Abide: Exodus 24; 31-34
Often, when we speak about matters of religion, we discuss belief. “I know the Church is true. I have received a witness for myself that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. I have had these experiences and share them in Sunday school and other venues. For me, though, faith also takes place in the fleshy here-and-now. My religion is taking the sacrament on Sunday with all the ties poking out of shirt collars, special trays for those who can’t have gluten, and the silent nod of a bishop signaling that the sacramental prayer has been offered correctly. It’s laying grass for a service project or the smell of campfire from youth conferences past. I suspect that as you’ve been listening to this that you, too, have been able to think of the physical, earthy stuff of Latter-day Saint belief, practice, and culture.
Today we are going to explore the “stuff” of religion, what scholars call material culture. Through an exploration of the mundane, what some might call the ordinary, we discover God’s presence and the faith of ancient Israel. I suspect that we also learn something about our own modern faith, too.
Often when we speak about matters of religion as Latter-day Saints, we discuss belief. I know the church is true, I’ve received a witness for myself that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. I have had these experiences and share them in Sunday School and in other venues. For me though, faith also takes place in the fleshy here and now. It engages the senses. My religion is taking the sacrament on Sunday and seeing the ties poking out of shirt collars. Special trays for those who can’t have gluten, the carpet on the wall, the babies crying, the silent nod of a Bishop signaling that the sacramental prayer has been offered correctly. It’s also laying grass for a service project or the smell of a campfire from a Youth Conference’s past. I suspect that as you’ve been listening to this that you too have been able to think of the physical, earthy, sensed engagement stuff of Latter-day Saint belief, practice, and culture. Today we are going to explore the stuff of religion, what scholars call material culture. Through an explanation of the mundane, or what some might call the ordinary, we discover God’s presence in the faith of ancient Israel. I suspect that we might also learn something about our modern faith as well. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communications Specialist for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow here at the Maxwell Institute, and each week we will be discussing the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints in their testimonies of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas. Today, we are once again joined by one of our research assistants Carolyn Lowman, an Ancient Near-Eastern History and Hebrew Bible Major here at BYU from Southern California. After Carolyn graduates she plans to become a seminary teacher.
Joseph Stuart: Welcome back, Carolyn.
Carolyn Lowman: Thanks for having me again.
Joseph Stuart: We are thrilled you are here. Kristian, what’s going on in Exodus chapter 24, as well as chapters 31-34?
Kristian Heal: So Exodus chapter 24 concludes the process of God establishing his covenant with Israel that was first proposed in chapter 19. As the people have requested, Moses went up to the mountain alone to receive the covenant and when he returned, he repeated to the people all the commandments of the Lord and all the rules. Israel’s response is immediate, reminding us of the Nephites’ response to King Benjamin’s address. They said, “All the people answered Moses with one voice saying, ‘All the things which the Lord has commanded, we will do.’” The covenant is ratified with a ceremony which includes a ritual sacrifice, a reading of the covenant, the people’s formal ascent, the sprinkling of blood on the altar and on the people as a sign that now God and Israel are joined by covenant, and finally a ritual meal for the elders of Israel in the presence of God. After the covenant has been established, God once again calls Moses to the mountain to receive further instructions. This time, regarding the building of the tabernacle. Up to this point, the presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai and appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. The purpose of this portable sanctuary was to allow the presence of the Lord to be in the middle of the camp of Israel. “For there I will meet you,” the Lord said to Moses, “…and there I will speak with you and there I will meet with the Israelites and they should be sanctified by my presence.” The instructions for the building of the sanctuary and inaugurating the priesthood are described in gorgeous detail by God on Mount Sinai and again in the final chapters in the book of Exodus. And again, in the final chapters in the Book of Exodus when it is constructed. In between the revelation and the building of the tabernacle, all is almost lost. The people of Israel backslide. Fearing Moses is dead, they seek the comfort of a God they can see. The description of the creation of the golden calf sounds like a kind of counterfeit of the building of the tabernacle. It was an unauthorized attempt to enjoy the presence of God in the camp of Israel. The result is nearly catastrophic. But Moses pleads for the Lord’s people and they are spared, though not all. Moses is removed from the camp of Israel for a period until Israel renews their commitment to the covenant.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that Kristian. That was very helpful. Now you’re finishing a book on the fifth century scholar Narsai. Could you tell us a little bit about Narsai and what he said about the tabernacle being a new creation?
Kristian Heal: Narsai is a new friend of mine. Well, not that new actually. I’ve been hanging out with him for nearly twenty years, but I feel as though I’m getting to know him more each day. And he wrote a number of homilies on the Old Testament. Narsai was a teacher, a scholar, a poet, a theologian, somebody who interpreted the Bible and sought to give it a meaning which would help and bless the lives of those Christians in Mesopotamia that he administered to. He wrote a homily on the fashioning of the tabernacle, the building of the tabernacle. And in the opening of this homily he said, “A second creation did the creator create through Moses that man might learn that it is he who created the creation in the beginning.” We can kind of feel in the cadence language that he’s using here that the translator has tried to capture in this repetition of creation that Narsai is making a distinct point and an important point about what the tabernacle is. That Narsai is making an important point about how we are to understand the tabernacle. The tabernacle is a second creation, a new creation. And we’ve seen this periodically already as we’ve been through just these two books in the Old Testament, that creation becomes this motif that’s renewed periodically. Renewed after Noah, for example, renewed with the early stories about Moses. Interestingly, modern scholars have also noticed this connection between the building of the tabernacle and the creation story in Genesis 1. One introduction to the Old Testament says this, “It has been noticed that the material of Exodus 25 to 31 consists in seven speeches whereby the Lord said or spoke to Moses. Interpreters suggest that these seven speeches are designed to match the seven days of creation in Genesis 1,” which scholars assume was written by the same author as these passages. “These seven speeches, moreover, culminate with the Sabbath, as does the seventh day in Genesis 2:1-4. As a consequence it’s plausible that amidst the immense disorder of history, the priestly tradition imagined an alternative well-ordered creation that is experienced in worship.” That’s the end of this quotation from Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt’s Introduction to the Old Testament. There’s lots of interesting things to unpack between Narsai and his modern contemporaries. Notice for example how in both, the Lord speaks creation into existence and how the second creation, the tabernacle, is brought into existence through the ingenuity of these master builders, these craftsmen who were endowed with the divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and with the skill to do any work that the carver, the designer, the embroiderer. And occasionally we meet people like this in our own lives and they’re always a marvel. I remember as a missionary meeting a fisherman in Cornwall that made his own hurdy gurdy. Now, for those of you who don’t know what that is I recommend a Google search, which he used to play outside of shops in Cornwall until people paid him to move on. And he had this kind of ingenuity that we’re talking about here. My dad has it as well. He can just watch somebody do something and then he can do it, exactly as they do and any kind of skill. I love the way that the Bible gives names to these people that we wouldn’t expect to be named. We expect a prophet to be named, the kings, the leaders, but occasionally people who are doing really interesting things, in these cases, bringing things into creation are named. Such as the midwives at the beginning of Exodus and in this case, these two master builders Bezalel and Oholiab. I think it’s interesting that they are involved in creative acts. I think we should also notice that the purpose of building the tabernacle in all of its splendor was to instruct humanity that God was the creator in the beginning. Narsai and modern commentators are here trying to educate our sensibilities. So when Israel saw this new creation, they could better understand this entire earth that they were on, this tabernacle as a microcosm of this great macrocosm within which they found themselves. And when they saw the beauty of it, they could think of the beauty of the earth which we sing about in the hymn and respond, “Lord of all to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.” So the beauty and splendor I think of Latter-day Saint temples comes to mind here, perhaps as something that’s not simply aesthetic but also educative. Perhaps we can learn then in the temples something about God and his creation.
Joseph Stuart: As you’ve been saying that, I’ve been thinking about how Latter-day Saints used to build all of their own local chapels, their local places of worship. And also that folks might pay tithing by donating their labor to building temples. So how do we today, who don’t necessarily have to give our labor in the same way of physically building something, how can we step into the shoes of the ancient Israelites and better understand God’s process of creation for ourselves?
Kristian Heal: I think we can comfortably connect our temples with creation. And if we do that, I think some interesting things come into play. When we think of our temples and how we conduct ourselves in temples, I think there’s sort of an eschatological element to it. That in entering the temple, we are entering into a kind of celestial world. We’re entering into a heavenly space, so we conduct ourselves and relate to each other in this sort of life of the future. But I think it’s also useful to see the temple as a primordial world that we’re entering into and that experiencing the temple, the way that we experience the temple, the beauty of it, the fineness of its craftsmanship, the peace of it, that we’re also experiencing that peace and beauty of the world and perhaps in that process, being taught how to conduct ourselves in the world. It’s interesting to think about our stewardship with the world and how restoration scripture talks about the earth as a living entity. The earth groans in response to the crucifixion. The earth groans under the weight of human sinfulness. So I’m inclined to think that the loving care that we find in the temple, both in the way that the saints treat each other, and in the way that we treat the temple with reverence and respect. In doing those things, we are educating our souls to live on the earth with greater respect and consideration.
Joseph Stuart: I think too about the specificity that’s given to the tabernacle for exactly the size it should be and how to care for it. And also thinking about temple recommend interview questions that are very specific. And that as we’ve been reminded in recent years, local leaders should not deviate or create new questions to gauge temple worthiness. It’s important enough that the Lord and his servants set out specific ways for us to interact and Carolyn, you noticed something with the priestly vestments and the specificity that comes in the scriptures when we learn about them.
Carolyn Lowman: Yeah, while I was studying the priestly vestments of Aaron and his sons, I couldn’t help but notice how detailed and specific the descriptions of the clothing are. It feels very similar to how the tabernacle of Moses is described, the measurements, colors, etcetera are all explicitly stated. It kind of shows to me that we worship a God that cares about the details and when he wants something done to get us closer to him, he wants it done right and will instruct us on how to do that.
Joseph Stuart: When we think about the specificity of the tabernacle and also the priestly vestments as a way of God saying this is how I want you to set yourself apart from the world.
Carolyn Lowman: I’ve noticed in all of my studies and research and things like that, that devoted followers of Christ have been wearing special clothing since Adam and Eve who were clothed in clothes of skin in Genesis 3 right before they were cast out of the Garden of Eden. In these chapters, we have Aaron and his sons being clothed in priestly vestments to show that they have the priesthood and power from God too. I think people of all religions, not even just our own, wear clothing to glorify their God. And I think that’s really beautiful when we show our devotion outwardly. I have recently just been endowed and I think one of my favorite parts of the temple is the clothing that we wear. They really do draw me closer to Christ and help me understand him and his Atonement better. I can feel their power. I love having a constant reminder of the covenants I’ve made with God. That’s powerful and I don’t take that lightly. Even though the clothing we wear in our temples and the clothing specifically outlined in these chapters in Exodus are different in many ways, they are similar in purpose. We have a Hebrew professor here who’s one of my favorite professors. I’m learning from him right now, Hebrew right now, Dr. Donald Perry. He has a book titled 175 Temple Symbols and their meanings. In it he says, “Sacred priestly vestments point directly to Jesus Christ and his Atonement. All things testify of Christ and the sacred vestments are no exception, containing Christ-centered types and symbols.” I think that is relevant to Old Testament vestments and also modern, and everything in between.
Kristian Heal: Thanks Carolyn, that really is poignant to bring our attention to these things and it brings a lot more meaning to me, when I read in Exodus 28:2 that God taught Moses to make these sacred vestments for your brother for dignity and adornment. Both of these seem present in both the tabernacle and in the vestments, this sense of dignity that these vestments set you apart in a special sort of dignified way and a way in which creates a sense of seriousness perhaps, a sense of adornment that they’re meant to — there’s sort of an aesthetic element to it. I think that’s a lovely way to think about the way that God wants us to interact with our lives.
Carolyn Lowman: I think that we can see in God’s creation of the earth and also of how he wants the temples to be done and the descriptions of the clothing, show us that God really cares about beauty and I think that’s also beautiful too is that he really does care about how things are perceived.
Joseph Stuart: I’ll also say that I know some Latter-day Saints are also really uncomfortable speaking about the temple or clothes that are worn in the temple, and that there’s a great video produced by the Church that we will link to in the show notes that can provide one model for how to discuss the sacred clothing that Latter-day Saints wear. As you’ve been speaking, I’ve been thinking about the ways that when I am close to a temple that I often feel God’s presence. It’s also something that as I’ve brought scholars to Salt Lake City or have been their tour guide, in going to the temple they recognize that there’s something set apart about the temple. Now, they aren’t having some sort of conversion experience but they are nevertheless understanding how Latter-day Saints value the temple and the temples in which they worship. And thinking about how when I’ve lived further away from the temple, somehow counterintuitively it seems to have meant a lot more to me. When I was living in central Virginia, it suddenly seemed a lot more pressing to go to the temple when I had to drive three hours to get there rather than now when I live in Utah county, where within three hours I could attend any one of a dozen temples. In thinking about how presence and absence works, how do you think the presence or absence of God’s spirit dwelling in the tabernacle could be thought about today as we read Exodus?
Kristian Heal: There’s this theme of presence is definitely key to understanding these chapters in Exodus and key to understanding why the tabernacle plays such a significant part and why it was carried with Israel for the forty years before they came into the promised land and this is a place where the Lord can be in their midst. Israel meets the Lord on top of a mountain. It’s terrifying, they’re awestruck, and they don’t want to ascend; they’re discombobulated by the presence of God. I think this period that they have on Sinai they start to feel perhaps a bit more comfortable with the idea. The building of this tabernacle, this beautifully wrought structure, is a way to bring the presence of God right into the middle of the camp. And this is the thing that God recognized that the children of Israel needed at that point. Interestingly, just at the moment that God is revealing to Moses the means by which he can be in their presence, the people feel the longing for God’s presence, but respond to that longing with a counterfeit presence, with an idol. I think so often we can feel deeply, this longing for the presence of God in our lives and look for other ways to satisfy that desire, that need for presence, that need for a sense of awesomeness, that need for a sense of the grandeur and the saving power of God and so the tabernacle represents this means by which this presence is brought in the camp of Israel. As an introduction to the Bible that puts it in terms of the theological significance of the debacle says the following, “What matters most for theological interpretation is the provision for presence. For the term tabernacle, mishkan is derived from the Hebrew root shakhan which means to sojourn, to abide provision. Thus the word tabernacle, thus speaks of provisionally abiding presence. The presence is particularly signified by the reality of glory, a characteristic way of speaking about the Lord’s palpable, powerful presence.” These linguistic connections here, between the tabernacle and the presence of the Lord, are creating this sense and reminding us and teaching us that to seek the presence of the Lord and to have the presence of the Lord is one of our objectives here.
Joseph Stuart: I think too, about the tabernacle not being a permanent structure. This is something Latter-day Saints recognize in the building of the tabernacle in preparation for building of the Salt Lake City Temple as well as a tabernacles to be meeting spaces and while they weren’t permanent buildings in early Utah, and still are, they weren’t meant to be permanent ways of accessing the divine in the same way that temples are and were. What do you think this suggests about the permanence of being able to access God’s spirit? Because to me it seems that there is a little bit of a back and forth that ancient Israelites are understanding that just because they have access, they can see the Lord in the tabernacle, or that they could see him on Sinai, that he wasn’t always necessarily physically going to be there. Is there something we can learn about permanence of the accessibility of God, but not the permanence of abiding with us?
Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think there’s several messages that come from these stories about the camp of Israel, especially in these early portions. One is that the presence of the Lord can be lost. There are things that can be done in your life which can drive the presence of the Lord away and this happens in the story. Part of then, the question becomes our response to that. I love this line by John Goldingay, an Old Testament scholar, he said, “The appropriate response to God’s withdrawal is not trying to make up for the absence, but to petition God to return.” I think that there is a sense in which some of these experiences that Israel has are dramatic withdrawals and dramatic returns. But I suspect in our own lives, the dynamic is a little bit more subtle. There’s a lovely quotation I think familiar to many people from President Kimball where he said, “I find that when I get casual in my relationships with divinity and when it seems that no divine ear is listening and no divine voice is speaking, that I am far far away.” We have this moment in which a prophet can feel and describe in his own life experiences where casualness, this is that sort of slow, iterative, withdrawal probably from ourselves from the presence of God until you sort of wake up one day and you realize things are not quite where they were. President Kimball goes on, “If I immerse myself in the scriptures, the distance narrows, and the spirituality returns. I find myself loving more intensely those who I must love with all my heart and mind and strength and loving them more. I find it easier to abide their counsel.” The message here is that God’s presence is transformative. It changes us in a fundamental way. We love more intensely, we submit more readily, we serve more devotedly. And it seems that the return of God’s presence can be sweeter still. It is a sign of God’s continued faithfulness and loving kindness. To biblical scholars in this wonderful Introduction to the Old Testament that Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt say, “The covenant made in Exodus 34:10 is the very same covenant of Exodus 24:38, and yet a different altogether, new covenant because it is freshly grounded in the Lord’s compassion and forgiveness. This is the pattern of the long-term drama of faith in the Old Testament. And this is something I was privileged to see on a number of occasions serving in a bishopric and going through and being part of disciplinary councils. And that is the sweet and beautiful reconciliation of a member of the church who feels the return of God’s presence in their life after their own withdrawal from it. And those moments, and helping to participate in those moments, become, and I think really are, the most beautiful moments that we have in our own families and in missionary work for example and in working with other members. When we are helping others feel that joy that is found in the presence of the Lord I think our lives really find fulfillment.
Joseph Stuart: I think that’s the perfect place for us to end today. Have a blessed week.
Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you please rate, review, and subscribe to the podcast wherever you’re listening to this podcast and follow us on social media at @byumaxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, FaceBook and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu/edu? Thank you and have a great week.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)