The Tabernacle, which in Hebrew (משכן) literally means dwelling is a portable tent like structure that is seen as the dwelling place of the presence of God. In the command to build the Tabernacle in the Torah reading Terumah, the Tabernacle is called (Exodus 25, 8) a Sanctuary (מקדש), and it is later called (Exodus 29, 42) a tent of meeting (אהל מואד). The Tabernacle occupies a central position in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) – and, from the beginning of the Torah reading of Terumah (Exodus 25) until the beginning of the Book of Numbers (Numbers 10) the Tabernacle is a central focus of the Israelite encampment at Mount Sinai. In Numbers 10 the Tabernacle is taken apart and transported by the Israelites with them in their journeys in the wilderness to be reassembled in the Israelite encampments. The Tabernacle was the central place of Israelite ritual worship after entering the land of Israel until superseded by the Temple of Jerusalem built by King Solomon.
The central form of ritual worship in the Tabernacle was the performance of animal sacrifices, although there were also offerings of grain, meal, wine and incense. The command to build the Tabernacle follows shortly after the great revelation on Sinai of the tablets containing the ten statements (and, the Biblical term is ten statements and not commandments) – but, in light of the revelation of the tablets and ten statements the building of the Tabernacle is very problematic.
The Tabernacle contained cherubim (כרובים), heavenly like creatures, on the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets within the Tabernacle – on the face of it in violation of the prohibition of the ten statements of making graven images (Exodus 20, 3). Moreover, the conception of God reflected in the ten statements is of a God without any physical form, and therefore there is a prohibition of making graven images – and, the Tabernacle clearly implies in its literal meaning of dwelling place that God has physical form. In the ten statements there is no ritual worship of a physical nature at all. The only ritual worship of the ten statements is the observance of the Sabbath, which is a holiness of time of a completely spiritual nature characterized by the desisting (the literal meaning of the term Sabbath) of doing creative work (and, not all work is prohibited on the Sabbath but only a certain kind of work called creative work) – just as God in the opening Biblical account of creation desisted on the seventh day from doing the creative work involved in creating the universe. In contrast to the Sabbath, which is a holiness of time of a completely spiritual nature, the Tabernacle is a holiness of place, and place implies physicality or location within space. The central form of ritual worship of the Tabernacle, animal sacrifice is also of a materialistic and physical nature.
The obvious question here is – why a command to build a Tabernacle, and why animal sacrifice as a form of ritual worship? Rashi, the great commentator of the Jewish tradition who lived in the 11th century, following Talmudic midrash (commentary), argues (Exodus 31, 18) that the commandment to build the Tabernacle (as a center of sacrificial worship) actually took place after the making of the golden calf. He quotes in this regard a rabbinic principle meaning that there is no chronological order to the Torah – “there is no earlier and no later in the Torah” (אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה). This is clearly not the plain meaning of Scripture, as it is written explicitly in the Torah that the commandment to build the Tabernacle (Exodus 25, 8) is given prior to the story of the making of the golden calf (Exodus 32). I want to suggest that from a philosophic point of view what stands behind, and is implied in, Rashi’s approach (as well as that of the Talmudic commentaries that Rashi follows) in terms of Biblical commentary is an opposition to animal sacrifice as the ideal form of ritual worship of God. By rearranging the order of events so that the command to build the Tabernacle follows the story of the making of the golden calf, the Tabernacle and the performance of animal sacrifices are now seen to be a concession to human weakness after the sin of the golden calf – the sin of the golden calf indicating that the Israelites were unable to worship God in an entirely spiritual way as demanded in the transcendent revelation of the ten statements.
Rashi’s approach (as well as that of the Talmudic commentaries that he follows) in terms of commentary is clearly problematic in that the use of the rabbinic principle “there is no earlier and no later in the Torah” is in effect to take scissors and paste, and to rearrange the order of events in the Torah. Nevertheless, I do think that the philosophic view (that animal sacrifice is not the ideal form of ritual worship of God, according to the Torah) that is implied in the use of such an approach (“there is no earlier and no later in the Torah”) in this case regarding the Tabernacle and the story of the golden calf is faithful to the plain meaning of Scripture. In the plain meaning of the Scripture, the command to build the Tabernacle and laws regarding animal sacrifice are given only following the ten statements, and are not part of the transcendent moral and spiritual revelation of the ten statements on Sinai.
Immediately following the great revelation of the ten statements, directly transmitted to the people Israel, it is written (Exodus 20, 15-16):
And all saw the thunder, and the lightning and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it they were shaken, and stood afar off. And they said to Moses, speak you with us and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.
This statement of the Israelites implies that they were unable to hear the voice of God in the revelation of the ten statements, as they say to Moses – “Speak you with us and we will hear” (as if until this point they could not hear). However, the Hebrew word hear (נשמע) means not only to hear physically but also to understand (as in English slang “I hear you”).
I want to suggest that the Israelites were not able to understand the great and transcendent revelation of the ten statements. The reason why I suggest such an interpretation is that not only would it be absurd to suggest that the Israelites could not hear the revelation in a physical sense, but the commandments and laws that the Israelites received in the Book of Exodus (following the revelation on Sinai of the ten statements) through the prophetic mediation of Moses are completely different than those of the ten statements given to the entire Israelite people both in terms of content and style (particular and legal rather than universal and moral). There would be no reason for giving commandments so different in content and style than the ten statements if the Israelites had been able to understand the ten statements and unable to hear them merely in a physical sense.
In my view, what the Israelites would have been incapable of grasping regarding the ten statements would not have been the content of the transcendent revelation of the ten statements (as the content in general is fairly straightforward and simple, especially regarding such direct and absolute moral commands or laws as “You shall not murder” or “You shall not steal”) but, rather, the religious conception implied in the revelation of the ten statements. The religious conception implied in the great revelation of the ten statements on Sinai (constituting a revolution in the ancient, near east, and western culture as a whole) is that God demands morality as an inherent part of God’s nature and that morality is the essence of religion – as reflected in the opening verse of the ten statements, “I am the Lord your God who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”, which is shocking.
The Bible opens with a story in which God is depicted as the Creator and Ruler of the universe and the obvious question that arises in the opening of the ten statements is why God is presented merely as the God of Israel and redemption (who has redeemed the people Israel from slavery) rather than as the Creator and Ruler of the universe! I want to suggest that the great revolution of the Bible is reflected here in the opening statement of the ten statements.
In the surrounding pagan cultures in the ancient, Biblical world, the gods were conceived of as forces or powers of nature that were powerful, but not inherently or necessarily moral – and thus act within nature, and influence human affairs, not as an expression of moral will but as an expression of their power. The gods in the pagan conception can be influenced or appeased by offering sacrifices, or by performing some other ritual practice – and, ritual practice is conceived as the very essence of religion.
From the Biblical account of the creation we can infer only that God is necessarily powerful in having created the entire universe, but not that God is necessarily moral. It may be (from a purely logical point of view) that an evil and powerful god (or evil and powerful gods) created the universe. The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is the way in which God is conceived (as a moral God who demands morality), as reflected in the opening statement of the ten statements in which God is presented not as the Creator and Ruler of the universe (as a God of power), but as the God of Israel (as a God of revelation and redemption) in redeeming the people Israel from slavery and oppression (“I am the Lord your God who has brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”). From this, that God acts within history to redeem the people Israel from oppression, we infer that God necessarily demands morality – and, this revolutionary conception of God in turn transforms the essence of religion from ritual practice (as in the pagan conception) to morality. Thus, for the first time in human history, there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, in which the very essence of religion is conceived to be morality.
The ten statements include commandments or laws of a moral and universal rather than legal and particular nature. It is only after the Israelites request the prophetic mediation of Moses when they are unable to understand and grasp the religious conception of the great revelation on Sinai that they are then given commandments or laws of a legal and particular nature with which they are already familiar – such as laws of slavery and laws reflecting an agricultural society that are particular to the ancient Biblical world (and, such laws were in the pagan conception considered an integral part of religion). In my view, it is the revolutionary idea that the essence of religion is morality (and not ritual or law as in the pagan world) that the Israelites were incapable of grasping in the revelation of the ten statements at Sinai.
It appears then from the plain meaning of Scripture (without rearranging the order of events as does Rashi, as well as the Talmudic commentaries that he follows) that animal sacrifice is not the ideal form of ritual worship in the Torah. The Israelites are given the command to build the Tabernacle and laws of animal sacrifice (and other laws of a legal and particular nature as well) on Sinai that are relevant to the particular society in which they lived only after they were unable to grasp the religious conception of the transcendent moral and spiritual revelation of the ten statements on Sinai (containing only one form of ritual practice, the Sabbath, which is entirely spiritual in nature).