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image of Biblical Interpretation

The tabernacle described in the Pentateuch's P source yields two distinct and opposing interpretations. When compared with the tent found in the E collection of documents, P's tabernacle represents a classic example of what the historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith terms a "locative" worldview. As an ideology of the center, this understanding of the priestly tabernacle asserts divine immanence and celebrates the sacrality of a particular space. When compared with the theology of the Jerusalem temple, however, P's tent seems to exemplify what Smith terms a "utopian" worldview, or what we might call a "locomotive" ideology. This construction of the tent eschews the notion of sacred center and emphasizes the periphery. Tension between texts exemplifying each of these two theoretical models is found throughout the Hebrew Bible (and throughout the history of religions), but in P, a single symbol encompasses both. The significance of this symbol depends on which of two different overlapping contexts (Torah and Tanakh) a reader privileges and which elements of its presentation in P one accentuates. Thus the priestly tabernacle works against itself, at once presenting and critiquing a theology of immanence. This ambivalent symbol suggests that God is present even as it intimates that God's presence in the world is inappropriate. Thus P is forerunner of postbiblical texts that describe God's exile in the created world.

Affiliations: 1: Northwestern University


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