Sunday, August 10, 2014

Traveling Mercies

I met the Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann the other day. I was working on a new writing project at our nearby coffee shop, and he came in for coffee because he was in town for a local event. I was a little starstruck as I introduced myself and told him I used his books in some of my classes.

A few days later, my project took me into his commentary on Exodus (1), and I was intrigued by his thoughts about the tabernacle. All of the following are simply my notes.

Here is the concluding paragraph (NRSV) of Exodus:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.

Brueggemann contrasts the presence of the Lord in the tabernable, with the fact that the tabernable by its nature is portable for the Israelite’s journey. Sometimes it is the Ark of the Covenant that “contains” the presence (as in Numbers 10:33-36). In this Exodus text, the presence is contained in the cloud and the fire. “One can see that, in the collage of ark-cloud-fire-glory, Israel struggles to articulate presence that is powerfully known and confidentally trusted but that has not been made directly available for administration” (p. 979).

This articulation of presence has its dangers, as in priestly elitism, and overstatement concerning presence. Nevertheless, the presence of God in the tabernacle shows “God’s own resolve and commitment” to the community, to limit God’s freedom as it were to accompany the community journeying “in a world of emptied, one-dimensional profanation” (p. 979).

The dual themes of “abiding presence” and “traveling fidelity” continues in the New Testament, with Jesus abiding with his people (e.g., John 14:23) and journeying “on the way” with the disciples---and authorizing them to journey and travel, too, as he is promises to be “with you always” (Matt. 28:19-20) (p. 980). It's not just a matter of God's omnipresence (God is, wherever we go), but of God's accompanying.

In this passage there is also the powerful theology of “traveling mercies.” Brueggemann points out that the promises of God’s presence has already been seen in Gen. 28:15 and 46:4), and see see it here, as well as the psalms. (p. 980).

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil (Ps. 23:4a).

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place, 

no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent. 

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways. 

On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. 

You will tread on the lion and the adder,
he young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot (Ps. 91:9-13).

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand. 

The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night. 

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life (Ps. 121:5-7).

Our dearest theological ideas have to come from somewhere, and the promise that God accompanies the faithful is rooted here in Torah.


1. Walter Brueggemann, "The Book of Exodus," in The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).

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