The Tabernacle and the Law – Part 3

Dancing in the Kingdom – Table of Contents

Part 1 – Shadows of the Kingdom, Chapter 6 – A Nation Emerges

A set-apart people

[Bible references: Exodus 23; Leviticus 11, 17; Deuteronomy 14; Hebrews 4:1-13; 10:24-25]

What does it mean to be created in the image of a holy God? What do we mean when we say, “God is holy?” We first encounter the term in Genesis 2:3 when God indicates that the seventh day will be made holy, the seventh day was to be set apart from the other days. When Moses encountered God’s presence in a burning bush, Moses was told to remove his sandals because the ground was holy. It was also God’s intention to make Israel a holy nation, set apart from other nations and through which all the nations on earth would be blessed.

There were a couple of ways in which the nation of Israel would be distinguished from the nations around them, the food, and the calendar. There were some restrictions of the food they could eat such as certain meats, fish, birds, and insects, but the calendar provides the most distinguishing difference. While some cultures had recognized a 7-day calendar, it was the Israelites who set aside the seventh day of the week as a Sabbath on which no work was supposed be done. But that is not the only distinguishing characteristic of the calendar.

In the present day we have a universal calendar, and we have a priority for journalistic chronology. That is, we remember historical events on the particular day that the events happened according to our calendar. It is important for us to track events in the chronological order in which they happened. However, there are a few exceptions that we should note. Sometimes we set our remembrance day according to our convenience – for instance, we always celebrate days such as Martin Luther King’s birthday, not on his actual birth date, but always on a Monday because of our priority for extended weekends.

For the Israelite calendar, the priority was not chronology but liturgy. The remembrance days for events were not set according to the actual historical date on which they occurred but were set according to the liturgical calendar. This practice become clear when you trace out the timing of events in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Hebrew Bible) and compare them to the remembrance dates. It was more important to have events in the context of God’s activity rather than the contexts of the events themselves.

This concept provides the background for celebration of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was such an important concept for the Jews, that the account of creation in Genesis 1 was used to present the concept of Sabbath.[1] When we think about God’s creating activities, God did not need six days to carry out creation, nor did he need to rest. So why do set up the remembrance of God’s creation in a 7-day timeframe? Once again, the important point is not the chronology but the liturgy.

The important point about the creation event was not the event itself, but what it was for. The purpose of creation was to create a “temple,” a place where God could “rest,” that is, “be” with his people. That’s the main point. There are tasks to be done of course as we join God in his creative work in the universe, but the point of the tasks is to be with God. When you look at Genesis 1-2, you will notice that the first six days have a defined beginning and end, an evening, and a morning. The seventh day does not have a defined closing – that implies that we are in the seventh day. This day we are in, the age we are in, is the “day” that we “rest” with God. It was intended at the beginning that all our activities done with, at rest with, God.

This brings us to a second distinguishing characteristic of the Jewish Biblical calendar: the first month was during the spring equinox, harvesting time, whereas in the surrounding cultures the first month of the calendar was set in the fall equinox, crop planting time. The difference in meaning was that since Israel’s year started with God’s work, the year begins God’s provision of the harvest which fed the nation and provided seed for the fall. This contrasted to the surrounding cultures which began their calendar with their work, so their year began with their work that provided for the next harvest.[2]

What can be confusing is that in current practice, Jews do not use the biblical (or liturgical) calendar but the civil calendar which places the first month in the fall instead of the spring. Christians do have an equivalent practice: our civil calendar begins in January, which was set by the Roman government and coincided with Roman elections whereas some in the Christian community observe a liturgical calendar which begins in the fall with the season of Advent.

The liturgical focus of the calendar with its de-emphasis of the chronology of historical events helps explain some interesting discontinuities and apparent conflicts in the Biblical text. If we allow the events described in Exodus to be interpreted liturgically instead of chronologically, we can make better sense of the flow of Exodus.

One of the “apparent conflicts” occurs in Exodus 19, as the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai. At the beginning of the chapter, Yahweh made a covenant similar to the one with Abraham and declared that they were to be a “kingdom of priests,” and that they were to prepare to go up the mountain after the sounding of the ram’s horn. And yet, at the end of the same chapter, Yahweh told Moses to not let the people, even the(people designated to be) priests, to go up the mountain. By noticing such apparent conflicts, we can better chronologically rearrange the events in Exodus so that they make better sense to chronologically minded folks such as we are.

A possible chronological arrangement of events looks like:[3]

  • The initial, Abrahamic-like covenant was given (including building earthen altars) followed by the Decalogue (10 Commandments)
  • The golden calf incident occurred
  • There was a covenant renewal
  • The code for priests was given along with instructions for building a tabernacle
  • Another incident with idols, this time goats, was documented
  • A Holiness code was given to the people
  • The covenant is renewed again

While the rearrangement may help us who are chronologically minded make better sense of the text, in the end we are left with Israel now being a nation with priests and the community centering its worship around a large tent called the Tabernacle. The liturgical intent of the text as it is written, is to focus on the final outcome, that Israel will be a nation with priests serving a holy God who may reside among them but who is not directly accessible.

Worship at the tabernacle was a community event. No one could do this by themselves. Different people were assigned to different tasks, which not only included direct involvement in worship but also in the care of the tabernacle and its furnishings. Even one’s individual sins required the use of priest to handle the sacrifice. Before the tabernacle, offerings could be made by anyone, but with the tabernacle, only designated priests could perform the sacrificial offerings.

This arrangement continues the pattern of representing the holiness of God in creation. God’s image-bearing creatures are set aside from all other creatures; Sinful humans are separated from the Garden of Eden; Noah and his family are set aside in the ark from all other people; Abraham is set aside from all other people to usher in the blessing of all people; Moses is set apart from the other Israelites to see God face-to-face; the Levites are the tribe set apart from the other tribes to manage the care of the tabernacle; the priests are set apart from the other Levites to carry out the rituals in the tabernacle; the Sabbath from all the other days as a reminder of God’s provision, in particular his provision for rest – and the list goes on.


[1] LeFebvre, Michael. “The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context”

[2] LeFebvre, Michael. “The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context”

[3] Sailhammer, John. “Introduction to Old Testament Theology” (Appendix b)

Author: transcendenttouched

I have been teaching the Bible to children and adults for over twenty years. Most recently, including teaching Discipleship/Confirmation classes. I have also been involved in various church leadership roles for many of those years. Until recently, my writing endeavors have been confined mainly to poetry. I've written an anthology of my first 40 years of writing poetry in my book, Growing. I have also written an overview of the Bible called, God Reveals Himself.

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