Exodus 37:1-9, the crafting of the ark of the covenant, was the text for one of the most unusual Bible studies I’ve ever participated in. This Bible study was unusual for two reasons. First, it was attended only by pastors. And second, we had no idea what to do with the text.
While this group discussed the ark of the covenant at length, we almost completely avoided discussing the text of Exodus. We went to 2 Samuel and discussed Uzzah touching the ark. We went to the Talmud and discussed rabbinic traditions for the high priest (tying a rope to his ankle, etc.). We went to the gospels and discussed the torn veil when Jesus died. I’m sure Indiana Jones even came up.
But when it came to having a Bible study on chapter 37 of Exodus, all the standard skills went out the window. We didn’t observe the grammar or structure. We didn’t consider repeated words, connector words, or the flow of thought. We never assaulted the text with our questions, nor did we wring it for answers. Instead of studying the passage, we theologized on the theme of “ark of the covenant” and what we thought that theme meant for Christians. And our theologizing had little to do with what Exodus actually said.
If Bible-believing pastors, committed to expositional preaching, are prone to read the Exodus tabernacle narratives this way, how much more the average Christian? So before I dive into the tabernacle instructions in my study of Exodus, let me begin with a few principles to guide our reading.
1. Don’t neglect your OIA skills
You’ve learned to observe, interpret, and apply the Scripture. Though the tabernacle narratives feel alien and overwhelming, don’t let those feelings drive you to neglect what you know how to do. Your skills are even more important when the text feels unfamiliar. Don’t jump too quickly to theological rationalization, or to sloppy cross-references. Work first to understand the passage in context for its original audience; then move forward to connect it with the rest of God’s revelation.
2. Guard the main idea
Yahweh says to Moses, right near the beginning of the instructions, “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex 25:8). Here is the driving motive behind the commission to build: Yahweh wants to dwell in the midst of his people. He rescued them and brought them to himself (Ex 19:4). He’s given them himself in the Book of the Covenant (Ex 23:20-22). Now he wants to live with them forever.
They are desert nomads, living in tents; so he will be a desert nomad, living in a tent. They will be moving around, so he will be moving around. Wherever he leads, they will follow. But he won’t lead them from afar. He wants to be right in the middle of their camp.
These tabernacle narratives give us one of the clearest pictures of Immanuel, God with us, in all the Scripture. As you read, don’t lose your wonder at the fact that a holy God would make it possible for himself to live among sinful people.
3. Visualize the details
The tabernacle was meant to be built and interacted with. It was the first “Please Touch Museum,” after a fashion—at least the outside parts of it. The original audience would have been intimately familiar with the tabernacle’s floor plan, fire escape route, and standard operating procedures. We are not, so we’re at a disadvantage.
But we have computers and study Bibles and graphic designers, which puts us at an advantage.
Don’t be afraid to look at pictures of the furniture, architecture, and garments while you read. The more you can visualize the detail while you read, the more sense it will make to you. And there’s no shame in having to look up terms like calyx, carbuncle, galbanum, or ephod.
4. Notice the order of things
Here’s where your observation skills really come in handy. Most of the details in Exodus 25-31 (instruction) will be repeated in Exodus 35-39 (construction), but in a different order. That’s on purpose, and much of the fun is figuring out why. Why do the priest’s garments come at the center of the instruction, but the end of the construction? Why does the instruction begin with the ark, but the construction begins with the tent curtains? Why, in the instruction, is the golden altar of incense separate from the other inside furniture pieces, but in the construction they’re all together? All these observations give us clues to what the narrator wants to communicate.
5. Observe the narrative frame
I’ve seen readers and students so numbed by the voluminous detail of chapters 25-29 that they miss an obvious observation when they hit chapter 30. Right in Exodus 30:11: “Yahweh said to Moses.” And again in Exodus 30:17. And also Exodus 30:22, 30:34, 31:1, and 31:12. Combine that with Exodus 25:1, and you get seven speeches. This is a narrative about seven speeches from Yahweh to Moses.
And not only that, but the seventh speech is all about the sabbath. And the sixth speech is all about men filled with Spirit of God for the service of God. These things, in this order, should remind us of the creation of the world in Genesis 1. I’m not going to push this parallel (between specific speeches and their corresponding “days” in Genesis 1) any further now, but it’s at least a clue. And we’ll see many more clues in these chapters that connect the tabernacle with the creation of the world—suggesting that this tabernacle is a new creation. Here is God remaking the world in his image so he can live with his people in paradise.
6. Behold Immanuel
In point #1, I said that the main idea is for God to live with his people. Our reading will be incomplete if we don’t eventually get to the fulfillment of “God with us” in the person of Jesus Christ (Matt 1:22-23, 28:20, Rev 21:3, etc.).
So as we read, we want to see Jesus in the tabernacle. We won’t necessarily look for him in every socket, board, gemstone, or tent peg. But we should see him all throughout as God dwelling among his people.
The Gospel of John will be our best guide, as it begins with Jesus dwelling among us (John 1:14), it commandeers the tabernacle’s imagery to explain Jesus’ identity (light, bread, water, Lamb of God, door), it shows Jesus interceding for his people like a high priest (John 17), and it climaxes with a veritable mercy seat, the place where Jesus’ body had lain, with one angel at the head and another at the foot (John 20:12).
Armed with these guidelines, we’re ready to begin studying the tabernacle narratives.