Sibble Saturday: More architecture and fashion porn (Exodus 27:20–30:10)

So I totally let this lapse last week. Part of it is that I’ve been busy and a bit unfocused, and part of it is that there’s really not much to this parsha. If it seems too thin on commentary, I might do another one later in the week to catch up.

So now we’re in פָּרָשַׁת תצוה (“You Shall” portion), which is pretty dull, honestly. Leviticus gets a bad rap but at least one can say something about the social significance of a holiness code and civil laws. This all is just tedious.

The quick snarky summary: Priests get to dress snazzy. The high priest gets to dress extra-snazzy. To earn these cool clothes, they have to undergo ordination and perform certain maintenance for the Tabernacle.


So, yeah, not terribly impressed with this one. The last parsha gave me some nice grist for discussion in the untranslatable words, but in this we spend chapters on descriptions of the ornate but not terribly interesting perquisites of the clergy: the priests wear robes, tunics, headbands, sashes, breeches, all of the finest precious materials, mostly in blue-dyed linen and with gold fittings. Notably, the breeches are presented as really very important, since in 28:43 God threatens to smite any officiating priest not wearing them. Apparently freely ventilated nethers are an abomination before the Lord.

There is one piece of the high-priestly vestments which is actually pretty cool, particularly in light of some of the Sages’ awesomer fanfic. The high priest gets to wear a breastplate (specifically, a “breatplate of judgment”, whatever that is; I think maybe it grants +3 to-hit and to-damage against evil creatures) with twelve stones inlaid, one for each son of Israel. The specific stones mostly fall into the geological class of Biblical hapax legomena, which is a fancy way of saying we have no fucking clue what most of them are, although some cognates in other Semitic languages hint at the colors. Even the stone whose name is positively identified nowadays with a specific gemstone, the middle stone of the second row, called ספיר or sapphire, doesn’t fit historically, since sapphire was almost completely unknown in the ancient Mediterranean. But I’ve already done the whole “we have no clue what these are” schtick, last week. The aspect of the breastplate that’s really surprising is that it contained, according to 28:30 two bewilderingly named objects, the אורים and the תמים. Almost every translation of the Bible leaves these concepts untranslated, although they might be broadly interpreted as “Light” and “Perfection”. Later on the אורים are used as an oracle of sorts, so there’s definitely some specific power associated with these two mysterious breastplate elements.

Aside from the extraordinarily detailed description of vestments, this parsha focuses on the ordination procedure for priests. A lot of the details of the sacrifice don’t make much sense until we see the detailed descriptions of sacrifice in Leviticus, but essentially Aaron and his sons (and priests ordained later, one assumes) make two major offerings before they receive their symbols of office, which correspond fairly closely to the offering of the sinner and the offering of the poor man, which perhaps is a sign of fallibility and humility? Or, perhaps, it’s just a synchronicity of ritual. The details of these rituals, explained in their context later, I’d really like to hold until Leviticus, a mere few parshot from now. It’s worth mentioning, though, at this point, that the temple service involves a metric crapload of sacrifices, even under ordinary circumstances: the initial ordination procedure involves sacrificing two rams and seven bulls, while the daily service involves sacrificing two lambs. Doing this on a regular basis seems awfully unsustainable, but I guess a population of 600,000 with their animals probably breeds enough lambs to kill two each day and keep a stable population.

The daily temple service also involves burning incense in the morning and evening devotions, so at this point there’s a segue back into carpentry details: there are dimensions for the incense altar, which, like almost every other piece of the tabernacle, is made of gold-overlaid wood, with rings and poles for carrying the damn thing around. There’s a certain repetitiveness to the architectural details, since the incense altar’s specifications are starting to sound a lot like the specifications for the bread-table and the ark.

So, all in all, this parsha is long on descriptions of objects and short on interesting happenings. The last one was pretty sparse too. So we’re due — and in the next installment we’re gonna get a real doozy of a plot development.

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

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