The next seventeen chapters of the Torah are filled with legalities and architectural descriptions of the Mishkan – but was it, retrospectively, a shameful concession to Bnei Yisrael’s idolatrous inclinations?
Until this point, Shemot has been primarily concerned with slavery, redemption and revelation. Now its attention turns to the Mishkan. Put simply by Robert Alter, this is “something of a letdown”. Legalities and architectural details are just less interesting than splitting seas, causing plagues and learning not to vex a stranger. But I would like to address something of crucial religious and historical significance that might make us view this part of the Torah, and the role of Jewish worship in general, a little differently.
A certain ‘linear quality’ is presumed to be preserved in our text. We have the covenant of Sinai and Moshe ascending the mountain. Then he receives the instructions for constructing the Mishkan, followed by the Golden Calf. Only after that does Moshe return from the mountain and Bnei Yisrael start building the Mishkan. Most commentators agree with this sequence. Rashi, however, takes a drastically alternative approach.
There is neither “earlier” nor “later” in the Torah (אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה). The making of the golden calf occurred many days prior to the command for constructing the Mishkan. (Rashi, Ex. 31:18)
In one of the most fascinating and religiously significant disputes in the whole of the Torah, Rashi suggests that the text is not in chronological order and the Golden Calf preceded all instruction and implementation of the Mishkan. But what’s behind Rashi’s assertion that the Torah doesn’t always record things in the order that they happened?
To answer this, let’s return to the first mention of worship after the revelation:
You shall not make with me gods of silver; neither shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. An altar of earth you shall make to me… (20:20-21)
We see here that the worship of God is ideally performed not through any elaborate structure, like the Mishkan, but rather from an altar of plain earth. The Mishkan represents physicality at its core, with precious metals and materialism. The solid gold keruvim, for example, seem similar to the “gods of gold” made “along” with God, something forbidden in the passage. Indeed, similar structures and depictions of keruvim are seen in much ancient near eastern iconography. For example, the carvings on the sarcophagus of Ahiram, king of Byblos depicts Ahiram sitting upon his throne, designed with a winged gryphon-like creature – clearly a similar image to that of God upon the keruvim.*
Seemingly,then, the Mishkan is a response to the sin of the Golden Calf. This sin, after all, is an archetypal example of making “gods of silver” and “gods of gold”. The idol is made out of gold and, when praying for the people, Moshe describes their sin as a “great sin” in the act of making “god(s) of gold” (32:31). In the words of Rabbi Chanoch Waxman, “the golden calf is meant to somehow embody the power of God, to channel the presence of the Lord and bridge the gap between God and the people”.
The Mishkan, therefore, is a compromise. The sin of the Golden Calf demonstrate that Bnei Yisrael seem unable to simply make an altar of earth for God and need something more elaborate, perhaps due to the strength of the people’s ties to Egyptian forms of worship or because of human nature itself. But how can we fully accept such a position? When the Mishkan and Beit Hamikdash constitute such a large portion of Jewish law, literature and history, there must be more to them than just compromises to satisfy Bnei Yisrael’s idolatrous inclinations?
Whether or not we apply אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה to this section of Torah, the proximity between the Mishkan instruction and the narrative of Mt Sinai might come to emphasise an important message. Let us read the Ramban on the relationship between the two:
The essence of the Mishkan was to allow the Divine Glory which had rested on Mt. Sinai to rest upon it…the Mishkan, always accompanying Israel, would be the Divine Glory which had appeared to them at Mount Sinai, and when Moses used to approach, God would speak to him as He did on Mt. Sinai (Ramban on Ex. 25:1).
So we have a great paradox. The Mishkan is a response to humankind’s inability to relate to an immaterial God. The Golden Calf was symbolic of this need, and the Mishkan was that its realisation; yet simultaneously, the Mishkan is a continuation of the communication and covenantal consciousness with God that began at Sinai.
The objective answers of chronology and juxtaposition we may never know – it’s probably both, a compromise and an ideal. But how the Jewish People relate to an infinite God through finite and physical means remains our eternal challenge.
*This is just one example based on keruvim representing a sort of divine throne. (See 1 Sam. 4:4, 2 Sam. 6:2, 2 Kings 19:15, Isa. 37:16 where God is referred to as “the one who sits upon cherubs (יושב הכרובים)”