III. The Use of the Tabernacle to the Jews
The Tabernacle of Israel, by George de Charms, 1969
God is the infinite Creator of the universe. He is the Source of all life, of all activity and motion. He is present everywhere, perpetually creating new things, and perpetually preserving in existence things created. It cannot be otherwise because He is the only Substance, the All in all things, both great and small. He governs the movements of the stars in their appointed orbits, and with absolute precision, moves with unimaginable speed the protons and electrons of which the seemingly dead atoms of matter are composed. Such a cosmic conception of the Divine Omnipresence will admit of no limitation. Wherever anything exists, there God must be. It is this that is so poetically expressed by the Psalmist in the words, "Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend into heaven Thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me." (Psalm 139:7-10)
We encounter an intellectual difficulty therefore in thinking of the tabernacle as a special or peculiar dwelling place of God. Solomon, at the dedication of the temple, gives expression to it: "Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold the heaven, and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee; how much less this house that I have builded." (1 Kings 8:27) How then can a tent be a dwelling place of God?
The Hebrews certainly conceived of the tabernacle as the localized abode of deity. Indeed, the idea of God as abiding in a specific place is found in all ancient religions. There are traces in every primitive race of the belief in a supreme Being, the Ruler of all the gods, Infinite, Uncreate and Omnipresent. But at the time of Moses this Being was unknown. He was thought of as invisible, intangible, remote, and inaccessible to men. He was not a Being to be worshiped or invoked. It was the lesser divinities, of whom there were many, who took an active part in human affairs, whose favor could be secured through ritualistic observances, and whose wrath could be averted by propitiatory sacrifices. Those with whom practical religion was associated, were idols conceived as local gods, restricted in operation to some specific country or place. Each was claimed as the special protector of a particular family or nation. Each must be sought out in his own favorite haunt if communication with him were to be effectively established, and there he must be approached by the formularies dictated by age-old religious custom. Such places became sacred by virtue of some miraculous manifestation of Divine power or some supernatural appearance of the god. The place itself, by its familiar surroundings, recalled to mind the god who had made himself visible there. The rituals with which he was invoked had their origin in a representation of the deity, or of his special qualities and attributes by which his presence could be invoked as if by the association of ideas. Here we have the origin of the oracles and shrines recorded in ancient history. Perhaps it was a mountain, a tree or a grove, in which the local god had taken his abode. If there were no natural marks by which the spot where he had appeared could unmistakably be known, perhaps a pillar was erected there to his memory, or in later times a temple might be built and dedicated to him. But in any case, wherever the god had chosen to reveal himself, there was his natural abode, and this was the only place where he could properly be worshiped.
Because the Infinite God cannot be limited in space, to ascribe to Him a particular place would seem to be entirely unwarranted. For this reason, supposed appearances of God have been ascribed by Biblical scholars to the superstitious imagination of primitive peoples. They are said to have had their origin in the fact that men, unable to fathom the secret operation of natural law, ascribed supernatural powers to any object or event which seemed wonderful, strange, or awe-inspiring. Men must have passed frequently through experiences which were bewildering and terrifying, before they had acquired sufficient scientific knowledge or rational philosophy to provide a reasonable explanation for such things. It is only to be expected that they should attach to these remarkable experiences undue importance and imagine them to be Divine manifestations. Therefore this worship of local gods is supposed to have no basis in fact, but to represent merely the first groping after religious truth by people struggling up from the abysmal darkness of savagery.
However, if such a theory is accepted, it must be applied to the Jews as well as to other nations. It would discredit the whole story of the appearance of Jehovah to Moses on Mount Sinai, on the supposition that that story had been written at a much later date, based on traditions that were entirely unfounded. But if this were the case, how can the unique development of religion among the sons of Israel be explained? There is nothing in their historic background to account for it. Certainly, the exalted utterances ascribed to Moses, and later to such great prophets as Isaiah and Jeremiah, bear testimony to a concept of God and of religion far in advance of anything to be found among contemporary peoples. It is true that in many respects the sons of Israel also were idolators. They conceived of Jehovah as a local or national God who had appeared to Moses, had given him the stone tables of the Decalogue, and had made a covenant with them as His chosen people. The tables of stone were the perpetual token of this appearance, and a perpetual reminder of the covenant. The tabernacle was built to serve as a sacred repository of the Law. The only difference between this and the shrines of other nations was that the tables of the Decalogue could be moved from place to place, and still provide access to Jehovah.
That the worship performed in the tabernacle was not regarded as different in kind from that of other nations, is evident from the fact that the sons of Israel repeatedly fell into the idolatrous customs of the surrounding countries. Only by repeated punishments could they be induced to maintain the purity of their own worship.
Nevertheless it cannot be denied that the Jewish people did develop a theology incomparably superior to that of other nations. From what source was this derived, if not from Divine revelation? There is nothing inherent in the Hebrew character to account for it. As a people they were far less cultured than were the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks, or the Romans. For two hundred and fifty years they had been slaves, treated with contempt, and deprived of every advantage of education. Their wanderings in the wilderness were not conducive to intellectual development. They demonstrated no outstanding creative ability, and no inventive genius. A less auspicious material out of which to build a strong and aggressive nation, can hardly be imagined. How they could produce unaided, so remarkable a building as the tabernacle, or such exalted literature as is found in the prophesies of Isaiah, is almost beyond belief.
The Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, however, explain this strange phenomenon by establishing the actual appearance of Jehovah to Moses as an historic fact. They teach that religion did not arise out of superstitious imaginings of ignorant primitive people. There actually is a God, and He does reveal Himself to men. He did so from the beginning of time. He made His presence manifest in specific places, and thereby established shrines, at which His further presence could be invoked. He actually abode with men in groves, in caves, upon mountains, or at pillars and altars of stone erected by men. But how can this be understood?
God is indeed present everywhere in creation; but His presence in nature is not seen. Where He is not seen, He is, as it were absent. Where He is seen, he is said to be present in a special sense.1 Man alone can see God. Only by the human mind can He be consciously perceived, and there alone can He be worshiped. In ancient times God revealed Himself to men in visions and dreams, and these were associated with places. Such places were regarded as holy, and men returned to them in the hope that communication with God might be repeated. They invoked such a presence by prayers and rituals of worship. The memories connected with such a holy place invited Divine influx and presence. Is this not still true? Do not church buildings, dedicated to worship and hallowed by the sphere of worship oft repeated, open the mind to the perception of spiritual truth?
God can reveal Himself to man only if man is willing to seek His presence. Love is the light of the mind, and only those in whom is the love of God, can see God. This is plainly taught by the Lord Himself in the Book of Revelation: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me." (Revelation 3:20) Only so long as men were willing to seek the Lord's presence could He reveal Himself. When they turned their hearts and their minds away from Him to the things of self and the world, He was hidden from their view. The key to His presence was man's willingness to see Him, to know Him, and to obey His will; and a state conducive to His appearance could be induced by an appropriate environment.2
This explains how Jehovah could have appeared to Moses, at the burning bush (Exodus Chapter 3) and later on Mount Sinai. But this was at a time when all men had turned away from God, and when the ancient oracles had been used to deceive the people, and induce them to believe that a god had appeared. If He were to appear to the sons of Israel, they must be inspired to seek His presence, and to become subject to His will. To this end they were led into Egypt, reduced to bondage, and held in ignorance for many generations. Only when they had been reduced into a state receptive of Divine guidance could they be delivered by miraculous power, and brought to Sinai. There they saw the fiery cloud, and heard the thunder, and were filled with awe. Although they were not capable of spiritual vision, they could then be led by the fear of punishment, and the hope of reward, to obey with meticulous care, the commands of Jehovah given through Moses. They could be brought to accept the covenant by which Jehovah promised to lead them, protect them, and give them victory over their enemies, if only they would obey His Law. When all this preparation had been made, a new, truly representative worship would be instituted among them. The tabernacle was actually seen by Moses in spiritual vision, and was built according to specifications received from heaven. The tables of the Law were placed in the holy of holies, and served as the medium of Divine communication because they testified to the appearance of Jehovah on Mount Sinai. So long then as the sons of Israel obeyed the covenant, and by their worship invited the Lord to enter, He could communicate with Moses and Aaron from behind the veil. The camp of Israel, ordered by Divine command, with the tabernacle in its center, became the "place," the natural environment, that conditioned the minds of the congregation to receive the Divine presence. For the time being, the tabernacle became in reality the dwelling place of God, the one place on earth where He was truly present with men, although even there He was not seen, but spoke out of the darkness of the holy of holies.