I am currently reading the Book of Exodus. I remember teaching this peculiar book to high school students. All showed interest in the exodus narrative, some in the sojourn narrative, and none in the Sinai narrative. I guess contemporary Americans are not much different than ancient Israelites: we greet liberation, grumble in the wilderness, and groan under law.
My students whined about the needless repetition of content regarding the tabernacle. A closer examination of the text reveals that something awesome is happening, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann points out in his book, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination:
In Exodus 25:1-31:18, Moses receives instructions directly from YHWH concerning the arrangement of a “holy place” that will be adequate for the habitation of the Holy One in the midst of Israel. These chapters constitute a series of commands that are matched, not precisely but in great detail in Exodus 35:1-40:38, with the report that Moses obeyed the commands of 25:1-31:18 exactly, and thereby constructed an adequate shrine for YHWH. The verification of Moses’ exacting obedience is the culminating report of 40:34-38, attesting that YHWH’s glory did indeed come to abide in the tabernacle in the midst of Israel. Thus Moses, in addition to being the great Torah interpreter, becomes the great guarantor of YHWH’s presence in Israel.
This textual observation makes me realize, once again, that nothing is incidental or irrelevant in Scripture.
Three decisive motifs are at work in the Book of Exodus: deliverance, covenant, and presence. Regarding this last motif, Bruggemann has helped me to understand why so much detail is rehearsed in the text on the tabernacle:
The Priestly tradition knows that hosting the Holy One is no small, trivial, or casual undertaking. And therefore the practice of symmetry, order, discipline, and beauty is essential to the reality of God’s presence in Israel. This corpus of text on presence requires that interpretation not neglect the demanding reality of YHWH’s holiness, a neglect to which a technological, pragmatic society is immensely open.
Once I read this passage, I started to ask myself the kind of questions that easily upset the fragile ecclesiology of Evangelicals. Do our churches show that “hosting the Holy One is no small, trivial, or casual undertaking”? Where, if at all, do our churches show “the practice of symmetry, order, discipline, and beauty is essential to the reality of God’s presence”? If such practice is absent, why? Have our churches neglected “the demanding reality of YHWH’s holiness” because they conform to “a technological, pragmatic society” rather than challenge it with the superfluities of beauty?
In the opinion of this ecclesial aesthete, the tabernacles of American Evangelicalism – Willow Creek Community Church (South Barrington, Illinois), Lakewood Church (Houston, Texas), and Saddleback Church (Lake Forest, California) – are not holy places for the Holy One. What philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff says about American cities could apply just as well to most Evangelical churches: they are “dehumanizing wastelands of aesthetic squalor, dominated by the demands of the automobile.” Evangelicals have rarely shown the “exacting obedience” of Moses in their role as host to the divine presence. This aesthetic negligence turns out to be spiritual negligence.
Far too often beauty is sacrificed on the altar of efficiency. Was it efficient for Bishop Fulbert to direct the building of Chartres Cathedral in France? No, but he and others recognized the human need for beauty – a need as profound as the need for truth because both are attributes of God. I contend that it is time for Evangelicals to quit their ad hocery in order to construct liturgy that does not assimilate to popular music and architecture that does not assimilate to shopping malls and athletic stadiums.
Lest I judge Evangelicals too harshly, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Reformed, and Lutheran Christians are tempted to hide behind their ornamental architecture and elaborate liturgy, not examining whether their own posture toward the Holy One is “small, trivial, or casual.”
All Christians – high church and low church – should aspire to construct worthy tabernacles, both inside and outside ourselves. For “tabernacle” qualifies as a verb as much as a noun.