Sinai, Tabernacle, and Temple

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I got an email a few weeks ago that got me looking at Nahum Sarna’s commentary on Exodus (which is a great read if you haven’t had a look at it). I was struck by what he said regarding the similarities between Sinai, the tabernacle and the temple.

He says that the Hebrews first big experience with God at Sinai needed to move beyond the mountain itself toward the Promised land. God recognized their need for continuity in being able to approach him regularly. So God brought Moses up onto Sinai and gave him a pattern to build the tabernacle as a place people could have to commune with God (Ex 25:9). I had never noticed before a few things that he points out that seem to fit very well. Sarna notes that the pattern of the Tabernacle actually mirrored what they experienced at Sinai, varying levels of holiness and approachability/access were present on Mt. Sinai and in the tabernacle.

  • All the people – Foot of the mountain
  • Priests – allowed higher up the mountain than the rest of the people
  • Moses alone – the very top of the mountain

This represented varying degrees of holiness/approachability of God.  It was the same with the tabernacle as you well know. What is also interesting is that in the tabernacle the level of quality of the construction got more refined the further in you went. The outer courts used bronze, the Holy place used a coating of gold and the holy of holies had gold inside and out and was of pure gold. I had always gotten so bogged down in reading through all the details that I had never noticed that before.

However, God made it very clear both at Sinai and in the tabernacle that he was not contained by either. He descended onto Sinai and he ascended and descended onto the tabernacle as well as a cloud. But where God dwelled was not in the tabernacle alone (like on the mercy seat) but among the people (Ex 25:8). Sarna believes the purpose of the tabernacles was as follows, “Precisely because the tabernacle was constructed in the first place to give concrete, visual symbolization to the conception of God’s indwelling in the community of Israel, that is, to communicate the idea of God’s immanence, it is vitally important that his total independence of all materiality, His transcendence, not be compromised.” (p.206). So the tabernacle was constructed for “human needs” (p.206)

Also, the holy of holies was constructed as a perfect cube to signify God’s perfection and unity (p. 207) and the housing of the tablets was also there as a reminder of their covenant with God (again for human needs). I had never noticed that either.

The temple has a lot of the same characteristics. It has a similar structure. It is also characterized by an understanding that it is there to demonstrate God’s immanence but at the same time recognize his transcendence. They understood that the temple does not confine God but that he does live among his people just like with the tabernacle (2 Chron 6:18/1 Kings 8:27).

That, to me, is their significance. It comes back to God’s holiness, our need to recognize it, and God’s balance of transcendence/immanence. These things were in some ways more for the people than they were for God.

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