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The word terumah means “gift,” so my gift to you today is a riddle: Which came first—chicken or egg?
Wrong riddle, sorry. I meant: Which came first—golden calf or mishkan?
This is not a trick question; it’s one that’s embroiled commentators for maybe two thousand years or so. Here’s why.
The Midrash Tanchuma (Shemot Rabah 33:3, Tanchuma Terumah 8) explains that the building of the mishkan was an atonement for the sin of the golden calf. But that begs the question of when Moses actually received the instructions to build the mishkan—was it before or after the sin of the golden calf? This is a complicated question, since we have already seen that Yitro’s visit to Moses, at the foot of Mt. Sinai was, in the chronology of the Torah story, before they had actually reached Sinai and also notice that God’s instructions to build the mishkan in today’s reading come before the golden calf incident. What’s going on here?
The book of Exodus, in fact, is not necessarily a chronological description of events; rather it is constructed from a number of discreet blocks, each of which could stand as a complete story, generally independent of wherever it’s placed in the Torah. Etz Hayim actually comments on this topic; look at the notes on pages 432 and 485. There are four such major, discreet sequences: the first, found in chapters 19–24, is the revelation at Sinai, the second, 25–31, has the commandments and instructions for building the mishkan. Then the narrative begun in chapter 24 resumes in a third block, 32–34; that’s the golden calf story, and finally, the fourth block, 35–40, describes the actual building of the mishkan. Let’s call these sequences A, B, C and D, which is their order in the Torah.
Their order is not entirely achronistic, since A, the Lawgiving, probably should precede C, the golden calf, and B, the mishkan instructions, should come before D, its building, but otherwise other orders are possible. This chronological problem was noticed by both Rashi and Ramban, who differed in their interpretation of the true chronology of the biblical story. According to Rashi, who favored the midrashic interpretation I mentioned above; God ordered the mishkan’s construction only after the sin of the golden calf. Thus Rashi places sequence B after C, thereby making the narrative of the giving of the law, Moses’ sojourn on Sinai, and the golden calf incident into one continuous story. Ramban differs, arguing that the Torah’s chronology as written is the correct one.
Looking at the plain language (as we understand it, anyway) of the order of the events, after the revelation of the Law in Yitro and Mishpatim, Moses retreats to the summit of Sinai for forty days and nights. While there, he receives the construction specs for the mishkan—this is today’s reading, followed by next week’s, giving the details of the priests’ vestments and other sacramental instructions. By the end of chapter 31, Moses’ instructions were complete and, with tablets in hand, he descended the mountain. There he found the golden calf being worshiped. After disposing of that problem, the narrative then turns to the actual construction of the mishkan. This is how Ramban understands the flow of the story, with the result that the giving of the plan for building the mishkan precedes the sin of the golden calf.
Moses likely spent forty days on Sinai doing much more than getting instructions for building the mishkan and setting up the priesthood (unless he was an extremely slow learner). The Torah says he was there to receive the “torah and mitzvot,” that is, the teachings and laws. Thus, Ramban claims, the laws of the mishkan were the first of many that Moses received, but everything Moses learned was to provide the concrete record of the experience of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. The Torah simply emphasizes the laws of the mishkan because those laws stood for the totality of their experience when the Israelites accepted God’s covenant.
To paraphrase Ramban's commentary,
After God had given the Ten Commandments directly to the Israelites and instructed them with a sampling of the mitzvot [last week] … and the Israelites accepted these laws and entered a covenant [Ex. 24:1–11] … they became His nation and He became their God, as was originally stipulated [at Mt. Sinai]… Now they are worthy to have a house, His dwelling, in their midst dedicated to His Name, and there He will speak with Moses and command the Israelites… Now the “secret” of the mishkan is that God’s glory, which dwelled on Mt. Sinai, will now dwell [instead] on the mishkan [a more portable feature compared to Mt. Sinai]… (Ramban on Ex. 35:1 and 25:1)
There is a well known principle about the chronological order of the text in the Torah: there is no order to the text.1 That is, the order in which the events are described do not necessarily correspond to their chronological sequence. This is one of the hermeneutic principles given by the sages of the Talmud for understanding the Torah. Rashi uses this principle in his argument, in contrast to Ramban, who consistently maintains that the Torah is in chronological order, unless following the written sequence results in an impossible situation. Thus Rashi’s interpretation follows that of the sages of the Talmud: the commandment to build the mishkan came after, and was a result of, the sin of the golden calf. According to Rashi, these sections are out of chronological order in the Torah. Not only are they out of order, he claims, but during the first forty days on the top of Sinai, Moses received all the mitzvot of the Torah, except the laws of the mishkan! Rashi orders the sequence as A, C, B, D.
Rashi assumes that the written order of certain chapters will, at times, follow a conceptual sequence rather than a chronological one. Therefore he looks to circumstantial evidence to support his viewpoint of the link between the mishkan and sin of the golden calf. He points to the parallelism between the Israelites’ donating gold (for the calf, then for the mishkan); the choice of Bezalel as the mishkan artisan (who was the grandson of Hur, who tried to block the making of the golden calf and was killed); the requirement that Aaron must sacrifice a bull as his personal sin offering during the mishkan dedication (the golden calf Aaron had made depicted a young bull); and other evidence, as supporting the idea that the mishkan atoned for the sin of making the idol.
Many words—many, many, many—you get the idea—of commentary have been written about this issue; this disagreement between Rashi and Ramban is one of the classics of scholarly dispute. However, both of their commentaries make it clear that their reasoning pertains only to a temporary mishkan; it's clear that both would agree that, even if the Israelites had not sinned by making a golden calf, a permanent mikdash would still have been necessary—thus Solomon’s temple.
So which came first—mishkan or calf? Take your pick and start your own debate.
1. Mekhilta of R. Ishmael: "אלא מפני שאין מקדם ומאחר בתורה"; "there is no first or last in the Torah."
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