Attacking the Tabernacle


Peter J. Leithart


Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 97 (November 1999): 15-16.

For more than two decades, Psalm 139:13 has served as a slogan for the anti-abortion movement, adorning banners and picket signs from Boston to the Bay and everywhere in between. And the text is entirely appropriate to the sermon. One can hardly imagine a clearer affirmation of Godís care for the unborn than the simple words of the Psalm: "For Thou didst form my inward parts; Thou didst weave me in my motherís womb." It simply will not do to limit this sentiment to the Psalmist, as if he alone were "fearfully and wonderfully made." The Psalmist sees Godís care for him as a specific case of the universal truth that God is the inescapable God, who formed us at the beginning and who has always already arrived before we get to our end. If the Psalmist is a fabric woven by God, so are we all. Opponents of abortion have drawn the unavoidable conclusion: If God takes such care in forming unborn children, how dare we treat fetuses as blobs of disposable tissue?

Further meditation on this text, however, leads into different and deeper waters, suggesting that abortion is not only slaughter on a grand scale, but something even more terrible. The Hebrew word used by the Psalmist for "woven" (raqam) is a comparatively rare word in the Old Testament, employed almost exclusively in texts that describe the curtains and veils of Israelís wilderness tabernacle. The screen that stretched across the doorway of the tent, for example, was the "work of a roqem" (Exodus 26:36), as was the curtain at the entry to the tabernacle courtyard. Unlike the more elaborate and valuable hosheb-weave, roqem weaving did not include figures of cherubim and the like, but in contrast to cruder oreg material, roqem used colorful, finely woven linen. To say that an unborn child is "roqem work" is to say something about the cunning skill of the Weaver and about the beauty of his fabric.

Beyond that, the Psalmís language suggests an analogy between the tabernacle and the infant. Within Exodus, the symbolism of the tabernacle resonates in several related directions. The tabernacle is, as Philo and Josephus recognized, a microcosm, a small model of the universe in architectural form. There are also parallels between Mount Sinai and the tent that was first pitched at its base. Above all, the tent was the dwelling place of Yahweh among his people. Just as Israel lived in tents and moved from place to place, so the Lord lived among his people in a tent and moved with them. Because the tabernacle was a dwelling of Yahweh, it was a holy place, sanctified, as all holy places are, by the presence of Yahweh in his glory. Among other things, a holy place is inviolable, forbidden land. The tabernacle was off-limits except to authorized persons. And the gate of this holy space was covered by a curtain of roqem work.

Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh responds to violations of holy space with terrifying swiftness. Immediately after the erection of the tabernacle, Aaronís sons offered incense improperly, and were instantly killed. Korah and his allies challenged Aaronís priestly privileges, and for their encroachment on Aaronís holiness, the earth opened and swallowed them alive. Later, King Uzziah was struck with leprosy for performing the priestly task of offering incense. Treading the earth is perfectly safe; but breaking through the boundaries onto consecrated ground is sacrilege, and very, very dangerous.

In the New Testament, tabernacle imagery is applied explicitly to individuals. John tells us that, in Jesus, the Word "tabernacled" among us (John 1:14), and both Paul and Peter speak of their bodies as "dwelling places" that will be torn down at death. Though these New Testament references make parallels between person and tent more explicit, the analogy is already implicit in the Old Testament. This is especially evident in Israelís high priest, whose vestments were made of materials similar to those of the tabernacle curtains. Clothed in the priestly garments, the high priest was a human tabernacle. Psalm 52:5 broadens the imagery when it threatens that God will tear the wicked man "away from his tent," and in one of Jeremiahís famous laments he complains that his "tent is destroyed, and all my ropes are broken" (Jeremiah 10:20).

Psalm 139, then, is picking up on a known thread of imagery when it compares the formation of an infant in the womb to his being "woven" like a tent curtain. In the womb, the Lord weaves the tent that the infant will "wear" until he puts it off at death. With its allusions to the roqem work of the tabernacle, the Psalm goes further, implying not only that God has made the infant in the womb, but also that the infant is being woven into a dwelling for God. Abortion attacks not only a creature of God but a house of God. The abortionistís instruments pierce through the unfinished roqem curtains and tread on holy ground. We are talking here not only about slaughter of the innocent but about sacrilege, a direct attack on "space" claimed by God. That is the most serious offense possible. Paulís warning hovers ominously over our nation: "If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy."

When we have left in tatters the tents God wove for Himself, how shall He dwell among us?


Peter J. Leithart is Fellow in Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.