God Instructs the Israelites to Build Him a Highly Adorned Sanctuary Why? Terumah: Exodus 25


God Instructs the Israelites to build Him a highly adorned portable sanctuary, a mishkan. Some commentators seem to be embarrassed by the extravagance and tend to downplay the adornment and the quality of the materials. As Dena Weiss writes, “The mishkan is a fitting home for God not because of its expensive materials and fine appearance, but because it was built by, and placed in the midst of God’s people.” (my italics) But the section opens with verse after verse of the expensive materials: gold, silver, brass, expensive dyed materials of blue, purple and scarlet made from goat’s hair and ram’s skins, sealskins and acacia wood, oil for the lights scented with expensive spices, onyx stones in the ephod and breastplate. (Exodus 25:3-7) Only then does God say (25:8) that the purpose of the sanctuary is so that God can live among the people.

To get a sense of the value of the material used, look at the issue of the use of goat hair for the sanctuary. It is self-evident that this was not the outer hair of the goat that was coarse and usually black and used to make the tents for the Israelites. Black outer hair was a very functional material since the wool expanded in rain and provided waterproofing while it insulated the interior from the hot sun and contained the heat in the cold nights of winter. But it was coarse.

The goat’s wool used for the mishkan was the underwool, the layer beneath the outer coarse hair of the goat’ It was the much more valuable wool because it was half the width of the outer coarse hair (15 versus 30 microns) and akin to cashmere (from Kashmir goats) and angora. It is the wool used to make pashminas in Pakistan and India. Some experts speculate that Abraham brought with him from Mesopotamia these valuable goats with the fine underwool and that provided the source for his quick and vast increase in wealth.

We know throughout history that red and purple dyes, the dyes of royalty, are very expensive as well. Since the underwool tended to be white, it was far more suitable for dying than grey or darker wool such as mohair. In Oaxaca, we learned that second to the silver mines of the new world, the largest source of wealth for the Spaniards was the import of dyes from cochineal and “cochineal became increasingly important to royal finances.” (Amy Butler Greenfield, A Perfect Red, p. 105) In other words, the value of the mishkan was not simply in the overlay of the arc and the staves with pure gold and the crown of gold, but the cloth, the dyes, the incense, the skins and the quality of wood used in its construction. The bluish-purple dyes were likely derived from a substance extracted from molluscs as a parallel to the cochineal dyes.

What about the tachash covering the tabernacle that is translated as sealskin? Whether or not it is sealskin, it refers to a highly valued material. In Ezekiel 16:10, God is referred to as making his wife (Israel) sandals of tachash to wear as well as dressing Israel in valuable silks and fine linen. If the material really was sealskin that had been imported into Egypt, these were very highly valued.

Further, examine the following structural parts of the mishkan made from acacia trees:

  • the ark and its poles
  • the table of showbread and its poles
  • the brazen altar and its poles
  • the incense altar and its poles
  • the poles for hanging the curtains
  • the support boards.

Acacia trees probably grew in the Sinai, but they grew alone rather than in forests. They are highly valued because the wood is very hard and very dense, a result of their very slow growth explaining their much higher value.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that such a tree was used for construction. In most societies, it would have been regarded as a sacred tree used as places to perform sacrifices, conduct religious ceremonies and rites of passage and burials. For that purpose, the Israelites used caves. Bedouin used sacred trees as places to conduct law courts or as community social centres. In any of these cases, cutting up a sacred tree for construction, even for Israel’s God, would have been considered sacrilegious and even profane.

For the Israelites, natural mountains served to connect earth and heaven. Even more significant, the construction of the mishkan was intended to allow God to leave heaven and live in the midst of the Israelites. The sacred was not to be kept on high apart from the profane, but in the centre of everyday life while retaining its exclusivity. The acacia trees were used for construction, perhaps not only for their value, but as a message that trees, even acacia trees, did not possess supernatural powers to grant favours or render judgements.

What about the onyx stones? Onyx is not an extremely rare and valuable material. They were to be set in gold though. Onyx stones were to be used to decorate the ephod, the richly embroidered, apron vestment worn by the high priest with two shoulder straps and ornamental attachments for securing the breastplate. The clue may lie in two areas. Onyx with its parallel bands is considered a powerful warrior stone and connotes courage and a resistance to fear. More importantly, perhaps, it is a hard stone used for carving and engraving and is referred to in Genesis 2:12 as found in the Garden of Eden. Exodus 28:9 reads: “And thou shalt take two onyx stones, and shalt grave on them the names of the children of Israel.”

Not in ordinary stones. But in precious stones. God will not only live in the midst of the Israelites, but the names of the Israelites shall be engraved on the breastplates of priests. “He prepared also two onyx stones, fast set and closed in gold, and graven by the art of a lapidary, with the names of the children of Israel.” (Exodus 39:6)

What does all this add up to? If we are embarrassed or play down the lavishness of the adornment, we miss a main point. Further, the quality is not only in the materials but in the details of the design – the preparations, the proportions, the positioning, the detailed particularities and specifications. The artistry in the use and conjunction of these materials is at least as valuable as the materials themselves. I suggest that in this section we have been presented with the Hebrew theory of property.

The Israelites were nomads. Value was placed in portability, in that which could be traded and moved much more than fixed property, such as land. Second, value and wealth were respected, not something to be embarrassed about. Third, the most valuable property was communal. Fourth, valuable property was made, not simply through raw labour to convert the natural world into artifacts and possessions (John Locke and Karl Marx), but through the investment of inherited and highly developed crafts as well as a sense of design and beauty. Fifth, it was the beauty of the material world that conjoined heaven and earth and, further, allowed the divine to live and reveal Himself amidst ordinary people. Sixth, the focus was on this world, not a nether world or an afterlife. Seven, the value of onyx stone was made even more precious, by carrying the past into the future through engraving, remembering and recalling the past.  Finally, as would be shown later in the tale of the making of the golden calf, God was the trustee of what was valuable. Humans are merely sojourners on earth, responsible for its preservation and enhancement. When humans start worshipping the glitter of gold as if it were divine, they betray their divine calling.

What a different sense of property than the property of possessive individualism at the root of capitalist thought or the collectivist ownership of property to be managed through political institutions of Communism. The difference extends to the conception of labour itself. In John Locke’s possessive individualism, humans invest their labour into nature to convert nature into things – animals and grains – that they can consume and keep themselves alive. In the state of nature, there is enough and sufficient for all.

However, with the invention of money, with the invention of an abstract form of measuring wealth, a few would be able to accumulate capital and live off the labour of others. That accumulation would lead to scarcity and conflict, thereby necessitating government to set the rules for this class conflict. For Karl Marx, the class conflict had to be inverted and turned on its head so that the many bondsmen of the world, the exploited labourers, could repossess their surplus capital in the name of all workers as a collective possession.

In either case, labour was a forced exercise. Humans had to labour in order to survive. Second, the labour of workers through coercion was used for the benefit of the wealthy. However, in the biblical account in Exodus 25:2, the contribution to making the mishkan is strictly voluntary. God instructs Moses: “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take My offering.” The stress is on the voluntary. The stress is on the willing sacrifice for the common good. And for the shared beauty.

Hegel tried to recover this sense of property in his Phenomenology of Spiri,t though the section on Lordship and Bondage is most dominantly, and incorrectly, interpreted through a Marxist reading, in the twentieth century most prominently by Alexandre Kojève. These thinkers ignored the historical fact that Hegel was a religious thinker and philosopher and, more particularly, tried to translate the content of scripture into a philosophical dialectic of development, change and revelation. There is concurrence that humans are riven by two internal contending forces, life and the effort to survive, and, second, desire, the effort to make a name for oneself and gain historical recognition. In the Marxist and neo-Marxist version, the lordship/ bondage of the feudal regime emerges out of the effort of one party in conflict with another to gain recognition of his or her superiority over the other and by the other.

In this violent clash of wills, the party that defeats and kills the other loses in two very different ways. There is no gain in the use of another’s labour. Second, there is no other to recognize the victory of the winner. Thus, the winner, instead of killing the other, holds a sword to his neck and offers the other a deal. The winner will allow the loser to survive. In fact, the winner will provide protection. However, in return for permitting the other to both live and be protected, the other must give two things, first labour on behalf of the lord who won and, thereby, becoming his bondsman. Second, he must recognize the lord as one whom the bondsman not only serves, but recognizes as superior. Thus, the lord rules over the bondsman through coercion.

However, in the religious interpretation of Hegel, the desire is not to rule over another and to be recognized by the other as superior, but to be like God. That will not mean coerced servitude but a voluntary offering of oneself for a purpose seen as divine. As in the Marxist interpretation of Hegel, the quest for survival and the quest for eternal recognition rather than simply recognition of one’s superiority by another, will be at odds. However, in the religious interpretation, the tension is never resolved but transported to another plane where humans in their quest for survival give up and surrender their higher aspirations. This includes settling for recognition by others of one’s superiority over the other when what one really wants is recognition by God of one’s worth.

To gain that recognition entails a sacrifice, a sacrifice of one’s time, one’s energy, one’s labour, one’s skills, one’s artistic sensibility in pursuit of this higher purpose. It is and must be voluntary. It cannot be coerced. But it will always be unstable as we are prone to distrust the divine within us and that God’s testament will be inscribed on our lives and we are prone to revert to survival mode. Further, there is a pernicious side to the dedication to a higher purpose as illustrated in the very beginning in the story of Adam and Eve.

Adam believes he is like God in two very different ways. He uses words to name things and therefore bring them into existence in a constructivist epistemology and in imitation of how God created the world. In doing so, he forgets he is human, that he is embodied. He projects his bodily needs and reproductive desires onto the other, Eve, who is simply viewed as a physical projection of himself. Further, the part of himself that represents sexual desire, embodied desire, is othered. He views his penis as a separate erect snake tempting Eve and over which he takes no responsibility. The result in the story is well known and need not be repeated.

Thus, the divine spark is both crucial to higher aspirations but a fundamental flaw if we forget we are embodied and human and still need to survive. The mishkan in being made of precious materials reminds us that the world is here and now in relationship to others and that, in the end, we are not gods or simply in service to a divine purpose; we are not constituted by that divine purpose. We have sexual partners. We breed children and have a responsibility for them.

The problem is always how to work out this internal tension and dialectic between life, between the quest for survival, with desire in both its higher aspirational version and through connecting us to others.


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