The Ten Commandments and the Tabernacle (Exodus 19-40)

Charlton Heston, as Moses, in  Cecil B. DeMille’s  “ Ten Commandments ” (1954)

Charlton Heston, as Moses, in Cecil B. DeMille’sTen Commandments” (1954)

After their deliverance from the Egyptians, the Israelites begin their wandering in the wilderness, a wandering that will last for forty years. From the beginning, it is clear that the Israelites have much to learn in the way of holiness. Already in Exodus 16, the people have become nostalgic for Egypt, remembering especially the food. Their comments show that they prefer the comforts of slavery to the rigors of the free worship of God. Their time in the wilderness, then, functions as an education, as a period of training and transformation, for a people that is learning to live in the light.

To assist them in right living, God makes a special revelation of the holiness he requires, to Moses on Mount Sinai. The most famous part of this revelation is the Ten Commandments, delivered on two tablets, and detailed in Exodus 20. The Ten Commandments teach right behavior in relation to both God and to men. Today, we are apt to focus on the rules for relating to other men, namely, the prohibitions on murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and coveting, and the requirement to honor father and mother (Commandments 6-10, and 5). But we should remember that these commandments follow the first set of commandments that deal with God, which enjoin the singular worship of the one true God, a prohibition on idolatry, a reverence for God’s name, and keeping the sabbath rest that God established at creation (Commandments 1-4). In other words, the second table of the law depends upon the first table of the law.

Exodus 21-31 is a kind of expansion of the Ten Commandments, where God tells Moses in greater detail both how man should relate to his neighbor, and also how he should relate to God. Half of this section is a set of instructions concerning the construction of a tabernacle in which God will dwell, together with regulations for the ark of the covenant, the altar, for sacrifice, for the priesthood, and for forms of worship. God is graciously instructing his people in the way by which they may receive his presence, and these subjects will be further developed in the next book, Leviticus.

In the meantime, however, while Moses is still on the mountain, the Israelites become impatient and slip into idolatry, building and bowing down before a golden calf. This story is recorded in Exodus 32. A remarkable feature of this episode, often forgotten, is that it is Aaron himself who fashions the golden calf. Aaron, we should remember, is the brother of Moses, who helped Moses bring the people out of Egypt, and who God selected to serve as the first high priest in the tabernacle. Yet here he turns against the Lord, and in a suggestive literary detail, this is the first scene to record Aaron’s personal words. When Moses comes down the mountain, he becomes angry, and he breaks the stone tablets and then destroys the golden calf.

In the popular imagination, the destruction of the golden calf marks the conclusion of the Exodus story. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1954 film adaptation of the “Ten Commandments”, for example, the climactic moment of the movie is Moses throwing the tablets at the golden calf, and destroying it. The movie then cuts to its final scene, from the end of Deuteronomy, when Moses says his final words before the Israelites enter into the promised land.

But in the Biblical book of Exodus, the idolatry of Israel is not the conclusion, but rather the context for a new demonstration of God’s mercy. In Exodus 33, Moses intercedes for Israel before the righteous anger of God, and in Exodus 34 God writes new tablets of the law and renews his covenant with Israel. And then in Exodus 35-40, the Israelites finally built the tabernacle, as previously commanded. Though often forgotten, these final chapters are some of the most moving in all scripture. For they show God’s singular mercy in his determination to reveal himself to his people, even in spite of their sin. The presence of God to his people is the true conclusion to Exodus, a fact evident in its closing verses:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys. (Exodus 40:34-38).

Peter Johnston