I have often read and taught on the temple-imagery in Genesis 1–2, where the Garden of Eden is portrayed by Moses as the prototypical tabernacle. I have also read and taught how the tabernacle in Exodus and the temple in 1 Kings are meant to re-present the original garden sanctuary. Still, there are many who wonder if this is a fanciful connection made up by creative interpreters, or if it is truly in the text. Interestingly, these are often the same people who often make up fanciful connections between Scripture and modern day Israel.
In what follows, I want to share a helpful summary of why we should read Genesis and Exodus together, how those chapters are designed to lead us to Christ, and how a right understanding of the biblical narrative anchors our hope in the person and work of Christ, and not the machinations of modern day Israel.
John Sailhamer on the Dwelling Place of God
When we compare the literary structure of Genesis 1–3 and Exodus 25–40, we find remarkable and apparently intended parallelism. From a careful comparison, it becomes evident that Moses wrote Genesis 1–2 in such a way that the reader can see God-given connections between these two divine dwelling places.
On that note, consider this introduction to the tabernacle in Exodus 25–40 from the late John Sailhamer. He shows numerous connections between Genesis and Exodus, and why they matter for the reader of Scripture (The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary):
The instructions for the work of building the tabernacle are written in such a way that they provide an interesting parallel to God’s own work of creation recorded in Genesis 1. Just as the Creation narrative portrayed the heavens and earth as the arena in which God would have fellowship with humans, so here the tabernacle is pictured as the means of restoring humanity’s lost fellowship with God. Thus the account of Creation in Genesis 1–2 and the building of the tabernacle in Exodus 25-30 have several significant similarities.
The first area of similarity is the overall structure of the two accounts. It is well known, for example, that the Creation account in Genesis is structured around a series of seven acts of creation. Each of these acts is marked by the divine speech. “And God said” (Ge 1:3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 24, 26, cf. vv. 11, 28, 29). In the same way, the Torah’s instruction for the building of the tabernacle is divided into seven acts, each introduced by the divine speech, “And the LORD said” (Ex 25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1, 12). Thus the tabernacle is portrayed as a reconstruction of God’s good creation. Moreover, the Garden of Eden is described in ways similar to that of the tabernacle. For example, both contained pure gold (Ge 2:12a; Ex 25:3) and precious jewels (Ge 2:12b; Ex 25:7) and were guarded by cherubim (Ge 3:24; Ex 25:18).
At the close of the Creation account in Genesis 2:1–3 was the reminder that God rested on the seventh day, the Sabbath. So also in the account of the building of the tabernacle, the last instruction is the reminder to observe the Lord’s Sabbath (Ex 31:12–18). Moreover, in the Genesis narrative, God concluded his last work with an inspection and evaluation of all he had done (“And God saw all he had made, and behold, it was very good,” Ge 1:31) and a blessing (1:28), just as in the description of the building of the tabernacle, when the work was completed, Moses inspected and evaluated all that was done (“And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it just as the LORD had commanded,” Ex 39:43a), and he blessed them (39:43b). In the Genesis account of creation, humanity was made according to a specific pattern, that is, According to the ‘image’ of God (Ge 1:26–27). In the building of the tabernacle, the whole as well as the parts were to be made according to the ‘pattern’ God had shown Moses (Ex 25:9).
Furthermore, the Creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 is followed by the account of the Fall (Ge 3). At the center of the Fall account is human disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. At the close of the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle there is also a “Fall account,” the account of Israel’s sin of the golden calf (Ex 32). Just as in the Genesis account, in the account of the golden calf Israel’s disobedience to the divine command resulted in there breaking God’s covenant.
That the tabernacle was to be built according to the ‘plan’ or ‘pattern’ that God had shown Moses on the mountain (Ex 25:9, 40; cf. 1 Ch 28:11–12, 18–19) gives rise to a number of important points. First, it suggests that the tabernacle was intended as a model or facsimile of God’s heavenly abode. It was a kind of incarnation of God’s presence with humankind. If only in the sense of a ‘form’ or ‘pattern,’ God was coming in to dwell among his people. Second, that the Tabernacle was a ‘pattern’ of something in heaven shows that it had a symbolic value as well as a practical purpose. This symbolism suggests, moreover, that its various physical forms also had a spiritual meaning of sense to them. There was thus already a typology in the various features of the tabernacle. (298–99)
To these comparisons between Genesis and Exodus, Sailhamer adds some interpretive mustard. That is, because Genesis and Exodus give little explanation of the symbolism, the reader must wait until the New Testament to see the substance to which the shadows point. Therefore, he concludes,
The problem that faces the readers of the Pentateuch, however, is that the text itself explains very little of the heavenly meaning of the tabernacle and its parts. It appears that we, the readers, are invited to ponder the description of the tabernacle in these very chapters with the expectation that they exhibit the pattern of the heavenly temple, but we are not given any help in explaining them. In other words, there appears to be an intentional mystery about the Tabernacle and the meaning of its parts, with little desire to resolve it.
There is a lesson to be learned from this mystery, however. That is, the fact that the NT writers explain many of the tabernacle’s parts as ‘shadows’ of the reality revealed in Christ (e.g., Heb 9:5) is in keeping with the purpose of these chapters. One could say that these chapters await just the sort of spiritual explanation that the NT gives them. Without such an exposition, there sense what remain uncertain. The NT sees the tabernacle and the service associated with it in these texts as a picture of the work of Christ (Jn 2:19–21; Heb 8:2; 9:11–12), or the individual believer (1 Co 6:19), and of the the church (1 Ti 3:15; Heb 3:6; 10:21). (299–300)
Sailhamer’s work shows again how Scripture is written. In the Old Testament, God ordained persons, events, institutions, and even places to prepare the way for his Son, who will come and fulfill all the types and shadows in Israel. In the text of Scripture, we find valid reasons to make connections between various mountains, temples, and divine dwelling places, and as Sailhamer notes, we see how the mysterious nature of these descriptions are meant to lead us to Christ.
From the Ancient Tabernacle to the Modern State of Israel
In our day, when confusion abounds regarding the holy land of Israel, it is helpful to see how God’s Word is written. Throughout the Pentateuch, types and shadows are given, not that we might seek to recover the ancient paths of Israel (see Acts 1:6–8), but so that we might learn to trust in the seed of Abraham, the son of David, who has come to crush the seed of the serpent. In other words, Jesus is the goal of the Old Testament (Ephesians 1:10); he is the one who fulfills all the promises (Acts 13:32–33; 2 Corinthians 1:20); and he is the servant of Israel sent to redeem Jew and Gentile alike (Isaiah 49:1–7; Ephesians 2–3).
In this way, we should keep laboring to see how Scripture presents itself and how every Old Testament dwelling place leads to the ultimate dwelling place of God—namely, the Word made flesh in whom the fulness of God dwells bodily. As the New Testament teaches, Jesus has sent his Spirit to create his multi-national bride, who has gathered at Zion for two thousand years as we worship Christ in the fellowship of other believers (Hebrews 12:18–29). It’s true, we still await the return of Christ, but we shouldn’t miss the way in which the Apostles repeatedly apply apocalyptic prophecies to the New Testament gathering of Jews and Gentiles (see Acts 2).
Accordingly, we should not try to match biblical prophecies with newspaper clippings (= tweets from Fox News). Instead, we should fix our eyes on Jesus. As we await his return, let us give ourselves more to study and proclamation of eternal Word and less to the prognostications of modern-day prophets. Our hope is not found in the shifting sands of geo-political nations; our hope is seated on the throne in heaven. Therefore, our eyes should be transfixed with his beauty and glory and not machinations of ungodly world leaders.
This, ultimately, is why Scripture is written—to give us Christ. And Christians only rob themselves of peace and joy, when the set their minds on political maneuvering instead of the steadfast love of God (Isaiah 26:3). Therefore, instead of speculating about the future, let us go back to the beginning and see how God has been preparing the way for his Son since the foundation of the world. I guarantee you, your faith and hope will be strengthened by looking at Genesis and Exodus more than the news reports coming out of modern day Israel.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds