What is God's word about survival and quality of life formation for oppressed and quasi-free people struggling to build community in the wilderness?
- Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: the Challenge of Womanist God-Talk
In a path-breaking1993 work entitled Sisters in the Wilderness: the Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, Delores Williams sets forth a theology of the wilderness centered in the experiences of African American women. Building from the particular and speaking with universal resonance, Williams identifies a wilderness ethic grounded in the values of: survival, relationship and resilience. For Williams, the wilderness is a place of both struggle and possibility - a place in which Hagar, a slave cast out of her home, is rescued by God so that she can ultimately mother her own nation into being.
Hagar thrives because of an act of divine love, the gift of a God who sees her, affirms her worth, and calls forth her own strength and determination. Her story is emblematic of Williams' theology of the biblical wilderness, recognizing both the power of the divine and human initiative in the work of nation building. So also, the Israelite experience in the wilderness is built on this unique and creative partnership.
After serving Pharaoh for 400 years, the Israelites have been cast out into this very place of rigor and danger, usually regarded as barren, but as Williams says, pregnant with possibilities. Emerging from slavery and degradation, they now have the opportunity to build a just and righteous community for themselves and their descendants-one which puts both God and relationship at its center. As they move through the wilderness, even before they reach the Promised Land, they have the chance to co-author with God a counter-story to the brutality of Egypt.
The Israelites, who have known tremendous pain and inequality in their lifetimes, must now, under the direction of Moses, envision new ways of navigating and organizing their world. Together, they construct the Mishkan, a portable tent whose name means "Dwelling." For it is meant to be God's dwelling place on earth, in the midst of the Israelite camp. Its blueprint-the design and construction of sacred furnishings and implements-is meticulously described for Moses by the Divine Architect in our parshah this week, T'rumah.
Noting the many resonances between the building of the Mishkan and the story of creation in the book of Genesis, Bible scholar Nehama Leibowitz writes:
The Lord created heaven and earth and all therein for man to dwell in, and created them in six days and rested on the seventh day. Similarly, Moses was summoned on the seventh day (Exodus 24:16) to the cloud to see the pattern of the Tabernacle that it was his duty to erect, in order to provide a place on earth for the Divine Presence. It is incumbent on [human beings] to imitate [their] Creator, [God's] ways and attributes, and assume the role of being [God's] partner in Creation (Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot).
A microcosm of God's created world, the Mishkan offers the Israelites a direct pathway to a deity who is remote and yet immanent, a God whose presence fills the entire world (Isaiah 6:3). The construction of the Mishkan is not only a means of gaining proximity to God, but also of partnering with God in the ongoing work of creation. As co-creators with God, it is now up to the Israelites to remake their world, to heal, and to live their way into newfound freedom.
When Moses introduces the Mishkan concept to the Israelite community, he invites each person to contribute the materials necessary for its construction-fine fabrics, acacia wood, oil, fragrances, spices, precious metals and precious stones (Ex. 25:2). Though they did not have many possessions, the Israelites gave all of the valuable resources they could gather. In fact, the Israelites are so generous with their gifts that Moses eventually instructs them to stop giving, since they have provided an overabundance of materials (Ex. 36:6-7).
Latin American liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez writes about this kind of generosity as a form of voluntary poverty in which the community holds resources in common. For Gutiérrez, this "is an act of love and liberation. It has a redemptive value. If the ultimate cause of human exploitation and alienation is selfishness, the deepest reason for voluntary poverty is love of neighbor" (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation). This practice of holding material goods in common is "not a question of erecting poverty as an ideal, but rather of seeing to it that there [are] no poor" (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation). This spirit of generosity, of love for one's neighbor and joining in common cause, undergirds the building of God's dwelling place on earth.
Perhaps as the Israelites remade their world, they saw the chance, for the first time, to build something different-not a massive monument for a pharaoh to magnify his greatness, but a beautiful sanctuary for God, who yearned to dwell with them in an intimate relationship. Perhaps they sensed the opportunity to build a structure that would express an ethos of generosity and love, of interdependence and common cause. God's call, followed by the enthusiastic response of the Israelites, reminds us of Williams' view of the biblical wilderness:
Wilderness experience is suggestive of the essential role of human initiative (along with divine intervention) in the activity of survival, of community building, of structuring a positive quality of life for family and community; it is also suggestive of human initiative in the work of liberation (Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness).
When the building of the Mishkan was complete at the end of the Book of Exodus, Moses blessed the people (39:43). What were the words of his blessing? According to the midrash in the Sifra collection, Moses said: "May it be the will of God that the Shechinah rest upon the work of your hands." Then, quoting Psalm 90:17, he said: "ma'aseh yadenu kon'nehu -- May the work of our hands be firm, may the work of our hands be stable and strong." According to the midrash, Moses is expressing a fervent prayer: May this holy place endure into the future. May the values it embodies be held close by the next generation. May the community we are building in this wilderness be the legacy we co-author with God.
The Tabernacle is gone; the Temple is no more. But the legacy we built together in the wilderness lives on in Jewish communities everywhere-and wherever people struggle to be free.