Theology, Mystery and an Old Riddle

puzzle and book

Theology—the way it could have been

If I am honest, I sometimes wish that the Bible had been written more like a textbook of systematic theology. I wish that the Apostle John would have included an inspired chart along with his letter to the seven churches. It would have been helpful if Ezekiel had spelled out exactly what he meant by his visions. And, like the disciples, I would have preferred if Jesus had not spoken in so many parables.

It’s a mystery and that’s okay

But God, in his great wisdom chose not to. Maybe if all we had was a theology textbook then we would all be very pious people … dead in our orthodoxy. Those things in the Bible that are not clearly laid out for us cause us to seek Him, and in doing so, to grow in His grace.

Jesus’ parables, John’s revelation and Ezekiel’s visions are not easily understood at first glance. I guess you could say that they are riddles. By this I do not mean that they can never be understood but only that they employ figurative language and contain an element of mystery that invites us to ask questions.

And that is what makes a riddle such a powerful form of communication. It engages our minds with a story. We begin with a very sketchy understanding of an event; but as we seek further information, the details of the story begin to come together. Until, click, aha, the story makes sense! Now we know the story far better than if we had simply been told it from the start.

With this in mind, I would like to consider what has to be one of the greatest of all riddles a riddle that is centuries old, whose answer has come to us slowly over time only to find its complete fulfillment in a singular event that shook the world.

That is the fifty chapters in Exodus and Leviticus dedicated to a description of a portable, tent-like structure known as “the tabernacle.”

The Tabernacle—a quick introduction

First a little background …

A group of slaves, known as the Hebrews, flee Egypt into the desert wasteland of Sinai. These were not the Hebrews who have neatly trimmed black beards and wear colorful tunics. I think those only exist in Sunday school. The ones we’re talking about are desert nomads who were very much a product of their time. They had been in Egypt for many years and although they were free of a mad Pharaoh, they were still slaves in their minds to an Egyptian way of thinking.

Their concept of God was crude and confused. Remember how at the foot of Mt. Sinai the Israelites bowed down and worshiped an Egyptian cow? They were forced to drink its powdered remains. But even before the bitter aftertaste was gone, the Lord gave the Israelites something else to melt their gold into. He channeled their creative energy into the construction of a place of real worship, where they could worship Him in Spirit and in Truth.

The plans for this tent and its furnishings were given by God right along with the Ten Rules. If the Ten Rules present us with the terrifying holiness of God and with an absolute and unchangeable standard by which our actions are judged, then the tabernacle pictures a God who cares and invites us into his presence despite ourselves. King David understood this well when he wrote,

One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock. (Psalm 27:4-6)

3 + 5 = hmm, interesting

Unfortunately, the tabernacle makes for dry reading and it’s hard to teach. But it doesn’t have to be boring. If someone were to mechanically describe for me the ruins of Karnak, I would quickly lose interest. But if I were to visit Karnak, I could wander among the remains of its massive architecture for weeks. Amazed! The difference—3 dimensions and all 5 senses (with taste being a possible exception). In the same way, the tabernacle is a riddle constructed not of words but of wood, metal and cloth. By its very nature, it’s meant to be visual.

This is why we developed the model tabernacle furniture. I don’t belong to a fringe group with an unhealthy obsession for Judaica art. At least my friends tell me that I am okay. It’s just that to tell this story well, it helps to have models that you can hold in your hand.

The tabernacle is part of a greater story—a story that has unfolded over many centuries. It’s a story that is well worth the digging. You might have to ask a few questions.