Beginning last Saturday and continuing for the next few weeks, synagogues will read the last twenty chapters of the book of Exodus, which are taken up primarily by a detailed account of the construction of the Tabernacle and its various accoutrements. In seeking to connect these passages with the first half of Exodus, which concerns the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt and their miraculous redemption, Daniel Berkove calls attention to the parallels and contrasts between the Tabernacle and the ancient pharaonic public works in which the enslaved Jews were engaged. He notes first the similarity between the Hebrew word for the Tabernacle (mishkan, plural mishk’not) and the storage cites (arei misk’not) Pharaoh tasked the Israelites with building.
This curious linguistic connection gives us reason to consider how else the building of the Tabernacle and storage cities might relate to one another.
Ancient Egypt’s palaces, temples, and tombs were magnificent structures built to precise measurements, meant to last millennia, ornately decorated with gold, hieroglyphics, and brightly painted frescoes. . . . But the Tabernacle, which did include furnishings of gold and silver and required skilled workmanship, was essentially a large tent. Rather than permanent stone and brick, it was a modest structure primarily of wood, wool, and animal skins, and by design, easily portable.
Another difference between the Tabernacle and storage cities concerns the labor involved to build them. Pharaoh not only used slaves, but he worked them especially hard and intentionally made their burdens difficult. . . . Compare this to God’s instructions for building the Tabernacle. All of it was to be carried out voluntarily, from the provision of its materials to its construction. Moreover, in an astonishing juxtaposition, when God finished instructing Moses on how to build the Tabernacle, He then told Moses to command the Israelites to keep the Sabbath. The contrast between these two narratives could not be clearer.
Each story represents a different civilization. The civilization of Egypt, so dominant in those ancient times, was one built on material wealth, hierarchy, compulsion, and misery. It was a polytheistic society with deities of limited power that were ambivalent to humanity and required appeasement from their worshipers. . . . The Tabernacle represented an opposing civilization.
More about: Ancient Egypt, Exodus, Hebrew Bible, Tabernacle