It is not just Bible critics who question the value of the many chapters describing in detail the construction of the Tabernacle. Thirteen of the forty chapters of the Book of Exodus are devoted to this topic (as well as substantial sections of the Book of Leviticus and the Book of Numbers). Many contemporary readers tend to gloss over these chapters, considering them irrelevant and trivial. Biblical critics like Wellhausen went so far as to declare these chapters a foreign insert supporting the centrality of the priestly cult.

 

But Benno Jacob (1869-1945), the great German-Jewish scholar who disagreed with every aspect of Wellhausen’s approach, defends the portions that describe in details the construction of the Tabernacle as essential to understanding the implicit message of the Torah regarding religious life.

 

To Jacob, the establishment of any religious system demands the institution of practices that regulate divine service. In other words, if God is to be worshipped, then some place must be dedicated to that purpose and some means identified to fulfill that purpose. Hence, it is entirely reasonable to expect that in the establishment of Israelite religion, some description of where and how the Israelite God is to be worshipped would be included.

 

The number of words devoted to the description of divine service matches its importance. The glory of the God of Israel rested atop Mount Sinai. But the presence of the God of Israel would not be spatially restricted. The instructions to built the Tabernacle express God’s desire to remove His temporal seat from the mountain top and descend below to dwell in the midst of the people. As Jacob put it: “They would place Him among themselves by preparing a site (miq-dash) appropriate for His holiness. Whenever the people moved, this sanctuary became a wandering Sinai which accompanied them, a segment of heaven transplanted upon the earth in the midst of the people.”

 

The imagery is sublime. Sinai is not a fixed place but a mobile space. The experience of Sinai is a force to influence Israelite conduct wherever the Israelites may be. Today we might say, the Jewish spirit is not in the synagogue or at the Kotel (Western Wall) but in every Jewish heart that allows the message of Sinai to enter.