Monday, August 18, 2014

The menorah

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. 
31 “You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand shall be made of hammered work: its base, its stem, its cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it. 32 And there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; 33 three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on one branch, and three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on the other branch—so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. 34 And on the lampstand itself there shall be four cups made like almond blossoms, with their calyxes and flowers, 35 and a calyx of one piece with it under each pair of the six branches going out from the lampstand. 36 Their calyxes and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it a single piece of hammered work of pure gold. 37 You shall make seven lamps for it. And the lamps shall be set up so as to give light on the space in front of it (Exod 25:31-37). 
20 “You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. 21 In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel (Exod 27:20-21).

i) I suspect the first thing most modern readers think about when they read Gen 1 is how it comports with science. That's unfortunate. When reading an ancient text, we should try, as best we can, to clear our minds of modern preconceptions and consider what it would have meant to the original audience. What's significant to a modern reader may often be insignificant to the original audience, or vice versa. 
I'm not saying we should ignore the relevance of Gen 1 to scientific debates. Just that that should not be driving our interpretation. 
ii) One leading motif in Gen 1 is the recurrent emphasis on light, as well as the alternation between daylight and darkness. God's first creative command results in light. 
It's easy for modern readers to lose sight of the significance of light and dark, day and night, in Gen 1. The advent of electrical lighting has radically changed our dependence on natural light sources. 
At the same time, it isn't that hard to turn back the clock. If you go camping in the desert or the woods, you rise at sunrise. At night you only have a campfire for light. 
iii) Unlike ordinary firelight, sunlight is unusual for its constancy. It doesn't flicker. Doesn't very in its intensity. Doesn't require constant refueling. 
Apart from sunlight and occasional moonlight (on a full moon), ancient Israelites were dependent on firelight for illumination. Fire serves other functions as well. For cooking. For keeping predators at bay. 
iv) The Solomonic temple was more magnificent than the tabernacle. Yet in one respect, the tabernacle was more impressive. For the tabernacle was translucent. The tabernacle was essentially a series of curtains, enclosing and screening the sacred furniture. 
The Pentateuch was originally written for the Exodus generation. As one commentator (Stuart) notes, the menorah made the tabernacle the brightest object at night in the Hebrew encampment. It as like a symbolic solar system. The illuminated tabernacle, like the sun, surrounded by the tents of the Israelites. 
v) In what passes for modern scholarship, it's a cliche to think Bible writers viewed the divisions of space in vertical terms. The three-story universe. 
Yet the emphasis in the OT is not on vertical space, but horizontal space. Concentrical spacial divisions representing degrees of holiness. Eretz-Israel was holy in relation to the world outside Eretz-Israel. The tabernacle was holy in relation to the encampment. The sanctuary was holy in relation to the outer courtyard. The inner sanctum was holy in relation to the sanctuary. Likewise, separation is a recurring theme in Gen 1. 
vi) The menorah had a practical function. It illuminated the work space within the tabernacle. But over and above its utilitarian function was the symbolism. 
The flame was supplied by olive oil. That's the highest grade of oil, because it burns brightest with the least smoke. The menorah was kept alight from dusk to dawn.
It symbolized the presence of God. The menorah was an artificial Shekinah. If the Shekinah was a preternatural emblem of God's presence (a phosphorescent theophany), the menorah was a natural emblem of God's presence. The Shekinah filled the tabernacle to dedicate the tabernacle (Exod 40;34-38). But most of the time the Shekinah was presumably absent. The light from the menorah was reminiscent of the Shekinah. 
There's a sense in which the Shekinah (in Exodus) is to sunlight (in Gen 1) as the menorah is to sunlight. A twofold parallel. 
vii) It's probably not coincidental that the menorah was a seven-branched candelabra. The seven lights of the menorah correspond to the seven days (i.e. daylights) of Gen 1. In Gen 1, days are measured by daylight and darkness. 
Likewise, the tabernacle was assembled on Rosh Hashanah (Exod 40:1,17). The timing harkens back to Gen 1. A new beginning: the creation of the world and the Jewish New Year.   


  1. An informative as well as edifying post! Thanks, Steve. :-)

  2. Enjoyed the post, Steve. I have from time to time heard people question where the light was coming from prior to the creation of the sun on day four. Scripture often describe the father as a being of unapproachable light. If the Creator was in the business of creating the universe, when He said, "Let there be light" he may have just been revealing his own glory which shed light on all creation prior to the creation of the sun and moon. Just a thought.