Covenant Through New Eyes: Part 6 – The World of the Tabernacle
Welcome to our next installment of the “Covenant Through New Eyes Series” here at St. Anne’s Manor. In Part 5 we examined “The World of the Patriarchs”. Following the pattern set forth in James B. Jordan’s work Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World we saw God remake the world from the world of Noah to the world of the patriarchs. The pattern that Jordan sets out is that of: Exodus, Establishment, Symbolism, and History and Decline.
The exodus that occurred to begin the world of the patriarchs was God’s call to Abraham bringing him out of Ur and into the promised land. The phase of establishment for the patriarchal world centered around the land and we see this progressively take place throughout the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the sons of Israel. The symbols of the patriarchal world were those of: stars, dust, altars, pillars, trees and wells. Finally, we saw the history and decline of the world of the patriarchs in the growth the of the children of Israel in Egypt and their consequent enslavement.
As previously noted, the decline of one world naturally leads into an exodus to a new world. In today’s case, the “exodus” that occurs is, well, The Exodus of Israel from Egypt.
We mentioned last time that the internal polity of God’s people (Israel) in the world of the Patriarchs was a patriarchy. It should come as no surprise to us then that this form of polity began to wear out when Israel grew into a large nation in Egypt. Jordan states that, “Eventually there were too many people to be ruled by simple clan structures.” (pg. 197).
In Part 2 of this series we examined the actions God undertakes in bringing about a new covenant world. We saw that God first lays hold of his creation, second breaks down his creation, third restructures his creation, and fourth gives his new creation a new name. When God brought Israel down to Egypt in the story of Joseph we see the initial taking hold take place. In subjugating His people to Egyptian slavery God breaks His creation down. In bringing his people out of Israel and making covenant with them at Sinai we see God restructure His creation and gives them a new name.
The word of the Tabernacle is extremely rich in its symbolism and polity. Thus we will spend much of today’s post examining the various legal, political and symbolic aspects of the Tabernacle’s world before examining the Tabernacle itself as symbol.
The Mosaic Law
The first thing we must do before diving into the world of the Tabernacle is to better understand the Mosaic Law. In our day the Mosaic Law is deeply misunderstood. James Jordan says that most Christians today believe that God’s law “was harsh, was impossible to obey, and is irrelevant to us today.” (pg. 199) But we will see that each of these is a deep misconception.
Jordan points out that God is a God of love and that the laws he gave to Israel were not intended to be either cruel or unreasonable. The laws that God gave to Israel on Mount Sinai were intended to breed love, joy and peace amongst God’s people.
If they seem harsh to us, it is either because we have misinterpreted them, or because we are still looking at them from a secular humanistic perspective. We dare not, however, judge the Bible by our own modern standards. (pg. 199)
The belief that God’s law was too difficult for any Israelite to obey or keep is also confronted by Jordan. He notes how the Bible even gives us examples of Israelites who were “righteous” and “walking blamelessly” in “all” the commandments of God. (Zacharias and Elizabeth, Luke 1:6).
Clearly, the law could be kept, and was kept by many godly people. True, they were not perfect, but they kept the law by bringing sacrifices to cover their sins. (pg. 199, emphasis mine)
Finally, Jordan confronts the false belief that the law is irrelevant for us today. Jordan notes how Paul alludes to the law in Galatians 3 & 4. Paul says that God’s people in the Old Covenant were like Children and that the law acted like a tutor to God’s children. “The law, then, was a ‘simplified accommodation’ for children” (pg. 199). Jordan then goes on to explain how we are to expect more from adults than we do from Children because adults have greater responsibilities than children. “Thus, the New Covenant law is actually much tougher to obey, because it makes so many demands on our inward attitudes.” (pg. 199) (see Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5–7)
Many Christians confuse the Mosaic law with the rabbinical traditions of Judaism. This is why they believe that the Mosaic law was impossible for God’s people to keep. (pg. 199) But Jesus explains that the Rabbinical traditions were a “heavy yoke” on God’s people (Matthew 15:1–20; Mark 7:1–23; Acts 15:10; Matthew 23:4). He spent much of his earthly ministry calling God’s people back to the Mosaic law; an “easy yoke” (Matthew 5:20–48; 11:29–30).
When we think about the Mosaic law we must think about it Biblically. Rather than assuming there were too many laws for God’s people we should look at what the Mosaic law actually teaches. The law teaches that God’s people could become “unclean” for differing periods of time depending on differing levels of uncleanness. Being unclean served as an inconvenience for God’s people only if they needed to present a sacrifice to the priest at the Tabernacle. However, if they had no need to present a sacrifice at the Tabernacle then being unclean until sundown or until you performed a ritual cleansing did not serve as a “heavy burden”.
The rules and regulations regarding the presentation of sacrifices were for the priesthood and not all Israelites. The Israelites never actually offered sacrifices to God, this was the job of the priesthood and after a certain amount of time the complexity of the law would not have been difficult for them to follow. Jordan offers an analogy between the job of a Levitical priest and that of a modern day car repairman. When comparing the book of Leviticus with car repair volumes it’s easy to see that the job of a priest was not impossible. Further, if a car repairman can find fulfillment and joy in his heavily detailed work, it is not difficult to imagine that a priest of the Old Covenant could find the same.
Non of this is to say that the sacrificial services of the Mosaic law still apply to us. “The sacrifice of Jesus Christ replaces all the sacrifices of Moses.” (pg. 201) But, it is important that we do not make a caricature of God’s word by simply ignoring its seemingly tedious portions. Along the same lines, however, the fact that the sacrifices of the Mosaic law are no longer applicable does not mean that the law is no longer relevant. Jordan offers a proper approach to the Mosaic law for Christians near the end of this section in Through New Eyes:
A proper approach to the Mosaic law asks four questions. First, it asks what this law meant in the Old Covenant. Second, it asks how this law was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Third, it asks how this law is to be fulfilled in the Church, which is in union with Christ. And fourth, it asks what relevance his law may have in shaping wider society outside the Church. If we keep such a procedure in mind, the Mosaic laws can be of great value to us; and we can avoid the dangers of legalism on the one side, and antinomianism on the other. (pg. 201)
The Mosaic Polity
Now that we've debunked some misconceptions about the Mosaic law we can now move on to a study of the new polity and symbolism of the world of the Tabernacle. Jordan claims that the Mosaic polity was hinted at while Israel was still in Egypt. Israel had no civil order while in Egypt but they were lead by elders. Under the Mosaic law an official polity was put in place. There was an establishment of both ecclesiastical and civil polity under the Mosaic law which separated the “church” and “state” in key legal ways.
Jordan notes how “[t]he sacrificial worship, focused at the three annual festivals, was centralized at the Tabernacle.” (pg. 203) We noted earlier that the sacrificial worship was performed only by the priests who were assisted by the Levites. An important but often overlooked aspect of the world of the Tabernacle was that of the synagogue. While sacrificial worship centered in the Tabernacle, weekly adherence to the sabbath centered around decentralized synagogues. (Dueteronomy 14:27, 29; Judges 17:7; 19:1) (pg. 203). These decentralized network of synagogues served as houses of prayer, worship and teaching throughout Israel where sacrifices did not take place (204).
The Symbolic Polity
The symbolism in the world of the Tabernacle can easily elude the modern eye. When an average American (myself included) reads Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy things can get a little dry pretty quickly. Long, detailed passages about how each tribe of Israel was stationed around the Tabernacle don’t immediately resonate. Further, even an interior designer might find the description of the Tabernacle laborious. Yet Jordan shows how these very things are central to the symbolism of the world of the Tabernacle.
In the first chapters of Numbers Israel is described as God’s army. This army is then strategically stationed around the Tabernacle. Throughout the Mosaic law we find two preeminent points of emphasis: the people of Israel and the Tabernacle. In both instances we have God “building houses.” Jordan quotes Meredith G. Kline at length to illumine this theme in Through New Eyes:
House-building, as depicted in Exodus, is of two kinds. There is first the structuring of the people themselves into a formally organized house of Israel…having narrated the building of this living house of God’s habitation, the Book of Exodus continues with an account of the building of the other, more literal house of Yahweh, the tabernacle…Though a more literal house than the living house of Israel, the tabernacle-house was designed to function as symbolical of the other; the kingdom-people-house was the true residence of God (a concept more fully explored and spiritualized in the New Testament). The Book of Exodus closes by bringing together these two covenant-built houses in a summary statement concerning Yahweh’s abiding in the glory-cloud in his tabernacle-house “in the sight of all the house of Israel” (Ex. 40:34-38). (pg. 205)
What we can gain from this is that the Tabernacle is the symbol for this covenant world; thus the name: “the world of the Tabernacle”. Jordan estimates that there are five key symbolic aspects of the Tabernacle:
- The Tabernacle was a house for God.
- The Tabernacle symbolized the heavens and the earth.
- The Tabernacle was a holy mountain.
- The Tabernacle symbolized the body politic of Israel at this stage of history.
- The Tabernacle symbolized the righteous individual person, and as such was a type of Christ.
The Tabernacle as God’s House
Every aspect of the Tabernacle that is described in The Book of Leviticus mirrors what a house of the ancient world would have looked like. At the very center of the Tabernacle was God’s throne room, the Most Holy Place. The Holy Place “was the living area of the tent.” In the Holy Place there was a table with bread on it, a lamp that gave light, and an incense platform. The “kitchen” was just outside the Tabernacle, just like the kitchen of most houses in the ancient world was not in the center of the house. In every detail of the Tabernacle it was made clear to Israel that God had come to live with them!
The Tabernacle as Cosmic House
The Tabernacle was also symbolic of heaven and earth. The reason we can know this is because the Bible teaches that “Heaven was God’s throne, and the earth His footstool (Isaiah 66:1; Matthew 5:35; Acts 7:49)” (pg. 207). This means that if God dwelt in the Tabernacle then it was a symbol of heaven and earth. But this is not the only example. In the original creation God created a “three storied world”. There was the highest heavens, the heavens (or firmament) and the earth below. Each of these “levels” is portrayed in the Tabernacle:
The Most Holy Place itself was a model of the highest heavens, with the firmament or earthly heavens pictured in the Holy Place, and the earth pictured in the courtyard. The courtyard altar was the holy mountain that reached toward the sky…Associated with the holy mountain was the laver of cleansing, which means that the laver is to be connected with the waters of Eden (Genesis 2:10-14). As we pass through the firmament-heavens of the Holy Place, we come to a second altar, which is as it were a second ladder stretching from the firmament-heavens to the highest heavens. Beyond the cherubic second veil, behind this golden altar was the Most Holy Place, the Highest Heavens. (pg. 207)
The symbolism of this "three storied world" is almost unending throughout the scriptures. Space does not permit us to highlight all the different ways it is hinted at in the Tabernacle. That said, it is a rich symbolic lens through which to view the world of the Tabernacle, and indeed all other covenant worlds God has created.
The Tabernacle as Holy Mountain
The Tabernacle embodies Mount Sinai. “When the people left Mount Sinai, the took the Mountain with them.” (pg. 213). This can be seen in many different ways. The glory cloud that came down over Sinai lead Israel through the wilderness and they set up the Tabernacle wherever the glory cloud stopped. The ten commandments that God gave to Israel on Mount Sinai were kept in the Arch of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle. We can also see similarities in the fact that only Moses ascended to the top of Sinai, just like only the high priest is to go into the Most Holy Place. Likewise, only the elders of Israel were allowed to come halfway up the Mountain just like only the priesthood can enter the Holy Place. The Mountain was a place where Heaven and earth met and the same is true of the Tabernacle.
The Tabernacle as Symbol of the Body Politic
As noted in the lengthy Meredith Kline quotation above, the Tabernacle was a symbol of God’s people. This is evidenced in the “cleansing” of the Tabernacle that took place whenever the people sinned. “The more unclean the people became, the more unclean the Tabernacle, its furniture, vessels, curtains, pillars, etc. became. To cleanse the Tabernacle, then, symbolized cleansing the people (cp. Exodus 24:4, 8).” (pg. 214) This symbolism deepens in complexity:
If the High Priest sinned, blood had to be sprinkled on the Ark in the Most Holy Place (Leviticus 16:11-14). If a regular priest sinned, blood was sprinkled on the veil and on the golden altar in the Holy Place (Leviticus 4:1-21)…If a citizen sinned, blood was put on the courtyard altar (Leviticus 4:22-35).” (pg. 215)
Joran notes that understanding the Tabernacle as a symbol of Israel opens up a number of fascinating correlations to the reader. Again, this symbolism often eludes the modern eye because of the rampant individualism of our day.
The Tabernacle as Human Person
This final claim that Jordan makes is perhaps the most difficult one to grasp. Jordan claims that the differing parts of the tabernacle represent different parts of “the righteous man.” However, Jordan claims that we should not go about this in a simplistic manner as though the Most Holy Place is the head and the courtyard is the feet. Rather,
[T]he Tabernacle symbolized the person in a more holistic fashion. The Most Holy Place symbolized the innermost part of the man, both head and heart. The Holy Place had to do with the senses, while the courtyard had to do with the outer man, the skin. (pg. 216)
The Holy Place easily portrays this by the furniture therein. There was an altar of incense (smell), a table of bread (taste) and a lamp (sight); the senses are everywhere. The fact that the Ark contained the law which “was to be written on the heart,” as well as other items picturing communion with God and leadership sheds light on it representing the head and the heart. Finally, Jordan notes that the courtyard was representative of the “outer life” of the righteous man because it showed how his worship was public and not private. (pg. 217)
In conclusion, this post was one of the more difficult ones for me to contain in terms of word count. If you've made it this far I thank you for sticking with me! One of the reasons this post needed to be so long was due to the large section defending the Mosaic law. Once we were able to get through that we were able to move on the the polity and symbolism of the world of the Tabernacle which centered around the Tabernacle. When you compare the symbolism of the world of the Tabernacle to the world of the Patriarchs it’s easy to see that things are gaining in complexity. This is the way it’s supposed to be. God wants his world to move from glory to glory. As we move into the world of the Temple next week we will see that the symbolism only gets richer.
Food for thought.