Terumah – Why do we have a “House of God”?

                                                          

                                                                         TERUMAH

                                                             (Chapters 25:1–27:19)

 

                                      The ancient Sanctuary was not built for God[1]

 

This section of the Torah commands the building of a Sanctuary, a tent in which sacrifices were offered to God. Commentators dispute whether the command was issued before or after the episode of the golden calf which is reported later in Exodus 32. Most commentators are convinced that the construction of the building was ordered after the Israelites worshipped a golden calf, which showed that the people needed something concrete, a visible symbol of God’s presence to wean them from their idolatrous inclination. The fact that Scripture tells the story of the golden calf in chapter 32, after the command to build the Sanctuary in chapter 25, is inconsequential, because rabbis and scholars recognize that events described in the Torah are often not told in chronological order.

 

If the command to build the Sanctuary came after, and as a consequence of the psychological nature of people revealed in the Israelite worship of the golden calf, why didn’t the Torah place this section after that episode? While we may agree with the principle that events in the Torah are not necessarily set in chronological order, shouldn’t we ask in each case why the chronological order was disrupted?

 

We do not know the answer to this question. Some commentators suggest that the Torah wanted the Sanctuary laws placed near the civil and criminal laws found in the previous Torah portion to teach us that the Israelites should locate a high court near the Sanctuary. However, others are dissatisfied with this solution; there is no indication that a court was positioned near the Sanctuary at that time. Others claim that the sequence of events as told in the Torah, that the command to build the Sanctuary was before the story of the golden calf, was done to hide the fact that if the event of the golden calf worship did not reveal a need for a Sanctuary, the Torah would never have ordered the construction of a Sanctuary because God has no need for it. The Torah did not want to reveal that the Sanctuary was only ordered because people need it.[2]

 

This idea is reflected in the Aramaic translation of the Five Books of Moses called Targum Onkelos. Exodus 25:8 states: “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” Targum Onkelos changes it to read: “They should make before Me a Sanctuary and I shall cause My Shekhinah to dwell among them.” Targum Onkelos adds Shekhinah to describe the “human feeling” of God’s presence (coming from the Hebrew shakhen, “to dwell”). The verse does not say that when the Sanctuary is built God will dwell in it, but that God will dwell “among them.” It will cause the people, as stated in Targum Onkelos, to feel God’s presence.

 

The term Shekhinah is found in many post-biblical Jewish books.[3] Many people think that the Shekhinah is an element of God. This is a mistake. This would be a polytheistic concept, that there is a divine being other than God. It makes more sense to understand Shekhinah as Targum Onkelos does, as a description of the human feeling of God’s presence in our lives.

 



[1] This essay is based on what Dr. Stanley M. Wagner and I wrote in our book What’s Beyond the Bible Text.

[2] Maimonides wrote in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 that God has no need of sacrifices or a house of worship, but the Torah “allowed” it because people need it. It is possible that the Torah is hiding this fact from most people, by the way it sequences the events, because most people need to think that God likes sacrifices and needs a house of worship.

[3] It is not a biblical term.

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