Worship — approaching the living God — is the central concern of Scripture, and a vital aspect of its narrative drama. Who may climb the summit of the LORD’s dwelling place to gaze upon his beauty? Against the backdrop of this prevailing question, the Tower of Babel episode in Genesis 11 is especially stark in its depiction of fallen humanity’s titanic pride. “Come,” they say, having journeyed from the east, “let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top reaches into the heavens” (v 4). The word translated “tower” is migdol in Hebrew, understood here as referring to a ziggurat, that is, to an architectural sacred mount. Interestingly, most religions around the world appear to make use of an artificial mountain structure, a ziggurat or pyramid of some sort. Given names like “the gate of heaven” and “bond of heaven and earth,” ziggurats, considered the heart of a city, were humanly devised attempts at mediating the chasm between the sacred and the profane. Within the context of the Bible, however, this city-building is the enterprise of the rebellious. The City of Man project, founded by Cain himself (Gen 3:17), is an attempt at reclaiming what God has denied, a defiant ambition for an earthly paradise devoid of the divine Presence. Needless to say, God’s response to the religion displayed by the Tower has justly been considered even more devastating than the Deluge — one need merely attempt a tally of War’s death toll to be engulfed in this staggering reality.
In contrast to the city-builders, the godly line is made up of pilgrims who wait and “call upon the Name of the LORD” (Gen 4:26; cf. 12:8; 26:25), journeying worshipers looking for the City of God to descend upon them by grace (cf. Heb 11:13-16; Rev 21:1-2). How could it be otherwise? Even Adam, blinking in the light of creation through an innocent soul, did not climb his way into paradise — rather, he was carried there by God, “placed” in the garden (Gen 2:15). This word for “placed,” difficult to translate into English, may be rendered literally “caused him to rest” in the garden, and is the same root used for Noah’s Ark coming “to rest” upon the summit of the mount in Gen 8:4. (This arrival was also utterly by grace, as the Ark, lacking wheel and rudder, was no ship and Noah no “captain” of his destiny.)
Ultimately, the antipode of Babel’s ziggurat — and so, the ordained way of approaching God toward which the narrative arc leads — is the Tabernacle consummated at the end of the book of Exodus. The movement from the beginning of Genesis through to the end of Exodus, then, is from the creation of the cosmos (macro-temple) to the creation of the Tabernacle (micro-cosmos), from the divine Presence lost to the divine Presence received. The God who exiled sinners from paradise is the God who descends to dwell among them in the wilderness. Between these bookends of descent (humanity’s in Gen 3 and God’s in Exod 40), there are relevant and notable narratives, like Jacob’s astonishing discovery of the “stairway” whose “top reached into the heavens” (Gen 28:12), the very “gate of heaven” (v 17) being opened to one who never knocked; and like the hallowed ground of Isaac’s binding atop Moriah (Gen 22) — “in the Mount of the LORD it shall be provided,” indeed. The most immediately significant narrative, however, is that of Mount Sinai. In chapters 19 and 24 of Exodus, one consistently reads that “Moses ascended up to God” (19:3) and that “Moses alone shall draw near to the LORD” (24:2); this feature, coupled with the warning that the people themselves are to take heed “not to ascend” (19:12) and “not to draw near, nor ascend with him” (24:2), provides a clear answer to the question we have emphasized as an undercurrent throughout the Bible: as ordained mediator, Moses alone is able to ascend the Mount of the LORD. The fiery thundering upon Sinai equally (and graciously) testified to the inherent dangers of approaching the Holy One — rather than an inviting garden, Israel found a volcanic fury. Yet after the sixth day, portraying Moses as a new Adam, God called Moses to ascend into the glory at Sinai’s summit (24:16-18). Adam atop Eden’s mount, Noah atop Ararat’s mount, Moses atop Sinai’s mount; this is the Bible’s glorious picture of approaching the Maker of heaven and earth in worship. But how does this relate to the Tabernacle cultus?
Many commentators have rightly noted the correspondence between Mount Sinai and the Tabernacle. Both, for example, exemplify a three-fold division of sacred space: Israel gathers about the foot of Sinai (corresponding to the Outer Court of the Tabernacle); the elders approach the mid-section of the mount (corresponding to the priestly access to the Holy Place); and only Moses ascends the summit (corresponding to the High Priest’s sole access to the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement). The High Priest’s entrance into the Holy of Holies was therefore understood as an “ascent” to God’s throne at the summit of the Mount of the LORD. Whereas with Noah, the gate liturgy had become “Who may enter the Ark?” here the question becomes: “Who may enter the Holy of holies?” To capture this drama, the Holiest Place was decorated with paradisiacal features and was “guarded” by cherubim fittingly portrayed on the entrance Veil. Thus when the LORD’s cloud of glory descended from Sinai’s summit upon the Tabernacle, it was as a culminating act of catechesis: the Tabernacle had become Israel’s portable Mount of the LORD, that is, Israel’s regulated means of approaching God. The Tabernacle cultus, then, was a theological drama. This drama called upon memory, looking back to Adam’s lost communion with the Creator atop Eden’s mount. More profoundly, this drama called upon faith, prophetically looking forward to the last Adam and ultimate High Priest’s ascent into the reality of the heavenly Zion’s summit.
L. Michael Morales is a Teaching Elder in the PCA and is Dean of Admissions (recruitment) and Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Ligonier Academy of Biblical & Theological Studies.