Torah Portion Vayakhel-Pekudei

Exodus 35:1 - 40:38

1 Kings 7:13-26, 7:40-50, 7:51 - 8:21

This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with a short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.

In Vayakhel-Pekudei, we will discuss the significance of the tabernacle/temple to the people of ancient Israel.

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Shalom! This is the twenty second portion in the Haftarah cycle. This week is a combination of two Torah Portions which are both focusing upon the building and initiation of Solomon's Temple. We will be discussing the important aspects of temples according to ancient cosmology as well as other areas related to the temple.  This year we will be spending approximately one hour on each of the Haftarah portions and investigating them from their historical setting and their ancient Near Eastern context as well as making connections back to the Torah Portion.  I pray that you will enjoy these teachings!

In Vayakhel-Pekudei, Rico Cortes and myself will dialogue on the function of the Temple and the priesthood, the importance of understanding the "image of God" in Scripture, the building of the Tabernacle, and the connections to Yeshua, especially Hebrews 9.

Parashah VaYakhel
Ordering Sacred Space

Exodus 35:1 - 38:20

And Moses assembled the whole congregation of the sons of Israel…all with a willing heart, both men and women…brought a freewill offering to YHWH…and so the Mishkan was unified[1]. Many of us have heard of the Tabernacle, or Mishkan in Hebrew, and many of us have seen models of it, yet it still remains a mysterious tent from an ancient form of worship that simply has no parallel in today’s society. There simply is nothing like this structure with its elaborate design, restricted access, and sacred rituals that we experience today and that has led to a lot of misunderstanding about the purpose of the Mishkan and why there is not one, but two detailed descriptions of it found in the text of Exodus. To the ancient Israelites however, such a structure would have been familiar to them and its restrictions would have fit right in to their cultural world view. Other surrounding cultures also had temples for their gods with restricted access, a priesthood, and special rituals to maintain the Temple. So what was different? What was the amazing message being given to the Israelites in this Torah portion that was so important that it was recorded twice?

In Egypt, temples were understood to be the homes of their respective deities and served as a point of contact between the human and divine realm. Humans carried out worship in hopes that if it were performed in a pleasing manner, the deity would grant them prosperity. These temples, in Egypt and all other nations of the ancient Near East, represented the primeval hill from which all life was believed to have come forth and thus symbolized order out of chaos[2]. In these pagan temples, the gods were believed to be fed because other cultures believed that their gods relied upon human beings to sustain them. In Israel there was a clear distinction; while there are some descriptions of parts of the Mishkan and its service being described in food-related terms, YHWH is never portrayed as consuming the offerings as food[3]. In fact, it appears as though Israel at some point in time became influenced by this pagan ideology and had to be corrected by the Psalmist speaking for YHWH, “If I were hungry, would I not tell you, for the earth and its fullness belong to Me![4]” Instead we should understand the food-related references associated with the Mishkan and its service in the context of the cultural values of hospitality. The dinner table was a place of celebration and drawing near to your companions and likewise the Mishkan served as a place where Israel could celebrate with God and draw near to Him. The very name of the structure, Mishkan, is helpful for understanding this concept. Mishkan is from the root sh.k.n. which means “to dwell”. Thus, we must understand the primary function of the Mishkan as a palace for YHWH to dwell among His people.

The fact that the narrative for the building of the Mishkan is included twice in the Torah, the primary law book of Israel, is very important for us to understand Israelite law. The Law, or Torah, is connected to the establishment of the sacred space of the Mishkan. God is going to come and dwell in the midst of Israel and this fact places certain requirements upon the Israelites so that the presence of God can remain in the camp[5]. God’s presence must be honored; His honor must be protected. YHWH is the God of life; death is the antithesis of His nature. Things associated with death, loss of life-blood, and sexual fluids that occur within the camp cause an impurity to stain His Mishkan and result in a challenge to His honor. Many of the commandments are given in light of this concept and function to help maintain the presence of YHWH in the Mishkan. Commands such as segregation from a woman’s monthly impurity, the offering of the sin sacrifice, and other similar commands all relate to maintenance of the Mishkan and later the Temple and must be understood in this context. The reason why we do not sacrifice today nor can we observe the most of the laws of ritual purity today is because we don’t have a Temple, not because these laws have been abrogated by Yeshua. This does not mean that such commands do not have value, it simply means that we must approach them in their appropriate Temple-oriented context.

The fact that YHWH desired to dwell among His people is unique in the ancient mindset. Certainly they build temples in hopes of their gods entering for some leisure and possibly blessing the worshippers, but there was no guarantee that their capricious gods would respond to such actions. Because God did in fact physically dwell in the Mishkan (but was never thought to be limited to only to the Mishkan, see 2 Chronicles 6:18), the structure was divided into distinct zones with clearly defined boundaries. Each zone had a different level of holiness and corresponding purity level requirements for entry. These zones were not only defined by their boundaries but by their contents. The courtyard made use of copper with the laver and the altar, but contained no gold. It was at the lowest holiness level of the different zones of the Mishkan. The holy place and holy of holies were at higher levels of holiness and contained gold instead of copper. Gold is not only a rare and valuable metal, but it is also extremely stable chemically and remains unblemished throughout the generations. It is thus a fitting material for the inner structure which represents the living God who is Himself unblemished forever[6]. Copper is not stable and must be maintained by humans in order to keep it clean, much like how we all fall into sin from time to time and must take action in order to clean up the effects of our sins. These zones establish order within the Israelite’s world and so the description of the construction of the Mishkan serves to orient the reader to the reality of sacred space and the proper approach to the presence of the Divine. Jensen suggests that “presence as well as holiness can be a graded quality, and both be exhibited and manifested. It can be considered to have an intensity which varies according to the graded dimensions of the Holiness spectrum[7].” When we understand the concepts of sacred space and graded holiness, it becomes apparent that God’s presence is manifested at a much greater physical level when it manifests within a sacred space. God certainly dwells within our hearts today, but this indwelling is much less manifest than when YHWH appeared to Moses at the burning bush and again to Israel at Mount Sinai because that mountain had been designated as sacred space.

By understanding the cultural concept of sacred space we can better appreciate just how important the Mishkan and later the Temple were to ancient Israel. This also gives us an appreciation for and understanding of many of the laws in the Torah which are not applicable to us today, not because they are abrogated, but because they are not observable since we do not have a Temple. Yet our hope should be upon Yeshua’s return and his restoration of the Temple and its services as the prophet Ezekiel prophesied because if YHWH is going to dwell among His people, we must build Him a dwelling place.


[1] Exodus 35:1a, 35:22a, 35:29b, 36:13b.

[2] Daniel O. McClellan, “Temples in the Ancient Near East,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015).

[3] Larry G. Herr, “Temples, Semitic,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 513.

[4] Psalm 50:12.

[5] John H. Walton, OT201 Old Testament Genres (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).

[6] Jensen, Philip. Graded Holiness: A Key to the Priestly Conception of the World. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 112.

[7] Ibid, 113-114.

Parashah Pekudei
The Tabernacle as New Creation

Exodus 38:21 - 40:38

And he erected the court around the Mishkan and the altar and he put up the screen for the gate of the court. Thus Moses finished all the work...and the Glory of YHWH filled the Mishkan[1]. After all the planning and building of individual parts, the Tabernacle is finally finished! As we complete this book of the Torah, we find some interesting language being used to describe the completion of the Mishkan. At the end of the creation week in Genesis 2:2-3 we find very similar language, "And on the seventh day, God finished His work that He had done and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. And so God blessed the seventh day and made it holy." Just as Moses "finished all the work", so too YHWH "finished all His work". Moreover we find in Exodus 39:43 that Moses saw all the work and blessed them and later in Numbers 7:1, where the event is recounted, we are told that Moses consecrated the Tabernacle (literally "to make holy"), just as YHWH blessed the seventh day and consecrated it. Thus we can see that there is a very strong literary connection being established between the creation narrative and the Tabernacle-building narratives since identical vocabulary is used to describe both events. This begs the question: why does the author connect the creation of the world to the building of the Mishkan? Is there connection between creation and the Tabernacle within the ancient Near Eastern culture that eludes us today?

First we must examine the tent structure of the Mishkan. Such a structure is not unique to the ancient Near East; the Egyptian bas-relief of the battle scenes of Ramses II (1290-1224 BCE) depict a tent of the divine king along with sacred objects placed at the center of the military camp[2]. There are also Ugaritic texts which pair mishkan synonymously with 'ahl ("tent") in order to designate the house of the gods[3]. It is clear that the Mishkan was a portable temple, a necessity due to the Israelites current situation of traveling in the wilderness. This is important information as it allows us to now connect ancient Near Eastern temple concepts to the Tabernacle. The creation account in Genesis 1-2 is also a temple text. This becomes apparent to the original audience when it is declared that God rested on the seventh day. The concept that a temple is the resting place for a deity is found in Egyptian dedicatory inscriptions, in the Babylonian creation myth, the Ugaritic Baal epic, and other ancient Near Eastern sources[4]. That God resting is related to temple activity is also confirmed in Psalms 132:8 where David, referring to the Jerusalem Temple, declares, "arise, YHWH, and go to Your resting place" and later in verse 14 YHWH declares, "this is My resting place forever". Clearly, the audience originally receiving Genesis 1-2 would have immediately recognized it as a Temple text due to the cultural concept that gods rest in temples. The literary structure of Exodus further supports the connection between the creation week and the building of the Mishkan by dividing the instructions for the components of the Mishkan into seven subsections, each being introduced by the formula "YHWH spoke/said to Moses..."[5] Six of these deal with creating the Tabernacle structure and the seventh restates the Shabbat commandment[6]. This pattern clearly mirrors the six days of creation with a seventh day Shabbat "rest". This connection between the origins of the world and the temple is also attested in other ancient Near Eastern literature[7].

Now that we have established both Genesis 1-2 and our Exodus narrative as a temple text, let's investigate how the ancient Israelites would have understood the functions of the temple and the act of temple-building. Throughout the ancient world, the temple played a significant role in people's understanding of the cosmos. The temple was considered to be the location from which the god of that temple controlled his/her portion of the cosmos and the temple structure itself served as a microcosm, a small model, of the cosmos[8]. When the deity of the temple was enthroned in his/her temple and rested in it, he/she assumed control and began to rule over the cosmos[9]. This rule was the establishment of order within the cosmos which was understood as a necessity for human life, prosperity, and fertility. The fertility function is evidenced in some of the names associated with the temples, such as the "House of Grain", the "House of Goat's Milk", and interestingly, the "Sheep-Pen"[10]. Yeshua's references to himself being the good shepherd and the door into the sheepfold suddenly come to light with new meaning within the context of ancient Near Eastern temple language! Also, these ancient temples were often times built over springs and if not contained the motif of being the source of flowing, life-giving waters[11], a motif found in the Garden in Eden, Ezekiel's temple description, and also in the bronze laver in the Tabernacle and Jerusalem Temple. Yeshua's statements in John 4:14 and 7:37-38 about himself being a source of living water should also be understood within this context of temple language; just as the temple served the function of providing human access to the Divine, so too Yeshua serves as a means for humanity to be restored back to relationship with YHWH.

The similarities we find between Israelite temple concepts and that of the surrounding pagan nations should not lead us to the conclusion that the Israelites were copying the pagans; it actually serves as evidence that the narrative recorded in Exodus was indeed written during the time period which it claims. The texts make it clear that everything in the Mishkan came from the pattern set forth by YHWH, not by conquering other nations and incorporating their pantheons and their practices like other nations practiced. There are differences between the Mishkan of YHWH and the temples of the pagans and it is in these differences where we find important understandings about the nature of our God. YHWH does not allow Israel to have any other worship sites, not to worship Him and especially not to worship any other deity. This fact enlightens the reader that YHWH does not share control of the cosmos with any other deity, He alone is in control. Instead of there being a god for each natural phenomena, there is one Creator who controls these parts of nature; He is outside of the creation. And unlike the pagan deities who depend upon humans to meet their needs, God delegates rule over the cosmos to all humanity (not a ruling class). Rather than us serving Him by meeting His needs, we are to serve him by caring for sacred space and championing His justice among all peoples in order to preserve cosmic order. It is YHWH who first meets our needs and then asks us to reciprocate with service to Him. And of course the biggest difference between temples is that in the Mishkan, there is no graven image of God; instead when Israel keeps the Torah, they function as the image of God to all the peoples.

So far we have read the Tabernacle/Temple context back into Genesis 1-2 due to the similarities in narrative language between the creation account and the latter chapters of Exodus. But there is another perspective worth exploring. The account of the building of the Mishkan is in fact a creation account! Much as God created order out of non-order in Genesis chapter one[12], so too the Tabernacle-building account serves to create order out of the chaos of Egyptian slavery. God has rescued Israel from Egypt, has given them the instructions on how to live as a community, and now settles down to rest among His people. It is the act of the Glory of YHWH filling the Mishkan which informs us that YHWH has taken control; the Mishkan is now His control room for maintaining order in Israel. The priests will soon be consecrated to maintain the sacred space and the sacrificial system will serve to maintain the purity and order of the Mishkan. Israel has officially been created as the people of YHWH. This theme of creation continues on throughout the Hebrew Bible and into the Apostolic writings as well. Paul references the concept of renewed creation in his second letter to the assembly at Corinth. Most English Bibles will render Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 5:17 to say "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation", but the Greek text actually reads differently. A literal rendering should read, "Therefore if anyone is in Messiah, new creation!"; the words "he is a" are not in the Greek text but are added by translators who apparently did not understand the creation theme that runs throughout Scripture. Just as the building of the Mishkan in ancient Israel served as a new creation, beginning process of restoration of the original creation's order back to the cosmos, so too when we die and are reborn in Messiah, it is new creation; we now become part of the process of restoration of the cosmos back to the Temple of Eden.


[1] Exodus 40:33-34.

[2]  Nahum M. Sarna. Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (1986), p. 319. iBooks.

[3] ibid, 319.

[4] Weinfeld, “Sabbath, Temple and the Enthronement of the Lord,” 501-504.

[5] Exod. 25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1, 12.

[6] Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 156.

[7] Assmann, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, 39.

[8] John H. Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 100.

[9] ibid, 190.

[10] ibid, 104.

[11] ibid, 104.

[12] Genesis 1:2 states that the earth was formless and void, a state of existence that lacked any order.

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