Light from the Sidra

Terumah (‘Portion’). 13th February 2016. 4th Adar 5776

Torah: Exodus 25:1–27:19. Haftarah: 1 Kings 5:26 (12)-6:13*

Back to the Garden

One of the features of all religions is the idea of ‘sacred space’, temples where worshippers can meet with their gods. And one of the remarkable common features is the fact that these ‘holy places’ are often built on hills and mountains. In ancient Iraq and Iran, and even Central America, where the land was flat,temples were constructed on the top of pyramids and artificial mountains called ziggurats.

The original ‘sacred space’ on earth was the Garden of Eden but because of their rebellion against God, Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, and terrifying supernatural creatures called cherubim were stationed to prevent man from returning and gaining access to the tree of life.

The Mishkan, or ‘Tabernacle’, was Israel’s sacred space. It was situated, like the tents of Middle Eastern monarchs, in the midst of the camp of Israel and there the people would meet their God. It was constructed according to a pattern revealed to Moses after the fellowship meal he and the elders of Israel ate with HASHEM on Mount Sinai. After the meal, the others returned to base camp while Moses went to the top of the mountain and for 40 days fellowshipped with God and received precise instructions for the construction of God’s sacred dwelling place on earth. God does not leave it to human beings to define the way they would worship him. Moses had to construct the Mishkan and its furniture ‘according to the pattern shown him on the mount’.

To enter the Mishkan was to be transported from the earthly realm to the realm of God. When you passed through the door of the tabernacle, you were symbolically entering heaven because the tabernacle was modelled on the dwelling place of God.

The approach to God was via a set of furniture laid out in the form of a cross. The first two pieces of furniture were constructed from bronze and positioned in the courtyard of the Mishkan. The closest most Israelites could get to God was the bronze altar of sacrifice just inside the gate to the courtyard. The priests alone could proceed beyond the altar to wash themselves in the bronze bath, and no Israelites other than the priests could enter the tabernacle itself.

The Mishkan or Tabernacle was three times as long as it was wide and was divided in two by a thick curtain. The ‘most holy’ place was God’s throne room and was separated from the holy place. The furniture in the Mishkan – the Menorah, the table containing ‘the Bread of the Face’, the golden altar of incense and the Ark of the Covenant, HASHEM’s throne – were made from ‘pure gold’. The closer one came to God, the more precious the material from which the furniture was constructed.

There were images of Eden in the Tabernacle. Gold cherubim guarded the throne of God in the holy of holies, and cherubim were embroidered into the curtains of the tabernacle. The menorah was constructed in the form of a tree, and worshippers entered the Mishkan from a single gate on the east. As the worshippers of Israel entered the tabernacle they were (symbolically at least) returning to Eden, the Tree of Life and the throne of God.

In Solomon’s temple, the imagery of Eden was even more apparent. It is a pity that the Haftarah finishes at 1 Kings 5:13 because in the description of the temple that follows verse 13 we read of carved cherubim and palm trees made of different kinds of wood. The second book of Chronicles describes palm trees, gourds and pomegranates carved into the walls of the temple. Solomon’s temple was also built on a mountain from which the Kidron brook issued, a memorial to the fact that the Garden of Eden was on a mountain from which four rivers flowed. So evident is the imagery of Eden in the temple architecture that in her BBC series The Bible’s Buried Secrets, Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou argued (implausibly, it must be said) that the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden originated from Solomon’s temple.

The fact that so many cultures build their sacred spaces on mountains – actual or artificial – is due to mankind’s collective memory of the Garden of Eden. Mankind longs to return to that original paradise so much so that Joni Mitchell sang of the legendary 1969 Woodstock festival as an attempt to ‘get ourselves back to the Garden.’

But the temple has gone. How are we to approach God? A clue is in the layout of the furniture in the Mishkan and the Temple.

Although the world’s religions all seek to reconcile their devotees to God, they all fall short of their aspiration to return to the Garden. If we are to approach God, both Jews and Gentiles we must approach him in the way he has prescribed. Although the temple in Jerusalem has long since gone, the principles it enshrined remain: divine origin, priesthood, sacrifice, the cross.

That’s right; the cross. The pattern God showed Moses involved sacrifice and six pieces of furniture all laid out in the form of a cross. Like it or not, the cross and sacrificial blood remain the only way to get back to ‘the Garden’ and God. And it’s not a case of getting ourselves back to the Garden; it’s a case of God opening the way back to the Garden and the tree of life.

When we look at the last days of Jesus, he recapitulates the fall of man in order that he might raise us up. Adam and Eve were sentenced to death by the righteous judgement of God and were driven eastward out of Eden. Jesus was driven eastward out of God’s sacred space in Jerusalem due to the unrighteous judgement of men. Adam was denied access to the Tree of Life but Jesus was nailed to a tree of death so we can have access once again to Tree of Life. Since Eden we all come into the world spiritually dead, separated from our Creator. On the tree outside Jerusalem, Jesus endured not only physical death but also spiritual death in the form of separation from God. But after three days he rose from death bringing life and immortality for all who call on him.

Why stay outside Eden any longer? The way to the Garden has been opened and the way back is free to all.

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