…And pitched His tent among us

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt (εσκηνωσεν) among us, and we beheld his glory as the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14)

I’ve been listening through the Pentateuch at work lately. After working my way through Genesis and Exodus, I’ve skipped to Numbers–not because Leviticus is less important, but because listening to law code doesn’t make the hours pass by any faster!

One thing I noticed is the location of the tabernacle (משׁכן) or “tent of meeting” (אהל מועד) through the wilderness wanderings relative to the camp of Israel. Exodus 25-31 give the initial instructions for the construction of the tabernacle, the making of the priestly vestments, and the regular offerings. Exodus 35-39 continues these instructions, with Exodus 40 describing the completion and dedication of the tabernacle and the indwelling of YHWH’s presence.

Exodus 32-34 begins with the tragic story of the golden calf. While Moses is up on Sinai receiving Torah, the people are building an idol down below (“This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”). The “Fall of Israel” (so-called by the Rabbis) results in Moses pitching the tent of meeting outside the camp in 33:7 (even though its building instructions haven’t yet been completed or even implemented!). YHWH’s presence has not yet dwelt in the midst of the people, and his relationship with Israel appears to be in jeopardy. But he renews the covenant (Exodus 34) and proves his favor by showing himself to Moses (apparently).

Leviticus, as far as I can tell, nowhere prescribes the location of the tabernacle relative to the camp of Israel. But Numbers 2 sets forth in detail the location of the tabernacle with the Levites at the center of the camp, with three tribes on each of the four sides surrounding it. As YHWH gives his Torah to his people, he moves from outside the camp to the center. Whereas Israel began its relationship with YHWH unworthy of his presence in their midst, his Torah permits him to dwell with them. Numbers 12-18 is all about the concentric “layers” of holiness, the hedges around YHWH and his tabernacle to protect the general population from his glorious presence: the Levites, the Kohathites, Aaron’s family, and Aaron himself.

Protestants (going back to Calvin, as far as I know–I am not a Reformation scholar, nor am I the son of a Reformation scholar) have traditionally affirmed three purposes of the Law. The Law is pedagogical in that it acts as a mirror to show us our sin and point us to our need for salvation in Christ. The Law also has a civil component that restrains evil in society. Finally, the Law also normative for Christians in some sense, in that it reveals the will of God for the life of his redeemed people.

When I teach Numbers and Deuteronomy, or the Pentateuch in general, I also speak of a fourth purpose of the Law–though I suppose you could think of it as an extension of the civil purpose (or perhaps the pedagogical purpose as well).

It’s important to think of the Mosaic Law as providing a way for a holy God to live with an unholy people. The Law provides the context for God’s redemptive plan to continue through his old-covenant people. In this sense, it functions somewhat like common grace, which allows redemptive grace to exist. The Law allowed YHWH to remain with his people throughout their sojournings, as well as during the conquest, the judges, the monarchy and the divided kingdom. YHWH’s startling absence is the reason for the exile, and his return to his people through the renewal of the covenant is the dream of the prophets, especially 2 Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah and Malachi.

Who among the prophets would have guessed, though, that YHWH’s presence would return to his people not in a cloud or a pillar of fire, but as a person, Yeshua` bar Yosef, who came and “tented” (εσκηνωσεν) among us?

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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3 Responses to …And pitched His tent among us

  1. Jeremy Kamm says:

    hey benj, this is jeremy kamm. good call with the fourth function. it emphasizes the relational aspect of covenant. I think it is important to remember that God extended the Law as an act of grace. This invalidates the foolish idea that God gave the Hebrews a works-based system of relationship.

    • thinkhardthinkwell says:

      Hey Herm! Great to hear from you. Yes, as a Presbyterian, I don’t run into the law/gospel antithesis now as much as I used to. But it still pops up from time to time–mostly from someone who hasn’t ever read Deuteronomy.

  2. Pingback: Best of 2011 | think hard, think well

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