Chapter 3: The Plans of Institution (Exodus 25:1-31:18)

The Book of Exodus
by B. Davie Napier

Chapter 3: The Plans of Institution (Exodus 25:1-31:18)

Chapters 25-31 occur in the midst of an extended block of material which has been organized around the particular place, Sinai. What are commonly designated as “Yahwistic” and “priestly” elements of tradition have been combined in this large block which extends from Exodus 19 all the way through Numbers 10:10. The “non-priestly” sections are Exodus 19-24, and 32-34. The material that is essentially “priestly” (chs. 25-31 and 35-40) affirm not only that all torah (instruction) comes down to Israel with the authority of Moses and Sinai, but also the total form of Israel’s institution of religion as well.

Introduction (25:1-9)

The whole section begins with the affirmation, “The LORD said to Moses. . .” This forms a connection with the preaching material (see 24:12) and also emphasizes the divine sanction for what is to follow. The command is to build the sanctuary “that I may dwell in their midst” (vs. 8). The sense of the sanctuary’s utter sacredness is attested also in the statement that the plans for the Tabernacle and its total furnishings originate here in the Sinai tradition. The material means for executing the plans are to come “from every man whose heart makes him willing” to give (vs. 2; see also 35:21-22).

The Ark (25:10-22)

In the religion of Israel the Ark was the most sacred object. The “cubit” measure was the length of a forearm, standardized in English measure as eighteen inches. Accordingly, on the assumption that this must also have been the approximate length of a cubit in the Old Testament, the Ark must have measured about 45 by 27 by 27 inches (vs. 10). It contained the tables of the Law (vs. 16; 1 Kings 8:9; Deut. 10:5) and a pot of manna and Aaron’s rod (Heb. 9:4; see Exod. 16:33 and Num. 17:10). The Ark, of course, symbolized God’s Presence and had a place, both in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple, at the innermost and holiest location. The “mercy seat,” a rectangular plate on top of the Ark and of similar dimensions, underscores the fact that the Ark represents the Presence; for at either end of the mercy seat and facing one another were cherubim (winged creatures of varying form and size) between whom or above whom was the Presence (vs. 22; see Num. 7:89; 1 Sam. 4:4; II Sam. 6:2; II Kings 19:15; Pss. 80:1 and 99:1; Isa. 37:16). Cherubim, perhaps of Mesopotamian origin, were images with winged animal bodies and human heads. Two cherubim, each fifteen feet high, stood in Solomon’s Temple on either side of the Ark within the Holy of Holies (I Kings 6:23). The mercy seat reminds us that a profound awareness of human sinfulness was characteristic of even the “priestly” strand of Israel’s tradition. In the Holy of Holies, at the center of the center, there stood the seat of God’s mercy.

Table and Lampstand (25:23-40)

The prevailing tendency in these detailed plans is toward the elaboration of the forms and symbols of the religion of Israel. For example, the original Ark, probably dating from Mosaic times, must have been a very simple wooden box. The plans of institution which come down to us probably tended to read back into pre-monarchic and Mosaic times the elaborated forms which were characteristic of the days of the kingdoms and even of post-exilic Judaism. The table is designed to hold “the bread of the Presence”; but when we first encounter this bread in historical narrative (I Sam. 21:1-6) there is no mention of a table. In any case, we may be confident that this table, profusely decorated with gold, represents an elaborate development of the most simple original arrangement. The lampstand with seven branches must be understood in the same way. This work of pure gold (vs. 31) weighing more than a hundred pounds (vs. 39; a “talent” exceeded a hundred pounds in weight) was a relatively late device (in 27:20-2 1 there is only a single lamp for lighting the sanctuary); perhaps it was even post-exilic (around 500 B.C.).

The Tabernacle (26:1-37)

A detailed discussion of the exceedingly complex problems involved in the plans for the Tabernacle is not justified in limited space. One must be content with the observation that what is described here bears no direct relationship to any historical Israelite sanctuary of which we have knowledge. Memories of a Mosaic tent of meeting suitable for a nomadic group may be deeply and, at the present, inextricably imbedded in the specifications. Moreover, it is certain that the form of Solomon’s Temple built in the tenth century B.C. influenced the present description to some degree. But a reconstruction according to the specifications here produces a composite and imaginary structure with a broad frame (vss. 15-25) unreconcilable in certain respects with the tent and its drape coverings (vss. 1-14). There is no reason to doubt the existence of a portable sanctuary, a “tent of meeting” – not of man and man, but of man with God – as Israel’s earliest religious center. But it is impossible to reconstruct that sanctuary from the present description.

Altar, Court, Night Lamp (27:1-21)

The entire section which deals with the plans of institution is carefully ordered. We start in the Holy of Holies with the Ark and mercy seat, that is, in the most sacred room, farthest removed from the entrance. The furnishings (table and lampstand) in the main body of the sanctuary, the space from the Holy of Holies to the entrance, are then defined; and then as we move outward, the very structure itself is described. Now in chapter 27 we are in the court before the sanctuary, in which the dominant object is the great altar (see 40:29). Again the plan corresponds to Solomon’s Temple (II Kings 16:10-15), although this Tabernacle altar (3 cubits high by 5 by 5) has been appropriately scaled down (from 10 cubits high by 20 by 20). Perhaps in Tabernacle practice, and certainly in later Temple practice, this was the main altar, the “altar of burnt offering” (see 30:28 and 31:9), or the “bronze altar” (38:30 and 39:39). The horns at the four corners (vs. 2) could hardly have been on an altar in Mosaic times, since these are clearly of Canaanite design and origin. The court (vss. 9-19) must also reflect the later Temple pattern, since in the nature of a simple sanctuary such an elaborate and sharply defined area is improbable. Verse 19 apparently concludes the idealized plan for Israel’s sanctuary, for the subject turns – somewhat irrelevantly but with pertinence to what follows – to the matter of keeping the (single) sanctuary lamp. Later this lamp is to be kept perpetually burning (Lev. 24:1-3), but here it is a lamp to be lighted each night and to burn in the sanctuary throughout the night.

The Priests: Apparel and Ordination (28:1-29:46)

Among the detailed items of the priests’ wardrobe, the “ephod” (28:4, 6-14) is something of a puzzle. The term must have applied in the Old Testament to two different kinds of objects. In Judges 8:24-27; 17:5; 18:14; and Hosea 3:4 the ephod is clearly an image of some sort, and it is possible that the same object is referred to in I Samuel 2:28; 23:9; and 30:7. But the boy Samuel wore the ephod at the ancient sanctuary at Shiloh (I Sam. 2:18). It further appears that this garment contained (in a pocket?) sacred lots used to determine the will of the Lord (I Sam. 14:3, 36-42 and 23:9-12).

Anyone eager to pursue the matter of the priests’ consecration and ordination will consult in detail Leviticus 1-7. Indeed, what is given in Exodus concerning these sacred rites is demonstrably dependent upon the prescriptions in Leviticus, and must therefore, at least in its present form, be later than the Levitical material. The prominent place and singular attention given to the high priest (in the person of Aaron) probably further points up the exilic or post-exilic origin of the present text; there is no conclusive evidence that the office of high priest in this highly specialized sense existed prior to the Exile. The section dealing with the priests’ apparel and ordination is concluded in 29:42b-46 with moving words which reflect the theology always underlying the Priestly perspective. The sometimes formidable Priestly structure, elaborately prescribed in cultic form, equipment, and personnel, is not an end in itself, as sometimes it may appear and as, in interpretation, it has often been alleged. It is testimony to the fact of God’s continuing Presence in Israel and to the means of realization of that Presence:

“. . . I will dwell among the people of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them forth out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God” (29:45-46).

Miscellaneous Additions (30:1-31:11)

To the foregoing plans of institution – themselves a composite work drawn from an earlier and a later Priestly source – still later Priestly editors have added what they deemed to be pertinent instructions with respect to a variety of items. The incense altar (30:1-10), not to be confused with the main altar of burnt offering (27:1-8), may possibly have been employed in preprophetic Israel (that is, before the mid-eighth century B.C.); but if so it was abandoned, to appear again in post-exilic Judaism. The census (30:11-16), prescribed here for the purpose of fixing a sanctuary tax, but always undertaken with some apprehension of incurring God’s anger (hence, “a ransom” to avoid any evil consequences; vs. 12, see II Sam. 24), is further explained as atonement money – it is to bring “the people of Israel to remembrance before the LORD.” The bronze basin (“layer,” 30:17-21) stands between the front of the sanctuary and the altar of incense and is designed for the ceremonial purification of the priests. To this assorted collection of items, recipes are now added for making anointing oil (30:22-33) and incense (30:34-38). Finally, responsibility is assigned to peculiarly gifted men to carry out all these plans of institution (31:1-11; compare the parallel account in 35:30-36:7).

Reiteration of the Sabbath Commandment; and Conclusion (31:12-18)

This “priestly” statement of the Sabbath law is absolute and unequivocal. Violation incurs the death penalty (stated twice in verse 14 and again in verse 15). The Sabbath is the most characteristic sign and perpetual attestation of the Covenant. Its observance is the affirmation of the peculiar relationship of grace between God and Israel and of the fact that it is God himself who sanctifies the people (vs. 13). It is also the appropriate acknowledgment that the Lord made heaven and earth; it is the “sign for ever” between the Creator and the people of Israel that all is his (vs. 17).

The extended Priestly section on the plans of institution (25:1-31:18) is concluded with a notice which also admirably serves to introduce the next major section (chs. 32-34). It is the implied connection of all of these plans with the occasion when God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai. They have the same authority as the giving of the tables of the Law, “written with the [very] finger of God.”