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SBL e-journal

Jonathan Ben-Dov





The Materiality of a Divine Dwelling



APA e-journal

Jonathan Ben-Dov





The Materiality of a Divine Dwelling






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The Materiality of a Divine Dwelling

What makes a material suitable for constructing a sacred space, and why, given all of the details and repetitions concerning the Tabernacle, are none of its manufacturing techniques narrated?


The Materiality of a Divine Dwelling

Building the ark of the covenant, Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations (colorized). Wikimedia

The Ikea Parashot

Five consecutive parashot (weekly Torah readings) in the book of Exodus contain technical sections about the tabernacle and its implements, dealing with “nuts and bolts,” materials, measurements, and construction. As a student (whose name I’ve forgotten) once told me, they should be called “the IKEA parashot.” These parashot give us a rare opportunity to reflect on the religious value of crafts and of manual labor, particularly on the way that human manual labor is used when encountering the divine.

It is not entirely intuitive that the divine will choose to dwell among people, with all the ritual pollution such a dwelling entails (see Leviticus 16:16). It is even more counter-intuitive that God should dwell in a human-made structure and should use human-made furniture such as the table, the menorah, or the ark. Are there rules for preparing such an abode? Does this kind of industry require special materials? Special tools? Modes of production? Various passages in Exodus convey several answers to these questions.

An Earthen Altar for a Temporary Visit

After the Decalogue, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites rules of worship (Exod. 20:19-23):

שמות כ:יט וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה כֹּה תֹאמַר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם. כ:כ לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן אִתִּי אֱלֹהֵי כֶסֶף וֵאלֹהֵי זָהָב לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם.
Exod 20:19 The LORD said to Moses: Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens: 20:20 With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.

According to this early source, God dwells in Heaven rather than on earth. When He does reveal himself on earth, he does so in an ad hoc way in a variety of possible places:

שמות כ:כא מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי וְזָבַחְתָּ עָלָיו אֶת עֹלֹתֶיךָ וְאֶת שְׁלָמֶיךָ אֶת צֹאנְךָ וְאֶת בְּקָרֶךָ בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר [נוסח שומרוני: תזכיר] אֶת שְׁמִי אָבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ. כ:כב וְאִם מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי לֹא תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ.
Exod 20:21 Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I [SP: “you”][1] cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. 20:22 And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.

The concept of divine availability is emphasized: God is interested to hear human beings when they call Him, and when they do, He will visit them accordingly. For this kind of visit, He does not require any special edifice or furniture; to the contrary, too much human involvement limits the divine availability. A simple altar made of earth is best, but an altar of stone may be acceptable as long as the stones are unhewn, because merely the act of cutting and polishing the stone violates its natural sanctity.

In other words, the issue of the suitable materials and how they should be crafted is directly related to the type of divine presence sought. God dwells in heaven and only visits the human in their earthly abode temporarily. He will not dwell in the places where people invoke Him, but will visit. Inasmuch as the encounter is merely temporary, it should be held in crude, improvised cult sites.[2]

An Elaborately Decorated Structure for God: The Tabernacle Parashot

The priestly account of Exodus 25 onwards promotes an extremely different message. Here the encounter is not seen as a mere visit, but rather as a permanent dwelling (Exod. 25:8):

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם.
They shall make a holy place for me and I will dwell among them.

Here God does not merely ‘come’ (בוא) but rather ‘dwells’ (שכן) with human beings. This divine choice entails specific instructions with regard to the materials and manufacture of divine paraphernalia. Most of the regulations for constructing an encampment for the divine are thus diametrically opposed to Exod. 20, while some are surprisingly similar.

The Use of Expensive Materials

The divine presence requires precious materials. As the Israeli biblical scholar Menahem Haran (1924-2015) noted, the description of the tabernacle conveys a clear sense of hierarchy: the outer courts are built of plain materials like wood and flax, and the materials become gradually more and more expensive until the inner sanctum is reached, where the items are primarily of gold.[3] The same holds true with regard to the vestments of the priests: The high priest, who enters the holiest places and serves the most important rituals, wears golden clothes while lay priests only wear simple linen white vestments.

The duty to use expensive materials is also reflected in the Temple of Solomon as depicted in 1 Kings 6, where the predominant materials are gold and cedar wood; cedar was the preferred material for temple building throughout the ancient world.

No Description of the Preparation: Traces of the Exodus 20 Ideology

While priestly descriptions of the Tabernacle in chapters 25-35 do emphasize the importance of manufactured implements, they retain traces of an ideology similar to that of Exodus 20, according to which human toil and manufacture procedures are not fitting of the divine.[4] It is in fact quite curious that Exodus 25-40 never describe any act of manufacturing, but only give the sizes and general prescriptions for the plan of the Tabernacle.

We know, for example, the size of the ark and that it was coated with gold (Exod 25:11), but we nowhere hear about the actual workshop where the wood was cut and the gold melted. We hear about the divine charisma given to the artists Bezalel and Oholiav (Exod 31:2-6), but we never see them at work. No sweat, grease, or dirt is ever mentioned in the Tabernacle.[5]

To Make (עשה) the Mishkan

The choice of verbs in the Tabernacle chapters is instructive in this regard. While many different techniques were required to manufacture the Tabernacle and all its various constituents, this wide array of techniques is described by the simple verb עשה, literally “to do” or “to make.” This verb is used for weaving the threads for the cloth (26:1), for melting and casting various metals (26:19), for cutting the wood (26:15, 27:3 and many more), for extracting plant aroma (30:25), and for fashioning all sorts of gold artistry (28:13-14).

The reader is not told about the actual manufacture, seeing only the finished product. Remarkably, the same verb is used in Genesis 1 to denote the various actions employed in the creation. To use my earlier simile, the mishkan was like an IKEA product, where the purchaser gets the prepared parts and a diagram and is only required to assemble them (Exodus chapter 40).

No Tools or Noisy Work in the Temple

The non-use of tools is even more explicit in the description of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 6:7:

וְהַבַּיִת בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה מַסָּע נִבְנָה וּמַקָּבוֹת וְהַגַּרְזֶן כָּל כְּלִי בַרְזֶל לֹא נִשְׁמַע בַּבַּיִת בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ.
When the House was built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built.

This verse continues the prohibition of using iron-hewn stone from Exodus 20:21, but more importantly emphasizes that the noise and turmoil of workers fashioning hewn stones would have profaned the sanctity of the divine.[6]

Manufacturing the Golden Calf?

In contrast, one account of the manufacture of the Golden Calf narrates details of manufacturing. In the narrator’s voice in Exodus 32:4, we hear that Aaron took the gold from the Israelites and worked it with an engraving tool (or: mold? The Hebrew ויצר אותו בחרט is unclear). According to Aaron’s own account (32:24), however, he merely took the gold and threw it into the fire, from which a complete calf emerged. This verse relieves Aaron from some of his responsibility, but also conveys sanctity to the Calf, since its manufacture did not involve the technicalities, the dirt and noise of human manufacture.[7]

Distancing Manufacture from the Realm of the Divine in the ANE

Non-Israelite writers were also concerned with protecting the divine presence by distancing it from mundane materials and human toil, and they employed different strategies to accomplish this.[8] Thus, the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (681-669 B.C.E.), in his Babylon Prism, describes his act of renewing the cult statues and the temple utensils in the city of Babylon in a way similar to Exodus 20:21:

I prepared precious [go]ld, the soil of mountains, which no one has ever used for works of art, selected unhewn stones numerous like grass, the products of the (wild) mountains, which the god Ea has greatly assigned for the work of mastery.[9]

The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 BCE) tells about the cedar trees used for Babylonian temples (quoted from his rock carved inscription in Brisa, Lebanon):

… Lebanon, the mountain of cedars, the luxuriant forest of Marduk of sweet smell, whose excellent cedars, which [had] not [been used for the cultic] place of another god, and had not been taken [for the palace] of another king, I cut [with my pure hands] … [10]

Voluntary Materials Collected from Individuals

Unlike Esarhaddon, the Israelites were not able to use pristine building materials. Not only gold but even wood would not have been available to them in the wilderness, thus they are never told to collect wood for building the Tabernacle. Rather, wood – like all other materials for the construction – was imagined as collected from multitudes of individuals, who presumably brought them from Egypt (25:5, and especially 35:24).

Making use of a number of expressions such as “all whose hearts prompt them to give” (כל איש אשר ידבנו לבו; Exod. 25:2), Exodus 25-35 recurrently states that the material goods used for the Tabernacle were voluntarily given by individuals, making it clear that the gifting of the materials is a substantial element in its construction. The Israelites are exuberant with joy about the opportunity to donate. The Torah goes out of its way to depict the enormous flow of donations (Exod. 35:28), until Moses had to issue a decree to desist (36:4-7).

What is the meaning of all this? The late Yochanan Muffs (1932-2009) cites various legal documents from antiquity demonstrating that the description of joy and speed were an accepted literary means in the ANE to depict volition.[11] The good will of the donor renders the donated goods suitable for the elevated task of hosting the divine. While the Israelites were not able to import newly-mined gold or hewn wood from distant mountain ranges, they did have access to an equally precious resource: good will.

Social Theory and the Importance of Philanthropic Giving

As modern social theorists have explained, voluntary giving is a foundation of human society, and tracing its mechanisms and regulations is a good means to trace the mechanisms of society. Voluntary giving – despite being imagined as a spontaneous act – in fact obeys strict rules and frameworks which are necessary for establishing the connections, not only among individuals but mainly between institutions.[12] This voluntary yet institutionalized giving plays a fundamental role in defining the validity of materials for the Tabernacle.[13]

Mandatory Half-Shekel Tax: Used for the Hooks and Foundations

In contrast to the voluntary donations of materials, other resources were recruited by means of a mandatory donation of one half-shekel (מחצית השקל) by each adult (Exodus 30:11-16), which was used “for the work of ohel moed (tent of meeting)” (30:16). It is instructive, however, that is was not used for constructing any of the inner premises of the Tabernacle, but was only suitable for molding foundations for the wood construction and the hooks (ווים) for the wooden pillars of its outer court (Exod. 38:27-28). This is another demonstration of the hierarchy of materials, since the silver shekel was not sufficiently precious to be used for items in the inner sanctum.

The Delicate Matter of Devising a Dwelling for the Divine

Choosing the materials and modes of production for the divine presence is a delicate matter which is fundamental for the theology of the Tabernacle chapters in Exodus. The priestly conception being that God not merely visits the human site but rather dwells in it, these rules acquire additional importance. While the divine abode requires precious materials, the many limitations on these materials and their production distinguish them from “regular” human products.

The detailed modes of production are never narrated since they entail tools and noise. In addition, when not gathered from unspoiled nature, the materials used for the divine must originate from the good will of their donors, rendering them a quality which equals that of the precious minerals collected by human kings in the pristine regions of the earth.


March 19, 2017


Last Updated

April 4, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Jonathan (יונתן) Ben-Dov is George and Florence Wise Chair of Judaism in Antiquity at the University of Haifa, and senior lecturer of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Literature. He is co-editor (with Seth Sanders) of the book Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature (ISAW and New York University Press).