The book of Exodus is often a stumbling block for people trying to read through the bible for the first time. The first half of the book is a dramatic story, beginning with the raising up of Moses, continuing with the various plagues against Egypt and culminating in God’s rescue of the Israelites at the red sea and various miracles in the wilderness. The second half of the book then appears to change tack, with various case laws, laws about furniture and construction for the tabernacle, laws about priestly garments and so on. In this article, I’ll be making the case that Exodus isn’t actually changing theme and that there is a consistent thread running through the whole book.
A New Home
The key transition point at the centre of the book is the Israelites arriving at mount Sinai. This is where they meet with God and receive the ten commandments. At the beginning of the ten commandments we read the following statement, which summarises the first half of the book: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2)
A key point to note here is that Egypt is depicted as a house. God has brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt and will bring them into a new land, a new home, the land of Canaan.
But in the meantime, the people are to build a house for God in the wilderness. This is precisely what the tabernacle was, a home for God to reside in. The climax of the book has the Glory of God filling the tabernacle, God moving into his new home among the Israelites (Exodus 40:34-38).
A Community of Builders
The theme of construction pervades the earlier part of the book. Straight from the very first chapter, the oppressive Pharaoh has the Israelites engaging in construction work, fashioning storage cities for him and working with brick and mortar (Exodus 1:11-14). When Moses first commands Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and worship God, Pharaoh punishes the people by forcing them to work harder in their construction efforts (Exodus 5:6-19). Even in their suffering, God is preparing his people to build, so that they might be ready to build a house for his name to dwell in. Ultimately, their children will have to continue these construction efforts as they establish themselves in the land of promise.
The final curse on Egypt before the exodus event is particularly significant in regard to the house theme. Firstly, note that the curse is specifically upon the house (Exodus 12:27). The blood of a lamb, the mark of protection, was to be applied not to individual firstborn sons but to the doorposts of the Israelite houses. Also, as part of the food regulations which God established that night, the people were to ensure that their houses were free of leaven. God was protecting the Israelites from danger house by house.
Secondly, when the people leave Egypt, God tells them to plunder silver, gold and fine clothing from the Egyptians (Exodus 12:33-36). What could be significant about these particular materials? They are precisely the kinds of materials used to build the tabernacle, the house of God. The Israelites were to plunder the house of Egypt in order to build another house for God in the wilderness.
A House for God
Moving into the second half of the book, the theme of the house also shows up in the various case laws in Exodus 21-23. Many of the laws in question concern disputes between different households. The very first law given concerns a servant who wishes to stay with his master after six years of service. This servant would be pierced in the ear by the doorpost of the house, a covenant-making ritual which established the servant as a permanent member of the household. This ritual is reminiscent of Passover, in which the Israelites were marked out as God’s servants by a symbol applied to the doorposts of their houses.
Understanding the tabernacle as a house for God to dwell in clarifies the meaning of some of the more obscure symbols in the book. The lampstands were there to light the tabernacle and the incense altar was there to perfume it. The gold-plated ark of the covenant in the holiest part of the tent was the throne of God, in which his Glory dwelt between the two carved cherubim. The altar was a kind of fireplace, a hearth where the ordinary Israelite could draw near and make offerings. On the Sabbath, ordinary house fires were not allowed (Exodus 35:3), which meant that the only fire burning on that day was the fire of God’s altar, his own house fire.
The role of the priests was significant in all of this (Exodus 28-29). They were essentially God’s palace servants, those who were allowed inside his house to guard it and to take care of it. They administered the sacrifices, maintained the lampstands and the table of showbread and burnt incense to fragrance the house. Like the tabernacle itself, they were dressed in blue fabric and decorated with precious stones (Exodus 28:6-14). They were made to resemble the house in which they served.
A Holy People
Unfortunately, the people of Israel were unfaithful. They rebelled against God and made sacrifices to a golden calf, breaking the covenant which God had made with them. As a consequence, they had to wander the desert for forty years, until it was time for the next generation to inherit the land. Yet throughout all of this, God was with them. He had made his home among them, and he would never leave them nor forsake them.
The new testament says something even greater than this about the people of God in the new covenant. It says that we have now become God’s dwelling place, the means by which he is present on earth. The very same Spirit who filled the tabernacle and led the people through the wilderness now dwells inside each one of us.
“…you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
(1 Peter 2:5)