M.K. George, Israel's Tabernacle as Social Space

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

George, Mark K., Israel's Tabernacle as Social Space (AIL 2; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009). Pp. xiii + 233. Softcover. US $29.95. ISBN 9781589831254.

How are we to understand the enigma that is the tabernacle? Is it some kind of blueprint for our own sanctuaries? Is it a catalogue of items with enduring messianic and eschatological symbolism? Or is it a product of Priestly writers trying to secure their own privilege and prominence in ancient Israel? Mark George's Israel's Tabernacle as Social Space does not set out to prove or dispel any of these ideas per se, but rather to navigate a more nuanced way. He does so by analyzing the tabernacle as Israel's social space.

In his first chapter, George aims to show why applying spatial theory to the tabernacle narratives is a fruitful endeavor. A central question is this: What is the purpose of the tabernacle narratives? Indeed, there are numerous ideas about how and why these accounts came into their current shape. But in George's view, the reason for the uniqueness of the tabernacle narratives remains unclear. The issue becomes even more poignant when the tabernacle accounts are compared to other building narratives: “the tabernacle narratives are unlike any other building text in the Hebrew Bible, because they are both longer and more detailed than them” (p. 1). Beyond differences in length, George avers that another more crucial dynamic is at work: while the others focus on the construction of place, the tabernacle narratives emphasize the creation of space. The tabernacle is the center of Israel, but Israel is transient; thus her defining center is not a place but a space that travels with her. This distinction, therefore, shows that the text is ripe for the kind of approach that George employs.

George also discusses his assumptions in this first chapter. Perhaps most interesting of these is that the tabernacle need not have been real. Indeed, George acknowledges that the tabernacle reflects material findings from the ANE, but he does not believe its existence is necessary to the Priestly writers' project. That project is creating a mental conception of sacred space for Israel in exile. So long as the space is materially plausible (i.e., believable in terms of ANE practices and materials), the goal is accomplished. What is curious, though, is how George uses the connection to material evidence somewhat unevenly. Sometimes he leverages it to confirm the exilic dating directly (p. 10), while in at least one case, in which the aspect is prior to the Neo-Babylonian period, he suggests it shows the exilic writers' genius (p. 173)!

In chapter two, George lays out his methodology for analyzing social space. He begins with a helpful discussion of what is, in the first place, social space. This type of space is the kind that a society produces. Here one can think of anything from the layout of roads to that of rooms in houses, or the placement of parks to the arrangement of cities. The value of such items is that, in their spatial makeup, they reveal the very values and ideas of the culture that formed them. In other words, space is not a “neutral substance or medium” but a “human creation and project, reflecting social ideas and practices…[that] can be read and analyzed critically” (p. 19).

To analyze space then, George suggests, we must understand its constituency. Here he introduces the main theorist with whom he interacts: Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre was a French Marxist philosopher of the 20th century; his main work on space, in English, appeared in 1991.[1] Helpfully, George notes that even though Lefebvre's work is interwoven with Marxist ideas, his spatial poetics is not inherently so. George takes Lefebvre's “conceptual triad” and tweaks its terminology: he calls them spatial practice, conceptual space, and symbolic space. Spatial practice refers to the physical reality of space, including things such as dimensions and arrangement and also the practice of implanting and using them. Conceptual space, then, is the mental configurations that undergird spatial practice; it is the cultural concepts that materialize in physical space. And symbolic space is the “socially significant meanings ascribed to space” (p. 27), that is, the ideas, values, and affections encoded into particular spaces.

We should note, too, that George modifies Lefebvre's approach by running it through the so-called New Historicism. Of the assumptions that come with this, the most peculiar to me is that no cultural expression should be privileged above another. That is, there should be no distinction between “high” and “low” culture. Granted, there is value in saying that no expression should be excluded or ignored, for all play their parts. But one wonders if it can truly be maintained that, for example, the tabernacle and a common tent have equal weight in shaping the Israelite conceptualization of space.

With his spatial poetics in place, George moves to apply it to the tabernacle. He devotes a chapter to each leg of the conceptual triad. For the first leg of spatial practice, George emphasizes the reciprocal how: how the Priestly writers shaped the tabernacle space and how, in turn, the tabernacle shaped Israel. He argues that the tabernacle betrays five spatial practices that are especially important: inventories (raw materials, assemblage, and skills required), item descriptions, arrangement, portability, and orientation of space. Most of these are unremarkable and are attested in other ANE structures, George notes. But there are differences, too, and these highlight the distinctiveness of the tabernacle's spatial practice.

A couple of examples illustrate this. First, like other ANE building projects, the tabernacle evokes ideas of royal construction. But unlike these, it replaces the typical royal sponsor with the generosity of the people. It is the people themselves, not a king, who provide the necessary materials and skills for the tabernacle building. What is more, the impetus for the project is not forced labor, as in most other ANE examples, but the generous heart of the people (Exod 35:5, 21, 22; 36:2). Secondly, the tabernacle is unique in its emphasis on orientation and portability. In contrast to the house in Nemed-Issar, whose construction centers on location, the tabernacle is based on orientation. The reason is perhaps obvious: for a fixed structure, location is very important, but for one that moves, location is ever changing. Instead, the tabernacle space requires orientation-patterns by which it can be consistently reassembled, both internally (the inner arrangement and items) and externally (the cardinal orientation to the world). Wherever the Israelites found themselves, they could assemble the tabernacle space consistently. This leads to the notion of portability. Also in contrast to the house in Nemed-Issar is the fact that the tabernacle needed to be portable. Disassembling, packing, transporting, and reassembling are all essential to the tabernacle's spatial practice. George says this is evident in a variety of ways, but none more striking than objects that, for the sake of lightness, were made not of pure metal but of wood overlaid with metal: the ark (Exod 25:23–24), the table for the bread of the Presence (25:23–24), the incense altar (30:1, 3), and even the altar of burnt offering (27:1–2). The altar for burnt offerings, whose wooden core would have broken down quickly, especially shows that portability was of higher priority than longevity.

For the triad's second element of conceptual space, George emphasizes the tabernacle's horizontal configuration. This contrasts other holy spaces, in the Bible and elsewhere, that use vertical differences to represent distinctions in social status. In such cases, the holy place is higher in elevation than the other parts; and, correspondingly, the priest(s) who service(s) that place enjoy(s) a higher social status. But the tabernacle's horizontal configuration means that it represents these things not through elevation but through its layout. Typically, this layout is understood in terms of spaces representing levels of holiness and, as such, corresponding levels of accessibility: court space (for all Israelites), holy space (for Moses, priests, and Aaron [high priest]), and the most holy place (for Moses and Aaron). (George notes that there is also common space, which operates as that which is outside of the tabernacle and includes the Israelite camp and everything beyond it). George argues, however, that the idea of holiness is not the best model for understanding the tabernacle's conceptual space.

Instead, he suggests the space is orientated around a taxonomic system of inclusion/exclusion: the congregation, descent, and hereditary succession. These may be conceived of as concentric circles that define classes of people, with the congregation being the largest and hereditary succession the smallest. For George, the congregation is not just the descendents of Jacob but more broadly those who recognize Yahweh, and both men and women (Exod 12:48). To be identified in this class allows one access to the tabernacle courts' space. However, the next area, the holy space, requires something more. It requires, chiefly, that one be a descendent of Aaron, but also implicitly that one be male. Only this subset of the congregation—Aaron and his sons (the priesthood)—is permitted to enter the holy space. And the final area, the most holy space, is restricted even further by hereditary succession. A subset of both the congregation and descent, hereditary succession dictates that only the eldest son of Aaron (the high priest) can enter the most holy place.

For the triad's third and final leg of symbolic space, George focuses on the circulation of “social energies.” The idea of social energies comes from Stephen Greenblatt[2] and refers to the way in which cultures imbue symbols with ideas, values, and affective qualities. More specifically, it denotes the process by which a society uses the energies of the surrounding culture for its own purposes. This appears similar to the scholarly practice of viewing the tabernacle against the backdrop of ANE culture. But George notes an important difference. While comparative studies analyze how an entity relates to broader culture, that of social energies examines more narrowly how one culture employs and transforms its latent ideology. For the tabernacle, then, George is interested in how the Priestly writers drew upon, and reinterpreted, the existing cultural symbols to create their own symbolic space.

George especially uses the ANE practice of building inscriptions and deposits as a conceptual backdrop (viewed through the ideas of Richard Ellis).[3] The building inscription was a formal record of royal or sacred construction: from the decision to build, through laying the foundation, to actually erecting the structure. The tabernacle narratives in Exodus, George says, are of this genre. But under the broader canopy of building inscriptions is another item: building deposits. These were items, of various form and content (often inscribed), placed inside the foundations of the building. Their purposes were multiple, but two important ones were sanctifying the space and commemorating its significance. Within the tabernacle, George argues, the ark, kappōret (atonement covering), and tablets serve this same function. He makes an interesting argument to support his claim. In Exod 31:18, Moses is given two “tablets of the edut,” traditionally translated as “testimony” and understood as the Decalogue. George, however, argues that the text is intentionally ambiguous here and should be translated “inscription.” Thus it would say “tablets of the inscription,” providing clear evidence that the tablets are a building deposit. For me this argument is not persuasive, and not even necessary. George's premise can hold true without it: that the tabernacle uses the energies of building inscriptions and deposits, to some degree, to circulate its own social energies. Namely, it shows the tabernacle as divine space, with Yahweh's deposit within; this space travels with Israel everywhere and she centers her life around it.

Other than the usual scholarly quibbles, I found few issues with George's work. Perhaps the one that came up the most, though, was the lack of visuals or illustrations. I realize that some of us benefit from these more than others, but for something like conceptual space visuals seem universally helpful. A visual for each part of the spatial triad, incorporated into a final one illustrating the larger dynamics, would go a long way in helping readers envision the tabernacle as social space.

With that said, there is much to commend. Chiefly, I see George's work as a fine example of interdisciplinary biblical scholarship. Traditional scholarship has at times struggled to accomplish such studies, feeling constrained to focus on passages narrowly and perform lengthy exegesis. As George demonstrates, however, there is mileage in a broader approach. His method is one that selects key theorists and then applies them to the text, incorporating biblical scholarship as is appropriate. The result is not an exegesis per se, but a reading of the tabernacle through the lens of spatial poetics. This kind of approach is further beneficial, I suggest, because it provides expositors and pedagogues a useable conceptual framework. I think of the difficulty that ancient spaces pose to modern audiences—the tabernacle, temple, and Ezekiel's temple vision. A spatial reading might help people bridge contexts, in the sanctuary and classroom alike.

A.J. Culp, Denver Seminary

[1] Lefebvre, The Production of Space (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith; Oxford: Blackwell, 1991). reference

[2] Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). reference

[3] Ellis, Foundation Deposits in Ancient Mesopotamia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968). reference