Presence and Place: Exodus

B. Exodus: Promise of Presence and Place

As foretold by God, the Israelites will find themselves in captivity in the land of Egypt (Gen. 15:13).  They are becoming numerous and as such, pose a threat to the reigning pharaoh.  Their imposed labor becomes more than they can withstand, and so God now determines that a great act of deliverance must take place.  YHWH will take them out of a geographical setting that prohibits their knowledge of the one true God and give them a new land for the purpose of God dwelling among them in right relationship.  It is important to point out that God’s primary concern is with having a presence among his people and only on a secondary level is he concerned with the geographical aspect.  The God of the Israelites is not bonded to a territory, but to a people dwelling correctly in a territory of Canaan.[1]

The nature of God’s presence with Moses is revealed in Exodus 3:5 where Moses is confronted with a burning bush.  As he approaches the bush, God tells him, “Do not come any closer …take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

The geography of this particular place is not what makes the ground holy, but rather God’s presence makes the location of his appearance holy.  This presence will not be for the sole purpose of witness to Moses, although Moses will be greatly impacted by this encounter with YHWH (Ex 3:6b).  Beyond this intimate experience, God is revealing his presence for the purpose of ultimate mission.  God will say to Moses, “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt,” (Ex 3:10).  .

As the Exodus account unfolds God will not merely call his people out of slavery only to be absent from them in their journey.  Instead, he will choose a visible means by which to convey his presence with this people as he leads them toward the promise land.  His demonstrated presence will be for the purpose of assuring the traveling Israelites that God is really moving with them as their ultimate guide.  As the scripture records,

By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.  Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Ex. 13:21-22)

As part of God’s plan to form a more complete and holy people, in Exodus 19 he will give them instructions to refrain from entering into his presence or they will perish.  The mountain upon which the presence of God rests (demonstrated again by a cloud) is to be marked as holy and only those who have consecrated themselves may touch it.  Again we encounter the presence of God making geographical space holy rather than a particular location having inherent holiness.  And it is form this location that God will establish his covenant with his people so that they may maintain right relationship with God and with each other.  From this presence on top of a mountain God will, as in the past, be in pursuit of forming a new kind of people who reject selfish ways of living that seek to only glorify their own earthly desires, but instead they will seek communion with God as they obey the commands he gives them.  These commands will instruct the moral-ethical-spiritual character of the people (Ex. 20:1-17) related cultic practice (Ex. 20:24-26), and social responsibility (Ex. 21-23).

From the mountain at Sinai God will send an angel[2] (foot note clarifying the use of the term, perhaps “messenger” is a better fit) ahead of the people to guard them.  God has not removed his abiding presence from the Israelites as he clearly demonstrates by saying, “… my Name is in him” (Ex 23:21).  Earlier in the narrative God’s reveled name YHWH gives Moses and the people of Israel the understanding that his character will be displayed by his divine activity among them.  Here the name of God is going before them, his presence will sustain and protect as they journey toward the Promised Land that they are to inhabit.

In Exodus 25 a new development arises in regard to how God will express his presence among his people.  Instructions are given to the Israelites for the construction of a tabernacle where God will “dwell among them” (Ex 25:8).  The vocabulary of the tabernacle is important, and there are two key words used in 25:8.  First, the verb ‘to dwell’ (shakan) leading to the noun mishkan , translated as a ‘dwelling’;  these terms will be widely used throughout Exodus 25-40.  Secondly, the noun miqdash ‘a sanctuary’ or ‘place of holiness’ is used.  Additionally the word ’ohel ‘tent’ is used in 26:7 and finds frequent occurrence thereafter.[3]  Tabernacle has become the standard name for the tent of the Lord where his holiness dwells, but it is important to recognize that the word ‘tent’ is also used for the homes the Israelites used as they were traveling through the wilderness.  So we rightly understand the nature of the structure, the purpose of the structure, and the divine character of the occupant.  The Israelites were living in tents at the time (16:16) and so God commands the pitching of his tent among them. As one author postulates, God identifies with them and their circumstances.  The use of miskan indicates a sense of concrete location; this is where God is to be found in a permanent sense.  Just as God had previously expressed his presence on the mountain he now moves to the center of their actual camp.

As God describes the various elements of the tabernacle a crucial description of the Ark of the Covenant is given.  God’s purpose for the ark is stated in 25:22 where he says, “I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.”  What further illuminates the nature of his presence is the particular descriptions given regarding the ark’s construction.  First, the Ten Commandments, which will be given to the people in physical form (Deut. 9:10), are to be placed in the ark.  Secondly, an atonement cover will be placed on top of the ark with two cherubim place on top of the cover.  The wings of the cherubim will be stretched out and from the place the cherubim cover God will meet with Israel.

As will be revealed in the coming narrative, the atoning sacrificial blood will be sprinkled upon the cover where God dwells (Lev. 16:14).  God’s presence above the ark is for the purpose of maintaining right relationship with his people.  The testimony inside the ark, the cover upon the ark and the presence of God above the ark depict a single unity of the relational purpose.  Secondly, amidst God’s dwelling with his people from the place of his Law, God is also calling Israel back to an earlier reality.  With the use of cherubim on top of the ark God’s people are reminded of the Garden of Eden.  In Genesis 3:24 God places cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the entrance of the Garden after Adam and Eve are expelled and so in Exodus, God speaks to Israel metaphorically from the gate of Eden.  The tabernacle will also use other Eden imagery with the placement of cherubim being embroidered on the inner curtain of the tent (Ex. 26:1; 36:35) and the placement of a lamp stand resembling a flowering tree.  This tree image will be used again in to describe Aaron’s rod (Num. 17:8) and Jeremiah’s vision (Jer. 1:11, 12).  It seems that the almond tree specifically was the first to bloom and was a symbol of God’s caring presence and provision.  Furthermore, Eden’s image of the tree of life has proper place as well because it fits within the life-giving imagery of God’s presence.   These garden images look back from Exodus, but also serve as a foreshadowing of what is to come for the people of God.

As the anticipated dwelling of God among the Israelites draws near, Aaron and his sons will be consecrated as priests onto the Lord.  They are given specific instructions for their consecration and then God proclaims:

So I will consecrate the Tent of Meeting and the altar and will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests.  Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God.  They will know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.” (Ex 29:45-46)

From this we see that God’s presence requires a people who are set apart for service to him so that his people will know their God, a God who brings them out of captivity.

In Exodus the record of Moses meeting with God in the ‘tent of meeting’ gives further nuance to the presence of God.  Exodus 33:11 reads, “The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.”  Despite this close relationship between Moses and God, the interaction is now happening outside of the camp (Ex. 33:7).  Places of worship in the ancient Near-East were commonly a distance away from the dwelling of the people and so we see that Israel has lost her unique status as a people who meet their God in the midst of their own dwellings.[4]  A damaged relationship is being represented in the distance of God from his people after the golden calf incident.  At this point, the people do yet not come to the tent to worship; instead they worship in front of their own dwellings looking at the tent of meeting from afar.

After the tent of meeting account, Moses will ask to see the glory of God.  God will explain that no man can see the glory (face) of God and live, but rather God will place his hand over Moses, so that Moses may view God’s back.  Such an encounter has been denied Israel as a whole, but is allowed to be witnessed by Moses.  Moses is looking for a guarantee of God presence with the Israelites.  Furthermore, he recognizes that without God’s presence with the Israelites, the Israelites cease to be a people all together (Ex 33:15-17).[5]  The dialog between God and Moses shows that mere geography is not ultimately what is at stake, but rather the preservation of a people marked as holy onto the Lord their God in right relationship with their God.

[1] Elmer A. Martens, Central Themes in Biblical Theology Mapping Unity in Diversity, ed. Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 232.

[2] Cf. R. Alan Cole, Exodus (The Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series) (New York: InterVarsity P, 1981), 181.

[3] Alec Motyer and J. A. Motyer, The Message of Exodus The Days of Our Pilgrimage (Bible Speaks Today) (New York: InterVarsity P, 2005), 251.

[4] Cole, 223.

[5] E. A. Martens, God’s design a focus on Old Testament theology (N. Richland Hills, Tex: BIBAL P, 1998), 118.