The Lord said to Moses: Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me. This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing-oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece. And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.
They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a moulding of gold upon it all round. You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on one side of it, and two rings on the other side. You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, by which to carry the ark. The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. You shall put into the ark the covenant that I shall give you.
Then you shall make a mercy-seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width. You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy-seat. Make one cherub at one end, and one cherub at the other; of one piece with the mercy-seat you shall make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy-seat with their wings. They shall face each other; the faces of the cherubim shall be turned towards the mercy-seat. You shall put the mercy-seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you. There I will meet you, and from above the mercy-seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites. --Exodus 25:1-22
One of the most interesting things about visiting foreign places is to visit not just the tourists sites that are generally the reason for visiting in the first place, but wandering about the local markets. Not the stores with antiseptic-looking rows of packaged goods, but the place where stall after stall or small shop after small shop stand cheek-by-jowl, selling all kinds of wonderful things with a personality and individuality that you just don't find at Saks Fifth Avenue or Wal-Mart. Brightly-colored cloth is sold next to shiny brass and metal implements while the spice stall, woodworker's shop and the leather store add their pungency in various quarters. Incense and jewelry of precious metal, colored beads and gemstones can be had there and, not far away, rows and rows of fresh vegetables and fruits tempt the eyes and the palate. Bazaars and marketplaces like that exist all across the globe, and the chance to visit one of them is a sensory treat that can seem almost overwhelming but is something that is hard to forget.
Reading the list of materials God required for the building of the tabernacle, the place where God would be present among them, I had the picture in my mind of a colorful bazaar, its sights and sounds and textures. I can't help but wonder where in the world would a bunch of wanderers in the desert come up with such a wealth and diversity of gifts with which to build and furnish such a structure, much less a portable one? The Priestly source, I understand, was very much concerned with sacred things and so that writer would undoubtedly have rejoiced in the item by item list of building materials much as a contractor might pour over the list of stone, cement, lumber, glass and all the hundreds of different kinds of materials from which he will direct the erection of a building, be it skyscraper, cathedral, school or ordinary house.
Usually when I think of the exodus and the journey to the promised land I think of a journey where folks had maybe a change of clothes and traveled light. No overhead bins, no extra baggage in the hold, no trunks and portmanteaus with an entourage to manage stowage, packing, unpacking and serving as each day required. Then I remembered that before they left Egypt, Moses was told to "[t]ell the people that every man is to ask his neighbor and every woman is to ask her neighbor for objects of silver and gold”(Ex. 11:2). They not only left Egypt, they didn't go empty handed.
Then it hit me. Part of those gold and silver objects might not be for the Israelites to deck themselves out in or to use like folks in my mother's generation would save for "good", occasions like the preacher or other company coming for dinner or even special family holiday meals. Those gold and silver objects might have been for survival; the Israelites might trade them with caravans they might run across, or to pay for provisions in places like oases that might have marketplaces or small bazaars. But part of it, perhaps all of it, I don't know, might have been for just this construction project God had in mind. In my mind's eye, I see a desert landscape, dry and dusty and brown, but I see rising up a singular construction, full of color and brightness and rich scents, roughness and smoothness, all present in a place where God would dwell among God's people.
There are many times when my life feels like the desert in which I live: dry, dusty, barren except for scrub and the occasional spiny cactus. Nothing is really easy there, and to one who loves the million shades of green of forests and meadows and gardens, it's not a beautiful place although many would disagree with me on that. I have squirrelled away bits of brightness and familiar weaves, hoarding them -- for what? They've been in my baggage as I've wandered through both the literal and figurative trek through the desert, and I'm saving them for what?
What if I took those bits and pieces, those treasured items, experiences and memories and put them together to create a place for God to dwell? What if I found a resting place for an internal ark containing not just the symbols of covenant but a mercy seat, a thin space between God and me, a place of presence? What if I could look across the landscape of my soul and see this tabernacle standing out as a reminder that God is present -- not just in the abstract but in actuality, not just around but within as well?
I think I have some plans to look over and some inventory to check. I may be needing to do a little construction job in here.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 28, 2012. Thanks to Ann Fontaine for the title of the reflection.