Putting up tents

From the cartoons you see of people camping it looks like putting up a tent can be a bit of a mission. I wonder whether the hardest part is intentionally first, so that anyone who won’t be able to survive outdoors for a week is detered at the first hurdle and makes it home safely before nightfall. Camping psychology, though, isn’t what I want to talk about. I want to think about a tent which took a lot more effort to set up properly, the tabernacle which a large chunk of Exodus (roughly ch25-40) is all about. The instructions for this tent don’t come with diagrams and often seem completely dull and irrelevant. How can I benefit from them? (I should say, as is often the case, most of this is pinched from other people and I’m hugely grateful to them for showing it to me.)

Firstly, I guess it’s important to remember throughout what is the purpose of this tent. I don’t think it’s explained until after it’s been built (though I’m happy to be corrected on that) but any Jew reading the account would know what it was for. As the climax of the first half of Leviticus is God’s law in chapter 20, the climax of the second half is God dwelling amoung his people. 40:34 says, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” God himself lived in the middle of the Israelite camp, and this tent was being built for him.

I think this gives the meaning to the meticulous detail of the design. God is coming to live in this tent, so it has to be right! What’s more, God has to decide what’s right. While God gifted craftsmen (31:1-11) to do the work he didn’t let them sort the interior design. He specified what he wanted exactly and expected them to do it. God is so different and so perfect that the Israelite’s attempts to create something wouldn’t have been good enough. The only way the tabernacle would work is if they followed God’s design. So while reading that the altar was five cubits by five cubits by three cubits and made of acacia wood (27:1) may not be directly applicable, as I read it and the other details I can praise the character of my God who is so holy that only perfection can be a dwelling for him.

What really confused me, though, was that after the design is given (ch25-30) it is all repeated! 35:4-39 record every detail of the construction of the tabernacle – and it’s all the same! Why not, I wondered, just say “and they made the tabernacle according to God’s original design”? What can I gain by reading it all again. The attention to following every detail of God’s instruction is commendable and should be emulated, but I think that’s making the Old Testament about me rather than about God. Can I learn about God from this repeat of the details?

Well, let’s step back from the lists for a moment and look at what happens in between. It’s big! Even as Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving God’s law and the design of the tabernacle in which God will live amoung the people the people are giving up on God. Exodus 32 tells the story of the golden calf – Aaron made a calf for the people and they made it their God. This was a trashing of the very first commandment that God gave to Moses – “You shall have no other gods before me” (20:3). God wants to destroy them and make Moses into a great nation (32:10) which would have been perfectly inline with his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and surely would have been just. Moses asks God to relent, and he does. In 33:1-3 God says he will keep all the people alive and extends to them the promise of the promised land. However, he says that he won’t go with them but will send an angel to lead them. This is grace to a people who don’t deserve it.

But there is more! Moses intercedes again and God graciously agrees to go with the Israelites into the land. I just can’t think of words that sum up how gracious that is. God would have been perfectly just to destroy them for their great unfaithfulness, but is going with them into Israel. He gives Moses the law again and reminds him of the key points of the covenant and it is at this point that Moses gives the detailed account of the construction of the tabernacle.

Okay, that interlude was anything but brief but I think it sets up what’s amazing about the second tabernacle description. It is exactly the same! Before that may have seemed dull, but in light of the idolatary of Israel doesn’t it show complete forgiveness and a fresh start? Not only is God going to stay with his people but he’s going to do it exactly according to the previous plan! Down to the last material and dimension of the tent. So while reading again that the altar was five cubits by five cubits by three cubits and made of acacia wood (38:1) may not be directly applicable, as I read it and the other details I can praise the character of my God who is so gracious he completely forgot the sin of his people.

The holiness of God and the grace of God from a list of instructions – who’da thunk it? Of course the other thing to remember (if you need more) is that all of this is just a picture of the Holy Spirit – God living inside Christians (not just in the camp) forever. That means we need to be perfectly cleaned by Jesus’ blood, and it also means that our sin and rebellion won’t change the plan. Praise God!


One Response to “Putting up tents”

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