The Tabernacle Advantage

When the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had granted him safety from all the enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan: “Here I am dwelling in a house of cedar, while the Ark of the Lord abides in a tent!” (2 Sam. 7:1–2)

People sometimes try to fend off talk about Scripture or Messiah by saying that they don’t have much use for organized religion. My favorite comeback is, “Don’t worry—we’re not that organized.” It’s not too common these days to hear an outright defense of organized religion, and the Bible itself has much to say on both sides of the issue, pro and con. As things become more organized, more impressive outwardly, they don’t necessarily become holier or more filled with the presence of God. Thus, Sforno, the 16th century Torah commentator, argues that the Tabernacle was holier than the Temple of Solomon, which was far more elaborate and impressive. Indeed, Solomon built the Temple because his father, David, had been concerned that, “The Ark of the Lord abides in a tent!” God had told David, however, that He was perfectly fine with His tent:

From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in Tent and Tabernacle. As I moved about wherever the Israelites went, did I ever reproach any of the tribal leaders whom I appointed to care for My people Israel: Why have you not built Me a house of cedar? (2 Samuel 7:6–7)

The Lord lets David’s son build Him a house, of course, but not before He tells David that He will build David’s house—a gentle reminder that God doesn’t exactly need us. He does give us an essential role to play in his plan for all of creation, but it’s His plan, His initiative, and His glory that drive it all.

We can gain some insights into this plan by contrasting the Tabernacle with the Temple. This week’s parasha describes the completion of the Tabernacle:  

Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks—as the Lord had commanded, so they had done—Moses blessed them. (Exodus 39:42–43)

Two ideas stand out here: first, the Israelites did all the work. Not only did they provide all the materials for the Tabernacle in a massive freewill offering, but they provided the labor, the skill, the sweat necessary to create this elaborate structure within the space of less than a year (Ex. 39:42; 40:17). Second, they did it all as the Lord had commanded—k’asher tsivah Hashem. This phrase will be repeated seven times in the final chapter, Exodus 40, when Moses assembles step by step all that the Israelites had brought to him, k’asher tsivah Hashem—just as the Lord had commanded. In contrast, the phrase doesn’t appear at all in the account of Solomon’s temple. When Solomon stands before the people to dedicate the Temple, he doesn’t emphasize God’s commandment, but David’s desire to build the Lord a house. The Lord honors David’s desire and fills the completed Temple with the glory-cloud, just as He had filled the Tabernacle. But Solomon’s response is far different from anything we might expect from Moses:

“The Lord has chosen

To abide in a thick cloud:

I have now built for You

A stately House,

A place where You

May dwell forever.” (1 Kings 8:12b-13)

Solomon says, “I have built for You a house,” something it’s hard to imagine Moses saying. Furthermore, he didn’t really build the house himself (in contrast with Moses in Exodus 40 who does the final assembly with his own hands), but outsourced much of the work to his friend Hiram, king of Tyre (1 Kings 5). In addition, “Solomon imposed forced labor on all Israel” (1 Kings 5:27; 5:13 in Christian Bibles), in stark contrast with the wholehearted free-will offering of materials and labor for the Tabernacle. 

My point is not to denigrate the Temple, which stood for centuries as the focal point of Israel’s worship and the place of God’s Presence. But it’s hard to deny that the Tabernacle, far smaller, humbler, and simpler, was more reflective of the love and devotion of all Israel, and hence even holier than the Temple. From this truth we can derive a few lessons for today. As the well-oiled and impressive machinery of organized religion seems to be winding down, our structures need to be:  

1. Functional. I’m a counselor by training, so permit me to use this word as the opposite of “dysfunctional.” A dysfunctional system is characterized by rigid control, unclear expectations, and hidden agendas. A functional system invites the participation of all members, and provides definition and affirmation for that participation. Like Moses, true leaders of God’s people don’t try to do it all themselves, but they empower God’s people to do it all, “according to all that the Lord commanded.” This truth is more relevant today than ever.

David Kinnaman, head of the well-known Barna Group, admits that comparing different generations “can be more hype than substance,” but goes on to note:

Our research continues to show the next generation’s desire to make a difference with their lives. . . .  They want to put feet to faith, make their lives count, do something for others, be part of the solution, have immediate access, and participate in the process. Maybe these are clichés, but these generational aspirations are reshaping many industries, including media, advertising, and education. (“The Future of Christian Nonprofits” in Outcomes, Winter 2010)

Such aspirations will reshape the Messianic Jewish community as well, positively, if leaders maintain a clear framework of “all that the Lord commanded.” This shift is in some ways a return to the traditional Jewish understanding of the rabbi’s role. Most of the traditional requirements of synagogue life can be fulfilled by the members. The rabbi is there as a resource for teaching, guidance, and discernment, as the people contribute with a willing heart (Ex. 35:5, 22). 

2. Flexible. The Lord designed the Tabernacle to be moveable, and seemed to like it that way: “I moved about wherever the Israelites went.” The dwelling-place of God’s Presence was always there in the midst of the camp, visible, and readily adaptable to the immediate direction of the glory-cloud. Likewise, we need structures—not just our buildings, but the ways we organize our communities—that are flexible enough to adapt to the ever-increasing rate of change. Being pro-Tabernacle does not mean being anti-building. A congregational building can reflect the traditional role of the synagogue as a place of study, prayer and gathering, where the Torah scrolls can be housed, and where the congregation can sit down together for a meal, as well as stand together in prayer. A congregation also needs governing structures and programs and all the rest. But we need to employ all these with flexibility, creativity, and openness to the unfolding direction of the Spirit, so that our structures don’t become so firmly planted that they can’t follow the cloud.

The Brit Chadasha provides broad guidelines for congregational structure, but with great latitude on the details. In a similar way, Messianic Jewish congregations need to relate positively to Jewish tradition, but the tradition is a broad and flexible framework. We should be deeply knowledgeable about the framework (and this is where the rabbi comes in), but open to fresh adaptations, in our worship, our governance, and our service to the community. We’ll move forward together as we honor differing expressions.

3. Focused. I was tempted to use the word “Holy” here, but that might just fuel the anxieties of my anti-organized-religion friends. (Besides, it doesn’t start with an F.) The point, however, is the same: simple, flexible structures that hew closely to biblical patterns, structures in which the main thing is the main thing, are more likely to reflect the presence and power of Messiah Yeshua and His spirit, and thereby be holy. I’ll accept the Barna Group’s findings that people today want to make a difference and put feet to their faith. But they also share in the age-old human yearning for encounter with the divine. The point of the Tabernacle is the point of the whole book of Exodus, and the point of all our religious expression, organized or not: “that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8, 29:46).

  

The final words of Exodus portray this promise fulfilled.

When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. . . . For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel. (Exodus 40:33b-34, 38)

This concludes the book of Exodus and we can recite the words that come at the conclusion of each book of Torah: Hazak, hazak, v’nitchazek. Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another . . . to build a Tabernacle worthy of the presence of Messiah Yeshua among us.

All Scripture references are from the Jewish Publication Society TANAKH translation. For more commentaries on the weekly Torah portion go to www.umjc.org.

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