Monday, March 24, 2008

The Lord Forgives? Exodus 35-40

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

If there's anything duller than an instruction manual, it's a riveting blow-by-blow account of the Lord's favourite manual labourers, Bezalel of Uri and Oholiab of Ahisamach, as they move through the instructions and create the desired "tabernacle."

Moses begins by prescribing an absolute day of rest on the Sabbath. It occurs to me that the purpose of this is not simply a purity regulation intended to mimic and honour God's own day of rest (it is this too, but even God's day of rest was clearly theologically unnecessary, so there must be some other purpose). A day of rest from which no one, even a slave, can at any time ever be exempted is, like the requirements for free agriculture in the seventh year, a check against exploitation. Unlike, for example, the Seventh Commandment on adultery, the commandment on the Sabbath is notably free of exceptions. This, perhaps, is part of why Jesus was critical of the Jewish establishment in the New Testament, alleging that they had perverted the Sabbath; at that time the Sabbath was misused to prevent charity to the poor and needy.

Afterwards, Moses issues essentially a fundraising call. Interestingly, all the necessary provisions for the Tabernacle are to be provided through "free-will offerings"; there is no flat-tax imposed by God or by Moses or by anyone else. And these free-will offerings are provided by both men and women; the Bible is quite careful to specify that "all who were willing, men and women alike," contributed to the project. It is an interesting moment in the early history of a system which is systematically precluding women from any interaction with the divine. Ultimately the people bring too much and Moses orders them to cease their donations.

With the Tent of Meeting completed, Aaron and his sons are brought and anointed. Aaron, as originally promised, becomes high priest. It's a peculiar choice - you'd think God could find someone better than the ringleader of the golden calf affair, but apparently not. All is forgiven, at least for Aaron, presumably.

God makes another interesting choice: he orders that the high priesthood is to be a hereditary office held by Aaron's descendants. Why? During Genesis, God routinely displayed blatant contempt for traditional inheritance rights; virtually all of his chosen patriarchs aren't the eldest son, and some of them actively conspire against the eldest son. Moses doesn't even have a father - at least not one worthy of mention, anyways. What has persuaded God that a traditional inheritance structure has regained its worth?

Once all the requisite rituals have been performed, the Bible records that God's magic cloud descended upon the tabernacle and his "glory... filled the tabernacle." God's presence was so overwhelming that at first even Moses couldn't make his way in. Strangely, Exodus closes with the optimistic claim that from that day forth, God's cloud traveled with the Israelites, guiding them in their wandering; "the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels." God seems to have calmed down enough to travel with the Israelites after all. It's a touching moment.