The great story of the exodus of the Israelites – their escape from slavery in Egypt – captivates every generation of Christians. Children love it. It makes for a wonderful film. For Christians, this is not the story of another people. Because of our membership of the Church, we have inherited this family narrative of the Hebrew people, whom we joined at Baptism through our Lord Jesus Christ. The story begins with the Israelites having grown prosperous and numerous during their stay to the east of the Nile delta, after the ascendancy of the Hebrew patriarch Joseph, who became an Egyptian prince of a sort. Then, a pharoah ‘who knew nothing of Joseph arrived,’ and horrendously attempts to control the Hebrew population, even demanding the execution of male Hebrew babies.
“Meanwhile, a new king of Egypt had arisen, who knew nothing of Joseph. ‘See,’ he said to his people, ‘how the race of the Israelites has grown, till they are stronger than we are. We must go prudently about it and keep them down, or their numbers will grow; what if war threatens, and they make common cause with our enemies? They will get the better of us, and leave our country altogether…’ Then the king of Egypt gave orders to Sephora and Phua, the midwives who attended the Hebrews, ‘When you are called in, he said, to attend the Hebrew women, and their time comes, kill the child if it is a boy; if it is a girl keep it alive.'”Exodus 1: 8-10, 16
One little boy from the tribe of Levi was rescued by his mother and found his way into the home of an Egyptian princess, and received the same fortune as Joseph – he became an Egyptian citizen, and probably culturally Egyptian. However, fleeing Egypt after committing a crime, Moses was discovered by the God of the Hebrew patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses returned to Egypt as a prophet and, with the assistance of his kinsman, the Levite Aaron, he caused a supernatural destruction of Egypt’s fortunes, and led the Hebrew people out into the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula. The miraculous events that tortured the Egyptian people have been cemented into the imagination of Hebrews, Jews and Christians over the ages, culminating as they did in the parting of the Red Sea. Here it is, in the excellent recent animated film, the Prince of Egypt (1998):
The rest of the book is almost a prophecy of the later history of the Hebrew people, for despite these great miracles, the story of which had been handed down from father to children for generations, the people kept falling repeatedly into the idolatry and paganism of the cultures around them, as the rest of the Old Testament demonstrates. And so here, having passed into the wilderness, they complain against God and Moses for leading them into hunger, thirst, etc. Then they arrive at Mount Horeb and they see fire descending upon the mountain. Moses disappears into the brightness for weeks and the people decide to fall back into idolatry. The rest of the book is about their reconciliation with God, through the priestly pleading of Moses, the first high-priest of the new religion, and about the beginning and detailed description of the cult of the Hebrews, which would end centuries later in the Jerusalem Temple, the heart of the Hebrew religion until its final destruction in AD 70. The description of the model of the tabernacle, given to Moses on the mountain, is worth considering for its care and detail. The model would later be used in the building of the Temple, the measurements simply magnified and the arrangements of the zones identical.
“And this is how the tabernacle is to be fashioned. Make ten curtains of twisted linen thread, worked in threads of blue and purple and scarlet twice-dyed, with all the embroiderer’s art. All the curtains are to be of the same size, twenty-eight cubits in length and four in width. Five of these must be joined to each other, and then the remaining five in the same way; the sides, the extreme edges of the curtains must be fitted with loops of blue cord, to fasten one to the next, fifty loops at the edge of either set of curtains, so let in that loop meets loop and can be fastened to it. Then make fifty gold clasps, and join the two widths of curtain together, to make a single tent of them.”Exodus, 26: 1-6
Some of the items of interest are the sacredness even of the colours used in the embroidery of the cloth used with the curtains, etc. Similar colours (blue and purple and scarlet twice-dyed) and embroidery were used to dress the priests of the tabernacle cult, when they went up to perform their duties. As Catholics know, the Apostolic Church has often been just as precise in the presentation of her cult and her priests, instituted by Christ at the Last Supper and later developed by the Apostles and their successors.
“Thou shalt have sacred vestments made for thy brother Aaron, to his honour and adornment, bidding all those cunning workmen, whose art is the gift of My spirit, so clothe him as to set him apart for My service. And these are the vestments they shall make; a burse, a mantle, a tunic, a pleated robe, a mitre, and a girdle. Such sacred vestments must be made for thy brother Aaron and his sons, before they can minister as My priests. The workmen must provide themselves with gold, with threads of blue and purple and scarlet twice-dyed, and with linen thread. Of gold, of blue and purple and scarlet twice-dyed, and of twisted linen thread, the mantle is to be made, all embroidered work. At the top, on either side, it shall have the two shoulder-pieces joined together so as to make one garment. The whole of its embroidered texture shall be of gold, blue, purple, scarlet twice-dyed, and twisted linen thread.”Exodus, 28: 2-8
One gets the impression that the use of these particular colours and workmanship for the tabernacle and the priestly vestments would result in their prohibition from use elsewhere (profane use), in common wear or household use. All this detailed construction was probably beyond the people, but God introduces the master-builder, Bezeleel son of Uri in chapter thirty-one, together with Oöliab son of Achisamech, who would be charged with building a school of artisanship, to maintain the tabernacle during these days of wandering in the desert. And with the religion of the Hebrews now in place, and described in detail, we may now follow the people in their good and bad fortune, as they stumble their way through the wilderness to their eventual home in the Holy Land.