's promise to go with the people on their trek to the holy land. When Moses asks to see Yahweh's glory, Yahweh responds with a triple promise: to make all his goodness pass before Moses, to proclaim before him the name of Yahweh, and to be gracious and show mercy to whomever he wants. But Yahweh refuses, at least in this context, to let Moses see his face, since any human being who would see that face would die. Instead, Yahweh stations Moses in a crevice and puts his hand over Moses as his glory passes by. When Yahweh removes his hand, Moses gets to see God's back but not his face. Clearly, the divine presence here is full of promise and reassurances to Moses, leading in the next chapter to a remaking of the covenant between Yahweh and the people (34:10). But just as clearly, Yahweh's presence cannot be taken for granted nor brought under human control. just as P distinguishes between the deity's "tabernacling" presence and the ways that people "dwell" at a given location, so the writer of 33:17-23 allows only God's back to be seen and not his face. This is in clear tension with 33:1 1, which reports that Moses and Yahweh used to speak "face to face" in the tent of meeting. Does this reflect an ancient debate about how fully Yahweh reveals himself? Or does the limitation of what Moses saw as God's back reflect the tenuous character of divine-human intercourse after the golden calf incident?

The third account of Yahweh's presence in chapters 32-34 deals with the way this presence transformed the skin of Moses. At the conclusion of Moses' forty days and nights on Mount Sinai, Moses returned to camp with the two tablets of the covenant (34:29). Because Moses had been speaking with Yahweh, his face shone brightly, although Moses was unaware of this phenomenon.' Aaron and the rest of Israel, however, could see it, and it made them afraid. After Moses had transmitted all the divine commandments to the people, he put a veil on his face, presumably to allay the people's fear of the divine presence his face reflected. Subsequently, this led to a regular pattern when Moses consulted with the deity. When Moses entered the divine presence, he would take off the veil. Upon his return, he would report with an unveiled face what had been revealed to him. But then he would put on a veil again until it was time to enter once more into Yahweh's presence. His glowing face indicated his direct contact with the deity and gave authority to the message he delivered. By graciously covering his face, Moses eased the fears of the people between divine encounters.

The Furnishings of the Tabernacle

The ark is the most important item in the tabernacle's Holy of Holies and is the first item listed in the section on commands (25:10-16). Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the ark is a sign of Yahweh's presence in war (Num. 10:35; 1 Sam. 4:3-5) or, through the cherubim on its lid, the place where Yahweh was said to be invisibly enthroned (I Sam. 4:4). The priestly writer provides precious little information about the ark's function, perhaps reflecting the fact that, by his day, the ark had been destroyed and was not reconstructed for the second temple. He only notes that the "covenant," or "testimony," was put inside it (Exod. 25:16), referring to the tablets of stone on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments, written with the finger of God (31:18; cf. Dent. 10:1-3).

The priestly writer provides a clearer function for the second item in the Holy of Holies, the ark's lid, or "mercy seat" (kapporet, Exod. 25:17-22). References to the mercy seat abound in the account of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 (w. 2, 13-15), where it conveys notions of forgiveness and of protection from the power of sin. But it is also from above the mercy seat that God promises to "meet" Moses (Exod. 25:22), and the term "meet" reappears in a summary paragraph, which articulates the central significance of the whole institution of the tabernacle, a few chapters later (29:42-43; cf. 30:6, 36). Yahweh also promises to issue commandments for Israel from above the mercy seat (v. 22; cf. Num. 7:89). Obedience to Torah is central to the self-understanding of the worshipping community of Israel that gathers around the tabernacle.

In the other section of the tabernacle, called the Holy Place, there were three articles of furniture: the table, the lampstand, and the incense altar. The table, made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold, held the twelve loaves of the bread of the presence (Exod. 25:23-30; 37:10-16). According to Leviticus 24:5-9, this bread was replaced on each sabbath, and the old bread was eaten by the Aaronic priests. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this bread is the way it expresses the close, covenantal relationship between the twelve tribes of Israel and the divine presence in the Holy of Holies; it is only separated from that presence by a curtain (Exod. 26:31-33; 36:35-36). Similarly, the two onyx stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod and the twelve stones on the breastplate of the high priest bring Israel into "continual remembrance before the Lord" (28:9, 21-29). The lampstand of pure gold stood by the southern wall, opposite the table, though the writer provides no interpretation of its symbolism (25:31-40;37:25-28). The altar of incense stood between the two (30:1-10; 37:25-28). The priests offered incense twice a day and dressed the lamps at the same time.

Both the tabernacle and all of its furnishings were to be made according to the "pattern" given by Yahweh to Moses (w. 9, 40). This signified that the tabernacle was fully authorized by Yahweh and may even have been considered the earthly counterpart of an identical heavenly shrine.

The tabernacle was surrounded by a great courtyard (27:9-19; 38:9-20). Within this courtyard and to the east of the tabernacle itself stood the bronze altar for burnt offerings (27:1-8; 38:1-8) and the bronze basin or laver, filled with water, for the priests to wash their hands and feet (30:17-21; 38:8). The relatively greater distance from the divine presence is noted by the change from gold to bronze in the composition of the furnishings.

Arranged around this courtyard in the wilderness were the twelve tribes: Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun on the east; Reuben, Simeon, and Gad on the south; Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin on the west; and Dan, Asher, and Naphtali on the north (Num. 2:1-34). Between the tribes and the courtyard were the Levites, to protect against any infringement of the tabernacle's holiness (Num. 1:52-53). The arrangement suggests gradations of holiness-Holy of Holies, Holy Place, Levites, twelve tribes-and the whole idealized picture puts the divine presence at the center of Israelite life. No longer is God's presence restricted to the top of a high mountain, to which Moses alone can ascend. Instead, the presence of God has become portable, accompanying the people on their way through the wilderness and during their first centuries in the land. As Brevard Childs remarks, "What happened at Sinai is continued in the tabernacle." So powerful was the symbol of the tabernacle that it formed the basis for opposition to David's proposal to build a temple: "I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.... Did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel ... saying, 'Why have you not built me a house of cedar?"' (2 Sam. 7:6-7).

The Tabernacle as a Symbol of God's Presence

A key passage for understanding the theological meaning of the tabernacle occurs in a divine oracle at the end of the command to ordain priests:

I will meet with the Israelites there [at the tent of meeting], and it shall be sanctified by my glory; I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate, to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God (Exod. 29:43, 45-46).

God's mere presence in the tabernacle is important, but God also promises to meet with Moses or the whole of Israel in order to communicate with them his will (25:22; 29:42; 30:6, 36); that is, his presence becomes active and engaging, setting obedience as a consequence of divine presence. The tabernacle is called the "tent of meeting" in Exodus more than thirty times."

Yahweh's glory sanctifies or consecrates the tent of meeting. "Holiness" constitutes what God is in Godself, Yahweh's "glory" connotes what is revealed to humanity about God, often in a radiant manifestation. In the call of Isaiah we learn that Yahweh is most holy; the whole earth is full of his glory (Isa. 6:3)." The glory of Yahweh had settled on Mount Sinai when Moses stayed there for forty days and nights; it was exceedingly bright, like a "devouring fire" (Exod. 24:16-17). That one-time appearance gets institutionalized in the tabernacle, where it symbolizes, also away from Sinai, divine presence. "Sanctified" is only a future promise in chapter 29; it becomes a reality at the dedication of the tabernacle itself God also consecrates, or sanctifies, the altar-the place for sacrifices-and the Aaronic priests. All three of these institutions together-tabernacle, sacrificial system (cf. Lev. 1-9), and priesthood, when developed according to God's command and consecrated by him for service-comprise the ideal future cultic system. The priests receive divine oracles and bring Israel to remembrance before Yahweh, through intercession and the symbolic connotations of their vestments (Exod. 28:12, 29-30; 30:16).

Exodus 29:45 gets to the nub of the matter: "I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God." The genre of this sentence is that of the so-called covenant formula ("I will be your God, and you will be my people"), though I prefer to call this slogan the "God promise." In Genesis 17:7, the priestly writer uses this God promise to articulate a promise to Israel's ancestors that in each generation they and all Israel will own the land. Also according to P, Yahweh interprets the exodus from Egypt as a necessary consequence of this promise to be God (Exod. 6:7). Through this "God promise," P's generation is assured of having Yahweh as its God and of being delivered from captivity in Babylon, just as their ancestors had been delivered from Egypt. Finally in 29:45, in, or via, dwelling with Israel in the sanctuary, Yahweh would also fulfill the promise to be God for his people.

Why does the author speak of "dwelling"? Issues of the immanence and transcendence of God have dogged every generation of the faithful, including the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. Lutherans who affirmed the "real presence" of Christ in the sacrament also hedged their bets by describing that presence as "in, with, and under" the earthly elements. At the same time that they affirmed the real presence, they denied "Capernaitic" eating. They insisted that when one ate the host, one was not biting into a knuckle of Jesus.

Ancient Israelites wrestled with similar issues, made even more complex by the prohibition against the making of images of the deity. One function of the ark, as we have seen, was to represent Yahweh's presence in war, but the story of the battle of Ebenezer shows how easily taking the ark into battle could become a perverse attempt to guarantee God's presence in a battle he had not approved (I Sam. 4). In that same account, there occurs for the first time a reference to Yahweh "who sits enthroned on the cherubim" (I Sam. 4:4). These winged creatures, probably winged lions with human faces, resembling the sphinx, formed a chair on which Yahweh was invisibly enthroned. There was no statue of Yahweh in the tabernacle or the temple. Deuteronomy and deuteronomistic literature in general states that only Yahweh's "name" had been put in the sanctuary (Dent. 12:5), and that his dwelling place was actually in heaven (I Kings 8:43). Jeremiah scoffed at those who found security in the deceptive slogan "the temple of Yahweh" Jer. 7:4), as if a mere building could guarantee God's presence and overcome the negative consequences of the people's sinful behavior.

The priestly writer, too, affirms Yahweh's presence in the sanctuary but uses a special verb, shakan (usually translated "dwell" or "tabernacle"), to express this reality (Exod. 24:16; 25:8; 29:45-46; 40:35). It is from this same verbal root that the noun "tabernacle" itself (mishkan) is derived. The deity does not "live" in the tabernacle in the same way as humans "live" (yashab) in a house or town. From the point of view of the priestly writer, one senses in the word shakan the tenuous character of divine presence. After all, P lived at a time when a combination of divine judgment and attack by foreign nations had caused God to abandon the temple (cf. Ezek. 10). The sovereign deity had dwelled in the sanctuary of the wilderness period by grace and in freedom. It would only be under those conditions that he would dwell with Israel again. Both Yahweh's transcendence and his freedom are protected by describing his presence with the verb shakan.

In Exodus 29:46, the author uses a recognition formula ("they shall know that I am Yahweh") to summarize the theological goal of the entire book. Yahweh is the one who brought Israel out of the land of Egypt, freeing the ancestors from unspeakable oppression (chaps. 1-15), but the ultimate purpose of this exodus is that Yahweh might dwell among his people. Life in the presence of God is clearly considered to be an ideal existence.

A second key passage, at the dedication of the tabernacle, reinforces and expands oh many of these themes:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey (40:34-38).

The cloud is a sign of Yahweh's presence throughout the Book of Exodus, often in the form of the pillar of cloud (13:21; 14:19, 20, 24; 16:10; 19:9, 16; 24:15, 16, 18; 33:9-19; 34:5, and including a reference in every verse of 40:34-38). The cloud's presence on the outside of the tabernacle, like Yahweh's glory on the inside, offered proof positive of the divine presence. The verb used with "cloud" in verse 35, shakan, which the NRSV translates with "settled," adds another affirmation of the divine presence. There is a possible merismus formed by the grayness of the cloud and the bright effulgence of the glory, reinforcing the notion of divine presence by the inclusivity of the symbols. The glory of the Lord was so intense that Moses was unable to enter the tabernacle. The cloud and glory, which had settled on Mount Sinai when Moses began his unique forty-day encounter with Yahweh (24:15-18), have now moved to the ongoing cultic shrine, signifying that, also away from Sinai, Yahweh would be present with his people.

While permanence and stability are suffused throughout 40:34-35, verses 36-38 connote mobility and God's providential care on the way. Israel moved through the desert only with divine permission, and always with divine protection and accompaniment. The merismus now consists of the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, which bring with them an inclusive view of time: by day and by night.

Yahweh's Presence on the Way

The glory of Yahweh, which showed itself in a paradigmatic way on Mount Sinai (24:15-18), also gave divine authorization to the completed tabernacle (40:34-38) and to the sacrifices of the newly ordained priests (Lev. 8-9; see below). But this glory of Yahweh is also identified on five other occasions, when Yahweh's actions intersect with Israel on its way through the wilderness." Hence, Yahweh's presence in his glory has both liturgical and historical significance. Or, stated differently: The God whom Israel met at its worship center is also the God who took decisive interest in, and action on, its daily life. Consider the following passages:

Exodus 16:10-12. Through his appearance in glory and cloud, Yahweh announces that he will provide the people with quails and manna to assuage their hunger. Numbers 14:1-45. The appearance of the glory of Yahweh at the tent of meet- ing leads to a complaint about Israel's rebellion and its harkening to the timorous words of those who had spied out the land. Except for Joshua and Caleb, the whole generation that came out of Egypt in the Exodus is condemned to die in the wilderness. Numbers 16:19-22. After a manifestation of the glory of Yahweh, Yahweh an- nounces judgment on Korah and his followers.

Numbers 16:42-50. When the people protested Yahweh's punishment of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, Yahweh appeared in cloud and glory and a plague killed 14,700 people, until Aaron, at Moses' direction, stood between the dead and living people with his censer and stopped the plague.

Numbers 20:2-13. Despite the murmuring of the people, Yahweh appeared in his glory and instructed Moses to command the rock to give water.


The tabernacle account needs to be considered in the context of the Aaronic priesthood and the sacrificial system since, according to P, all three comprise the most crucial events that took place at Sinai. In fact, P has no "covenant" ceremony or other reference to the covenant tradition at Sinai, apart from the two references to the "testimony" that was deposited in the ark. For the priestly writer, God's covenant (berit) denotes those universal and everlasting promises made to Noah (Gen. 9) and to Abraham-Sarah (Gen. 17).

The covenant with Noah is valid for Noah and his children, their descendants, and all the creatures who left the ark for perpetual generations. It is God's covenant with all of creation. God promises that all flesh will never again be cut off by flood waters and that the world itself will never return to chaos. God guarantees the perpetual existence of natural and human history. This promise cannot be undone by catastrophes, such as a worldwide flood or the exile to Babylon. The promissory character of this covenant with Noah is denoted by the sign of the covenant, the rainbow, intended to refresh God's memory.

The covenant with Israel's ancestors, Sarah and Abraham, in Genesis 17, came to fulfillment both in the exodus from Egypt (Exod. 6:6-7) and in the establishment of the ideal cultic community at Sinai, with its priesthood, sacrificial system, and tabernacle. A third fulfillment of this covenant was in the gift of the land, realized in patriarchal times by these "sojourners" and by their burial in the Cave of Machpelah, the only plot of land they ever owned. This covenant offered hope to exilic sojourners that, once more, the promise of the land would come true for them. Circumcision is the sign of this ancestral covenant.

Keeping the sabbath is a third sign of the covenant, and this sign is mentioned in the seventh speech of Yahweh, at the conclusion of the section of commands to build the tabernacle. This sign serves as a reminder that after Yahweh created the world, he rested and took a deep breath. By keeping the eternal covenant of the sabbath, Israelites remind themselves that Yahweh sanctifies them, and, by resting, they anticipate their full and ultimate rest because of the new creation that is represented by the completed tabernacle sanctuary (31:12-17).

Two things seem necessary if these de jure promises are to become de facto. First, God must remember his covenantal promises, as he promised he would to Noah and as that promise was initially fulfilled in the exodus from Egypt. Second, Israel must organize itself into a cultic community, into an idealized Mosaic form of worship. Only through a return to this old model might the people expect that the promise of the land would become reality. P does not talk about a new exodus, as Ezekiel and Second Isaiah did, because either Yahweh's promise of the land was more important than the details of how that promise would be fulfilled or P had already experienced a return to the land.

The central imperative in P seems to be the obligation to reestablish a cultic community, consisting of three institutions: tabernacle, priesthood, and sacrificial system. We have already seen how the commands for the tabernacle were given at Sinai and how these commands were implemented, climaxing with the dedication of the tabernacle in Exodus 40. The service for the ordination of priests was also prescribed at Sinai (Exod. 29), and it was first carried out, also at Sinai, in obedient response to God's command (Lev. 8). Moses followed the Lord's instructions in ordaining Aaron, just as he had in the case of the construction and dedication of the tabernacle (Lev. 8:29, 31; cf. Exod. 39:1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31, 32, 42, 43; 40:16, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 32). His obedience sets an example for P's audience to follow. Their obedience would demonstrate their loyalty to God.

At the conclusion of the ceremony Aaron blesses the people, as Moses had done at the dedication of the tabernacle, and then Moses and Aaron, after they have entered the tent of meeting and reemerged from it, bless the people together (Lev. 9:22-23). Again, there was divine intervention, as with the cloud and the glory, to indicate divine approval. Fire came from the Lord and consumed all the burnt offering and the fat on the altar (Lev. 9:24). A properly ordained priesthood, operating in the context of the properly constructed tabernacle, received the fire for its first sacrifices from Yahweh himself

This narrative implicitly summons readers to follow the example of Moses, Aaron, and the exodus generation in setting up the cultic community. By returning to this old Mosaic pattern, they would experience the living presence of God and go forth into God's future.


Modern readers may have difficulty thinking themselves into the theological importance of P's account of the tabernacle. There is something off-putting about an ancient tent shrine, whose materials include such an enormous quantity of gold and silver, that forms the center of an elaborate, stylized, and hierarchical camp. The exclusivity of the Aaronic priesthood and the sharp hiatus between clergy and laity are also not in conformity with some current tastes. While Western thinkers have been comfortable with the idea of presenting one's body as a living sacrifice or even with something like the sacrifice of the Mass, none of us today feels at all at home with the idea of animal sacrifice, which is so central to the cultus of the tabernacle. To return to such a Mosaic community is counter-cultural and, in fact, impossible, although perhaps much more realizable in the exilic period or during Israel's life as a Persian colony.

But inherent in P's tabernacle account is a far more profound and dynamic theology of divine presence, whose wealth today can only be appreciated by those who use their own cultural and linguistic contexts to express what it might mean to practice the presence of God. Hence, it is not the details of the tabernacle account that make up its significance, but the underlying notion that if God elects to be present with his people, there is little or nothing that would escape the need for, and the possibility of, transformation. P's tabernacle account and especially its use of the word shakan ("to dwell," "to tabernacle") alert all readers to the danger of presuming upon the presence of God in an idolatrous fashion. But they also reveal the divine intention to be present with, and for, the believing community in a tangible way, in both the ritual of liturgy and the commonality of daily life. God's presence is an act of grace, made in sovereign freedom. P managed to keep the holiness of God as the central focus and not let it deteriorate into a cozy over-familiarity.

P's idea that the blessings of the Noahic and ancestral covenants will be realized in the context of a properly worshipping community underscores the enduring validity and central importance of divine promise. Those promises cannot be threatened by flood nor overcome by oppression or catastrophe. In Egypt, Yahweh remembered his covenant with the ancestors (Exod. 6:5), demonstrating that no foreign power can triumph in the end over the strength of an everlasting promise. However forgetful God may seem to be, P insists that God cannot in fact forget his people. The rainbow sign, which we humans see, is in its truest function a reminder to Yahweh. God's memory of us-which in P's view is virtually guaranteed-is our only hope.

The reality and freedom of God's presence, so memorably expressed by mishkan ("tabernacle") and by the technical verb of the priestly tradition, shakan,, are echoed in the prologue to John's Gospel: "And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent in our midst."