Terumah – Guardian of the Covenant

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Parashah Terumah
Guardian of the Covenant

Exodus 25:1 - 27:19

And there, above the kapporet-lid between the Keruvim that are on the Ark of the Witness, I will meet with you and speak with you everything that I command you concerning the children of Israel[1]. Growing up reading what I knew as the "Old Testament", I frequently heard about the Israelite Tabernacle. It was an interesting structure made from all sorts of exotic materials and priestly keepers with very strange rituals. Nothing in our modern society comes close in comparison to this Tabernacle, although often times Church buildings are described with similar terminology, such as "sanctuary". My understanding was that Israel had sinned terribly and so God had required that they build a structure where animals could be slaughtered in a ritualistic manner because God was only capable of forgiveness if something died. This understanding wasn't based on the actual text itself of course, but a view based upon doctrines which had been passed down for many years. Yet this is not how the Biblical text describes the purpose of the Tabernacle; instead the text tells us that YHWH spoke to Moses saying, "let them build a mikdash-sanctuary, and I will dwell in the midst of them[2]." YHWH wanted to dwell among His people, in their very midst! How could this possibly work out? The Holy God living in the midst of defiled mortal men? It could only be by giving Him a special place of honor and set-apartness. The Hebrew word translated as "sanctuary" is mikdash, from the word kadash, which is where we derive our English word "holy". Holy is another misunderstood word; it is not a synonym for righteous, for no righteous individual in the Bible is ever called "holy". Only as a people is Israel ever referred to as "holy" and only individuals who have been given a specific role, such as priests or nazarites, are ever called "holy" while fulfilling that role. Thus to be "holy" is not to be righteous necessarily, but to be "set apart for the service of God by formal, legal restrictions and limitations[3]." The Tabernacle was a structure designed for a specifically ordained function, a palace where YHWH could dwell in the midst of His people and meet with the representative of the nation in order to give commands to the people.

The text tells us that it is within the Holy of Holies, above the Ark of the Witness, where God would meet with the nation's representative. This Ark, also called the Ark of the Covenant, was a very ornate box, covered in gold, with a special lid which had two keruvim upon it. While such a box seems unique to us, those who lived in the culture of the ancient world would have recognized such an item and been very familiar with its function. Let's examine it through the cultural lenses in order to better understand what exactly the message its design relayed to the ancient Israelites. The first characteristic to analyze is the golden keruvim attached to the top of the lid. It seems strange that such creatures would be present upon Ark of the Witness when God had explicitly forbidden graven images! Yet these are not graven images; the idea of a gravenKuribu image is an image used for worship and these keruvim were not symbolic of a deity, thus they were not graven images. Similar winged creatures appear regularly in ancient Near Eastern artwork flanking the thrones of deities and kings[4]. These creatures were often composites of human, animal and avian features and were known in Akkadian by the term kuribu[5]. They stood guard at entrances of Babylonian and Assyrian temples and similar protective creatures were referred to in description of the throne rooms of deities, for example in the tablet of  Sin-iddinam (the ninth king of the Larsa dynasty, 1849–1843 BCE) describing a throne for the storm god Ishkur/Adad:

At that time, the god Ishkur, his (personal) deity, grandly sat down there on his throne of glory. Then, for the future (Sin-iddinam) made its form surpassing. He sought out a place for its rites and supreme me’s. He set below, on the right and left, two great wild bulls at the throne butt[ing] at the enemies of the king, a … beast … the A[nunna gods] set u[p] abundance [from] the horizon … beside him. He [fashioned] its (cult) statue and [set it] on its (the throne’s) lap[6].

Such protective creatures are also found in 1 Kings 10:18-19 where King Solomon builds a great throne of ivory and gold, then has two statues of lions standing beside the arms of the throne. Thus, the keruvim on the Ark of the Witness are to represent the guardians of the throne which is a common feature of ancient Near Eastern throne rooms for human kings and for deities. Rather than considering them to be graven images, ancient Israel would have culturally recognized them as throne room iconography and understood the message: YHWH is King.

The enthronement between the keruvim is stated later on in Scriptures such as 1 Samuel 4:4 and Psalms 99:1. The Ark-box itself also functioned to represent YHWH's kingship. In this Torah portion it is referred to as the "Ark of the Witness" while other places it is called the "Ark of the Covenant". "Witness" or 'edut is a very ancient Semitic term used in stipulations of vassal treaties and was later replaced by the synonymous term berit, translated as covenant[7]. It was given this name because within the box was where the two tablets of stone upon which was written the covenant terms between YHWH and Israel where to be stored[8]. Again, this usage of the Ark-box would have been easily recognized by those in the ancient world. The practice of depositing important legal documents in the presence of the national deity was widely practiced in the ancient Near East. This was done because the deity served as the legal witness of the covenant, the guardian of the covenant, and the enforcer of the covenant. Sarna writes concerning the widespread usage of this practice:

The disposition of such legal instruments in this manner is exemplified by, among others, the treaty of nonaggression and mutual assistance contracted between King Mattiwaza of Mitanni in Upper Mesopotamia and the Hittite monarch Suppiluliumas (ca. 1375–1335 b.c.e.). One copy was deposited “before the Sun-goddess of Arinna” and another “before the deity Tessub.” The phrasing means in front of the image of the god. In Egypt, Ramses II, who made a treaty with the Hittite king Hattusilis, confirms that duplicates of the document lie “beneath the feet” of the respective gods of the contracting parties. Another Egyptian text, a copy of the Book of the Dead, carries a note that it was discovered in Hermopolis “beneath the feet of the god”.[9]

Thus the Ark itself was not viewed as the throne of God, but as the footstool of God's throne. This is verified in 1 Chronicles 28:2, where David says, “I had it in my heart to build a house as a place of rest for the ark of the covenant of the YHWH, for the footstool of our God.”

Unlike all the surrounding nations, the God of Israel had no idol that men could visit and worship. An idol is a man-made representation of how a human understands his deity and the God of Israel is not to have limits set upon Him by mankind. We are supposed to conform to His image, not He to our image. Yet if YHWH was to dwell in the midst of His people, there was a need for a location where human and the Divine could meet. The Tabernacle functioned as a portable palace with the Holy of Holies being the throne room. However, even God's throne could not be placed upon earth for that would again function to limit Him to a specific space rather than to acknowledge His omnipresence. Thus, the Ark of the Witness/Covenant represents His footstool so that the covenant treaty between YHWH and Israel could be properly stored and the keruvim represented the guardians of the throne. The Ark would bring forth the imagery of a throne room without setting a limit upon God Himself (in human minds). The Ark both represented God's presence and functioned as a footstool over which God's presence could speak forth His decrees to His people. Rather than being designed as a place to kill animals in order to appease God's wrath, it was a place where God could live in the midst of His people. As we will discuss in an upcoming portion, the rituals function to maintain the Tabernacle's holiness so that God can continue to dwell with His people whom He loves. Its presence in the camp served as a constant reminder that YHWH is King over Israel.


[1] Exodus 25:22.  Note: Keruvim is the transliteration of the Hebrew word normally translated "Cherubs".

[2] Exodus 25:8.

[3] Joshua Berman, The Temple: Its Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now, 6.

[4] Matthews, Chavalas, & Walton, IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Ex 25:22-30.

[5]  William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Context of Scripture (Leiden;  Boston: Brill, 2000), 250.

[6] William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Context of Scripture (Leiden;  Boston: Brill, 2000), 250.

[7] Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 160. Also see: C. L. Seow, “The Designation of the Ark in Priestly Theology,” HAR 8 (1985): 185–98.

[8] 1 Kings 8:9.

[9] Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 160.


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One Comment

  1. Terri Neely February 13, 2016 at 10:08 am

    Great clarity and understanding! So much to understand about how our King functions. Thanks! We serve an amazing an King!

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