This is the second in a five-part series about things in the Bible that we tend to skip over, but which nevertheless merit our attention and can bless us if we read them with openness and faith. This series comes to us from Brian Sigmon, editor of United Methodist resources at the United Methodist Publishing House.
Part 2: Detailed Descriptions of Ritual Spaces
Last week I wrote the first installment of a series on boring things in the Bible. When reading the Scriptures, it’s likely we’ve all found ourselves in the middle of a genealogy, a list, a set of laws, or a detailed description of some location or other. While narratives and poetry in the Bible can lift us up or spark our imagination, these other types of writing tend to slow us down and mire us in seemingly needless details. What I hope to show in this series, though, is that even these “boring” parts of Scripture communicate something vital to us about God and God’s relationship with humankind. These writings in the Bible may never become page-turners, but they can be life-giving if we know what to look for as we read them.
In last week's post, I focused on genealogies. Today I want to consider another type of material: descriptions of ritual spaces. Much of the second half of Exodus, for instance, devotes a lot of attention to the construction of the Tabernacle and its instruments of worship, including the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25-32, 35-40). There’s a similarly detailed, if not as long, description of the Temple in Jerusalem that Solomon built (1 Kings 6-7), and even a prophetic vision of the restored Temple, complete with angelic measurements (Ezekiel 40-42).
These descriptions of worship spaces can be tedious to read; they are comparatively long and use unfamiliar measurements (a cubit, for instance). And yet the frequent presence of such material suggests that the biblical writers assigned great importance to it. What might these descriptions of worship spaces have to teach us?
This balance helps us recognize that God’s liberation of the Israelites wasn’t just meant to free them from oppression; it was to free them for worship of the one true God, who had made a covenant with their ancestors. It helps us understand that freedom in Exodus doesn’t mean autonomy, but empowered, liberated, and loyal service to the Creator of the universe. In the same way, the space dedicated to the description of the Temple’s construction in 1 Kings 6-7 helps us recognize that a key aspect of the kingship in Israel would be its relationship to God, realized through worship. In the ideal way of things, Solomon and his descendants would lead the Israelites in maintaining covenant loyalty to God, who had established their kingdom, conquered their enemies, and given them peace.
Finally, we should recognize is that these detailed descriptions enable us to envision what these worship places looked like. A familiar adage tells us that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, we don’t have a picture of the Tabernacle or the Temple that has survived from the time of Moses, but we do have a lot of words that have been preserved and transmitted within our tradition! The importance of this should not be underestimated. These detailed descriptions allow attentive readers (and better artists than me!) to draw a sketch of what these spaces may have looked like. Our study Bibles, Sunday school curriculum, and other educational materials can have a visual representation of the Ark, the Tabernacle, and other ritual spaces and items thanks to these detailed descriptions. So even if they don’t make for great devotional reading, they are vitally important for our preservation of history and sacred tradition.