What Should We Make of the Massive Repetition of Tabernacle Details in Exodus?

I used to lead a small group Bible study in my home. And when I proposed we study Exodus, people agreed to participate only if we stopped once we hit the Ten Commandments (chapter 20).

Some time later, I proposed preaching through Exodus at our church. Some of the other elders expressed concern that a chapter-by-chapter exposition would be too taxing for the people. They wanted assurance that we wouldn’t belabor the tabernacle details.

Over the years, I have heard from many friends, who attempted to read the Bible cover-to-cover, that they gave up in the closing chapters of Exodus (though I can think of some who made it as far as Leviticus or Numbers before abandoning ship).

These three anecdotes highlight a major barrier for modern readers: There’s no avoiding the fact that Exodus dedicates exorbitant space to the architectural details of the tabernacle. And those details occur not only once but twice. Every preacher must solve the conundrum of how to preach Exodus without preaching the same sermon(s) multiple times. Every Bible reader must cope with both the pile of cubits, fillets, calyxes, and ephods (Ex 25-31), and the pile of cubits, fillets, calyxes, and ephods (Ex 35-39). As my son loves to ask me: Pete and Repeat were in a boat. Pete fell out, and who was left?

If we believe that all Scripture is useful and profitable (2 Tim 3:16-17), and we are to take heed of what God has revealed about himself, how might we approach chapters 35-39 of Exodus? Will we simply skip them, trusting the lessons from Exodus 26-31 to be sufficient? Or does the Lord have more for us than that?

I have 6 suggestions.

1. Ask why the tabernacle has so many details.

I’ve tried to cover this in my sample Bible studies on each chapter, as I’ve landed on the big picture from the beginning: Yahweh wants to dwell with his people. Here in the tabernacle, we have one of the clearest pictures of Immanuel, God with us. This is worth much time, attention, and detail to ensure we comprehend the glory of it.

2. Ask why Exodus repeats nearly every one of those details.

God chose to give us this particular picture of Immanuel two times. Let’s not let it go to waste. After all, it’s not an exact repetition. First, Yahweh says “you shall build” so and so. Second, the narrator says “Bezalel built” so and so. That shift from instruction to construction must not go unnoticed. (For an example, just do a verse-by-verse comparison of the ark in Ex 25:10-16 and Ex 37:1-5.) Yahweh told them to do something, and they did it. Or more accurately: Yahweh told them to do a thousand somethings, and they did them all. Exactly as they had been told. Down to the jot and tittle. Even if Moses had written his scroll with fluorescent gel pens, he could not have made this obvious point any more vibrant.

3. Observe which parts of Ex 25-31 are not repeated in Ex 35-39.

Though there may be more, I’ve noticed three major things: the intent to dwell, the priests’ ordination ceremony (Ex 29) and the census tax (Ex 30:11-16). All three take on greater significance outside the book of Exodus.

Yahweh clearly states his intent to dwell with his people in Ex 25:829:45-46. While no such intent is stated during construction, this intent to dwell motivates Yahweh through the ages (Deut 31:23Josh 1:5Is 7:14Is 8:5-10Is 43:2Matt 1:22-23Matt 28:20, etc.).

The ordination instruction does finally find its twin in Leviticus 8, and the delay heightens the drama and anticipation for the event. Perhaps this ordination ceremony has more to teach us (about how to approach God) than first meets the eye.

The census tax (“ransom”) is never mentioned again, as far as I can tell. Numbers 1 and 26 narrate two censuses for the two generations of wilderness wanderers, and there is no mention of the tax there. But since Yahweh initiates both censuses, I assume they followed his instructions from Ex 30:11-16. But do you remember David’s fateful census that brought disaster on Israel (2 Sam 24, 1 Chr 21)? Have you ever wondered why it was such a terrible idea? If we didn’t skip over the boring parts of Exodus, we might have eyes to see both David’s failure to collect the ransom and God’s solution to replace the tabernacle with a permanent temple.

4. Observe which parts of Ex 35-39 are new material (not found in Ex 25-31).

Next week, I will focus my sample Bible study on these texts: Ex 35:1-29Ex 36:2-7, and narrative additions in Ex 39:1-31. They do not have counterparts in Ex 25-31, so they highlight the new angle on Immanuel that the Lord intends with Ex 35-39.

5. Compare and contrast the structure of the two sections.

Some things are similar. For example, the ark, table, and lampstand come in the same order (Ex 25:10-4037:1-24), indicating those three items should be taken as a unit. Same with all the priestly garments in Ex 28 and Ex 39.

But most of the structure is completely different. I’ve created an outline showing the differences to help me visualize it. Some key takeaways:

  • The construction begins exactly where the instructions left off: The Sabbath.
  • The instructions take the shape of seven speeches; the construction has no clear corresponding framework.
  • The instructions basically start on the the inside (ark, table, lampstand) and move out (furniture, structure, priests’ garments) before coming back in (more furniture, oil & incense); the construction follows a more logical course (build the tent, fill it with furniture, create the courtyard furniture, build the courtyard fence, end with priestly garments).
  • In light of the content and structural differences, it appears the instructions put more emphasis on the tabernacle as “new creation,” while the construction puts more emphasis on the people involved as “new creators”.

6. Follow the train of thought.

One danger of treating Ex 25-31 and Ex 35-39 as one long passage about the tabernacle is that we miss the crucial train of thought! The covenant is made in Ex 19-24. Then we have tabernacle instructions in Ex 25-31. Then the covenant is broken and repaired in Ex 32-34. Finally, the tabernacle is constructed.

The flow of thought highlights the crucial nature of the breaking and repair of the covenant in between the tabernacle sections. In other words, the only reason the construction can be so detailed, so faithful, and so obedient in every point, is because Yahweh has offered these people more of himself than they’ve ever had. He’s given them a greater, albeit fading, glory in the approval of his face. And he is closer to them than ever. This fact alone makes the tabernacle construction more earth-shattering and supernatural than the instructions were.

If Yahweh is not vulnerable and willing to give himself to his people, his instructions will always fall on deaf ears. But when he shows them his glory, full of grace and truth, they become Spirit-filled to do all that he commands them do. Exactly as he commands them to do it.

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Heb 13:20-21)