Terumah (Ex 25:1-27:19) relates G-d’s instructions to the Israelites for building the Tabernacle, the portable structure that serves as G-d’s “home” during the desert wandering. I’m going to include the rest of chapter 27 (Ex 27:20-21) in my discussion since it relates more to building the Tabernacle than to the next section, which discusses the priests’ garments.
The structural elements of the story leap off the page, highlighting once again so many parallels to the creation story in Genesis. First we have the content of the story itself, building a structure that serves to organize space in a hierarchy or perhaps crescendo of holiness which reaches its apex between the keruvim, the cherubs whose wings stretch across the ark cover in the holiest place. Then we have the number 7, woven throughout the story in so many ways.
In a first read-through, I was caught up with, on the one hand, the grandeur of this Tabernacle, built from the contributions of the Israelites, gold and silver and brass and the finest linens, beautiful designs by the best artisans. On the other hand, I noticed the minute details, the measurements, and found myself getting lost in trying to measure or imagine what this portable edifice looked like. Fortunately others have done that work for me and produced architectural drawings to scale.
But most of all, I was struck by this directive in Ex 27:3: “And thou shalt make its pots to take away its ashes, and its shovels, and its basins, and its flesh-hooks, and its fire-pans; all the vessels thereof thou shalt make of brass.
So here is this beautiful structure, created from the finest the Israelites had to offer, a portable home for G-d, a place where these wanderers met with transcendence, and within this structure, the tools of animal sacrifice, flesh-hooks and shovels and pots to take up and carry away the ashes that remained from a living creature. I found myself somewhat against my will dwelling on that phrase, imagining the creature brought, surely unwillingly, to that place, bound, crying with fear, killed, hung and finally burned.
It is difficult to reconcile this image with the image of that beautiful tabernacle, that space where transcendence and humanity meet. I think the structure of these chapters reveals the meaning of these passages for the Israelites, and while I may recoil from the image, it jolts me into a deeper awareness of the meaning of life in a world that includes death and of the human relationship to transcendence and the rest of creation.
So I ask readers to suspend horror and disgust with me for a few moments to explore deeper meanings in the text. Consider, for a moment, that in our contemporary world we breed billions of animals just to make them unwilling victims serving our own appetites — and we do this out of sight. Although brutal on a scale unimaginable to the Israelites, this contemporary slaughter teaches us no lesson, connects us to no transcendent meaning. Most of us don’t even pause for a blessing over the flesh of a formerly living creature.
An introductory section in Ex 25:1-9 directs the Israelites to provide contributions so they can build a sanctuary for G-d to “dwell among them.” (וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם)
Seven major building tasks follow with rearing up the tabernacle at the center point of these tasks:
- Ex 25:10-25:22 Ark
- Ex 25:23-30 Table & Utensils
- Ex 25:31 Menorah
- Ex 26:1-35 Tabernacle – with “rear up Tabernacle” (וַהֲקֵמֹתָ, אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן) in Ex 26:30
- Ex 26:36 Screen for door of the “Tent”
- Ex 27:1-8 Altar
- Ex 27:9-19 Court of the Tabernacle
Finally the section on the building of the Tabernacle concludes with Ex 27:20-21, directing the Israelites to provide a light that the priests will place outside the “Tent” and tend.
In addition to seven major tasks, there are seven branches in the menorah and seven kinds of substances used in its creation (Professor Carol Meyers of Duke University): metals, yarn, skins, wood, oil, spices, and gemstones.
As making (וְעָשִׂיתָ) tasks are completed, items are put (וְנָתַתָּ) into place, echoing the creation story in which G-d makes (וַיַּעַשׂ) an environment, then creates (וַיִּבְרָא) creatures for the environment.
Several, including Martin Buber, note that parallel vocabulary enhances the echo effect between the creation story and the story of building the Tabernacle: the words for accomplish or make (וְעָשִׂיתָ – וַיַּעַשׂ) as each item is made; the words for complete (וַיְכֻלּוּ – וַתֵּכֶל) as each item is completed; the words for saw and behold as G-d and Moses in reflection review completed work (וַיַּרְא – וַיַּרְא and וְהִנֵּה – וְהִנֵּה); and finally, the verb blessed when G-d blesses G-d’s creation and when Moses blesses the congregation for the work they completed (וַיְבָרֶךְ – וַיְבָרֶךְ).
And so we have a story that reflects the creation of the world in the creation of the Tabernacle. G-d makes a dwelling place for humanity, and the Israelites in their turn make a dwelling place for G-d according to G-d’s instructions. G-d’s relationship with the Israelites is transactional.
Consider for a moment the features of that dwelling, that home on earth: a space set off from the wilderness but also with differentiation within. At the entry to the holy space, the light of the seven-branched candelabra with a natural design like a flowering tree and a table with utensils and bread, a welcoming entry for G-d. Inside the holiest space, the Holy of Holies, is an Ark with the tablets inside and a cover with keruvim with their wings spread across it.
WHAT THE NARRATIVE AND TABERNACLE STRUCTURES TELL US ABOUT THE ROLE OF ANIMAL SACRIFICE
Just as the tabernacle structures space, the tasks in building it structure the narrative, echoing the creation story, the foundation of any understanding of the Torah.
At the center of the narrative space is the construction and raising of the Tabernacle and the Tent (הָאֹהֶל – ha-ohel) within it:
- Ex 26:1-6 Making the textiles that will set off the Tabernacle space from its surroundings
- Ex 26:7-14 Making the Tent within the Tabernacle
- Ex 26:15-29 Making the planks that will support the Tabernacle
- Ex 26: 30 Rearing up the Tabernacle
- Ex 26:31-34 Making a curtain for the holiest space within the Tabernacle, a further refinement of space and placing the ark with its cover within it
- Ex 26:35 Moving outward, furnishing the Tabernacle outside the holiest space by placing the table and lamp stand/menorah outside the curtain by the south and north walls of the Tabernacle
- Ex 26:36-27:20 Making a screen for the entrance to the Tabernacle, separating the Tabernacle from space beyond it, enclosing the remainder of the Tabernacle and furnishing the Tabernacle (outside the holiest space) with an altar and its appurtenances
The three tasks which precede this center section relate to creating space. The three tasks which follow this center section relate to further defining that space (the screen at the door of the Tent) and furnishing space from the center outward, the holy of holies, the area just outside the holy of holies, and the open area of the Tabernacle (the altar).
The narrative and the structure of the space tell us that G-d is in the Ohel, the Tent of Meeting and the holiest space within that space. The Israelites live outside the Tabernacle but come into it for the purpose of sacrificial worship — but not into G-d’s home space, set off in the Ohel.
The altar is in the wider area of the Tabernacle, its court, suggesting the point of contact between the wider Israelite community and G-d or transcendence. In Ex 24:17, we read: “And the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel.” This suggests the significance of the sacrifice on the altar, placed in the Tabernacle, outside the Ohel, where the glory of the Lord appears to them like a devouring fire on the altar.
The most intimate connection with transcendence occurs inside the Ohel, in the most holy section, the section that contains only the words of Torah in the Ark of the Testimony. This transcendent power, as we know from other biblical narratives, is overwhelming to the point of death. What happens on the altar substitutes for that dangerous direct contact.
This brutal act, the sacrifice of a living creature, is an act of compassion for the Israelites even as it reminds them of the supreme paradox of their existence. Their very survival requires taking life, but even so, they are not the ultimate authority over life and death. They owe a debt of gratitude for their existence, their survival — and they have a moral obligation, expressed in guilt offerings, for the life they take to live.
As G-d makes creation, a home for humanity, the Israelites make a Tabernacle, a home for G-d. The sacrifice represents this transactional relationship at another level, in the space where humanity and transcendence meet, at the altar in the wider space of the Tabernacle, between earth and heaven, so to speak. It is here that a multi-valenced action, a sacrifice, occurs, a transaction which resists any simple one-to-one equivalencies.
This exchange is represented in other biblical passages, memorably in Isaiah 25:6-8, which turns the transaction on its head:
6 And in this mountain will the LORD of hosts make unto all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.
7 And He will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering that is cast over all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations.
8 He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of His people will He take away from off all the earth; for the LORD hath spoken it.
In this transaction, instead of the people preparing a feast for G-d in the sacrifice, G-d prepares a feast for the people. While they eat the fat things of the land, wines on the lees, fat things full of marrow…G-d swallows up death for ever, wiping away tears from off “all faces.”
In this way, the placement of the altar with its flesh-hooks and the structure of the narrative tell us of a space in worship that hangs precariously between creation and transcendence, life and death, a space in which every moment requires our consciousness that we are part of a divine transaction. In that space, we have heightened awareness of our debt of gratitude and our moral responsibility in the world.
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