What can we learn from the symbolism found in the stories of creation and the building of the Tabernacle in the desert?
To begin our thoughts on the Creation Commandments, Margaret draws interesting and surprising parallels between the “Days of Creation” in Genesis, and the structure of the Tabernacle in the desert (the forerunner of the Jerusalem Temple).
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,
The world and those who dwell therein. (Psalm 24:1 ESV)
The Bible has a beautiful and sophisticated account of the Creation and the role of human beings, but this is not set out in a single text. Both in the Biblical stories of Creation and in the design of the Jerusalem temple, there is a single vision of the relationship between time and eternity; between God and Creation; and between the visible world and the invisible world of God and the angels. To understand what the Bible says about the Creation, we too must glimpse the vision that informed the worship of the Temple, the poetry of the Hebrew prophets, the sayings of the sages and the images of the storytellers. All express and honour the same truth about the Creation. Since the New Testament shares this view of the Creation, it is the basis of Christian belief about the environment.
The temple in Jerusalem represented the Creation. The Genesis story of the six days of Creation also described the ceremonial building of the temple, which was in two parts, divided by the great curtain. The tabernacle built by Moses at the foot of Mount Sinai was the model for the later temple, and the clearest picture in the Bible of how the place of worship represented the creation can be seen by comparing Genesis 1 and Exodus 40:16-33. This section of Exodus divides into sections that correspond to the six days of creation. The end of each section is marked by ‘as the Lord commanded Moses’, verses 19, 21, 23, 25, 27 and 29.
All the parts of the tabernacle and its furnishings were prepared beforehand, and Moses began to assemble them on the first day of the first month, Exodus 40:17. This means that as they assembled the tabernacle, they were re-living the miracle of creation which was celebrated at every New Year. Moses first assembled the frames and coverings of the tabernacle, which corresponded to God separating light and darkness, and thus creating ‘Day One’. It was not called the ‘first day’ despite what most translations say. There was a special reason for it being ‘Day One’, as we shall see in the fourth of these articles.
On the second day, God created the ‘firmament’ to separate what was above from what was below, and Moses erected the great curtain, later called the veil of the temple, which separated the holy of holies from the rest of the holy place. He set the ark behind the curtain. On the third day God gathered the waters together, created dry land and caused trees and plants to grow. Moses placed the golden table on the north side of the tabernacle for the offerings derived from trees and plants: bread, wine and incense. On the fourth day God made the sun, moon and stars, and Moses set the seven-branched lamp on the north side of the tabernacle. The lamp stand was a golden almond tree, Exodus 25:31-37 whose shining lamps were the lights of heaven. It represented the tree of life, as we shall see in the seventh of these articles.
Then there is a disruption in the pattern. The incense altar within the temple was added later to the old story of the tabernacle and this disrupted the ancient pattern of tabernacle and creation. On the fifth day creation God made the living things of the air and the sea, birds and the fishes, and this corresponded to Moses’ sixth action: setting up altar of sacrifice where birds and animals [but not fish] were offered. On the sixth day, God created human beings, and this corresponded to Moses seventh and final action: purifying Aaron and his family to be high priests and serve in the tabernacle.
The stories of creation and building a place of worship are full of symbolism about our place in the world and how we should care for it. The outer area of the holy place represented the visible material world and the inner part was the holy of holies, the invisible world of the Glory of God and the angels. The curtain represented matter concealing the Glory of God from human eyes, but the holy of holies in the heart of the temple showed that God was at the heart of Creation. All temple worship concerned the relationship of the Creation to God – praise, thanksgiving, asking for forgiveness – and the whole of the visible world was seen as the temple of God where human beings were the priests. After six days, God rested on the seventh, the Sabbath, showing that when the Creation was complete and ‘very good’, nothing more was made. The goal of Creation was not more and more, but sufficiency, completion and rest.
How very different from our current world- view, where human beings are so often seen only as “intelligent apes”. God created human beings to be the divine image in the creation, (Genesis 1:27), to care as God cares. Our role is not to consume more and more – that is the driving force behind climate change – but to look at everything as God-centred, work with our Creator to see that it is good, and then rest. (Genesis 1:31 and 2:3).
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” but went on to describe how modern humanity has largely lost the ability to see this. Perhaps we might reclaim this sense of grandeur by, once or twice each day, looking at the world around us and speaking out: Lord, this is your world. You are at the centre of creation. Help me and all my brothers and sisters to see your grandeur and act accordingly.
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
Through Christ our Lord.
Amen. Pope Francis, “Laudato Si”
Main image: The Second Jerusalem Temple. Model in the Israel Museum, Ariely, 2008. Source: Wikimedia Commons.