God with Us in the Wilderness: The Tabernacle | S1 E5

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The first words of God in the Bible are the first words of an epic story that spans all of time.
This story is the story of the God of the universe making his home in the midst of his people. God, humans, angels and animals all inhabiting a grand garden that sits atop a cosmic mountain. Under the boughs of two enchanted trees flows a stream that breaks into four rivers that rush out of this garden to water the rest of the wild world below. But this is also a story of betrayal, murder, and exile - of fallen angels and rebel humans. There are talking beasts, and dragons, giants, and man-made mountains. It’s a story of exile… but also of exodus. It’s the story of wilderness wanderings, but also a story of a Father who pursues his rebellious children to the furthest reaches of a broken world. The story of the Bible is a story of rebellion, but it is also a story of redemption and renewal. The story of creation becomes a story of new creation. And this fantastic, wildly enchanted story, is the true story of the whole world.
This reflection on the fantastic nature of the Story of God is timely in our journey. Our imaginations are about to be engulfed by the flames of a Consuming Fire, a Fire that expels darkness, splits seas, and stands tall like a flaming tornado of righteous terror to his enemies and a pillar of covenant faithfulness to his people. He will go with them through the wilderness, no matter how long it takes. They are his people, He is their God, and he will dwell as a source of life and light in their midst.
My name is Kenneth Padgett and this is the Story of God Podcast, presented by Wolfbane Books.
Ok, let’s start by quickly reviewing the story so far – but before we do, remember we are tracing a theological thread through the story. I am not saying everything that can be said about these scenes, far far from it actually! In this journey through the story we are focusing on the theme of God’s presence with his people, and I have argued that this reality is the foundation that the whole story sits on. Now, I know this is a huge claim, you might say, what about redemption, or salvation, or God’s son-sending love for the world? And I would say “Amen” those realities are wondrously true and important to the story of the Bible. But even they wouldn’t make sense if God didn’t want to dwell with us forever. God sent his son so that we could have everlasting life, that we could share in the age to come, which is an unending age in the presence of God. God ultimately saves us from an eternity without him, which means he’s saving us for a future with him. What exactly is God redeeming, restoring, and renewing if not His original vision for all creation – a creation where He dwells with us and we with him, always and forever, world without end. If God didn’t first desire to dwell with us, then why send the Saving Son - the one called Emmanuel - God with us?
We saw that God’s goal in creation was to make a home for him and his people. It wasn’t just Adam and Eve who walked in the midst of the mountaintop garden, but Genesis 3 tells us that God himself walked amongst the flowers and trees of Eden. A fun side note, the Hebrew word Kol used in Genesis 3:8 is often translated as the “sound” Adam and Eve heard as God walked through the Garden. While “sound” is a legitimate translation of Kol, it can be, and most often is, translated as “voice.” I like to imagine that God, who spoke the world into being, walks in His garden humming creation’s tune while enjoying the floral fragrance stirred up by a cool breeze. God designed Eden to be a place where Heaven and Earth interlocked, a place where His space and Man’s space overlap in sweet communion. This garden was designed to grow into a global garden city, as Adam and Eve and all their descendants flourished under the blessings of God. But Adam and Eve rebelled against God and rejected his blessings, and with a broken heart, God sent them out His lush land. They headed east, down the mountain of God, further and further away from his life-giving presence. Their descendants ultimately gather in the wilderness of Shinar where they erect Bavel, the city of man, with it’s man-made mountain that was to serve as a monument to the greatness of humanity. God does not let them continue in this arrogant endeavor. He confuses their language and scatters humanity across the wild world. But the story doesn’t end there. The God of creation speaks again. He pours out loving and life-giving promises to a wilderness wanderer named Abraham, and tells him that through his family God will bless all the scattered families of the earth, drawing them back into his presence once again.
Genesis 1-11 moves lightening fast, we have no idea how much time has passed from Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 12:1, There are multiple seemingly unrelated characters and scenes that are gone from the story as soon as they came, Adam, Cain, Lamech, the Sons of God, the Nephilim, Noah, Nimrod, Bavel. But at the call of Abraham the narrative pacing drastically changes and the focus is solely on Abraham and his family. This new pacing and focus speaks volumes about what God wants us to consider and meditate on. Every reader who has ever engaged the story of the Bible is a descendant of the families scattered at Bavel. In following Abraham’s family story, we are watching God’s plan for our redemption unfold. To say it another way, the reason we are following the story of Abraham’s family at all is because we know that somehow it will lead to the reversal of Bavel, and the rescue of the world. Keep this at the forefront of your mind when you are reading the Old Testament. Abraham fathers Isaac, Isaac fathers Jacob, and Jacob fathers 12 sons including Joseph. Joseph, at the end of Genesis, is the one who gathers up his family in the land of Egypt, where they are initially saved from famine, but ultimately enslaved for 400 years. If Abraham’s family perishes in Egypt, so does God’s promise to rescue the world through his family. But God hears their cries, and in a moment of triumphant covenant faithfulness, He breaks the bonds of their captors. Moses, a distant son of Abraham, is God’s chosen vessel, he will lead the people out of slavery and into salvation.
Now there is a pattern that we need to stop and observe here - this pattern first appears in the creation account. In Genesis 1 God causes dry land to come up out the chaotic waters, this land pushes high into the heavens and becomes His holy mountain, where he will dwell with his people. In Genesis 8 the flood waters subside and Noah and his family dwell on top of Mount Ararat, where God reinstates the commission he originally gave to Adam and Eve - to be fruitful and multiply. Creation and a new creation happen in similar ways, through the waters, to the mountain, for life in the presence of God. Now when we read about Moses’ birth in Exodus 2 we see him drawn out of the dangerous waters of the Nile, pass through the dry land of the wilderness and in Exodus 3 come to Mount Horeb, what the text calls “the mountain of God.” (Small side note the text says that he was in the west side of the wilderness when he came to the mountain of God) It is here, at the top of this mountain that he meets God in a burning bush. Through the waters, to the mountain of God, dwelling in the holy presence of God. YHWH tells Moses that he has heard the cries of his people in Egypt, and he commissions Moses to go to Egypt, gather up his people, and bring them to this very mountain. To make a long story short, Moses leads Abraham’s family out of Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea, through the dry land of the wilderness, and to the mountain of God, a mountain called Sin-ai (which is another name for Mount Horeb). This pattern of creation, is meant to show the cosmic significance of these moments in the story. The Exodus from Egypt is a new creation moment, and leads to God and his people dwelling together!
But how will God dwell in the midst of his people in the wilderness? How can he live with a sinful people? Is God really going to do this outside of Eden?
In Genesis 1 the universe is divided into a three-tier structure – the heavens, earth, and seas. When the people arrive at Sin-ai we see that the mountain also has a three part structure. The people stay at the base of the mountain, the elders of the people can come half way up, but only Moses can come to the top where God’s fiery presence is. It is here at Sin-ai where God constitutes Abraham’s family into a nation, the nation of Israel, remember the promise in Genesis 17, “I will make you a nation, and kings shall go out from you.” We’ll talk about the kings in the next episode. The promise that God makes to his people at Sin-ai is that Abraham’s family will be his people, he will be their God, and he will make his dwelling with them.
But they are not going to live together in the arid desert of Sin-ai, no God had also promised a place to Abraham and his descendants. A lush land, flowing with milk and honey! An almost Edenic location. While you don’t get the western trajectory that we’ve seen in the past when your traveling from Egypt to Canaan, the Bible always notes that one travels up to Canaan and down to Egypt. When you enter the land that God has given his people, where he will dwell with them, you ascend. On that westward movement though, believe it or not, in the book of Joshua, God has Israel loop underneath the lush land and actually come in from east to west, crossing the Jordan River! Remember the movement away from God in Genesis 3-11 is east and down. So the movement toward his presence is west and up, just like we saw in the call of Abraham.
If the people are going to move on from Sin-ai to the lush Promised Land, then how will God go with them? Do mountains move? Well, yes, but maybe not the way you are thinking. The people of Israel are living in a massive tent camp at the foot of Sin-ai, so remarkably the God of the universe, the one, holy, and all-mighty God instructs them to build a tent for him! In the second half of Exodus we get a long and detailed description of how to build this tent. Now if you’re not familiar with this you may need to take a seat, because this is too cool. God’s tent is called the tabernacle and get this, it’s structured in three parts. An outer court where the people come, the holy place where only the priests can go, and the holy of holies, only accessible to one man, the high priest, and here is the place where God’s fiery presence dwells. Does this sound familiar? The Tabernacle has an identical structure to Mount Sin-ai. The Tabernacle is a mobile Sin-ai, a mobile mountain of God! God’s commitment to dwell with his people is mind-blowing, but there’s even more to consider. How do you enter the tent? Well, there is one entrance and it is on the eastern side of the Tabernacle, so you enter into God’s tent by walking from east to west, and as you move deeper in you move closer to God’s presence in the Holy of Holies. In this mobile mountain of God you are also symbolically ascending as you move westward toward God’s presence. Further up, and further in!
I should say here, if you are struggling to picture this scene, just look at the cover of our picture book The Story of God with Us.
When you walk into the Holy Place - which a smaller tent within the tent walls of the Tabernacle – what do you see? Well according to Exodus God has his sanctuary decorated in a myriad of dazzling colors with images of flowers and trees, there’s incense filling the air with a sweet aroma. It’s a well watered space, and a place of gold and precious stones. There is a lampstand whose designs are in reference to a tree - it has “branches” and “buds” - no doubt a luminous representation of the Tree of Life. There are also depictions of the cherubim, those angels who protect God’s garden. In short, when you walk into the tabernacle, you are heading west, symbolically ascending God’s mountain, and as you reach the Holy Place you are entering his garden sanctuary. This is amazing! At the very end of Exodus God’s presence descends from the top of Sinai and into the Tabernacle. He’s the kind of God that will leave his mountain to pursue his people and dwell in their midst. The book of Leviticus is all about how the Tabernacle actually works, how a sinful people can dwell in the presence of a holy God. And in the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, God instructs the people to put his tent in the center of Israel’s tent city. For the first time sense Eden, God is dwelling in the midst of his people! God will lead his people to the land he promised Abraham, there will be numerous setbacks, but they will get there together. This is how the tabernacle scene in our book The Story of God with Us reads,
After hundreds of years, with various twists and turns, God prepared Abraham’s family to enter into that lush garden-land. They were a big, BIG family now, and
He met them at His mountain in the dry dusty desert.
He had them set up a special tent filled and flowing with all the same wonderful sights and smells of His mountaintop garden!
He told them to set it up
in the middle of their camp,
where His presence would shine
like a big burning lamp!
He arranged it all, just for this reason:
So He could dwell with us,
and we with Him.
Always and forever,
world without end.
Ok every episode in The Story of God Podcast could easily have a hundred footnotes, but that would be tedious and distracting, but I feel compelled to leave just one for this episode.
My doctoral work is in Exodus, and I have read extensively on the Exodus and the Tabernacle, and many scholars, both Jewish and Christian, ancient and modern, have helped shape my understanding. But one scholar has been particularly illuminating for me, and that is my friend Michael Morales. Anyone familiar with his work will see plainly how much he has influenced how I think and talk about the content of this episode. So I want to say a hearty thank you to him, and encourage those who want to go deeper to engage with his work. Perhaps start with his book, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord.
Ok, that’s it. I know this episode was a little nerdier than the previous ones, but hey you can listen to it multiple times! Reach out on social media if you have any questions!
YHWH bless you, and YHWH keep you, may YHWH make his face shine upon you! See you in the next episode.
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