By Israel Drazin
The Jewish iconoclast Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848-1919) offered two unusual and highly controversial Bible interpretations on Exodus 25 in his book Mikra Ki-Pheshuto (The Bible According to its Literal Meaning) which will disturb many religious people.
Exodus 25 begins an extensive description of the tabernacle that Moses built in the desert, a dwelling used for religious inspiration and sacrifices. The portion emphasizes that the building, called Mishkan, based on the Hebrew root s-k-n meaning dwelling and suggesting the divine dwelling place (25:8), was directed by God who described precisely how it and the implements placed in it were to be constructed (25:9). The careful description of the Mishkan details and that they were divinely mandated as a divine dwelling place makes it clear beyond cavil that the Mishkan was a significant part of early Israelite history, arguably the basis of the Jewish religion. Yet there is absolutely no mention of the Mishkan outside of the five books of Moses. It seems that the authors of the subsequent biblical books, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and the others, knew nothing of the Mishkan and the five books, and that various documents were composed, as Bible critics contend, around the time of the second temple and assembled into the five books by Ezra in the fourth century BCE.
(Ehrlich does not mention Joshua 22:19, the only source that has the word mishkan. Joshua tells the tribes that remained in Trans-Jordan to consider settling in Canaan, “the land of the possession of the Lord where dwells the mishkan of the Lord.” In support of Ehrlich, this could be the only mention of the Mishkan building outside the five books of Moses or the term mishkan here could be a poetic repetition of “possession” that proceeds it and should be translated, “where dwells the dwelling of the Lord.”)
Ehrlich’s observation about apparent ignorance of the Mishkan is similar to another more disturbing problem. The five books of Moses have many laws, traditionally 613 commandments mandated by God. Yet there is no mention of the five books or the commands in any of the subsequent biblical volumes. This absence seems to verify the critique of the biblical critics. If Joshua, the judges, Samuel and the other biblical figures knew of the Torah commands, why is there no mention of them? Since Jews feel that the commands are or should be an integral part of their lives, why is there no incident describing any of the post-Moses Israelite leaders observing laws as the Sabbath and keeping kosher? Why, for example, does Boaz go through a levirate marriage procedure in the book Ruth that is different than the one mentioned in the five books? Why were the people surprised when a book of the Bible was discovered in the seventh century BCE which prompted King Josiah to reform the religious practices in Judea, a story told in II Kings 22-23? Was this, as Bible critics argue, when a part of the five books was developed?
This idea that the Torah was not in existence during
the days of Joshua through near the end of the first temple period explains
another problem. Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:8, Numbers 27:21, and Deuteronomy
33:8 speak about an Urim that the high priest wore to communicate with God to
secure divine guidance. This Urim is not mentioned in any of the
post-Pentateuch biblical books. Israelite leaders did not utilize it when
decisions needed to be made even though there were high priests. It is possible
that they did not take advantage of its power because it did not exist. The
Urim is mentioned in Ezra 2:63 and Nehemiah 7:65 as a hope for the future, but
it was not used at the time and this was when the Torah existed. The sole time
it is mentioned earlier is in I Samuel 28:6 where it states that God did not
answer King Saul by any means, not by dreams, the Urim, or prophets. This may
be a late interpolation.
Ehrlich’s second observation on Exodus 25 focuses on the ark in verses 14 and 15, which states that rings were placed on the sides of the ark and two poles were inserted into the rings so that it could be carried, and these poles “shall not be taken from it.” Granted the Mishkan and its implements, including the ark, were carried from place to place during the forty-year desert travels and some articles needed supports to aid in carrying them, but why were the ark poles not removed when the ark was placed in a settled sanctuary in Canaan? I Kings 8:8 and II Chronicles 5:9 state they were still set in the ark during the end of the second temple period, the “poles were so long that their ends could be seen…outside the holy place; and they are still there today.”
Ehrlich argues that Exodus 25 reflects conditions that existed during the temple period and was composed during this late period to justify having poles attached to the ark. He suggests that the Levites who functioned in the temple frequently removed the ark from the temple and carried it by means of the poles to many Judean cities to show the holy object to the people who never saw it. He imagines that the Levites charged for this viewing and may have even misled them to believe that the viewing, or viewing together with a prayer they recited for a fee, would cure their ills. This is similar to early practices by the Roman Catholic Church that Martin Luther criticized. Ehrlich notes that prophets castigated the temple priests and Levites for other misdeeds.
My friend Yona asked me why the Israelites used the color blue in the tabernacle (25:4). The rabbis say that this particular blue was taken from a type of snail and snails are non-kosher animals. Shouldn’t only kosher articles be used in the tabernacle? Secondly, should animals be mistreated to acquire a substance for the tabernacle?
We do not know the answer to this question. Perhaps the dye was take from the animal just as milk is taken from a cow and perhaps the use of this blue teaches that God is interested in and loves all that God created.