The Torah portion Terumah (“raised donations”) begins with God telling Moses to ask everyone whose heart is so moved to donate materials to make a sanctuary: three kinds of metals, three colors of expensive dye, linen, wool, two kinds of hides, wood, oil, incense spices, and gems. Then God says:
God has already promised to be the god of the Israelites and their fellow-travelers. But, as we see in the golden calf incident two Torah portions later, the Israelites cannot believe God is still with them without some visual aid. God refuses to inhabit a golden statue of a calf. Instead, the people will be reassured by the sight of the sanctuary.
The list of materials for this sanctuary begins:
And this is the raised donation that you will take from them: zahav, and kesef, and nechoshet … (Exodus 25:3)
zahav (זָהָב) = gold.
kesef (כֶּסֶף) = silver; the common currency in the Middle East.
nechoshet (נְחֺשֶׁת) = copper, brass, bronze. (From the root verb nicheish, נִחֵשׁ = practiced divination.)
Gold and Silver
We know why the Israelites had gold and silver to donate. After the final plague in Egypt, they followed God’s order to “ask” their Egyptian neighbors for silver items, gold items, and clothing. The Egyptians complied.
Besides using silver and gold for ornamental vessels and jewelry, Egyptians and other peoples in the Middle East made idols (statues for gods to inhabit) out of precious metals. That is why, after the revelation at Mount Sinai, God says:
With me, do not make gods of silver or gods of gold; you shall not make them for yourselves. (Exodus/Shemot 20:20)
Accustomed to thinking of gold as the metal of highest status, the Israelites would feel reassured that their donated gold would go into all the holy objects in the inner chamber of the sanctuary: the lamp-stand, the table, the incense altar, and the ark itself. Silver was less precious, so it is not surprising that God tells Moses to use silver for the sockets in the framework around the inner chamber. This framework supports the curtains and tent-roof, and is made of wood planks plated with gold.
The use of gold and silver reinforces the high status and the holiness of the sanctuary’s inner chamber of the sanctuary. I believe the requirement that these two metals be donated also has a psychological value. After all, the people know that the gold and silver objects do not really belong to them; the Egyptians handed over the objects when they were desperate to end the plagues. And the gold is also a reminder of the golden calf. Donating their gold and silver for God’s sanctuary would relieve the people’s guilt on both counts.
Once the inner chamber of the sanctuary is assembled, the people see only its outer walls—the gorgeous curtains fastened to the gold-plated planks that are fitted into silver sockets. Only priests are allowed into the area with the incense altar, table, and lamp-stand, and only Moses and the high priest, Aaron, can enter the innermost Holy of Holies, where the ark is concealed. But everyone knows that God manifests and speaks in the empty space above the gold-plated ark.
Another area of the sanctuary is open to every Israelite: the outer courtyard, which contains the altar for animal sacrifices. This altar, and all its tools, are made out of copper or bronze.
Where does the copper come from? The Israelites only took silver, gold, and clothing from the Egyptians. The word for copper, nechoshet, appears only once before this in the Torah: the list of Cain’s descendants includes Tuval-Kayin, who made cutting tools out of nechoshet and iron.1
The book of Exodus is set in a historical period when the Bronze Age is ending, and iron is just beginning to come into use. Bronze, an alloy of copper and zinc, was the most common metal for tools and blades. It was also the most common metal for making mirrors, since bronze reflects well when it is polished. And mirror-like surfaces were used for divination, the type of magic practiced by people who want to see the future.
The snake in the garden of Eden is a nachash, נָחָשׁ, another word from the root nicheish. The role of the snake is to arouse a desire in Eve for a different kind of knowledge, the knowledge that God has. Only after her conversation with the snake does she taste the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.2
When Moses first demonstrates God’s power to Pharaoh, his staff turns into a nachash. He is trying to give Pharaoh knowledge about God, though Pharaoh is too defensive to pay attention. Pharaoh’s magicians turn their own staffs into crocodiles, but Moses’ snake eats them.3 (Later, in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, Moses halts a plague of poisonous snakes, nechashim, with a bronze snake on a pole, a nechash nechoshet.4)
In the book of Genesis, both Lavan and Joseph claim to practice divination when they are trying to impress their troublesome relatives.5 But in Deuteronomy/Devarim, God warns the Israelites not to practice divination, or any other kind of magic. One must not try to force information out of God.6
Traditional Jewish commentary explains that the altar in the courtyard of God’s sanctuary is made of copper or bronze because it is a third-rate metal, less valuable than gold or silver but good enough for the area that is merely holy, not the Holy of Holies. Another explanation might be that the tools for the altar had to be bronze so they would hold an edge, and it seemed appropriate to make the altar itself out of the same metal.
Or maybe the Israelites needed to surrender not only the silver and gold they took from the Egyptians, but also their own snakiness, their own desire for divination and divine knowledge.
Maybe even today, we need to give up the idea that we can predict and control the future. Can we accept that we are not gods, and we cannot make our own gods? Can we resist the promise of magic? Can we donate what knowledge we have, all our copper and all our serpentine wisdom, to building a sanctuary for the whole world? If we can, then maybe God will dwell among us.
- Genesis 4:22.
- Genesis 3:1-6.
- Exodus 7:8-13.
- Numbers 21:9.
- Lavan in Genesis 30:27, Joseph in Genesis 44:15.
- Deuteronomy 18:10.