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Lectio divina on the book of Exodus

by Fr Piergiorgio M. Di Domenico OSM

Lectio 5 – 2016/17
Ex 25-27
The Lord’s dwelling among his people

 

Let us now examine the second part of Exodus, including three blocks: Chapters 25-31 which deal with instructions on worship; Chapters 35-40 – which in fact are nothing but a repetition of the previous ones – deal with the same instructions and on how to put them into practice; in between there are Chapters 32-34, which relate the episode of the golden calf and deal with different traditions, subsequent to Moses’.

These chapters are the ideal projection of Israelite worship at the time of their wanderings in the desert, even though of course there was a form of worship even at the time when Israel was a nomadic people: they had the portable Ark and a Tent for the Liturgy. These texts were edited in the post-exilic time, when they had no king and consequently no political autonomy. Worship, with all the richness of its peculiar norms, provided them with an identity.

To worship means to relate to God. In fact, worship is not established by us; in a way, we cannot ‘impose’ it on God. It is God – and God alone – who gives legitimacy to it. This is the reason why the Biblical text prescribes that it must be done according to the very ‘model’ that God gave, and that one has to adhere to it even as far as the building of the place of worship and its furnishings are concerned (cf Ex 25:9, 40; 26:8, 30; 27:8; Nb 8:4).

Exodus 25:1-9

The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘Tell the Israelites to set aside a contribution for me; you will accept a contribution from everyone whose heart prompts him to give it. And this is what you will accept from them: gold, silver and bronze; materials dyed violet-purple, red-purple and crimson, fine linen, goats’ hair; rams’ skins dyed red, fine leather, acacia wood; oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and fragrant incense; cornelian and other stones to be set in the ephod and breastplate. Make me a sanctuary so that I can reside among them. You will make it according to the design for the Dwelling and the design for its furnishings which I shall now show you.

All the people voluntarily pays a tribute to God, offering their precious possessions. Jesus adds that we must offer all our life as a tribute (cf Mk 12:41-44: The widow’s mite). St Paul exhorts us “to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, dedicated and acceptable to God”: this is our “spiritual worship” (Rm 12:1).

Exodus 25:10-22 (37:1-9)

The Ark of the Lord

‘You must make me an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide and one and a half cubits high.

You will overlay it, inside and out, with pure gold and make a gold moulding all round it. You will cast four gold rings for it and fix them to its four supports: two rings on one side and two rings on the other. You will also make shafts of acacia wood and overlay them with gold and pass the shafts through the rings on the sides of the Ark, by which to carry it. The shafts will stay in the rings of the Ark and not be withdrawn. Inside the Ark you will put the Testimony which I am about to give you.

‘You will also make a mercy-seat of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and one and a half cubits wide, and you will model two great winged creatures of beaten gold, you will make them at the two ends of the mercy-seat. Model one of the winged creatures at one end and the other winged creature at the other end; you will model the winged creatures of a piece with the mercy-seat at either end. The winged creatures must have their wings spread upwards, protecting the mercy-seat with their wings and facing each other, their faces being towards the mercy-seat. You will put the mercy-seat on the top of the Ark, and inside the Ark you will put the Testimony which I am about to give you. There I shall come to meet you; from above the mercy-seat, from between the two winged creatures which are on the Ark of the Testimony, I shall give you all my orders for the Israelites.

The Ark is the throne of God’s presence. It is a coffer made of acacia wood, measuring about 120 centimetres in length, and 70 in both width and height. It is overlaid with pure gold, both inside and outside. Two shafts of acacia wood, overlaid with gold, are passed through four rings fixed at the Ark’s base. “The shafts will stay in the rings of the Ark and not be withdrawn” (Ex 25:15). The Ark is not related to any particular place, because it is considered to be permanently in motion. Within the Ark there is the ‘Testimony’, carved on tablets: this is indeed the immutable reality, the permanent Word of God fixed once and for all. On the contrary, the Ark is movable: it may stay within the Tent, or be carried around. It accompanies Israel on its journey, and is a symbol of the presence of the Lord, protecting His people. “Whenever the Ark set out, Moses would say: ‘Rise, Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You flee at Your approach!’ And when it halted, he would say: ‘Come back, Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel!’” (Nb 10:35-36)

The covering of the Ark is called ‘propitiatory lid’, ‘kapporet’ in Hebrew, which derives from a verb meaning ‘to cover’ (to cover an object but also sins), ‘to erase’, ‘to atone’. It is a very important element, so important that it is mentioned – without the Ark – when dealing with the Day of Expiation. “The Lord spoke to Moses and said: ‘Tell Aaron your brother that he may not enter the sanctuary inside the curtain in front of the mercy-seat on the Ark whenever he chooses, in case he incurs death, for I appear in a cloud on the mercy-seat’.” (Lv 16:2) (cf also 2 Ch 28:11). Aaron “will then put the incense on the fire before the Lord, so that the cloud of incense hides the mercy-seat which is on the Testimony and he does not incur death. He will then take some of the bull’s blood and sprinkle it with his finger on the eastern side of the mercy-seat. He will sprinkle some of the blood seven times with his finger in front of the mercy-seat. He will then slaughter the goat for the sacrifice for the sin of the people, and take its blood inside the curtain, and with this blood do as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it on the mercy-seat and in front of it.” (Lv 16:13-15) The cloud of incense, recalling the cloud God manifests Himself from and where He hides (cf Ex 19:9), creates a kind of curtain, protecting and separating, preventing Aaron from dying. “The Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Dt 4:24). His name is “great and awesome, holy is He!” (Ps 99:3). “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). God’s holiness demands that we are holy too, separated from the world and united to Him in an exclusive and thorough manner.

According to St Paul, the ‘propitiatory lid’ is Jesus Christ, the One who really frees us from sin by His blood (cf Rm 3:25). “He is the sacrifice to expiate our sins, and not only ours, but also those of the whole world” (1 Jn 2:2; cf also 4:10).

Let us now follow the movements of the Ark along Israel’s history, so that we might gather the various ways God manifests Himself and makes Himself present.

With the Ark of the Covenant the people crossed Jordan and entered the promised land. Joshua gave the people the following instructions: “When you see the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the levitical priests, you will leave your position and follow it, so that you may know which way to take, since you have never gone this way before. Between you and the Ark , however, keep a distance of about two thousand cubits: do not go near it.” (Jos 3:3-4) The Ark was a kind of movable shrine, and only priests could carry it (cf Dt 10:8). Therefore Joshua said to them: “Take up the Ark of the Covenant and cross at the head of the people”. (Jos 3:6)

The priests went into the water with the Ark: “As soon as the bearers of the Ark reached the Jordan and the feet of the priests carrying the Ark touched the waters – the Jordan is in spate throughout the harvest season – the upper waters stood still and formed a single mass over a great distance, at Adam, the town near Zarethan, while those flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely separated. (…) The priests carrying the Ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in mid-Jordan, while all Israel crossed on dry ground, until the whole nation had completed its crossing of the Jordan.” (Jos 3:15-17)

The first city one encounters, after crossing the Jordan, is Jericho, a centre inhabited from the 5th millennium B.C., in the midst of a fertile plain, rich with palms. The archaeological findings show that in the 12th century B.C. – more or less when the Israelites entered the promised land – Jericho had no walls and was not inhabited, due to its destruction which occurred a few centuries earlier. The report about the capture of the city (cf Jos 6:1-25) is not therefore an historical writing but rather a festive commemoration: the Ark carried by the priests in procession around the city walls; the marching round the city for seven days; the blowing of the trumpets, are all elements of a liturgy. The theological message is clear: victory does not belong to men who fight and win, but to God who is present in the Ark. The city, its inhabitants, its walls, its stones, all belong to God. The people has to obey and then celebrate God’s marvels, give witness of His provident love.

“This is the reason why the walls of the city called Jericho, which in Hebrew means ‘moon’, collapsed when for seven times the Ark of the Covenant was carried around them. In the same way, now, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, of which the Ark carried around Jericho is a symbol, destroys all the bulwarks of mortal life, that is, any hope of this life which opposes hope in life eternal, thanks to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of free will. This is why the walls collapsed spontaneously, while the Ark was being carried around them, without being hit by any violent blow.” (St Augustine, Letter 55, 6,10)

Once Israel had settled in the promised land, the Ark was kept in the shrine of Shiloh, where Eli and his degenerate sons Hophni and Phinehas, as well as the child Samuel, were at the Lord’s service (cf 1 S 1:3; 2:12-18). Once Samuel had grown up, his word was more mature and he addressed it to the whole people. At the time the country was under attack from the Philistines. After being beaten by the Philistines, the elders of Israel decided to fetch the Ark from Shiloh to the battlefield. Even so the Israelites were defeated, the sons of Eli died and the Ark itself was captured by the Philistines. At the news Eli, whose heart “was trembling for the Ark of God”, fell backwards off his seat and died. The wife of Phinehas too, who was with child and near her time, died at the news that the Ark of God had been captured and that her father-in-law as well as her husband had died: her labour pains had come on, she gave birth to a son whom she named ‘Ichabod’, that is, ‘The glory has gone from Israel’, then passed away.

This story is an earlier meditation on the presence of God among His people, a presence which may vary and which may arouse that anguished question, “Why did You forget me?” (Ps 42:10), which at times is also our very question indeed.

The prophet Ezekiel would ponder greatly over the exiled glory of the Lord. God abandons His temple, where His presence used to reside (cf Ezk 10:18-22; 11:22-25). His presence is not a magical or mechanical protection. Ezekiel explains to his brethren, deported to Babylon like him, what the Lord revealed to him: “The Lord God says this: ‘Yes, I have sent them far away among the nations and I have dispersed them to foreign countries; and for a while I have been a (minor) sanctuary for them in the country to which they have gone.’” (Ezk 11:16) During the exile, God is still present, like in a minor sanctuary, but yet much more important then the impressive building of the Temple. God leaves the Temple in order to dwell in new hearts; hearts which are able to welcome Him in love: “I shall give them a new [or ‘different’ or ‘single’] heart and I shall put a new spirit in them.” (Ezk 11:19)

The Ark of the Lord entered – vanquished and conquered – enemy territory… but confronted by the false deities, it showed all its winning power (cf 1 S 5). It was moved from one point of the Philistine territory to the other, in the hope that the negative effects of its presence might be overcome. In the end, they decided to send it back to Israel, on a cart pulled by two milch cows, that “made straight for Beth-Shemesh, keeping to the one road, lowing as they went and turning neither to right nor to left” (1 S 6:12). At Beth-Shemesh (‘House of the Sun’), a city very close to the Philistine territory’s border, the holiness of the Ark struck those who did not rejoice when they saw it (cf 1 S 6:19). They saw it but had no faith and no respect, of course. God’s holiness is demanding; and even still more demanding when it approaches us. The Ark then started journeying again, in search for a place where it could be conveniently welcomed and respected. It finally came to Kiriath-Jearim, and it was brought to the house of Abinadab, whose son Eleazar was consecrated “to guard the Ark of the Lord” (1 S 7:1).

After conquering Jerusalem, not only David made of it the capital of his reign, but also its religious centre. He brought the Ark out of Abinadab’s house and transported it on a new cart, driven by Uzzah and Ahio, Abinadab’s sons. “David and the whole House of Israel danced before the Lord with all their might, singing to the accompaniment of harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals. When they came to Nacon’s threshing-floor, Uzzah reached his hand out to the Ark of God and steadied it, as the oxen were making it tilt. This roused the Lord’s anger against Uzzah, and for this crime God struck him down on the spot, and there he died beside the Ark of God.” (2 S 6:5-7) Here we see a sacredness that cannot be profaned. Contact with God entails the risk of dying (cf Ex 19:21-24; 20:19; 33:20). David “felt afraid of the Lord” and said, “How can the Ark of the Lord come to be with me?” (2 S 6:9). The awareness of one’s own unworthiness opens up the way to a genuine meeting with the Lord.

The Ark of the Lord was diverted to the house of Obed-Edom, where it stayed for three months: finally “the Lord blessed Obed-Edom and his whole family” (2 S 6:11). David was thus re-assured and decided to take the Ark into the “city of David”, together with the whole House of Israel, amidst music and dancing. This was a feast of the whole community, and everybody took part in it rejoicing in that faith which perceives the closeness of the Lord. Michal, the daughter of Saul and David’s wife, was the only one who did not rejoice together with her husband. On the contrary, she passed judgement and looked down on him. “And to the day of her death, Michal, daughter of Saul, had no children” (2 S 6:23). Outside of the community – which is the true sanctuary where the Ark finds its place – there is only sterility.

Psalm 132, one of the Songs of Ascents, celebrates the feast of the transfer of the Ark to Jerusalem: “Go up, Lord, to Your resting-place, / You and the Ark of Your strength” (Ps 132:8). And the Lord answers: “Here shall I rest for evermore, / here shall I make my home as I have wished” (Ps 132:14). God’s wish is to dwell among us.

“The Lord dwells in the hearts and one is the heart of those who, in spite of being many, are cemented by charity.

How many thousands believed, my brethren, when they laid down the price of their possessions at the Apostles’ feet! But what says Scripture of them? Surely they are become a temple of God; not only each respectively a temple of God, but also all together a temple of God. They have therefore become a place for the Lord. And that you may know that one place is made for the Lord in all, Scripture says, ‘They were of one heart and one soul toward God’. (…)

‘This shall be my rest for ever’. These are the words of God. ‘My rest’: I rest there. How greatly does God love us, brethren, since, because we rest, He says that He also rests! For He is not sometimes Himself disturbed, nor does He rest as we do; but He says that He rests there, because we shall have rest in Him.” (St Augustine, ‘Commentary on the Psalms’, CXXXII, 3,15)

In 1 Ch 28:2-3, David spoke thus to his officials, chiefs and soldiers: “My brothers and my people, listen to me. I have set my heart on building a settled home for the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, for the footstool for our God, but when I was ready to build it, God said to me, ‘You must not build a house for my name, for you have been a man of war and have shed blood.’” (1 Ch 28:2-3)

In fact, the Temple would be built by his son Solomon (cf 1 K 5:15-16, 37). The Ark of the Covenant would be placed in the most secret and sacred part of the Temple, the Holy of Holies (cf 1 K 6:19; 8:6-9, 21). The Ark’s journey was finally over. It would no longer be taken out for war and contained just the tablets of the Covenant, God’s word which made of Israel a people, a community. God’s name was in the Temple (cf 1 K 8:16, 29), and there a prayer was raised to Heaven: “May God turn our hearts toward Him…” (1 K 8:58).

Then the Ark disappeared, probably destroyed by the Chaldeans when they conquered Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Jeremiah declared: “…no one will ever again say: The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord! It will not enter their minds, they will not remember it or miss it, nor will another one be made.” (Jr 3:16; cf also the legend related in 2 Maccabees 2:1-12) “Jerusalem will be called: The Throne of the Lord [exactly as the Ark used to be called], and all the nations will converge on her, on the Lord’s name, (…) the House of Judah will join the House of Israel; together they will come from the land of the north to the country I gave your ancestors as their heritage.” (Jr 3:17-18) Where there is unity, signs are no longer needed. It is unity itself the concrete sign of the presence of God.

The Seer of Patmos saw the sanctuary of God in Heaven opening, “and the Ark of the Covenant could be seen inside it” (Rv 11:19). This vision introduces the “great sign” of the woman robed with the sun, giving birth to a son (cf Rv 12:1-6): it is the Church, the New Ark of the Covenant, carrying in herself the Son of God. It is also the Virgin Mary, hurrying up towards Elizabeth’s house in order to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ incarnation.

We must note one further thing on the Ark: it is a work of art reflecting God’s wisdom. It was created by an artist: Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah (cf Ex 31:2; 37:1). The Lord filled him with His Spirit “in wisdom, knowledge and skill in every kind of craft: in designing and carrying out work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones to be set, in wood carving and in executing every kind of work. (…) And have endowed the hearts of all the skilled men with the skill to make everything I have ordered you” (Ex 31:3-6). The Spirit of God, sweeping over the primordial chaos in order to make of it an ordered and harmonious cosmos, fills with His presence artists too. Art builds a relationship between man and divine Wisdom, who as a Craftsman fashioned Creation (cf Pr 8:30).

Now, let us read the appeal that Pope John Paul II addressed to artists on April 4, 1999 (Easter Sunday), “to all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world”. The pope reminds us that “in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, the Fathers of the Council stressed ‘the great importance’ of literature and the arts in human life: ‘They seek to probe the true nature of man, his problems and experiences, as he strives to know and perfect himself and the world, to discover his place in history and the universe, to portray his miseries and joys, his needs and strengths, with a view to a better future’. (…) In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.” (John Paul II, ‘Letter to the Artists’, 11-12)

Exodus 25:23-30

The loaves of permanent offering

‘You must also make a table of acacia wood, two cubits long, one cubit wide and one and a half cubits high. You will overlay it with pure gold, and make a gold moulding all round it. You will fit it with struts of a hand’s breadth and make a gold moulding round the struts. You will make four gold rings for it and fix the four rings at the four corners where the four legs are. The rings must lie close to the struts to hold the shafts for carrying the table. You must make the shafts of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. The table must be carried by these. You must make dishes, cups, jars and libation bowls for it; you must make these of pure gold, and on the table, in my presence, you will always put the loaves of permanent offering.

The loaves of offering, also called ‘loaves of the face’ or ‘consecrated loaves’ (1 S 21:2-7) or ‘permanent loaves’ (cf Nb 4:7), was the daily offer to the Lord. Twelve unleavened loaves were placed on the table on the eve of the Sabbath, and they were left there till the end of the week, when they were replaced by new ones. They were the symbol of God’s providence towards His people. Jesus mentioned them when replying to the Pharisees, scandalized because His hungry disciples had picked ears of corn on the Sabbath day: “Have you not read what David did when he and his followers were hungry – how he went into the house of God and they ate the loaves of the offering although neither he nor his followers were permitted to eat them, but only the priests?” (Mt 12:3-4) Here, with Jesus, there is “something greater” than the Temple and worship, demanding fidelity to the word of the prophet: “Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice” 8Mt 12:6-7)

Exodus 25:31-40

The gold lamp-stand

‘You will also make a lamp-stand of pure gold; the lamp-stand must be of beaten gold, base and stem. Its cups, its calyxes and petals, must be of a piece with it. Six branches must spring from its sides: three of the lamp-stand’s branches from one side, three of the lamp-stand’s branches from the other.

The first branch must carry three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with its calyx and petals; the second branch, too, must carry three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with its calyx and bud, and similarly for all six branches springing from the lamp-stand. The lamp-stand itself must carry four cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with its calyx and but: one calyx under the first two branches springing from the lamp-stand, one calyx under the next pair of branches and one calyx under the last pair of branches – thus for all six branches springing from the lamp-stand.

The calyxes and the branches will be of a piece with the lamp-stand, and the whole made from a single piece of pure gold, beaten out. You will also make seven lamps for it and mount the lamps in such a way that they light up the space in front of it. The snuffers and trays must be of pure gold. You will use a talent of pure gold for the lamp-stand and all its accessories; and see that you work to the design which was shown you on the mountain.’

The gold lamp-stand was a very important piece of furnishing of the Temple. Pure pounded olive oil burned in it (cf Ex 27:20-21). It is difficult for us to describe it, because many terms are of uncertain meaning. It is the symbol of the presence of the Lord, keeping watch over His people. The angel talking to Zechariah showed him in a vision “a lamp-stand entirely of gold with a bowl at the top of it; it holds seven lamps, with seven openings for the lamps on it”. The seven lamps are “the eyes of the Lord, which range over the whole world” (Zc 4:2, 10). The Lord’s eyes: His is a very provident, loving and compassionate gaze. “The lamp of the body is the eye. It follows that if your eye is clear, your whole body will be filled with light. But if your eye is diseased, your whole body will be darkness.” (Mt 6:22-23) We must have God’s same gaze, which is very simple: He knows each and every man and sees him needy, not of judgement but of mercy and forgiveness.

Exodus 26-27

The Dwelling (cf Ex 36:8-38)

‘miskan’ (Hebrew); ‘skené’ (‘tenda’, Greek); ‘tabernaculum’ (Latin)

The Dwelling or Tabernacle is presented as a series of structures made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold, joined together so as to form a unified whole, rectangular in shape, three times longer than wider: 13.5 metres long and 4.5 metres wide. The vestibule’s measures were 2 x 4.57 metres; the Holy of Holies, 4.57 square metres. Above those structures there were curtains forming the true tabernacle: the inner veil, “dyed purple-violet, red-purple and crimson” (Ex 26:31) and embroidered with cherubim, beyond which was the Holy of Holies with the Ark; at the entrance of the tent, a coloured screen, “embroidered” (Ex 26:36). Around the central complex, a court measuring 30 x 23 metres, with curtains sustained by poles (cf Ex 27:9-19). At the entrance of the Dwelling stood the altar of burnt offerings, made of acacia wood, measuring 2.25 x 2.25 metres. At its four corners, “horns” on which the blood of the sacrifices was poured: they were therefore endowed with a very special sacredness (cf Ex 27:1-8).

If we make a comparison between the Hebrew tabernacle and the equivalent ‘national’ Egyptian shrines, the former appears to be very small and unpretentious indeed. However, here the presence of the Lord gives comfort to all those who are journeying through life:

How lovely are Your dwelling-places, Lord God Sabaoth.

My whole being yearns and pines for the Lord’s courts…

How blessed are those who live in Your house;

they shall praise You continually.

Blessed those who find their strength in You,

whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

(Ps 84:1-2, 4-5)