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Shemot/Exodus 25:8 And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.
These words, spoken byHaShem to Moshe at the start of the detailed instructions for making the Tabernacle with all its furniture and ritual items, are apt to be misunderstood. It is easy to see why such misunderstanding should occur when the Torah tells us at the end of the construction process, "When Moshe had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the L-RD filled the Tabernacle. Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the L-RD filled the Tabernacle" (Shemot 40:33-35, NJPS). Taken together, this might suggest that the purpose of the Tabernacle was to accommodate a physical presence of HaShem and that His dwelling point "among them" was in the Tabernacle at the centre of the Israelite camp. Not so, insist the commentators ancient and modern.
Nechama Leibowitz reports that "The Tzedah LaDerech notes that what G-d is seeking here is not entering into the sanctuary but into their hearts. The use of the plural pronoun ' among them' instead the singular ' in it' is meant to teach us that 'the Divine presence does not rest in the sanctuary on account of the sanctuary, but on account of Israel, for they constitute the Temple of G-d.'" The Malbim adds, "He commanded that each individual should build him a sanctuary in the recesses of his heart, that he should prepare himself to be a dwelling place for the Lord and a stronghold for the excellency of His Presence, as well as an altar on which to offer up every portion of his soul to the Lord, until he gives himself for His glory at all times."
RabbiHirsch takes the argument a step further: "If the text promises 'and I will dwell among them' as a result of 'and they shall make Me a sanctuary', then evidently the meaning of can be nothing else but the expression of all that is required of us to bring about the promised Shechina-Presence in Israel. The task consists of our giving up the whole of our private and public life to the fulfillment of Torah; the promise is the protecting and blessing-giving presence of G-d in our midst, manifesting itself in the happiness of our private and national lives." This is about G-d dwelling among or in the midst of His people rather than in a particular, however ornate, decorated box! As the Kotzker Rebbe said: "G-d is only where you let Him in."
Let's take a step back and look at the words that are being used. is a masculine noun from the root , to be or to become holy or sacred. The prefix is used to form a noun that refers to the place where the verb action takes place,1 so literally a place of being holy or a place of holiness, hence a sanctuary. TheRashbam suggests that "the word implies a place set aside for meeting" and points to the text, "there I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence" (Shemot 29:43, NJPS). The verb is the 1cs Qal Affix form of the root with a vav-reversive construction to render it future tense. Meaning "to rest, abide, settle, inhabit" (Davidson), is not the usual verb for dwelling; more frequently used is , "to sit, remain, dwell, inhabit" (Davidson), which has the sense of living or dwelling in a physical sense. From the root comes the name for the Tabernacle itself, , the place of resting, more suitable for the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire which would rest above the Tabernacle during the wilderness years, but go ahead of the people and the Tabernacle when it was time to move. Perhaps significant is that the is often paired with another word - , tent - denoting a temporary and moveable structure. Nahum Sarna speaks of "G-d 'tenting' with His people."
Where then does HaShem dwell? One answer came through Isaiah the prophet, who said, "For thus said He who high aloft forever dwells , whose name is holy: I dwell on high, in holiness; yet with the contrite and the lowly in spirit -- reviving the spirits of the lowly, reviving the hearts of the contrite" (Isaiah 57:15, NJPS). Here the normal use of the root locates HaShem's place of resting or abiding: in heaven and with the humble hearts who accept Him. As to a physical building, King Solomon recognised the true state when he prayed, "But will G-d really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built!" (1 Kings 8:27, NJPS). If the earth cannot contain G-d, how much less the Tabernacle, a mere thirty cubits square!
So what is the point of the Tabernacle; why is it to be built? Umberto Cassuto is clear that "G-d has no need of a tabernacle in which to dwell; it is only Israel that requires a Divine Tabernacle."2 Drazin and Wagner explain that "the sanctuary was not erected to house a corporeal deity, but, rather, the Tabernacle service inspired the people to cleave to the commands of G-d so that He would dwell 'among them' in their daily lives." This seems to suggest that the Tabernacle was a focus, a visible reminder: the Tabernacle and its pillars at the physical centre of the Israelite camp as a constant reminder that G-d is there and wants to be involved in each and every Israelite life as well as the nation as a whole. So much so that HaShem says, "True, I removed them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries; nevertheless, I have been a little sanctuary for them in the countries to which they have gone" (Ezekiel 11:16, CJB) and the Sages deduced that the people "were exiled to Babylon, and the Shechinah was with them, as it says, 'for your sake I was sent to Babylon' (Isaiah 43:14). And when they will be redeemed in the future, the Shechinah will be with them, as it says, 'Then the Lord thy God will return [with] your captivity' (D'varim 30:3). It does not say here 'and he shall bring back' but 'and he shall return'. This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, will return with them from the places of exile." (b. Megila 29a). These are the lengths to which the Sages see HaShem going to be "among them".
How do we make a sanctuary for G-d today? Rav Sha'ul seems clear that "I have been crucified with Messiah. It is no longer I who live, but Messiah who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20, ESV) and asks the Corinthians, "Do you not know that you are G-d's temple and that G-d's Spirit dwells in you?" (1 Corinthians 3:16, ESV), and again a bit later in the same letter: "do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from G-d?" (6:19, ESV). We have moved from a physical building to a physical body - your body (and mine!). G-d Himself dwells in us - rests upon us, abides with us - in each of us. This is a revolutionary manifestation of G-d dwelling "among us". No wonder that Yeshua said that "the kingdom of G-d is among you" (Luke 17:21, NJB) or "the kingdom of G-d is in the midst of you" (ESV). More than that, G-d is building a new Temple from the members of the Body of Messiah, "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 2:20, NASB) with Yeshua as the corner-stone, "being built together into a dwelling of G-d in the Spirit" (v. 22, NASB). G-d is building His sanctuary over time, both within us and with us to make a larger dwelling for Himself.
But until our exile is ended, how do we construct or enable the "little sanctuary" for G-d in our lives so that He may accompany us in everything that we do? Perhaps we can learn from the Jewish tradition and see how the Sages cultivated the presence of G-d. Firstly, by their lives; both in public and private, they sought to be welcoming to G-d, so that they would be a place where the Spirit of G-d would want to be: obedient and humble. Secondly, by regularity in worship; praying regularly, both individually and corporately during the day, coming together for regular times of prayer and worship: praising G-d, reading His word, reciting Scripture together, praying in and through Scripture for G-d's will and promises to be fulfilled. Thirdly, by patterns of study; both formal textual study and less formal discussion and debate; talking about G-d with others, teaching family and children, bringing Him into business and all other parts of life. Lastly, by sacrifice; being prepared for the ultimate sacrifice of life if necessary, and living a life of sacrifice. Rav Sha'ul urged the early church to "present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Romans 12:1, ESV). No less ourselves, today, in increasingly busy and self-absorbed world, should we be little sanctuaries where people can find rest and an oasis of peace and calm where G-d can be found and shared.
1. - Or sometimes, but not here, a tool used to effect the verb action.
2. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
Further Study: 1 Corinthians 1:10; Romans 6:12-19; 1 Peter 2:4-5
Application: Do you think of yourself as a "little sanctuary"? Why not check in with the Master Tent-Maker and see He wants to transform you as He 'tents' with you today?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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