Reading Exodus with Leon Kass: Questions to Ask about the Tabernacle

Does the preservation of the covenant depend upon repeated revelations and direct divine encounters, or are there more permanent ways?

Miner Kilbourne Kellogg, The Top of Mount Sinai with the Chapel of Elijah, after 1844. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Miner Kilbourne Kellogg, The Top of Mount Sinai with the Chapel of Elijah, after 1844. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Feb. 19 2021
About the author

Leon R. Kass is dean of the faculty at Shalem College, professor emeritus in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. A physician, scientist, educator, and public intellectual, he served from 2001-2005 as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Once a week Mosaic has taken to publishing brief excerpts of Leon R. Kass’s new book on Exodus, Founding God’s Nation. Curious about one of the foundational texts of the Jewish tradition? Read along with us. To see earlier excerpts, go here.

This week, Jewish communities all over the world begin their study of Exodus 25:1-27:19, a portion of the text named T’rumah. When we left Moses in last week’s Torah reading, he had entered into the mist atop Mount Sinai. This week, readers are privileged to hear what God there tells him. Rather than additional social ordinances, Moses receives instructions for building God a sanctuary, a Tabernacle that in Hebrew is called a mishkan.

Kass notes important literary antecedents for large-scale building projects in the Hebrew Bible. Some, such as the tower of Babel and the Egyptian store-cities Pthom and Raamses, are the product of uniquely human design. Another antecedent, Noah’s ark, was the product of God’s partnership with humankind. And, of course, there is the most dramatic building of all, the creation of the ordered world that God undertakes in the opening chapter of Genesis. With these antecedents in mind, Kass then raises lingering questions—social, political, and theological—that the text has already introduced, and that an attentive reading of the following chapters may begin to address.

The literary antecedents echoed in this chapter contain several lingering questions—in contemporary terms, psychosocial, political, and theological questions—that the Tabernacle will also specifically address. Readers of this commentary should easily recognize these questions, as I have flagged them along the way. In the psychosocial realm, certain troublesome and dangerous human predilections—especially those leading to interpersonal conflict—have already been dealt with in the ordinances (mishpatim). But deeper and ambiguous tendencies remain unaddressed. What, for example, to think and do about the human penchant for artfulness and creativity: on one hand, a grateful expression of our God-given and Godlike capacities; on the other hand, a proud temptation (as in Babel) to human self-glorification? What to think and do about the love and imitation of visible beauty: on one hand, a celebration of order and proportion; on the other hand, an elevation of the aesthetic above the righteous and the holy, and an invitation to idolatry? What to think and do about the impulse to sacrifice: on one hand, an acknowledgment of and submission to the divine, born of a wish to know God; on the other hand, an expression of human bloody-mindedness and penchant for chaos, born of a wish to merge with the divine or manipulate it through gifts, on the proud assumption that “It” likes what we like? What to think and do about the human inclination to trust seeing over all other senses, to represent all things in visible images, and to regard “out of sight” as “out of mind”—a predilection especially problematic when the God Who calls is invisible, while even the loftiest visible things (the sun, the moon, and the stars) are mute about how to live? What to think and do about humanity’s twin but opposed tendencies toward mastery and servility: thinking and acting as if we were divine (and lording it over “lesser” folk and lesser creatures), and thinking and acting as if we were no better than the beasts? What to think and do about the tendency of human beings to take comfort by banding together in large groups and the tendency of large groups to let loose wilder passions of the soul?

We wonder whether God’s Way can address—and safely make room for—these deep-seated human needs, passions, and tendencies, through means that go beyond the ability of the ordinances to control specific conduct and prevent mutual wrongdoing. Might the Tabernacle speak more directly and profoundly to the deepest and most dangerous passions of the soul, giving them their place in the economy of psychic and social life but keeping them under (divinely prescribed) order and measure? Might it make a safe home for both of what the Greeks called Apollo and Dionysus: for artistic expression, the love of visible beauty and harmony, and the devotion to seeing and beholding, as well as for the urge to sacrifice, the longing to efface boundaries and merge with the divine in shared ecstasies?

Next, there are lingering political issues, primarily about the relationship between the leaders and the led. How does one mold a collection of ex-slaves (now but two months out of Egypt) into a genuine political community capable of self-governance? The covenant and the Law are, of course, central instruments in this process, as is the shared history of slavery and deliverance. But would not some common projects and practices—not only collective self-defense in war but also communal self-advancement in peace—make a big difference? Might the building of the Tabernacle—with contributions from all the people and with the collective actions needed to disassemble and reassemble it as the people move from place to place—provide the shared work that can build community more securely than words? Might the communal practice of animal sacrifice institutionalize a common longing for the divine and shared wishes to express gratitude or to atone for sin before God?

And what about the governance of the people? Is the leadership of Moses the lawgiver, backed by his judicial bureaucracy, sufficient? Can the community progress from hierarchy to equity by substituting the rule of law for the rule of Moses? When Moses goes, what will attach people to the rule of his (or rather God’s) law? Is not something more than law required—namely, ritual and worship—to sustain a community, especially for a people that aspires to holiness and a connection with the divine? Even while Moses is still here, does he—in his almost superhuman virtue—have what it takes to address the people’s earthier longings? Does not a “kingdom of priests” require actual priests?

The last comment about priests points to lingering theological questions. The Children of Israel have just entered into a covenant with the Lord at Mount Sinai. How can that relationship be preserved, especially after they leave the mountain and head for Canaan? Does its preservation depend upon repeated revelations and encounters—with the cloud, the fire, and the divine voice? Or are there less episodic, more permanent, less threatening ways to perpetuate the relationship: from the human side, through remembrance, ritual, and sacrifice, and from the divine side, through other forms of “being present”? Can the Tabernacle provide the needed venue for ongoing communication?

Lastly, what would be the ultimate purpose of such a “meeting house,” and whom would it benefit? Would it mainly satisfy human needs and contain and regulate human weaknesses, while also promoting community solidarity and identity? Or would it—also or instead—satisfy the “desire” of the Lord that He be known and that He gain glory from His people, not only as a “man of war,” as a liberator or lawgiver, or even as an architect but also as an abiding and familiar Presence in their lives?

Having reminded ourselves what may be at stake, we are ready to attend to the Lord’s instructions for the Tabernacle. To experience them as Moses did, we will follow them in the order they were given to him, pausing in those places where we find help answering the many questions just posed. By the end, we hope to weave the various threads into a plausible picture of the Tabernacle’s meaning that addresses all of our lingering questions. Two main ideas will guide our reading: the Tabernacle as a necessary concession to human need and limitation; on the other hand, the Tabernacle as a culminating fulfillment of the Creation and of God’s Way for humankind.

Excerpted and adapted from Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus by Leon R. Kass. Published by Yale University Press in January 2021. Reproduced by permission.

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