October 22, 2020

Creation, Tabernacle, and New Creation

Chagall Moses Beholds

Moses beholds all the work, Chagall

“At this small, lonely place in the midst of the chaos of the wilderness, a new creation comes into being. In the midst of disorder, there is order. The tabernacle is the world order as God intended writ small in Israel.”

– Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation Commentary)

* * *

As Walter Brueggemann observes in his OT Introduction, the book of Exodus has three major divisions.

  • The first tells the story of Israel’s redemption through the Exodus from Egypt (ch. 1-18).
  • The second part is the account of the covenant God made with the Hebrew people at Mt. Sinai, including the laws he gave them (ch. 19-24).
  • The final division, also set at Mt. Sinai, involves the instructions for and the building of the tabernacle, the site where God made his presence known among his people (ch. 25-40).

Genesis 1 tells the story of God ordering the chaos of the world by preparing a good land and transforming it into his “cosmic temple” (John Walton’s term). This liturgical narrative of creation celebrates the one true and living God, who made the universe back in the beginning. It also tells us that God prepared a special place in the world, a land, to be his temple. Like a King and master workman, he first prepared the site for this land by transforming an uninhabitable wilderness (“formless and empty”– Gen. 1:2) into a “good” (habitable) place. He then filled it with essential elements for life and worship, formed living creatures to dwell in it, and blessed them. He made humans in his image, blessed them, and made them his royal and priestly representatives to care for the land and its creatures. The blessing he gave to humans, to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth,” shows that he intended his blessing to be extended throughout the whole world. At the completion of his work, God took his place of rest, sitting down on the throne in his temple to rule and receive the praise of his creatures.

In Genesis 1 (as well as chapters 2-3) there is pervasive temple imagery. It is not surprising then, to discover that the narratives about building the tabernacle (Israel’s “wilderness temple”) should contain a number of verbal and thematic ties with the creation story. The world of Genesis 1 reflects the sanctuary. The sanctuary of Exodus 25-31/35-40 reflects creation.


Moses called the elders and presents Tablets of Law, Chagall

Here are seven parallels between the creation account and the tabernacle narrative:

1. There are seven “words” given by God to build the tabernacle.

  • 25:1“The LORD said to Moses…” — the pattern for the tabernacle and the priests
  • 30:11. “The LORD said to Moses…” — the atonement money
  • 30:17“The LORD said to Moses…” — the bronze laver and washings
  • 30:22“The LORD said to Moses…” — the anointing oil
  • 30:34“The LORD said to Moses…” — the incense
  • 31:1“The LORD said to Moses…” — Bezalel and the craftsmen
  • 31:12“The LORD said to Moses…” — the Sabbath

2. The final word is about the “Sabbath.” (31:12-17, note the explicit reference to Gen. 1)

3. The work is undertaken in the Spirit. (31:3)

4. At the end of his speaking, God “finished,” and at the end of the story the tabernacle was “finished.” (31:18, 39:32)

5. The account of building (35-40) closely follows the words of instruction (25-31). This is the same pattern we see in Gen. 1 — “And God said let there be…and it was so…and God made…”

6. In the end, Moses “saw” that they had done all the work as God commanded. (39:43)

7. In the end, Moses “blessed” the people. (39:43)

In the creation account of Genesis 1, God’s Spirit hovered over the “wilderness” of darkness and water that was formless and empty, uninhabitable by life. He spoke seven words (“Let there be…”) and brought order to the chaos, forming it and filling it. He created a temple and furnished it with priests “in his image” to represent him. He “saw that it was good” and “blessed” his living creatures. When he “finished” his work, he rested and blessed the seventh day as a Sabbath.

In the tabernacle account of Exodus 25-31/35-40, God instructed his people to build a tent for worship in the wilderness. He chose Bezalel, who was filled with the Spirit, as its chief craftsperson. He gave seven words of instruction to Moses about the tent and its priests, concluding with a seventh word about the Sabbath. After he “finished” speaking his word, Moses had it “made” exactly according to the pattern God gave him. When they had “finished” their work, Moses “saw” the good work the people had done and “blessed” them.

So then, both of these stories tell how God established his own holy, royal residence in the midst of the wilderness.

Terence Fretheim further observes that the dedication of the tabernacle was held on Israel’s new year’s day (40:2, 17), which in their mind corresponded to the celebration of the first day of creation. Also, both the world and the tabernacle are products of God’s divine command. “This is one spot in the midst of a world of disorder where God’s creative, ordering work is completed according to the divine intention just as it was in the beginning.”

In addition to this creation theme, the tabernacle is one more step toward the new creation.

In the final form of Exodus, an important story has been placed between God’s instructions and the making of the tabernacle. It is the story of the Golden Calf, Moses’ intercession, and the renewal of the covenant. In other words, it is a “fall” and “redemption” story of sin, judgment, and restoration. It should be noticed that, just as in the first account of sin, when Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden, in the tabernacle the way back to God is mediated through cherubim that guard the altar (Gen. 3:24, Ex. 25:17-22).

The narrative about the Tabernacle is thus structured as a story of creation/fall/new creation. The tabernacle is not only the place where Israel finds order in the chaos of wilderness. It is also sets forth the path of redemption and renewal by which Israel can return to God after they have sinned.

If, as is likely, these texts were shaped into their final form in the exilic and post-exilic communities, then they provided for those dispirited people yet another example of Israel’s bigger story, as well as how they might find their way back to God and covenant renewal, restoring their identity as the people of God.

Perhaps these texts also fueled motivation for a project of rebuilding the Temple and making sure they followed God’s specific instructions upon their return to the Promised Land.


  1. Generally I love your take on the First Testament and Biblical contextualization, but this one…well these connections seem a bit forced, don’t they? Or is it just me?

    The Bible refers to dozens (perhaps hundreds) of things undertaken in the Spirit, and references to Sabbath and God’s rest. Are those also echoing the creation event? Everything that is built is “finished” at the end of its building, and any time that something is built based upon a command of God it is said that the instructions were carefully followed (see also: Noah’s Ark, Solomon’s Temple). Does this mean that all of them echoed the creation? Were there seven words from God here because of a reference to creation, or because He actually did speak seven times? (And in the creation account, “the Lord says” happened 9 times over 6 days, not 7 over 7 days.)

    So I guess this one just seems a bit of a stretch to me. I’m not sure I see the temple language in Genesis 1 quite so clearly.

    • This is not “my take” but a summary of what commentators have seen for a long, long time. Don’t downplay the significance of things like the seven speeches and specific words like “finished” and “saw.” The Hebrew Bible is filled with repetition and parallelism like this in order to draw connections between things. The connections between creation and Temple are well established in biblical studies.

    • It is not just that it was done in the Spirit. In Genesis 1:2 we find an unusual phrase: “the breath (or spirit) of Elohim”. This phrase is much, much rarer than “the breath or spirit of Yahweh”. We see it again in Exodus 31:3 and 35:31 where it describes how God has given Bezalel skill to create the articles for the tabernacle. I believe this is the only other occurrence in the Old Testament.

      Also, the phrase in Genesis 2:1 about the conclusion of God’s work, (“God had finished the work he had been doing”) is repeated in Exodus 40:33, when “Moses finished the work” of setting up the tabernacle. In fact, the only times the Hebrew words used in Genesis 2:1 for “finished” and “work” occur together elsewhere in the Old Testament are in texts that refer to the tabernacle or temple.

      These are both rare and unusual phrases, and would signal to the Hebrew readers the association between creation week and the building of the temple.

  2. I’ve been reading through the Pentateuch and I was struck by the parallel at the beginning of Exodus with the creation account – “the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied and filled the land.”

  3. Interestingly, the people were to be a kingdom of priests (Ex 19:6) and the only requirement was to believe (19:9). They were told to come up to the mountain when they heard the trumpet (Ex 19:13) But when they heard it they trembled and apparently chickened out and God told Moses and Aaron to come back up.
    How do we know this was a failure of the people? See Ex 20:18, 10. When they saw the thunder, lightning, heard the trumpet, etc, they trembled and stood at a distance, telling Moses to speak to them himself and not let God speak to them. Jeremiah 7:22 speaks to this as well. As a consequence, in the words of Sailhamer, they went in that moment from being a priesthood to having a priesthood. This fits well with Paul’s observation that the laws were added “because of sin.”

    This multiplication of laws because of sin fits in my mind. But the parallel to the creation account is still obvious, as the first people were also acting as priests (stewards) of Gods intention. He wanted to restore that in the covenant, which seems like it should have been a confirmation of the covenant with Abraham, but instead turned out to be something less, showing them in the end (of Deuteronomy) that this would never fly because they needed their hearts circumcised.

    Getting there!

  4. Great Post…have to say that I never saw the how it relates to the creation story until now. This is why I love God and I love His Word

  5. Another parallel that is very meaningful is the idea that, once completed, both the cosmic temple and the earthly temple become a place where God “rests”. This should be understood in the sense of “lives” or, better, “reigns from”.

    Obviously Genesis presents the creation as this (the seventh day, unlike the others, is not closed out). But the Old Testament also presents the temple in similar language:

    Let us go to his dwelling place
    Let us worship at his footstool—
    “Arise, O Lord, and come to your resting place,
    You and the ark of your might.”
    For the Lord has chosen Zion
    He has desired it for his dwelling:
    “This is my resting place for ever and ever
    Here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.”
    (Psalm 132)

    This is what the Lord says:
    “Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool.
    Where is the house you will build for me?
    Where will my resting place be?
    Has not my hand made all these things,
    And so they came into being?”
    Declares the Lord.
    (Isaiah 66:1-2)