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That I May Dwell Among Them:
Incarnation and Atonement in the Tabernacle Narrative
by gary a. anderson
eerdmans, 270 pages, $35.99

As Gary Anderson writes in his refreshing new book, That I May Dwell Among Them, the developmental, historical method of modern biblical scholarship often neutralizes the Old Testament’s contribution to Christian theology. Critical scholars use a “baton” theology: Once we notice that John has passed the tabernacle baton along to New Testament readers (John 1:14), we can proceed as if the tabernacle texts didn’t exist. This is emphatically not how pre-modern Christians read the Bible. Brevard Childs captures the traditional approach: Though “something totally new began with the resurrection,” still “the New Testament tradition was fundamentally shaped from the side of the Old.” Anderson is part of a growing cadre of scholars who insist the Old Testament must play a “formative role in guiding Christian theology.”

That I May Dwell Among Them opens with what might seem to be unpromising texts and abstruse technical issues. Anderson puzzles, for instance, over a chronological question. According to Exodus 40, the tabernacle was erected on the first day of Nisan, the first month of the Israelite liturgical calendar, and that day ends with Yahweh’s glory filling the tent. Leviticus 8–9, however, describes an eight-day rite of ordination that ends with the descent of the glory and the ignition of the altar fire. So, what actually happened on the first day of Nisan? 

Critical scholars would solve the chronological puzzle, as they solve most textual puzzles, by positing multiple sources. Anderson engages with source critics and suggests that Exodus 40 might “flash forward” to the rites of the eighth day, but he’s far more interested in pondering the meaning and effects of the final text, with all its tensions and riddles. “The biblical author has deliberately slurred time,” he proposes, to hint that the erection of the tabernacle takes place in primordial sacred time. Further, Exodus 40 and Leviticus 8–9 diverge because of their different interests—one highlights the structure of the tent and the other emphasizes the service of the tent, with the book of Numbers adding a third dimension, the role of the tent in guiding Israel through the wilderness. Where source critics smooth the text, Anderson finds meaning in its apparently ragged edges.

Anderson’s exposition of the golden calf incident (Exod. 32–34) is brilliant. Immediately after Yahweh gives detailed instructions for constructing his holy tent, Aaron calls the people to make contributions to construct the golden calf. Israel not only defies Yahweh, but “spurns the sanctuary.” Moses intercedes and Yahweh relents (Exod. 33–34), but Israel’s restoration is completed only in Exodus 35–40, where, instead of forging an idol, the people devote their goods and skill to building Yahweh’s house. Anderson’s reading uncovers the dramatic purpose of chapters 35–40, which, on the surface, do no more than tediously repeat chapters 25–31. The second half of Exodus is a tale of Israel’s fall and renewal: Yahweh commands (Exod. 25–31), Israel disobeys, Moses intercedes, Israel obeys (Exod. 35-40). Yet, the golden calf crisis isn’t completely resolved until the very end of Exodus, where Yahweh agrees to accompany Israel to the land: “Throughout all their journeys whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would set out” (Exod. 40:36).

From texts such as this, Anderson teases out implications for the doctrines of incarnation and atonement. Following the lead of the apostle John, the church fathers used tabernacle and temple analogies for the incarnation, since they were convinced that “the doctrine of the incarnation was not . . . solely an affair of the New Testament.” After the Nestorian controversy, temple analogies for the incarnation fell into disfavor, since they seemed to imply a loose, extrinsic relationship between the divine Son and his human nature, as if the Son merely “resided” in humanity rather than assuming it. Temple typology migrated to Marian theology, since Mary “housed” the divine presence without becoming a God-Woman. As Anderson has shown earlier in the book, however, the Old Testament provides a stronger incarnational theology in which the temple and its furnishings manifest the glory of Yahweh and share in the holiness that radiates from the divine resident. That’s a non-extrinsic incarnational model of which even Cyril of Alexandria might approve.

Anderson’s treatment of sacrifice isn’t as compelling. He is, I think, mistaken in saying the daily offering (tamid) wasn’t an atoning offering. Lambs were offered morning and evening as “burnt offerings” (Exod. 29:42), and, according to Leviticus, burnt offerings “atone” (Lev. 1:4). Anderson wrestles with the relationship between the sacrifice of Jesus and the final end of redemption in deification. To be sure, there’s an “unbreakable bond between the [divinizing] act of indwelling the tabernacle and the sacrificial service that will be conducted there.” But that formulation assumes sacrifice is most fundamentally an act of “giving up”: Abraham sacrifices his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, then sacrifice is reversed when Abraham receives Isaac back as from the dead. Biblical sacrifice, though, includes both moments, the receiving-back as well as the giving up. Levitical sacrifices were rituals of death and transfiguration, and many offerings climaxed with the priest or worshiper receiving part of the sacrifice as food. Thus a Levitically-informed atonement theology includes deification within sacrifice.

Modern biblical scholarship is like the arsonist who turns firefighter. Scholars devote impressive erudition and ingenuity to creating textual and theological dilemmas, then save the day with convoluted solutions to problems of their own making. Anderson’s patient, accessible work is of an entirely different sort. That I May Dwell Among Them is rigorous, illuminating, and theologically invigorating.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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Image by Berthold Werner licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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