This is the second in a five-part series about things in the Bible that we tend to skip over, but which nevertheless merit our attention and can bless us if we read them with openness and faith. This series comes to us from Brian Sigmon, editor of United Methodist resources at the United Methodist Publishing House.
Part 2: Detailed Descriptions of Ritual Spaces
Last week I wrote the first installment of a series on boring things in the Bible. We have all have likely experienced times when we’re reading the Scriptures, only to find ourselves in the middle of a genealogy, a list, a set of laws, or a detailed description of some location or other. While narratives and poetry in the Bible can lift us up or spark our imagination, these other types of writing tend to slow us down and mire us in seemingly needless details. What I hope to show in this series, though, is that even these “boring” parts of Scripture communicate something vital to us about God and God’s relationship with humankind. These writings in the Bible may never become page-turners, but they can be life-giving if we know what to look for as we read them.
In last Friday’s post, I focused on genealogies. Today I want to consider another type of material: descriptions of ritual spaces. Much of the second half of Exodus, for instance, devotes a lot of attention to the construction of the Tabernacle and its instruments of worship, including the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25-32, 35-40). There’s a similarly detailed, if not as long, description of the Temple in Jerusalem that Solomon built (1 Kings 6-7), and even a prophetic vision of the restored Temple, complete with angelic measurements (Ezekiel 40-42).
These descriptions of worship spaces can be tedious to read; they are comparatively long and use unfamiliar measurements (a cubit, for instance). And yet the frequent presence of such material suggests that the biblical writers assigned great importance to it. What might these descriptions of worship spaces have to teach us?
First, the emphasis on describing worship spaces reminds us of the vital place of worship in the biblical view of our relationship with God. The book of Exodus illustrates this well. The final sixteen chapters of Exodus (25-40) are devoted to building the Tabernacle and other items associated with it, apart from the episode of the golden calf in chapters 32-34. By comparison, the first fifteen chapters of Exodus describe the Israelites’ oppression in Egypt and God’s leading them to freedom. At the end of Exodus 15, the Israelites leave Egypt behind for good. As biblical scholar Ellen Davis has noted, the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt is balanced in Exodus by their work in building the Tabernacle (Ellen F. Davis, “Slaves or Sabbath-Keepers? A Biblical Perspective on Human Work,” Anglican Theological Review 83.1 (2001): 25-40). In other words, Exodus devotes just as much space to the Tabernacle as it does to the grand narrative we are more familiar with (Moses’ birth, the ten plagues on Egypt, and the parting of the Red Sea).
This balance helps us recognize that God’s liberation of the Israelites wasn’t just meant to free them from oppression; it was to free them for worship of the one true God, who had made a covenant with their ancestors. It helps us understand that freedom in Exodus doesn’t mean autonomy, but empowered, liberated, and loyal service to the Creator of the universe. In the same way, the space dedicated to the description of the Temple’s construction in 1 Kings 6-7 helps us recognize that a key aspect of the kingship in Israel would be its relationship to God, realized through worship. In the ideal way of things, Solomon and his descendants would lead the Israelites in maintaining covenant loyalty to God, who had established their kingdom, conquered their enemies, and given them peace.
Not only do these things show the importance of worship; they also communicate to us that worship is something we receive from God, not something we initiate on our own. Moses didn’t invent the Tabernacle, but patterned it after what God revealed to him on Mount Sinai (see Exodus 26:30). How often do we today understand our worship as something that we receive from God and then give back to God—and for that reason strive to get it exactly right, with the fullness of our attention and focus? If we read these descriptions of worship spaces seriously, they will challenge us to pay closer attention to our worship practices—including our sacred spaces and our rituals—as sources of life. We might discover that worship lies much closer to the heart of our life with God than we often think.
Finally, we should recognize is that these detailed descriptions enable us to envision what these worship places looked like. A familiar adage tells us that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, we don’t have a picture of the Tabernacle or the Temple that has survived from the time of Moses, but we do have a lot of words that have been preserved and transmitted within our tradition! The importance of this should not be underestimated. These detailed descriptions allow attentive readers (and better artists than me!) to draw a sketch of what these spaces may have looked like. Our study Bibles, Sunday school curriculum, and other educational materials can have a visual representation of the Ark, the Tabernacle, and other ritual spaces and items thanks to these detailed descriptions. So even if they don’t make for great devotional reading, they are vitally important for our preservation of history and sacred tradition.
This doesn’t mean, though, that they have no value at all for enriching our spiritual life. Reading these descriptions with an imaginative eye can allow us to envision the worship spaces or instruments they describe. If we read them with attention and focus, we can take allow our imaginations to take us on a journey to these places. Given that they are holy spaces, this can create an opportunity to encounter the divine in a different way from our normal experiences. Try it next time you read Exodus 35-40 or 1 Kings 6-7. Imagine yourself walking through the courtyard, entering the sanctuary through the decorated doors. Imagine yourself walking past the altar, the lampstand, the altar of incense. Imagine yourself standing outside the Holy of Holies, knowing that God’s presence is there—frightening and reassuring at the same time. Such an exercise can turn our hearts and minds upward, toward that which is holy and good.
Brian O. Sigmon is editor of United Methodist resources at The United Methodist Publishing House, where he edits books, Bible studies, and official UM resources. In this role he is the editor of the Daily Christian Advocate and managing editor of the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. Brian has a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Marquette University, where he has also taught courses in theology. Brian’s research and teaching have focused on the Pentateuch, especially the books of Genesis and Exodus, but he has a passion for anything and everything related to the Bible. Brian finds great joy in helping people of all backgrounds deepen their understanding of Scripture.