As we saw last time, 14 out of the last 16 chapters of Exodus, 35% of the book’s 40 total chapters, are about the instructions for and construction of the Tabernacle and the gear that goes with it. At the very end of the book, the end of this week’s reading, the Tabernacle comes on line for the first time — and in honor of the double reading, I’m going to give you not only a Tabernacle this week but also a Temple.
In fact, we’ll see two different stories about the Temple. The traditional commentators often use the passages about the Tabernacle as an opportunity to explain about the Temple, which has a much bigger footprint in Jewish history and religion but does not appear in the Torah. The Tabernacle is understood to have lasted well beyond the period of wandering through the desert, but outside the Torah we barely see it. In 1 Samuel 1, Samuel’s future parents Elkanah and Hannah pay an annual visit to בֵּית יְ’הוָה — the House of YHWH, not the Tent or Tabernacle. The word מִשְׁכָּן mishkan ‘Tabernacle’ is found only three times all the historical books from Joshua through Kings.
The Bible tells the story of the Tabernacle and the Temple separately, then, because they’re happening in two different historical eras: the Tabernacle in the Torah, during the wilderness period and supervised by Moses as prophet-president and his brother Aaron as priest, and the Temple — the First Temple — during the reign of Solomon, and we read about it in 1 Kings.
If we were reading Parashat Pekudei alone this year (and if it were not Shabbat HaḤodesh), that inauguration of the Temple would be the haftarah this week. The story of Solomon’s Temple, though, is actually told again in Chronicles, which was written during the Persian period, during the era of the Second Temple.
We know Chronicles was composed after the return from exile because the book ends with King Cyrus of Persia telling the Jews that they can go back to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. The same decree begins the book of Ezra-Nehemiah, which gives us the opportunity to see that Chronicles — and with it, the Jewish Bible as a whole — ends in the middle of a sentence! (You can learn more about that in Episode 3 of my Bible’s Many Voices podcast.) For today’s purposes, what’s important is that we have two versions of the inauguration of Solomon’s Temple.
The book of Kings tells it this way. The priests bring the ark into its new home, the Holy of Holies of this brand new Temple; they set it down in its place; and what happens?
1 Kgs 8:10 The priests left the sanctuary when the cloud had filled the House of YHWH. 11 The priests could not remain there to serve because of the cloud.
And what is this cloud? V. 11 continues:
The Glory of YHWH had filled the House of YHWH.
As you remember from last week, “Glory” has a capital G because it is translating the word כָּבוֹד with a capital כ. Kavod in this case is not an abstract quality but something very physical, so bright that you cannot look directly at it. That’s why it is always accompanied by a cloud: the cloud makes it possible to stay in the vicinity, shielding you from the deadly radiation that would consume you if you got too close.
And that’s what happened in 1 Kings 8. However they managed it (see 1 Kgs 8:6), the priests put the ark in the Holy of Holies, but then they had to leave, because that action somehow brought the Kavod right into the Temple. King Solomon himself announces (in the English translation of the NJPS):
12 The Lord has chosen
To abide in a thick cloud:
13 I have now built for You
A stately House,
A place where You
May dwell forever.
He had seen it with his own eyes. But as Chico Marx once said, “Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, had read the book of Deuteronomy and chose to believe that book rather than his own eyes. He goes on to give a long speech explaining that God is not really in the Temple — only God’s name is there — but up in heaven.
You can read more about that at the link in the previous paragraph. For now, let’s turn to the inauguration of Solomon’s temple as told in Chronicles. It’s very much the same except that in the middle of 1 Kgs 8:10, right after “The priests left the sanctuary,” the Chronicler inserts more than 50 words describing the Levites and priests singing and playing musical instruments. Then, Chronicles continues, “the House was filled with a cloud.”
The Kings version implies that when the priests put the ark in the Holy of Holies, that’s the action that brought the kavod into the building, and they had to get out. The Chronicles version is much more peaceful. The priests put the ark in the building, come outside, and all of the things that we know from the Mishnah, the things that were present in the Second Temple, are already in place: Levites singing, 120 priests blowing trumpets — the works. They all sing כי לעולם חסדו ki l’olam ḫasdo, the refrain that ends each line of Psalm 136, and as they do so the Kavod, apparently somewhat peacefully, descends and fills the House.
What happens in Exodus when Moses finishes assembling the Tabernacle? This:
34 The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Kavod of YHWH filled the Tabernacle. 35 Moses could not go into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had tabernacled over it and the Kavod of YHWH had filled the Tabernacle.
The Torah goes on to tell us that when the cloud would lift off the Tabernacle, the Israelites would pack it up and follow the cloud wherever it led them. If the cloud didn’t lift, they left the Tabernacle where it was. You could see a cloud over the Tabernacle during the day, and fire at night, because when it gets dark you can see the brightness through the cloud.
Moses finishes setting up the Tabernacle and it becomes electrified; he can’t go in. But there’s no panic. As in Chronicles, this is a reasonably calm moment. The priests ran out of Solomon’s Temple because they suddenly were in the presence of the Kavod and they couldn’t handle it. Moses can’t go into the Tabernacle, but he’s not in any danger.
What’s going to happen? How does Moses actually get into the Tabernacle? How are the Israelites going to use the Tabernacle to have God’s presence with them so he can communicate with them? Despite the parenthesis about the cloud lifting off and leading them — which begs to be followed by the book of Numbers — instead, next week we will find ourselves in the book of Leviticus. When that book begins, YHWH will call to Moses from the tent and say, “Come on in. I have something for you to tell the Israelites.”