When my wife Becki and I were dating, we decided to read through the Bible but waved the white flag shortly after reaching the instructions for building the tabernacle in Exodus 25. We barely made it two books deep before bailing.
In the blink of an eye, Exodus goes from telling the compelling story of God rescuing His people to reading like a manual for assembling some complicated contraption. In the world I inhabit as a writer, a shift like this is anathema—a science-fiction novel cannot turn into a cookbook halfway through.
The film director Cecil B. DeMille wisely chose not to include this section of Exodus in his 220-minute biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. Had he done so, the running length would’ve doubled, prompting an exodus of moviegoers from the theater.
At the beginning of 2015, as I once again set out to read the Bible, I braced myself for the boredom I would encounter upon reaching this portion of Scripture. While it did prove difficult to plow through, I also found myself fascinated, and for reasons that initially eluded me.
“Have [the Israelites] make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them,” God tells Moses atop Mount Sinai. “Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you” (Ex. 25:8-9 NIV). Boy, does God show Moses!
In the blink of an eye, Exodus goes from telling the compelling story of God rescuing His people to reading like a manual for assembling some complicated contraption.
Upon reaching Chapter 25, the pragmatic believer hoping to glean guidance from Scripture comes away empty-handed. That’s because most of the verses here and in the following chapters read more or less like this one: “Make curtains of goat hair for the tent over the tabernacle—eleven altogether. All eleven curtains are to be the same size—thirty cubits long and four cubits wide” (Ex. 26:7-8 NIV).
After plodding through page after page of verses like these, readers are more likely to pull out their hair than craft curtains from a goat’s!
That being said, instructions exist not to impart wisdom, but to direct the assembly of some specific item. When I encountered Exodus 25 this time, I kept this in mind as I read. Knowing that God intended for His people to actually build the tabernacle, I tried to visualize what I read. I also searched the Internet for interpretive drawings of the tabernacle and its furnishings to compare my imaginings with those of accomplished artists. Envisioning the tabernacle’s particulars helped me understand—and in a way that a lifetime of church attendance alone could not—the Israelite worship experience.
Despite my attention to detail, my vision lacked one crucial component: God Himself. While I believe my Creator resides in my church—in my heart, too, for that matter—a part of me never expects a dramatic encounter on any given Sunday morning. When I read of God promising to dwell among His people in Exodus 25:8, I guess I didn’t expect Him to actually show up—or at least not in any spectacular way.
The “instruction manual section” of the book had not been a blueprint for a house of God—a place of public worship only—but for an actual home for the Creator.
Which is why Exodus 40:38 surprised me: “For the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels” (NIV).
After spending a lifetime in churches that had no holy clouds or fire, I guess I expected the tabernacle to be pretty tame, too. But here God dwells among the Israelites in an undeniable way.
My expectations upended, I saw new merit in dutifully drudging through the densest portion of Exodus. The “instruction manual section” of the book had not been a blueprint for a house of God—a place of public worship only—but for an actual home for the Creator.
I had expected too little of God when I read Exodus. I had not anticipated that He would light up the tabernacle with His presence as if to say to the Israelites, “I’m home.”
Illustration by Jeff Gregory