Torah Portion of the Week: A Multi-purpose Tabernacle

Parashat Terumah.

'The Tabernacle in the Wilderness,' illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible.

Last week’s Torah reading, Parashat Mishpatim, concluded with two intertwined images, both with their origins in the portion before that, Yitro, and both concerning Moses’ ascent of the mountain, which is called “Mount Sinai” in one picture, and the “mountain of God” in the other. In the visual story of God’s revelation, the goal of the ascent is to view the Almighty. Access to the mountain is restricted to a chosen few who, led by Moses, are commanded to ascend the mount for a special and mysterious glimpse of God. In the other image, which belongs to the auditory account of the revelation, God commands Moses to go up the mountain and to remain there 40 days and 40 nights, whereupon he will receive stone tablets with the imprint of the finger of God.

This week’s portion, Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), however, does not seem to be the continuation of either story. Instead, it begins with, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper” (Exod. 25:1-3). Other materials that Israel should bring are cited and then the goal of the donations is revealed: “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it” (Exod. 25:8-9).

In Parashat Terumah, Moses does not view God nor does he receive the promised tablets. Instead, God gives him detailed instructions concerning the construction of a portable tabernacle. This is apparently the continuation of a third version of God’s revelation on the mount, and it contains some elements similar to those in the other two stories, as well as others elements, along with a different perception of the relationship between God and Israel, the revelation and the function of the laws.

According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Tabernacle story also has its origin in Parashat Yitro, but only Israel’s entering the desert is mentioned there. The end of Parashat Mishpatim contains a description belonging to our story: “The cloud covered the mountain. The Presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day he called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain” (Exod. 24:15-18).

The term “Presence of the Lord” indicates the divine presence on the scene. It does not offer evidence that God is there in his totality, but from the text it is understood that his presence is real, and can be seen and felt. When Israel approaches Mount Sinai, the Lord’s fiery presence is enveloped in smoke. This frightens Moses, whom the Lord’s Presence summons “from the midst of the cloud.” To reach the summit, where God dwells, Moses enters the cloud and, as described in the first verse of this week’s reading, God begins to speak to him.

In the Tabernacle story, God’s revelation includes both auditory and visual elements. While the text does not state that Moses sees God, the instructions concerning construction of the Tabernacle, its furnishings and utensils involve the act of seeing: “Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings.” In a manner that’s not explicitly described, Moses envisions how the Tabernacle and the items that furnish it will look.

There are practical and substantive differences between the granting of the Torah in the Tabernacle story and the auditory telling of the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant. The instructions Moses receives on the mount are not laws: They are to be implemented by Moses, not Israel, although Israel will underwrite them and artisans will do the work; furthermore, the implementation is an isolated event. These are directives that concern only the erection of the Tabernacle; only after they have been fulfilled can God’s laws be put into effect.

Not only is the observance of God’s laws dependent on the building of the Tabernacle; so is the granting of the laws. God explains that, in the Holy of Holies, the Tabernacle’s inner sanctum, he will convey the content of those laws to Moses: “There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you — from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact – all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people” (Exod. 25:22). The implementation of this plan will be depicted extensively in the books of Leviticus and Numbers.

The Tabernacle story and the story of the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant contradict one another. When we read the Torah as a single text, without distinguishing – as biblical scholars propose – between its various intertwined stories, we do not understand why God plans to give Moses “all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people,” if he has already given Moses “all the rules” (Exod. 24:3) and if Israel has already agreed to obey them. According to the Tabernacle strand, however, God has not yet passed on the laws.

The link between the Tabernacle and the laws will determine this story’s plot and the laws that are associated with it later on in the Torah. At the end of Exodus, the Tabernacle will be erected, and the Lord’s Presence will enter it; in Leviticus, God will give Moses the laws of sacrifices and instructions concerning the priests’ sanctification. These laws are essential for the Tabernacle’s dedication; only afterward will God transmit the other laws, most of them concerning either defilement and purity in other spheres of life, at the individual and social levels, or the priests’ functions.

The Tabernacle is not just a convenient place for meetings and the transmission of laws – its very structure and those laws are interconnected. God will transmit the latter after taking up residence in the Tabernacle because the essential purpose of the laws is to insure that God will continue to reside there. Whereas in the auditory story of the granting of the Torah on God’s mount, the existence of God’s law is an end in itself, in the Tabernacle story, it is a means to an end, where the end is God’s dwelling among the Israelites: “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.