Sunday, June 03, 2007

Exodus 23:20 - 31:18: Getting Religion

I've been surprised over the course of this project by how un-boring the Bible has been. Which is not to say it is the gripping potboiler that many pastors disingenuously imply it is when they try to lure teens in with promises of sex and violence. But, patiently read, and excepting the occasional limning of a family tree, it has been consistently interesting and provided much food for thought.

Until tonight. Tonight, your humble explorer found himself repeatedly asleep on the couch, the Bible having fallen open on his chest.

This is not entirely the fault of the text. For one thing, I rode my bike out to Troutdale this morning -- long story -- and the house is still baking after four days of unseasonal heat, so I may not be in prime Bible study mode. Then too, much of today's reading is basically blueprints in written form. And when you read through blueprints in written form, you really understand why most modern architects and engineers prefer to use some form of diagram for their more complex plans.

But First, a Covenant

I wish I had realized how often God was going to make his covenant with the Israelites -- you-know, the now-familiar covenant in which they are promised much of the Eastern Mediterranian. I have unfortunately lost count. I believe the version that begins today's reading is more or less the tenth itteration.

This time, God promises that an angel will join the Israelites as a kind of advance guard against the people who are, inconveniently, already settled on the land in question. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. (23:23) My inner cultural ecologist finds it very interesting that this is planned as a gradual process, since the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you (23:29) if everyone was wiped out at once. No, other groups can continue to work the land until the Israelite population grows large enough for it. THEN they'll be wiped out.

Moses returns to the people and explains the body of law that God has revealed to him (see the entries for the last three weeks). The people agree to obey. A ceremony is held to commemorate the covenant, with bulls slaughtered and everyone sprinkled with the blood. Then, Moses goes back up the mountain to talk with God again, this time for a marathon 40 days and 40 nights.

It's a New Religion

God's instructions to Moses this time around, as recounted in Exodus 25 through 31, are essentially the blueprint for a new religion. And I mean blueprint in the very most literal sense. The Israelites are instructed to pool their resources, wealth, and skills, and to create the physical infrastructure for a form of worship.

Exodus 25, for instance, lays out the measurements and materials for the famed Ark of the Covenant, as well as the less well-known Table of the Covenant and Lampstand of the Covenant. Exodus 26 lays out exact specifications for the Tabernacle, dwelling so much on the particulars of yarn color, goat-hair curtains, and framework positioning that it took me quite some time to answer the main question I had: What on Earth is a Tabernacle? Turns out it's a large, elaborate portable shrine. A travelling temple, so to speak.

Exodus 27 goes into more particulars about furnishings -- the alter for offerings, the courtyard, protocols for keeping the lampstand burning -- before Exodus 28 addresses the specifics of priestly garments. Exodus 29 talks about how to consecrate a new priest, a process involving the slaughter and specialized disassembly of an alarming number of young bulls. Exodus 30 covers an alter for incense, atonement offerings, a washing basin (plus stand), and recipes for annointing oil and incense.

Finally, Exodus 30 specifies two foremen for the whole project -- Bezalel and Oholiab (underused Biblical names, for any of y'all who are thinking about what to name the next baby) -- and reaffirms the importance of the Sabbath. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death, says God, twice. (14 & 15) Note: blogging is fun! Not like work at all!

But isn't filigree expensive?

Now, the main thing that jumps out as you read through this stuff is the sheer wealth involved. Constructing the Tabernacle and its furnishings is a massive project! The specs for much of the furniture call out highly expensive materials, including gold plating not just for the Tabernacle and Table but even for the poles that will be used to carry them. This passage, describing a priest's breastplate, gives you an idea of both the extravagence and the specificity of the instructions:

15 "Fashion a breastpiece for making decisions—the work of a skilled craftsman. Make it like the ephod: of gold, and of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen. 16 It is to be square—a span long and a span wide—and folded double. 17 Then mount four rows of precious stones on it. In the first row there shall be a ruby, a topaz and a beryl; 18 in the second row a turquoise, a sapphire and an emerald; 19 in the third row a jacinth, an agate and an amethyst; 20 in the fourth row a chrysolite, an onyx and a jasper. Mount them in gold filigree settings.
The obvious question here is, how could they possibly afford all of this stuff (not to mention the routine sacrifice of two sheep daily, a part of Exodus 29 I neglected to mention)? Didn't they just flee from slavery? To which there are at least two reasonable rejoinders.

First, we have a tendancy to think of the Israelites as numbering about as many people as could be mustered as extras for a Hollywood Old Testament blockbuster. But, as alert readers will remember from an earlier discussion, the Israelites are described as numbering at least a million, and perhaps twice that. So, there would be a little more wealth and labor in the camp than you might at first think.

Secondly, what was the last thing the Israelites did in Egypt before they hit the road? Remember? I'll remind you: they "borrowed" all of their Egyptian neighbors' belongings, and skeedaddled with them! So, it's reasonable to assume that much of the Tabernacle is going to be built with loot purloined on the way out of the Greater Cairo metro area.

Ooh, Foreshadowing!

Exodus 30 ends with a teaser:

18 When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.
I'm curious to find out what's on those tablets, aren't you? Perhaps we'll find out next week, here at Michael Reads the Bible.

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