Sibble Sunday: A Blueprint for Salvation (Exodus 25:1–27:19)

Running late again. I’m going to have to figure out a way to make this work with the rhythm established by my classes, now that the semester’s begun again.

This week’s reading is פָּרָשַׁת תרומה (“Gifts” portion), which is one of the first authentically boring sections of the Bible. So I might be a bit short on things to say about it. But my favorite word in the Bible happens to be in this part, so I’ll spend a little time on that. Nonetheless, there’s not much to say here because if’s frankly providing very little grist for discussion.

The quick snarky summary: The community is supposed to provide precious metals and yarn and animal hides for individual elements of the Tabernacle. There’s probably a good resource-production-and-trading board game to be built around this premise.


This chapter covers the construction of the Tabernacle. This is an artifact of rather extraordinary theological significance, as it was in fact explicitly presented as the dwelling place of God’s presence on earth, and it became the model for the Temples in Jerusalem, which were built along the same lines but bigger and more permanent. Thee Ark of the Covenant was presumably built at this time too, and had its seat in the desert Tabernacle. So the structure described in this seciton is of fairly major significance to the religion and its ostensible practice, although since the fall of the second Temple it’s been largely as a historical curiosity (OTOH, Jews — and non-Jews — with Messianic/eschatological bents love this chapter, because they’re certain the Third Temple will be built at the time of resurrection,
and having a blueprint is pretty important to them). Unfortunately, the actual contents of this chapter are quite dry, consisting largely of measurements and fabrication minutiae.

So, God demands fourteen materials of the Israelites. This itemization of the materials contains a motif which will become more common as we move into the dietary laws, namely, things which we have no idea at all how to translate. These are usually obscure zoological or botanical specimens, but in this chapter (and especially in the next), we get some gemstones too. Some of the materials are obvious: gold, silver, copper, blue and purple dyes (probably from shellfish), cochineal, linen, goathair, oil, and spices. There are a few more we have good if not absolutely confirmatory names for: ערת אילם are rams’ skins, and the modifier מאדמים suggests that they were red, either as a natural quality of the beasts, or due to a dying or tanning process. The wood שטים is sometimes transliterated as “Shittim”, but is usually interpreted as acacia, based on qualities described in other places in the Bible it’s mentioned.

And then we have the two complete mystery objects: there’s a stone called שהם, which got an incidental mention way back in Genesis 2 as occurring in the valley of the Pishon river, in the land of Havillah. The bad news is, we don’t know where those places are either, so we’re kind of back to square one. The word has cognates suggesting either a banded or cloudy gem, and there seems to be widespread agreement that it’s green. Various translations of this stone range from onyx to lapis lazuli to malachite to several sorts of beryl, so, really, we’re pretty much making blind guesses here other than its color.

And then comes my favorite gift of all: ערת תחשים, or “Tachash skins”. Nobody has a clue what a tachash is, other than a creature which has a skin, and the other mentions in the Bible are all to its leather, usually in semi-mystical tones. The translations are all over the place: many sources hold that it’s a sea creature, so we get manatees, dolphins, porpoises, dugongs, and seals. Christian sources hold that it’s a badger, going all the way back to the Tyndale Bible, which called it “taxus”. The Wycliffe translation, bizarrely, offers “iacynt”, which means either “hyacinth” or “jacinth”, which doesn’t even have a skin. Google Translate, which, yes, interprets phrases in modern Hebrew, cheerfully offers “dachshund” (now there’s an image!). But the best interpretation at all is the traditional Hebrew one, echoed by Rashi and the Babylonian Talmud: understanding that if you’re making shit up, you should go big or go home, the Talmudic take is that the tachash was a multicolored unicorn.

So, as to where the Israelites might have gotten all this stuff (er, except the unicorn skins, which are so weird we have to just smile and nod our way through it): we’re told that they left Egypt having borrowed valuables from their neighbors, who were anxious to be rid of them, which explains how they might have large quantities of gold and silver, as well as other valuables like gemstones and purple dyes. Linen, goathair, and skins are reasonable things for a nomadic group to have or trade for. Why they might be lugging acacia beams or ingots of copper around, though, I have no idea. Maybe they chopped down some acacias at their last oasis.

Anyways, this chapter also explains how many of these gifts are to be used, listing them mostly in order from the most notable elements of the tabernacle to the least. Of course, the crowning glory of the desert sanctuary is the Ark of the Covenant, notable not least for the fact that God promises that his presence will reside immediately over the Ark, between the ornamental cherubim. The other furnishings of the tabernacle described are a table laden with “bread of the Presence” (the bread itself is elsewhere described to have mystical properties imbued by the nearness of God), and a candelabrum with seven lights. All of these furnishings are made of gold, sometimes over wood, so the interior of the tabernacle’s actually pretty ostentatious. The tabernacle itself is described next, and it’s made essentially of linen on wooden frames, which connect to each other qand to an underlying framework. The described frame is actually pretty well-engineered: it’s all clasps and pegs and sockets, so that it could plausibly be broken down into pieces and relocated. The furnishings are also designed with rings and poles set in them so that they can be lifted onto shoulders and carried around. All in all, the description’s a plausible if overfurnished shrine. Finally, the tabernacle has two partitions: one separating the Ark out into a specially sanctified area, and one separating the Tabernacle from the courtyard, which is itself ringed around by linen tapestries. Context suggests that the courtyard is also where the altar is built, which seems a rather utilitarian construction, of wood and copper, although like all the other elements of the Tabernacle, it has rings and poles for carrying.

All in all, a pretty dry account, except for the few fun bits near the beginning. The next section will unfortunately continue with the Tabernacle decorations and procedures, but after that we get back to the wacky doings of the Israelite community.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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