Monday, April 03, 2006

As the Lord commanded

Pure and Holy

Exodus 39:30
And they made the plate of the holy rim of pure gold, and wrote on it a writing, like the engravings of a signet, Holy to the Lord.

In this verse two descriptive words appear that are closely related though not synonymous: pure (tahor) and holy (qodesh).

There are 24 references to pure gold (zahav tahor) in the chapters of Exodus describing the design and construction of the tabernacle. The other 3 references in the Hebrew Bible have to do with the temple.

Compare the words of the psalmist about the ordinances of the Lord:

Psalm 19:10b-12 MT (cf. Psalm 119:127)
The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
They are more to be desired than gold, even very fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and [the drippings of] the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them your servant is warned, and in keeping them there is great reward.

The ordinances of the Lord, which include the instructions for the tabernacle service, are seen as pure as the gold worn on the priest’s forehead.

The second word, holy, can be defined negatively and positively.

Negatively it can mean “unapproachable” or “withdrawn from common use” (Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, vol.3, The Anchor Bible, 1991, pp. 730-731). The unapproachable aspect of holy may also carry a sense of terror and a threat of death. Things that are withdrawn from common use or their former use are called holy.

Positively it can mean set apart to the service of the Lord, as in “holy to the Lord.” In this sense the Sabbath is holy (Exod. 16:23, 31:15), the people of Israel are called to be holy (Deut, 26:19), and the service of the priests is holy (Ezra 8:28).

Together the words pure (tahor) and holy (qodesh) summarize the service of the priests in the tabernacle, and point forward to a major theme of the book of Leviticus:

Leviticus 10:10 (cf. 11:47, 20:25)
Distinguish between the holy (qodesh) and the common (chol) and the impure (tamei) and the pure (tahor).

Ezekiel’s complaint about the corruption of the priests is worded in these same categories:

Ezekiel 22:26
Her priests violate my law and profane my holy things. They do not distinguish between holy and common, and they do not teach [the difference] between the impure and the pure. And they shut their eyes to my Sabbaths so I am profaned among them.

Not a slob like you

The God who designed the tabernacle service and saw it through to completion paid attention to detail, meticulous detail. Not only does he plan the construction and furnishing of the tabernacle, but then the entire process is described again as it is done, with the refrain “as the Lord commanded Moses” after each part is finished. This God is not a slob like you. His personality type revealed in this section of Exodus is that of a Felix Unger, not an Oscar Madison. Attention to every detail: that’s the God of Israel.

I say the God who designed the tabernacle service in a loose way, because I do not actually see the tabernacle as literally designed by God in every detail, but by the community of Israel in their attempt to approach God in appropriate forms of worship. In that light we do not have to defend each detail of the tabernacle service and the sacrifices, but we can still appreciate how these particular forms reflect their understanding of God and what was thought appropriate to worship him in purity and holiness.


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