Was the Ark of the Covenant an Idol?

QUESTION:

The whole tabernacle and ark of the covenant thing is hard for me. My issue is with how showy and unhumble this seems. In Exodus, God commands the Israelites not to worship idols and then had them make this big building that seems like… an idol. It’s so different than all of the humility surrounding Jesus. It doesn’t seem like the same God. Jesus was born in a manger! God uses shepherds, tax collectors, prostitutes. I just don’t get why that same God would have this showy, intricate temple. I get that it was so he could dwell with them… but he had appeared to them in other ways, the burning bush, wrestling with Jacob, dreams, walking with them in Eden, speaking with Job. Everything seems full of humility and then there is this. I can’t wrap my brain around it.

ANSWER:

To resolve this problem, remember to read your bible in the right order.  The only reason why we think it’s superior to have an inconspicuous God who values personal relationship over religious observance and showy ceremony and “bigness”, is because a people named Israel survived and transferred all their insights and revelations down to us through Jesus whom that nation also brought to us.

But how did that happen?  How did we get the stories of Job and Abraham, and their relationships with God that were so humble and personal?  We got these stories because Israel survived.  When you think about that, it’s utterly unimaginable that we have a distinct ethnic group come down to us from 3000 years ago, roughly intact.  Know any Hittites?  Know any Girgathites? Yet the Jews survived.  They made it out of the Ancient world with their story and their view of God intact.

HOW DID THE JEWS SURVIVE?

Now the question is, how did they survive?  The answer to that is this:  God gave the Israelites a culture

Think about it: they had no culture at the time they left Egypt.  Where did they belong? Were they Babylonians?  Abram came from there, but he left and settled in Canaan.  So were they Canaanites?  Hadn’t lived there in 4 centuries!  Were they Egyptians?  They were slaves there.  They might have imbibed some Egyptian ideas, they were surrounded by them long enough, but as a people they were despised and outcast.  All they had was some stories cobbled together about the patriarchs.

GIVING AN IDENTITY

So after the Exodus, how do you hold a ragtag band of homeless ex-slaves together?  How do you give them an identity?  How do you give them the kind of cohesion and purpose that would help them survive for 15 centuries until Jesus?  I can tell you what won’t do it:  A few stories from their past won’t hold them together.  A couple of interesting anecdotes about God’s interventions with their ancestors won’t do it.  What they need is culture.  People bind around culture.  Culture gives identity.

CULTURE AS “CULT”

And what is culture?  Well, we like to divorce it from religion in our day, but it wasn’t like that in their day.  Culture is always bound to religion (culture comes from the world “cult”) and everything we think of as culture, like language, dress, music, rituals is bound to things like values and worldview.  So when you read Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, here’s the subtext of all that law and ritual, along with the directions for building the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle:  “I’m giving you, my people, a culture of your very own.”

Now, what part do the Ark and Tabernacle and ‘showy rituals’ play in bequeathing a culture?  Lots!  The Ark gives them a physical icon with spiritual center of gravity.  As you said, it’s the physical emblem of God’s spiritual presence in their midst.  God is with us, see, here’s the Ark. 

It also said, we are a special people – this is the meaning of the word, “holy”.  Not saying they were spiritually pure.  They weren’t faultless or guiltless or even that good (Deut 9:5).  They were special!!  The rituals, the cleansing, the sacrifices, the special words and special clothing, the special food, they all said the same thing, “we are a unique and distinct people in the world, with a special purpose.  We are set apart for God.  We are Israelites.

CULTURE AS GLUE

The result of all this, was a culture that bound them together so that they would not be assimilated into the other tribes of the world (something that they came dangerously close to many times).  It gave them coherence.  It gave them glue.  And it needed to be big and showy, ritual driven and external to affect a total cultural makeover and to give them staying power.

I know something about this as a Mennonite:  the old Mennonites were not just followers of Menno Simmons, committed to non-violence, quiet living, cultural escape and gospel preaching.  They were also a people bound by culture.  They had the low-German language which evolved with them, they had unique cuisine, they had dress, they had a deep commitment to agriculture, they had an anti-Catholic doctrine.  All this traveled with them as they were kicked out of many countries in Europe, from Holland to Germany to Russia and finally landing in Canada and other western places. 

If it was just about Menno Simmons, they would not have survived for 400 years as a distinct group.  They had a cohesive culture that bound them, giving them staying power.

ARK & TABERNACLE AS CULTURE

Now, once you see the Ark and Tabernacle as part of the total culture God is giving these physically and culturally homeless vagabonds, let’s compare these “cultic” parts of Jewish religious life with other religions.  There you see big differences which show this is not God encouraging the very thing he forbids, namely idolatry.

First, the Ark compares very differently to idols.  Idols are actual images of the god or goddess.  Representations of their form.  The ark is nothing like this and everyone in Israel knew it.  The ark is just a box.  In fact, that’s what the word “ark” means:  Box.  The box is not meant to show God’s image, it’s meant to hold artifacts of God’s work in the world: the ten commandments, Aaron’s staff, a pot of manna. 

Now, would the Israelites begin to think this box was akin to God himself?  They would, but they would be punished for it.  The box would not give them victory in many battles even when they thought it would. (I Samuel 4-6)

The same is true of the tabernacle.  “Tabernacle” sounds showy, but it means simply, ‘tent’.  While the other nations had ornate and permanent temples and very large idols, the Israelites had a tent and a box! 

A HUMBLE TENT FOR GOD

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The tent was ornate, yes.  Meticulously constructed, yes.  But the most important thing about the tent was that it was mobile. The lesson was simple:  God meets us here (it was called the “tent of meeting”), but God doesn’t live here.  The tent moves, so clearly the God who meets us here is not limited to any one physical location.  God is everywhere.  Not true of other gods – in their permanent temples, attached to their physical land & locations.

Now, speaking of God’s humility, though the tent is beautiful, it is not large by any standard: 15ft by 45ft.  It’s made entirely of cloth.  And the altar, which is the most used part, must be of “uncut” stones (Ex 20:25).  Simple.  Humble.  Don’t fancy them up, you’ll “profane” the altar if you do.  The point of this was to point to grace:  we don’t add to our salvation, and if we try to help God save us, we only muck it up.  So this tabernacle, far from undermining the simple messages of Salvation by Grace and personal, humble relationship with a God who is accessible are giving us illustrations of it.

HUMBLE TENT OR SHOWY TEMPLE?

Now, in the law, Moses looks forward to a time that the mobile tent of God will stop moving when he describes a time when God will choose a place for his name to dwell (Deut 12:11).  It comes to rest in Jerusalem.  There, David gets the idea to build the first Temple, which is much, much more ornate.  But notice, God never asked for that temple!!  It was David’s idea which God uses and blesses (1 Chron 17:1) but not God’s idea (much like the idea of a king in the first place, 1 Samuel 8).  In both cases (temple building and king-making) it was a concession God makes to his people’s desire to be more like the other nations around them.

So if you have an issue with how showy the Temple was, that wasn’t God’s design, even if he finally uses it and fills it. But Solomon knows, rightly, that the Temple of Israel’s God does not contain or limit God. (1 Kings 8:27)

So the box and the tent are examples of taking the way ancients would think about their gods (with idols and temples), and beginning to turn them.  Like the other nations, the Israelites get symbols of divine presence on earth… however, theirs are different:  They must not limit God.

By making theirs mobile, and by forbidding images of God, the Lord was breaking the stranglehold paganism has on our minds:  “God must be like us.”  “God can be contained.”  “We can use God.”  “Make God work for me!”  The tent and the box push against this common thinking.  Even after Solomon makes the opulent Temple, besides the box, the inner sanctum is… empty!

WE NEED SHOWY

So God doesn’t need the temple or the tabernacle or the box.  We do.  They are needed to help give God’s people a culture and worldview, which are always (even in our day) centered around “cult” – that is: a system of religious beliefs and practices.  They needed them to begin to turn their common idea of God dwelling on earth in limited forms that humans could manipulate, toward the idea of God’s limitlessness and yet his accessibility to all.

These ideas find full expression in Christ, when the veil of the temple is torn in two (Matt 27:51).  As you said, this is being hinted at throughout Scripture by the humble stories of God’s Old Testament saints.  But believe me, you and I wouldn’t even know about them, if it weren’t for a simple tent and a box.

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