Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8, NRSV).
When was the last time you read through the instructions for the Tabernacle in Exodus 25 through 31?
I think it’s safe to say that this section of the Bible is unexplored territory for most of us. And while this section of the Old Testament may never be a devotional classic for Christians, there are some startling truths tucked into this ancient instruction manual.
One of these has to do with God’s insistence that the holy heart of this structure be covered with animal skins—goat’s hair, rams’ skins, and fine leather to be exact (Ex. 26:7 & 14).
My colleague, Tom Boogaart, was the one who first alerted me to the theological significance of this detail. The holy place that houses the ark of the covenant—that “mercy seat” upon which God is symbolically enthroned—is to be covered with skin.
We might be forgiven for missing the significance of this detail if we’re reading these verses in the middle of July. But if we’re reading during the Advent or Christmas seasons, it’s harder to miss the canonical echoes ricocheting between the testaments. John 1:14 makes the echo explicit, announcing that “the Word became flesh and lived [literally “tabernacled”] among us.”
The irony in the Old Testament context is that, just as God is making plans to dwell among the covenant people in a more tangible way, the people are down at the foot of the mountain making a golden calf. When they stand back to admire their artwork, they announce, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex. 32:4). Of all the nerve! We cry, offended by their effrontery. Before we get too far up on our high horse, however, we might want to reflect on our own tendency to follow the wrong gods home.
God is offended, too, and threatens to wipe out these ingrates and start over with Moses. But Moses talks God down, and to make a long story short, the Tabernacle does eventually get built. It becomes the place where the covenant people can experience God’s holy presence in a tangible way—God clothed in flesh, as it were.
There is something essentially shocking about the incarnation. Frederick Buechner helps us to appreciate this when he describes it as “Ultimate Mystery, born with a skull you could crush one handed” (from Whistling in the Dark).
But spare a thought, this Christmas, for the Tabernacle’s instruction manual. It hints at an important habit of God’s heart—that is—God’s longing to “dwell” with us in a tangible way. Maybe with the Tabernacle fresh in our minds, we will be just a little less surprised when John tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
Listen: O Nata Lux. This text (translated below) is often associated with the Feast of Transfiguration. Its reference to being “clothed in flesh,” however, makes it a rich meditation on the incarnation. The composer of this setting is Morten Lauridsen; the performance is by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Translation & Prayer:
O Light born of Light,
Jesus, redeemer of the world,
with loving-kindness deign to receive
suppliant praise and prayer.
Thou who once deigned to be clothed in flesh
for the sake of the lost,
grant us to be members
of thy blessed body.
Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series
Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”
In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.