Highlighting Juxtaposition in the Torah
The Catchall Answer
Whenever I confront students with a problem of chronology in a biblical text, one or more immediately call out, אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה! “There is no order in the Bible!” This popular phrase, whose literal translation is, “There is no earlier or later in the Pentateuch,” is first found in Mekhilta Shirata 7 referring to the order of verses in the Song at the Sea as well as in Sifre Bemidbar 64, which notes that chapter 9 carries the date “the first month of the second year” while Numbers chapter 1 records events that occurred “in the second month” of that year. This statement is later used in Talmud and Midrash and is popularly understood to be saying, “When it comes to chronology, anything goes.”
This is not so much an answer as a throwing up of the hands, which explains nothing. If indeed there is no chronology, what kinds of order and arrangement are found in the Bible? The principle אין מוקדם ומאוחר suggests that while chronology is the most frequent criterion for the organization of Torah material, often we must search for other, non-chronological criteria that give meaning to the order or juxtaposition of texts in the Torah.
Our focus will be on Terumah, but we will open with the book of Exodus in general, in order to show how widespread the issue of order is.
The Placement of the Rules in Parashat Mishpatim
The story of the exodus from Egypt leads up to the sojourn in the Sinai desert, in which the stone tablets were given to Moses at Mount Sinai. The entire story from beginning until its climax in Parashat Yitro is presented in chronological fashion. But why is it followed by Mishpatim, a legal corpus that contains no hint of its date or provenance?
The rabbis understood that the juxtaposition of Mishpatim to Yitro was to let us know that just as the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai, so too were all the laws that followed.They derive this from Exod. 24:3, toward the conclusion of Parashat Mishpatim, where the Torah tells us that after his descent from the mountain, “Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the LORD and all the rules (ואת כל המשפטים),” which recalls the beginning of the legal collection, ואלה המשפטים , “These are the rules” (21:1).
The Torah thus surrounds the laws of Mishpatim with an inclusio that begins with Moses on the mountain (Exod. 19) and ends with Moses on the mountain (Exod. 24), to teach us that all the laws and commandments enclosed therein were given at Mount Sinai. It would seem that this rabbinic derasha that suggests that the two texts are related chronologically is based on the actual sense of the text.
The Placement of the Description of the Tabernacle
The placement of parashat Terumah in Exodus 25, immediately following Mishpatim, likewise calls for explanation. Like most of the remaining portions in Exodus it does not narrate a story; instead, it contains the blueprints and working plans for the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) and its vessels.
The book of Leviticus, whose sacrificial rituals are centered on the Tent of Meeting (another name for the Tabernacle) might have seemed a more fitting location for these instructions. It seems, therefore, that the Torah wants to imply, as in the case of the laws in Mishpatim, that the plans and commandments for the construction of the Mishkan were also given to Moses at Sinai.
This is taught through the juxtaposition of Terumah to chapter 24, whose final verse is: “Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Exod. 24:18). In fact, Exod. 25:40 says explicitly, “Note well, and follow the patterns for them that are being shown you on the mountain,” implying even more directly that the blueprint for the Tabernacle was revealed during Moses’ forty-day stay at Sinai.
Reading the Juxtaposition as Not Chronological– The Midrashic Approach
Though the placement of the chapters from 21 on clearly implies that they were all–parashot Mishpatim, Terumah, and Tetzaveh — given at Sinai together, Rashi, based on Midrash Tanchuma, claims that the juxtaposition here is not chronological. Instead, Rashi claims, first the people sinned by making the golden calf (ch. 32), and only after repeated prayer and pleading by Moses, God forgave them. Only then was Moses told the details of the Sanctuary as they appear in Terumah, Tetzaveh and Ki Tissa (chapters 25-31).
In other words, even though the Golden Calf event (ch. 32) follows the instructions for how to build the mishkan (chs. 25-31), the events narrated there preceded the revelation of the Tabernacle plans to Moses. In fact, Rashi argues, the plan to build the Tabernacle came about only after the sin of the Golden Calf in order that its construction and ritual should serve as atonement for that debacle.
All this may be seen in Rashi’s comment on 31:18. The verse states:
וַיִּתֵּ֣ן אֶל מֹשֶׁ֗ה כְּכַלֹּתוֹ֙ לְדַבֵּ֤ר אִתּוֹ֙ בְּהַ֣ר סִינַ֔י שְׁנֵ֖י לֻחֹ֣ת הָעֵדֻ֑ת לֻחֹ֣ת אֶ֔בֶן כְּתֻבִ֖ים בְּאֶצְבַּ֥ע אֱ-לֹהִֽים:
When He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, stone tablets, written with the finger of God.
ויתן אל משה וגו’ – אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה. מעשה העגל קודם לצווי מלאכת המשכן ימים רבים היה….
“He gave Moses”: In the Torah, chronological order is not adhered to (in the Hebrew, en mukdam u-meuhar ba-Torah). The episode of the calf took place long before the command of the work of the Mishkan…
The timeline suggested by Rashi, following the Tanchuma, was not offered to solve a textual difficulty. There is nothing problematic about the plans for the Mishkan preceding the Golden Calf incident. What the midrash and Rashi gain by changing the order of events is the idea that the construction of the Sanctuary was proposed only as an antidote to the sin of the Golden Calf. In other words, by using the phrase “There is no earlier or later in the Torah” they shuffle the order of events to suit this midrashic message.
Rashi notes that chapters 25 – 31 in Exodus were out of place, but he did not explicitly tell us why they are found in their current position. Perhaps he thought that their chronological order was intentionally ignored in order to include the rules of Mishpatim and the Tabernacle under the rubric of Sinai. When chronology is in order, which is most of the time, there is no pressing need for further explanation. The above two cases, Mishpatim and Terumah, teach that the message of juxtaposition is strongest when the chronological order is unclear or uncertain.
Conclusion: There is Chronology in the Torah
“There is no earlier or later in the Torah” is certainly not true for most of the Bible, not by a long shot. Quite the contrary, the Torah is ordered principally according to chronology; therefore, it is necessary to point out, as did Rashi, when chronology is being violated.
I have found that the expression “There is no earlier or later in the Torah” in rabbinic sources is rather infrequent, and most of the cases do not solve an explicit chronological problem, but use the principle to make a midrashic point, as Rashi did for the command to build the Sanctuary.  So what “There is no earlier or later in the Torah” really means is, chronology is not the only form of order in the Bible. Juxtaposit
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February 15, 2015
August 26, 2023
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Dr. Isaac Gottlieb is an associate professor in the Bible Department at Bar-Ilan University. He received his M.A. from Yeshiva University and his Ph.D. from New York University. He is the author of The Bible in Rabbinic Interpretation (with Menachem Ben-Yashar and Jordan S. Penkower) and Order in the Bible.
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