Revisiting Genesis 1 as a tabernacle-building text

Let’s take some time out from geopolitics to give a few new thoughts on my contention (far from unique) that the way to understand the Genesis 1 creation account is as (a) a non-historic place-setter for the rest of Genesis and, indeed the Bible; (b) a phenomenological, rather than a theoretical, account; and (c) a temple-building text.

I’ve dealt with the first two pretty thoroughly in my book The Generations of Heaven and Earth, and in various blog posts that you should be able to discover using the search function. I want to concentrate on the third today.

I’ve noted on a couple of occasions the lack of any mention of an underworld in Genesis 1, but perhaps haven’t really emphasised its significance in understanding the purpose of the passage. And the significance is that things that are missing from a text, when you might expect them to be there, give clues as to the genre you’re dealing with. In this case, there are several things one has reason to expect in an ancient creation account, if it were purely intended to account for the things that exist in the world, which are in fact missing. I suggest that what is included is largely what is useful for a comparison between the cosmos as a temple, and the tabernacle whose construction in the wilderness is described in the later chapters of Exodus. Conversely, what is omitted is what would detract from that understanding.

Once again, others besides me have pointed out that God’s instruction to build everything in conformity to “the pattern shown you on the high mountain” might indicate a revelation to Moses of creation as the prototype tabernacle. Alternatively, the revealed pattern of the tabernacle might have later struck him as reflective of how the world is made as a kind of footstool for God’s heavenly throne. The order doesn’t really matter: both the creation account and the tabernacle’s pattern were revealed to the same author.

So to return to that missing underworld, the presence of such a nether realm is so ubiquitous in ANE mythology that writers on Hebrew cosmology tend to stick it in their firmament-domed illustrations anyway. It’s not that Israel lacked such a concept – there are plenty of references to Sheol, or “the pit” (Abaddon) as the abode of the dead, though it is not nearly such a developed realm as in Babylonian or Egyptian mythology, or even in the Odyssey.

Sheol’s omission from the creation account might be because it did not exist before the Fall and human death, but it need not be populated to be described as a part of the world, and is certainly present in other nations’ accounts. But I think it more plausible that Genesis 1 does not have a “typical three-layered” cosmos simply because the tabernacle had no basement. The orientation of the tabernacle is inward is horizontal, from the profane world beyond the courtyard, via the worship area with the altar, through the sanctuary of the priests to the Holy of Holies behind the curtain. Although the Genesis account is primarily vertical, the conceptual progression in the finished creation is the same, from the tohu wabohu of the sea, through the dry land, and the more etherial sky, to the heavenly realms separated by the firmament. An underworld has no place in either progression.

There are other surprisingly absent elements in the creation account, though. One notable one is the absence of any mention of fresh water, despite the absolute necessity of rain, rivers and lakes to all life, and to Israel in particular. Abraham’s Mesopotamian world had revolved around the Euphrates, and Moses’s Egypt, of course, around the Nile. In Canaan, Jordan had a similarly central place.

You may remember that, in Sumerian mythology, the world itself began by the mingling of primordial salt water (Tiamat) with Apsu (fresh water). There is a strong reflection of this in Genesis itself, in the flood account, where both the rainfall and the breaking out of the “fountains of the great deep” are even representative of the “de-creation” of the world through its return to primordial water.

But this is absent from the creation account itself, where the firmament separates the waters below, later “gathered into one place” as the sea, from the waters above (which I interpret as clouds, but other interpretations don’t alter the point I’m making). Moses, I suggest, wants to use the sea as a direct equivalent of the unsanctified land outside the tabernacle court, and the tabernacle has no rivers or lakes, unless one counts the laver in the courtyard which, in the later temple of Solomon, became the bronze “sea.”

Now, it is true that an eschatological sacred river becomes an important prophetic motif in the later Old Testament (and of course in Revelation in the New), sometimes flowing out from the sanctuary itself. But this was certainly not true of the tabernacle, which after all was erected in the dry wilderness, and I think that is why such an important element of the world is missing from Genesis 1. The sacred river theme probably derives from the imagery of Eden, and that is a very different kind of sacred sanctuary, as I explain in my book.

Another surprising omission is any mention of mountains, even though as in other middle eastern cosmologies (or theogonies) Israel had more than its fair share of holy mountains. Mountains were where one meets God, be that on Ararat for Noah, Sinai for Israel or Elijah, the northern Mount Zaphon in a few texts, or of course Mount Zion, or Moriah, where Abraham offered Isaac and the Temple was built. In Ezekiel, it seems that even Eden is situated on a mountain. Mountain imagery persists in the New Testament, too, for example in the Mount of Transfiguration.

The reason is simple – mountains bridge the sacred space between earth and heaven. In Exodus the imagery is highly literal – the elders partake of a meal with God on Mount Sinai, where God’s throne is set on something like lapis lazuli, that is the luminous sky itself. So you’d certainly expect at least a mention of mountains in an account to do with the worship of God, rather than simply mentioning “the dry land appeared.”

Once more, a plausible answer comes from the nature of the tabernacle: it had no mountains within it, of course, and being a portable shrine was erected in the Israelite camp, regardless of topography. Sacred space was sufficiently represented by the tabernacle itself, accessed only by the priests, and in the creation account, by the expanse separating earth from heaven.

Despite their representation in modern pictures of “the Hebrew cosmology,” and their probably poetic mention in certain Bible passages, supporting pillars are notably absent from Genesis 1 too. One might think this militates against temple imagery, pillars being necessary in such architecture, and of course in Solomon’s temple, two pillars by the porch were even named Boaz and Jachin. But Genesis is not about the temple, but the tabernacle, which had wooden uprights which were merely planks for a tent – scarcely the same thing.

I’ve often felt that Genesis 1 seems remiss in not describing the creation of the angelic beings so prevalent throughout the Bible, especially since they are so prominent in Paul’s descriptions of the created order in the New Testament. Some have suggested the stars of Day 4 might be such supernatural beings (compare Job 38’s “morning stars sang together” as he describes creation). But since part of Moses’s purpose seems to have been to discourage the worship of heavenly objects by describing them as mere “lights,” I think it unlikely. The tabernacle had images of cherubim woven into its curtains, and of course two carved cherubim overshadowed the ark (more Eden imagery), but angels played no part in the tabernacle worship: God’s own presence was there to receive the worship of his people, and I think that idea is represented in Genesis 1, explaining the absence of a whole realm of glorious beings.

Two other absences emerge from comparison with the other ANE texts. The first is that of cities. Babylonian creation texts tend to be about the way that their city of origin was designated as the true seat of the gods on earth. And the texts of Egypt were also tied to religious centres in cities. Genesis too, as we get to Cain, begins to speak a lot about cities. Some are good, some are bad – but they are important. Most important of all is Jerusalem, the place God finally designated as the sole place for his worship in Israel. If Genesis 1 were even just an aeteological creation text, one might expect Jerusalem to be as central as it is in mediaeval mappae mundi, and even more so if we see it as a temple text.

But once again, all that changes if the creation is being compared by Moses to the tabernacle, which had no truck with proper cities until the time of King David.

The same is true of kings, a central theme of many ANE texts because kings represented the gods, and indeed some texts state that “the kingship descended from heaven.” Genesis, of course, if written by Moses, represented a new egalitarian society with no king but God, and that is reflected in the creation of mankind, both male and female, in the image and likeness of God. But if we include the tabernacle’s worship in our consideration, then kings have no place there either. There is no image in the tabernacle unless we think of the priests, holy representatives of mankind, created in God’s image.

Lastly, I think it significant that both the creation account, and the tabernacle-building account, diffuse out (as it were) from God. In Genesis 1 this seems quite logical in the various separations that occur: God’s bright heaven is separated from the chaotic deep, and then that is pushed aside to leave the dry land, before God creates the inhabitants.

In Exodus, if one thinks about it, the similar order is rather counter-intuitive. I’m reminded of Enid Blyton’s Noddy (o happy childhood!) in which our hero wants to build the roof of his house first in case it rains whilst putting the walls up. My own logic in erecting the tabernacle would be to fence off the courtyard first, then erect the tent within, then put the curtain across to isolate the Holy of Holies, and finally to furnish. But Exodus 40, like Genesis 1, starts with God as far as is practicable: the tent goes up first, and then the ark is put in and veiled by the curtain. Next the table, incense altar and lampstand are installed (is there some resonance with the light of creation Day 1 here?). Then the courtyard is furnished, and finally the court itself is set up. Then, the Aaronic priests take up their roles and occupy the tabernacle.

I may have missed other things essential to a self-respecting cosmos that are left out of Genesis 1 because they are non-essential to a functioning tabernacle. If you think of any, let me know in the comments.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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