Divine Guidance Chapter 4
The Nature and Purpose of Sacred Space

Introduction - In the Hebrew Bible and related texts that explore its meaning and application, there is a very serious interest in, and focus on, the importance of sacred space. We will devote several sessions to exploring basic ideas about the nature and purpose of sacred space - both as to what it meant to people of the Bible as well as what it might mean for people in our own time. We will further look at how sacred space is to be administered and operated to fulfill God’s purposes.

In other and succeeding chapters, we will examine in greater detail how, when, why, and for what specific purposes we go to sacred space.

 Fundamentally, the idea is that we were to draw near to God in sacred space and experience God’s holiness in order to fulfill our mission to be holy in our lives. Our covenant calls upon us to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. One could say that much of our work both in this chapter and those chapters that follow are fundamentally about how we prepare for and live out this covenant role.

Traditionally, these mitzvot were intended to apply only to the Temple in Jerusalem. Since the Temple no longer stands, the prevailing view has been that these mitzvot are no longer applicable, at least not directly so.

Yet, the issue remains: what do we make of the Biblical language? Do we study it, as some do, to be prepared for the day when the Temple is re-built? Or is there something enduring about the need for, and ways of experiencing, sacred encounter that is informed by our study of these mitzvot? Do we need and benefit, as our ancestors did, from sacred encounter? How, and in what possible ways? And, if so, can these words provide crucial guidance?

We will start with this idea of the Biblically directed command, which literally requires the construction and use of a single sanctuary at a divinely chosen place in the Promised Land.

But even after being so instructed, but before entering the Land, the people did not wait to build a holy shrine. They built a mobile sanctuary immediately and invested, with God’s guidance, a great deal in it - both materially and spiritually. We saw this on our journey through Torah in the detailed instructions in Chapters 25 through 31 of Exodus and the detailed implementation of those instructions in Chapters 35 through 40 of Exodus in the design and construction of sacred space. This was known as the Dwelling, which included the Tent of Appointment.

Though we wont go into detail here about them or arguments about their appropriateness, there were several shrines that were built in the Promised Land that both pre-dated and post-dated the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. Note Ezekiel 11:16: I have scattered them among the lands, yet I have been for them a small sanctuary in the land where they have arrived.

Initial Questions

Here are a few questions I want to pose to stir up your thinking before we read and discuss these mitzvot specifically and go into a deeper consideration of them. I want us to consider possible answers for both Jews and Christians.

1.   When you hear the phrase, “sacred space,” what ideas come to your mind?

2. Where do you think sacred space is? What happens in sacred space, as you understand the term? What value might this bring to us, and what purpose might be served for both God and us in the experience of sacred space? How might this relate to the mission to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation?

3. Does God dwell in sacred space? Is God confined there in any way? If not, what is special or, shall we say, sacred about sacred space?

(Notions: 1) Space for formal encounter with God; 2) Accessible to all; 3) Presided over by priests or other facilitators for God; 4) A place to sense, learn, and develop holiness through prayer, worship, study, offerings, and other aspects of sacred encounter; 5) God is never confined anywhere but rather is available to us in this space for such encounter, so, as Chinuch says, “our spiritual essence will rise to be joined with the Higher Spiritual essence”; 6) Church, synagogue, home, where we study God’s word, other special/sacred space, the holiest part of ourselves; 7) We come out of encounter here advanced/strengthened in holiness, having been inspired through worship/service to recognize and serve God increasingly as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; 8) Blessing and holiness increase there.)

1. Read Exodus 25:8

Exodus 25:  8 They should make me a sanctuary so I can be present among them. 

Let’s now go deeper. Why would God place such emphasis on construction of sacred space?

(Our encounter with God would never be the same as that of our ancestors who were at the mountain and had experienced God’s miracles directly in Egypt, the wilderness, and as they prepared to enter the Land. However we may come to understand it, God has blessed us with sacred space to sustain encounter with the Divine.

It is there where we formally encounter God and draw near to God on a regular basis, as well as experience moments of eternity in special time. God is always available for this encounter, ever-desiring us to draw from such nearness the instruction, the commitment, and the readiness to fulfill our duty to be a nation of priests and a holy people.

Alshekh: God requires that we lead lives of holiness so that we ourselves may be spiritually fit to establish our Sanctuary on earth that parallels God’s Sanctuary in heaven. (This suggests that sacred space helps us prepare to build an even greater space of sanctuary on earth, perhaps so that the whole earth might ultimately be covered by it.)

Chinuch emphasizes the importance of learning God’s word and following it through his discussion of this mitzvah. Our activity here is “to prepare the hearts of man to be focused upon His service, may He be exalted.”

2. Read Leviticus 19:30 

Leviticus 19:  30 You must keep my sabbaths and treat my sanctuary with respect; I am the Lord.

Why would we be expected to show reverence in scared space?

(It’s home to God’s word; it inspires and conditions us to live in God’s ways. It’s where we draw near to God.)

How would we show reverence in those places we consider sacred space in our own lives? Do we? If not, is that a problem, and what can be done about it?

(Discussion: Appropriate mood, state of mind, spirit, respect, awe, what we do, how we appear, how we treat God and others, reverence causes humility and softness of heart  - all this contributes to elevating our thoughts/spirits in accord with living in God’s way and beneficence and preparing to assume our mission in the world.)

3. Read Numbers 18:2, 4-5

Numbers 18:   2 Bring with you your brothers from the tribe of Levi, your father’s tribe, so that they can assist you and serve you and your sons before the covenant tent. 4 They will assist you and they will perform the duties of the meeting tent with regard to all the work of the tent. But no outsider may accompany you. 5 You will perform the duties of the sanctuary and the altar. Then there will no longer be any anger against the Israelites.

Why must we guard over the sanctuary and never interrupt the watch?

(Traditionally, the Levites and the priests, to a lesser degree, had these duties in days of old. They protected the space from defilement or damage and, importantly, contributed to the reverence of worshippers by creating an environment of respect, protection, importance of space that is guarded, and indeed its glory.

We sense this feeling when we enter a court or a museum or a palace, for example. Do we in sacred space? Could we find ways to do so more in sacred space? How, and who are the guarding “priests” and “Levites” in our time and world?


4. Read Leviticus 6:13

Leviticus 6:  13 A continuous fire must be kept burning on the altar; it must not go out.

Why? What do we do when we follow this guidance? What does this exercise appear to contribute to our mission in the world?

(There are many possible explanations, of course. Here’s one: We say through this action that we acknowledge that God is eternal. We make a continuing commitment to God and the Divine Way. And, in the work that we as priests do and will do, we make a statement to all who pass encouraging them to join us in this Way.

The altar fire serves as a beacon for God and others, illuminating our sacred relationship and covenant. Like the call of our Way, the fingers of the flames of this fire forever reach out to us to come and draw near to our God and each other.

Chinuch: the fire triggers the blessing of fire inside of us. This fire provides us with the energy to act and function, and it is a fire in balance.) 

 5. Read Exodus 25:30 

Exodus 25:  30 Set the bread of the presence on the table so it is always in front of me.

What might it mean to set showbread continuously in sacred space?

(This may be a collective recognition and gratitude to God for our sustenance with which the Divine blesses us. It may, too, as Chinuch suggested with fire, be a way of triggering blessing for all the bread and sustenance we have in the world. That it involved twelve loaves suggests all tribes - all the community - are blessed and join in expressing gratitude, and that the blessing spreads to the tables in all homes in all the community.)

 6. Read Exodus 20:25-26

Exodus 20:  25 But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. 26 You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”

The altar must not be made of hewn stones, and the approach to the altar must not be made with steps. Any ideas about what these two mitzvot are all about?

(With respect to the first, the basic notion is that stones that are hewn would be cut by an iron instrument, such as a sword-like instrument, which cuts and, as Chinuch says, is “constantly prepared to shed blood.” We are not to do anything to the Altar with instruments that serve destructive purposes. Chinuch: “a person is affected according to his actions, and his thoughts always follow his deeds.” The altar is, according to Artscroll notes, “the conduit for blessing and peace,” so its construction ought not reflect the influences of instruments of war.

In what ways, if any, should these ideas inform the way we construct sacred space, however we understand such space?

Discussion: Should we consider using only rough stones? Are there other ideas as to deeper levels of meaning, as to what we should do or not do in the construction of our “altars”?

As to the second mitzvah, the ramp is preferred to steps for reason of respect. The common idea is that the elevation of a step caused exposure of uncovered parts of the bodies of the priests. We are to reinforce modesty and sanctity. As before, Chinuch: the objective of our obligation to show respect is to create a portrait in our hearts of awe of the place, its importance, and its supreme glory, for as a result of one’s action the heart is affected.

Do these ideas affect our thinking about propriety in sacred space? How?

Discussion - Perhaps acts of immodesty, immorality, carelessness, levity, or improper thought or arousal are disrespectful and inappropriate, and should be avoided in space we deem sacred.)


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Divine Guidance Chapter 4
The Nature and Purpose of Sacred Space

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