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The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me an offering; from every man whose heart makes him willing you shall receive the offering for me. And this is the offering which you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen, goats' hair, tanned rams' skins, goatskins, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones, and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. According to all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it." Exodus 25:1-9
When the people of Israel were in search of their identity and sense of purpose in the world, they looked to their origins, to the deliverance from Egypt, the making of covenant, the encounter with the Presence of God in its symbols of fire and cloud on Sinai. They looked to those momentous events in history through which they became conscious of themselves as a people in relationship to God. And according to the tradition, the last in this series of momentous original events was God's commandment to build a tabernacle, a place where the Presence of God might "dwell in their midst."
Words of origin are words of power. They speak to our identity as much as to ancient Israel's. As the Passover wording tells us, every Jew "in every generation" is responsible to know the deliverance from Egypt as a contemporary event, to know that he or she has shared in that deliverance as a son or daughter of the covenant. Christians who take these words of spiritual origin seriously know too that these events of deliverance, covenant, and Presence are living and contemporary.
Let us look at the details of this account to see its significance both in the light of the ancient tradition of Israel, and in the light of our willingness to let the images speak to us with power. The first point in the account is simply the command of the Lord that an offering be taken. Moses was to ask for offerings from the people of Israel to make a sanctuary in which their Lord might dwell. If this is indeed God's living word, it commands us also and with power. That Presence is also with us as vividly as with our fathers and our mothers in every element of the Biblical account as we hear the Lord's word commanding us to prepare our awareness of that holy center, the tabernacle, that place of dwelling of our Lord with us.
It is the tabernacle we are concerned with here, and not the temple. Israel's tradition includes at least two symbols for the place of God's dwelling on earth. The temple in the holy city, Jerusalem, is the eternal, ever- present dwelling on the mountain to which we journey, singing our songs of pilgrimage as we approach its gates from east or west or north or south. In the Book of Revelation, the city New Jerusalem is itself the dwelling place of God. The numbers of this city suggest its permanence, its spatial dimensions; it is a city built foursquare, and with twelve gates facing equally the four corners of the earth.
The tabernacle has a different connotation. It is the tent in which God sojourns, the statement of God present with us in our time, in our journeying through deserts and migrations and changes of state. Its numbers are process numbers: threes, or fives, numbers that seem to encourage the mind to move on and continue the series. Its touch with the Divine is an awareness of our identity in God's eyes, where we are in our history. Nathan said to David when he had in mind the building of the temple,
'Thus says the LORD: Would you build me a house to
dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the people
of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for
my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel,
did I speak a word . . . saying "Why have you not built me a house of
2 Samuel 7:5-7.
The temple is here distinguished from the tent in which God moves with the people.
After the temple was destroyed and the people were in exile, both connotations, the return to that one place on earth, and the trust in God's dwelling with the people anywhere, took on special significance. In the Book of Revelation in the New Testament the temple is the image for the new heaven and new earth. In the gospels John uses the tabernacle word for dwelling in a tent when he says of the incarnation: "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). The Jewish tradition keeps this tabernacling meaning in its word for the Presence: the Shekinah, or literally, the dwelling in a tent.
The tabernacle is here, of course, not just one literal tent filled with the Lord's life. It is hard to conceive of God's taking satisfaction in dwelling in a tent or in a house or in any inanimate, unconscious form. The tabernacle is, however, a powerful symbol of God's dwelling among people. For the Christian its deepest meaning is the Divine Humanity itself, Jesus' life on earth, as John's wording indicates. In a more general sense it speaks of the receiving of the Divine by the human soul, making conscious, living minds in which God can delight and dwell. In this sense every human being is called to be a church or holy place, that is, a tabernacle of God, a means for the Divine influence to come into the world.
If we are each called to be a church or holy place, what do we need to do then, to bring it to reality? Material for the temple came from afar, from Lebanon, or even from "God out of Heaven" in Revelation 25:10. The materials for the building of the tabernacle in Exodus, however, came from the people themselves: good things of quite definite kinds which the Lord had given them. These they brought together according to the Divine pattern to receive the Lord's blessing. Every one of the materials Israel was to bring was already within them ready for them to offer to the Lord's ordering to find its meaning. A tabernacle, or a church, in which the Lord delights is not an unorganized throng of people, nor of feelings and thoughts within one person. Nor is it a band organized in a selfish way for selfish purposes. It is people who bring together their affections, experiences, knowledge, and powers, to be used, to receive and bring forth the Lord's life for good and for blessing. Constrained offerings of merely external, formal profession of religion contribute nothing here either. They are not receptive of the Lord's spirit of blessing. The offerings are genuine offerings, elements lifted up by "every one whose heart makes him willing" from love for the Lord and for the neighbor, and the order they receive from the Lord is their own genuine order, set free to function in harmony.
All the wealth of that list of materials is already there, in our inner person. The list itself is a catalog of wonder: gold, silver, and bronze, blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen, goats' hair, tanned rams' skins, goatskins, acacia wood, oil and spices, onyx stones, and stones for setting. Each image has its power. First come the precious metals: gold and silver and bronze. The rocks of the earth symbolize permanent, basic truths, such as that life is from God and not our own creation, or that all men die. Metals are mined from rock, but can be molded into many shapes. They are basic truths which depend for their shape upon circumstances, and are called laws. The gold needed for the tabernacle is awareness of the law of life from God, that is, of good, or love itself. The silver is awareness of the laws of usefulness to the neighbor, that is, of truth or wisdom, the form love takes in action. And the bronze, the copper made tough with tin, is the functional, natural good of a life of love and truth in the external world. The tabernacle is not built on arbitrary guesswork. It rests first on knowledge of these functional laws. The first step has to do with love, then, as the base for truth, as our living it makes love complete in action.
Blue and purple and scarlet stuff come next. The Lord as the center of love and light is the reality our sun symbolizes. The varied reception of this Divine love and light is spiritual color; the absence of it is darkness. Blue is like the dark of night lighted up with white, the color of wisdom and of heaven, of the lighting up of intelligence in the darkness of the mind. Blue-purple, the color mentioned here, is the kindling of intelligence from love to the Lord, or the heavenly love of truth. Scarlet is red lighted up with white or yellow. It represents the fire, or good of love, or the Lord's love brought out from its presence in the inner person into a more distinctly understood love for the influence of the Lord in human beings. The Hebrew speaks here of "double" scarlet, or mutual love, vividly apprehended. Purple is red and blue together. This purple, of the ancient dyes, was a red-purple, representing the warmth of love for the Lord, or the heavenly love of good. This beauty of color, the delight of the kindling of intelligence concerning things of God, is an essential element in this dwelling place of God with us. It is the law of love received with joy as we begin to be conscious of God's will to be at home in us.
The colors are followed by the white of fine twined linen. Its associations are with truth of celestial origin and with the clean "righteousness of saints" in which their lives are clothed (Rev. 19:8). Readiness to be cleansed and to be clean is part of preparation for God's dwelling. The colors of the cloth and the pure whiteness of the linen are set off by the black of goats' hair, that typical stuff of the Beduin black tents, signaling people on the move, or camped briefly for a season. The black wool is the practical external good of mutual helpfulness in learning from the Lord, or in this case, of tent protection for the traveler on the way of life.
The "tanning" of the rams' skins is literally in Hebrew "reddening," and recalls the red leather tent in which ancient Near Eastern desert tribes carried their sacred objects with them as they journeyed. A bas relief of such a small tent set on the back of a camel is carved in stone at the entrance of the ancient temple of Bel at Palmyra in the Syrian desert, and still shows traces of red paint on the stone. Together with these coverings of skins, the tough, fine-grained acacia wood for the frame is a realistically practical element, a strength of functional knowledge of the Lord as sustainer and protector in the immediate, down to earth stages of living. The sense of sacred reality within is important, but the wooden frame, the tough minded courage to see and to deal with practical daily issues without letting go of the sacred, is an equally essential strength for any actual tent or move.
Light for our seeing in the tabernacle is from olive oil in the lamp, that is the light of the genuine, unselfish goodness of the Lord's own mercy and healing power, not the light of selfish pride or enmity. And to bring the pure goodness with which the Lord blesses the dwelling place to distinct and pleasant consciousness, there are the perceptions of spices for the anointing oil, and prayers and songs of penitence and praise going up as spiritual incense. Finally there are the onyx and other precious stones for the ephod and breastpiece. These are specific and clearly defined doctrines concerning the Lord's kingdom, shining with the changing light of every varying shade of truth and love as new vision brings new insight.
This is a long list of specific meanings. It seems somehow too good to be true. Were nomads of that early time aware of all of this when they used their sacred tent? Doesn't the list read more like a kind of late and arbitrary game imposed by Worcester or Swedenborg? Is this just another scheme designed to give a sense of power to those who know the answers?
I think not. All ancient peoples seem to have had a sense of powers in the world around them. A living tree, the earth, a rock, a mountain, a flame of fire, each had its own distinctive power not to be taken lightly. I think of a recent sunset. Its power for me was not the series of colors and shapes. The same colors reproduced on film, or by a play of lights on fountains, are striking, but they do not break in on me with another dimension and make me listen. Ancient peoples knew meaning breaking in. They would not have used Swedenborg's 18th century western words to convey the meanings. We might not either. But his words are witness to the reality of that other side of experience. He brings to the conscious, verbal side of me a wealth of emotional reality. And I regain, in my inner world, at least a little of the wonder of real meaning in the nature of things, of which I had been deprived.
The implication of God's command to make the offering for the tabernacle, is that all these materials, all the essentials for the building of that holy center where God would dwell within the human heart, were already there in the possession of the people. They needed only to be brought to light, by being willingly offered to the Lord, to come to conscious power and meaning in a coherent whole. It is as if the typical black tent of some ordinary human journey were found to be furnished with treasure within, to be a habitation fit for the adventure of encounter with the Lord and King. It is like receiving a glorious, unexpected present.
If we let this section of Exodus speak to us as Word of God, we become aware of a wealth of varied gifts and experiences already within our inner person, ready to be brought to light. We have looked at the material in this catalog of wonder: the gold, silver, and bronze, the blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine white linen, the black goats' hair, red-tanned rams' skins, goatskins, acacia wood, oil and spices, onyx stones, and stones for setting. We have begun to speak of the symbolism of these materials. They have to do with love as the reason for truth, with awareness that love and truth must be actually received and lived in order to be understood.
They have to do with the stirring of beauty and excitement when the mind is lighted up with new insight, with the joy of cleanness, the fear and joy together of being ready for a move, the wonder of lighting a light, the pleasure of sudden awareness that smells good or shines like a gem, the flare of color in a desert place.
We have begun to speak of these symbolisms. And yet we know intuitively that there is no single, final meaning in any of these images. It is frightening in a sense to realize there is no one interpretation or authority to fall back on, to tell me the final meaning they should have for me or what my inner life is like. And yet, it is partly because of this that they are such powerful symbols of the realities of the inner life. They are not fixed. They are the essential materials for the sanctuary in which the Lord would dwell with me in my life journey. I must take the responsibility for letting them speak to me, to know the power of what my bronze or blue or pure white linen means for me. But if I hear these words, I can no longer avoid the knowledge that these things are there within. I sense their power to help me know the Presence of the living God, the kingdom of God "in the midst" of me.
What, then, does all this have to do with me in my life here and now?
I think for me, it is the gift of knowing who I am. It is the potential of looking to my origins and knowing the presence of my Creator dwelling with me. These offerings are not strange to me. I have a sense of the power of love and truth, of the color and fragrance and light added to life by new awareness, of the need and joy of cleansing, of the fact that I do move and grow, and of ways leading to unknown parts just now beginning to open before me in the journey of my growing. The promise of this account in Exodus is not that these are suddenly handed to me. We all have moments of insight like this. As isolated moments they often seem to give a momentary life, and then be gone. The promise here is that these aspects of my being belong together, giving a spiritual harmony to my experience. In these my Maker wills to dwell with me and be my strength, my Lord. I have a wealth within. I am alive not only to the outer world around me, but to the deeper levels of my life. I am prepared to go on the adventure of my life, to find the God who made me, and become myself.
Sit quietly a moment, and prayerfully. Recall the beginnings of the people of Israel, God's call to Moses, the exodus from Egypt, the covenant with God at Sinai that created a people conscious of its relationship with the Lord of history. Feel their sense of God's presence and God's power in history. Now keep this quiet and prayerful openness of mind, and ask God's blessing and protection on the openness, and recall the beginnings of your spiritual history, the moments that spoke to you of your relationship with the meaning of your history. Feel your sense of God's presence and God's power that have brought you to this moment.
And now read again the Lord's Word to Moses in Ex. 25:1-9, and hear it as spoken for you by the God who created you.
The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me an offering; from every man whose heart makes him willing you shall receive the offering for me. And this is the offering which you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen, goats' hair, tanned rams' skins, goatskins, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones, and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. According to all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it."
Lord, thank you that you made me and gave me life and love. Thank you that you will to dwell with me. Help me with my fear of finding so much within. There is so much I hardly know, and yet somehow I know that I am on a journey in my life, though its beginning and its ending are both beyond me. Help me with my fear of things too big for me. But thank you for that sense of meaning and of journey. I could not live without them. Thank you for the gift of hunger for your presence in my life. Thank you that I can trust myself to you and know that you go with me. Thank you, Lord. Amen.
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