From Storage Cities to the Tabernacle: Building a New Civilization

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Daniel R. Berkove


It is hard to understand why Exodus is a single book.

The first half of Exodus is the epic story of an enslaved people whom God frees, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, from the iron rule of Egypt’s despotic Pharaoh, the leader of the world’s preeminent superpower. With this free nation God then establishes a covenant. As God’s chosen people, they are to keep His law, the Torah, symbolized by two stone tablets, divinely hewed and inscribed with the Ten Commandments, which Moses, His designated fugitive/prince/shepherd/prophet, receives upon Mount Sinai.

It is one of the most dramatic and inspiring tales in the history of mankind, to Jew and non-Jew alike.

But the last half of Exodus, which mostly tells in multiple ways of the construction of the Tabernacle that the Israelites would carry through the desert, seems as dramatic and inspiring as a story about the building of Ikea furniture.

That these two incompatible narratives combine into one book is puzzling, to say the least.

Describing Exodus as The Book of Exile and Redemption (Sefer Ha-galut Ve-Hageulah), Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194–1270) famously addresses this question. He suggests that even though the Jewish nation left Egypt, they were still considered in a state of Exile (galut). To achieve redemption (geulah), it was necessary for them to build the Tabernacle and establish God’s presence among them.

Ramban’s thesis addresses how the main themes of Exodus relate to each other, but not the literary question why these two halves of Exodus, written in such opposing styles, are joined together. I would like to propose that the beginning of the answer to this question can be found in Exodus chapter 25, where God instructs Moses on how the Israelite nation is to construct the Tabernacle:

The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering…

And they shall make a Sanctuary for Me—so that I may dwell among them—like everything that I show you, the form of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the form of all its vessels; and so shall you do. (Ex. 25:1-2, 8-9)

It is noteworthy that the building of the Tabernacle is the second construction project given to the Jewish nation. Compare these lines to the description of the first project, found in the beginning of Exodus:

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know of Joseph. He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and wage war against us and depart from the land.” So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens, and they built arei miskenot for Pharaoh, Pithom and Raamses. (Ex. 1:8-11)

The first construction project given to the Israelites were arei miskenot that Pharaoh conscripted them to build. While the definitive meaning of arei miskenot is not known, it is most commonly translated as “storage cities.”

Is there any link between these two construction projects? I believe there is.

While Mishkan is singular and miskenot is plural, the words are nearly identical. Though Mishkan is spelled with a shin and miskenot with a samekh, in Hebrew the letters samekh and sin are often interchangeable, and without vowels a sin looks identical to a shin).

This curious linguistic connection gives us reason to consider how else the building of the Tabernacle and storage cities might relate to one another.

What would have been kept in the storage cities? Most likely grain, which was the source of the wealth that powered and sustained the Egyptian empire for nearly 3,000 years. It is ironic that this Pharaoh who did not know Joseph—who advised a previous Pharaoh to build a network of grain storage facilities, enabling him to acquire all of Egypt’s land and indenture all Egyptians—was the same Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites—Joseph’s people—and compelled them to build grain storage facilities.

What was stored in the Tabernacle? Besides its furnishings, the most important item in the Tabernacle was the Tablets of Testimony. They were placed in the Ark, sheltered under the wings of cherubs fashioned from a single block of gold, and situated in the Tabernacle’s innermost chamber, the Holy of Holies. Unlike grain, a valuable, indeed essential, commodity, the tablets were only made of stone. Yet the words inscribed on them were the source from which the Jewish nation derived its strength.

Let’s imagine how these storage cities would have looked. Think about Egyptian architecture. The Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the seven wonders of the world and the only one that remains standing today, was built over a thousand years before the Jews left Egypt. Ancient Egypt’s palaces, temples, and tombs were magnificent structures built to precise measurements, meant to last millennia, ornately decorated with gold, hieroglyphics, and brightly painted frescoes. We can easily assume that in building these storage cities, the repositories of Egypt’s wealth and power, no expense would have been spared. Pharaoh would have used the best building materials available and commissioned the best architects, engineers, and designers.

But the Tabernacle, which did include furnishings of gold and silver and required skilled workmanship, was essentially a large tent. Rather than permanent stone and brick, it was a modest structure primarily of wood, wool, and animal skins, and by design, easily portable.

The critical aspect of the Tabernacle were its furnishings, which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch describes as its “essentials” and raison d’etre for the Tabernacle itself. [1] Of these, the Ark had a central role. But the Ark’s measurements raise a question. It was two and a half cubits in length, one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high. Why half a cubit? The Tabernacle’s Table of Showbreads was also one and a half cubits high. In the Five Books of Moses, the only items built to a half cubit measure were connected to the Tabernacle. The dimensions for Noah’s Ark, for example, were full cubits. By measuring the cubits in halves, it is as if these furnishings, and by extension the Tabernacle, were somehow deficient. Just as Pharaoh’s buildings would be built to perfection, so too we would have expected that any construction dedicated to the Sovereign of the World would be even more perfect, were this possible. At the very least, we would expect any measurement to be in full cubits and not incomplete half cubits.

Another difference between the Tabernacle and storage cities concerns the labor involved to build them. Pharaoh not only used slaves, but he worked them especially hard and intentionally made their burdens difficult. The Bible states this specifically: “So they appointed over them tax collectors to oppress them with forced labor…” and “made life bitter for them with hard labor, with mortar and with bricks, and with all sorts of tasks in the field” (Ex. 1:11, 14). This was a tragic story of terrible human suffering.

Compare this to God’s instructions for building the Tabernacle. All of it was to be carried out voluntarily, from the provision of its materials to its construction. Moreover, in an astonishing juxtaposition, when God finished instructing Moses on how to build the Tabernacle, He then told Moses to command the Israelites to keep the Sabbath. The contrast between these two narratives could not be clearer. Whereas Pharaoh forced his slaves, with malice, to build his storage cities, the Tabernacle was built by those who did so only of their own accord, and even during its construction all Israelites observed a mandated day of rest every seven days.

In addition, the styles in which these two narratives are told are different. The massive years-long construction program to build Pharaoh’s majestic storage cities, and the misery it caused the Jews, is told from beginning to end in the briefest of words, in just a few sentences. But the story of the construction of the humble Tabernacle, which was built over a few months, is covered in the greatest of detail, and is repeated, over nearly 15 chapters.

These are parallel stories, but between the samekh of the storage cities and the shin of the Tabernacle are vastly different worlds. Indeed, on nearly every point—their number, design, storage, labor, and even their narratives—they are polar opposites. This sharpens our original question: Why does Exodus link them?

Their differences are precisely the point. These stories are connected in the book of Exodus so that we will compare one to the other.

Each story represents a different civilization. The civilization of Egypt, so dominant in those ancient times, was one built on material wealth, hierarchy, compulsion, and misery. It was a polytheistic society with deities of limited power that were ambivalent to humanity and required appeasement from their worshipers. Pharaoh, Egypt’s divine ruler, was an uncontested tyrant while the society’s elite one percent lorded over the remaining ninety-nine percent. This civilization was represented by the building of Pharaoh’s storage cities.

The Tabernacle represented an opposite civilization. The Tabernacle was the place where God manifested His presence with the Jewish nation in the desert after Sinai and communicated His will. Through the Tabernacle, God invited the Israelites to voluntarily welcome Him to “dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). In doing so, the Israelites accepted the mission of building a society based on ethical monotheism, centered around a single omnipotent God who created the universe for mankind out of love. As explained by the historian Russell Kirk, Sinai revealed a new “moral order” from which “have grown the modern ethics and modern institutions and much besides” of Western civilization.[2]

In this civilization, it is neither monuments nor power that matter most but the values of compassion and justice, grounded in the great principle to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). The Torah gave this command to a nation of oppressed former slaves who, as individuals and as a people, had a profound understanding of the cruelty that one person can commit against another. The reason for this was for them to create a society on earth which would abolish such cruelty. In this civilization, all people are created in the image of God and therefore have intrinsic, equal worth regardless of rank or station. Freedom of body and the freedom to choose are of paramount importance. And because laws are divinely given, everyone, from prince to pauper, is subservient to them. Also, the laws were designed not to oppress but for our benefit. How else can the commandment of the Sabbath be understood? For Pharaoh, a slave who rests is deemed lazy and should be punished. For God, a Jew who rests on the Sabbath, even one engaged in the sacred task of building the Tabernacle, is sanctifying His name. While Pharaoh was only interested in the larger goal regardless of cost, for God the details are critical. No matter how important a goal may be, how it is achieved is decidedly more so. It speaks to the success of Sinai that these ideas and values, even if unevenly practiced, are today commonplace.

What is the reason for the Tabernacle’s imperfect, unfinished half cubit?

It is this: One half calls for a second half. Though God is the Sovereign of the World and beyond any perfection that Pharaoh might conceive, the half cubit is God extending His hand to the Israelites, inviting them to be His partner in creating a civilization based on the Torah’s values. This partnership was established for eternity at Sinai with the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah. Through the Tabernacle and its furnishings, the Israelites have a physical remembrance of the revelation at Sinai and their covenant with God, as well as the implements with which to worship God and cultivate their partnership with Him.

It is necessary for Exodus to juxtapose the incongruent stories of the Tabernacle and the storage cities to help us to appreciate the value and revolutionary vision of God’s new civilization that was inspired by Sinai. Until this vision of Sinai is realized, it remains our quotidian work to try to integrate Torah values into our world. And if we are successful, it is through this that our world and us, its inhabitants, will, as Ramban suggested, be redeemed.

[1] Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, 3rd ed. (Feldheim Publishers, 2014), 544.

[2] Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, 4th ed. (ISI Books, 2003),  12.

Daniel R. Berkove helps companies to accelerate profits and growth in complex, challenging markets. He is also a board member of Innovation: Africa and the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States, and he was Executive Director of the “The Blessing Israel” music video collaboration against antisemitism. A native of Detroit, he lives in Israel with his family.