The Torah’s Vision of Worship – Part II.2 – The Liturgy of the Covenant; Covenant as Sanctuary Building and World Building

(Table of Contents for  NOTCP series)

Exodus 25-40 deals primarily with the construction of the tabernacle which has been a hobby horse for many arm-chair architects over the years.  Though if one approaches this section in such a pragmatic fashion you will be “faced with a unique combination of long-winded description on the one hand and total omission of various particulars on the other” (citing M. Haran, 137).  Balentine, instead, explores the theological construction that is occurring in and around this section.

Balentine again begins with the imagery that draws from the creation account.  For this Balentine also includes the Flood story as it can also be read as a repetition of creation.  You can begin reading the Sinai account with the Creation account already with the birth story of Moses who was set adrift on a basket.  Basket is the same Hebrew word used for Ark; Moses as one who navigates the Flood waters that threaten to overtake creation.  The Ark itself has been read in various traditions as “a floating house rather than a boat, in symbolic terms an inverted temple bearing its passengers safely to shore” (141).  In this way the Tabernacle is read as a portable Sinai.  Finally the tabernacle is erected on the same day that waters were dried up from the earth (Gen 8:13//Ex 40:2).

There are also several verbal allusion directly to the creation account.  The instructions for the tabernacle are given in seven speeches from God with the seventh speech culminating in a command to keep sabbath.  There are also more subtle parallels;

  • And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good (Gen 1:31) // And Moses saw all the work and behold, they had done it (Ex 39:43)
  • Thus the heavens and the earth were finished (Gen 2:1) // Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished (Ex 39:32)
  • On the seventh day God finished his work which he had done (Gen 2:2) // So Moses finished the work (Ex 40:33)
  • So God blessed the seventh day (Gen 2:3) // And Moses blessed them (Ex 39:43)

What emerges then with the tabernacle is a space in which the people directly participate the negotiation between heaven and earth; the fragility and promise of creation.  Speaking of this relationship Balentine quotes J. Levenson,

The function of these correspondences is to underscore the depiction of the sanctuary as a world, that is, an ordered, supportive, and obedient environment, and the depiction of the world as a sanctuary, that is, a place where the reign of God is visible and unchallenged, and his holiness palpable, unthreatened, and pervasive (141).

Early in the Genesis narratives God consulted in the heavens around what should be done about humanity.  Abraham and Sarah then enter into that dialogue with regards to their immediate circumstances.  Now there is an established space where humanity engages with God around the future of the world.  Impending chaos may be pushed back and territory gained (or reclaimed) for God’s creation.  Balentine sees this as culminating in Moses’ encounter with God as the people below form the golden calf.  God is enraged at these actions and says to Moses,

Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.  Then I will make you a great nation (Ex 32:10).

God is on the verge of wiping out the Hebrews as he did in the time of Noah.  And suggestively he asks Moses to leave him alone.  Balentine (and others) pick up on this,

God’s request to be left alone seems to anticipate that Moses may respond with a prayer that could alter God’s intentions.  Tragum Onkelos captures the sense of this drama nicely with the paraphrase, ‘Refrain from thy prayer’ (143).

Moses instead of remaining passive or actively accepting God’s judgment engages God in accusation and petition.  Moses accuses God of making ‘evil’ plans against these people and petitions God saying that despite their evil they are still God’s people.

[Moses] questions God, believing that in a genuine covenant relationship even divine decisions can be reimagined, rethought, recalculated.  He will not believe that the future of a people called by God is determined exclusively by human weakness and incapacity.  Instead, he prays in teh firm conviction that the future remains ever open to God’s relentless commitment to love the unlovable, to forgive the undeserving, and to create out of human failure new possibilities for realizing ultimate objectives. . . . Commenting on the theological significance of Moses’ intercession, Fretheim discerns that God honors human prayer ‘as a contribution to a conversation that has the capacity to change future directions for God, people, and the world’ (146, 147).

This section again reflects a solid piece of theological exegesis by Balentine but it runs aground for me personally with my impoverished imagination around the practice and reality of prayer.  Balentine was building a synethesis of how God enabled humanity to create spaces that were dependent on social and liturgical concerns bound by God’s covenant.  This is emerging as a translatable project.  But the capstone for this section is not some subversive or constructive political act but an intercession of prayer.  I am ambivalent about prayer.  I have a notion of what it means to come before God in prayer and I express this for myself and others but I have not encountered prayer as what I take to be its incarnate and embodied form which does not cease.  A form in which my singing, celebrating, mourning, lamenting, whispering, and shouting all become intoned as Psalms.  This is the work of worship I still need to perform and have performed on me.

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2 thoughts on “The Torah’s Vision of Worship – Part II.2 – The Liturgy of the Covenant; Covenant as Sanctuary Building and World Building

  1. There is a ‘Table of Contents’ link at the top of this post that will take you to an outline of a project that I did not finish, but the first few links will direct you to other posts engaging Ballentine.

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