The Tabernacle, or Tent of Meeting
By John Taylor; 2006 October 24
Yesterday I spent my morning writing time making up a photo presentation of our family's trip to Adirondack Park, at the request of some of the Esperantists who organized it. I would share it here, except that it takes up the better part of 100 megabytes even after massive cutting in order to have it come under fifteen minutes in duration.
A reader commented on my recent habit of looking at people in terms of the size of the vat of sewage they produce in a year, a trick I find more effective in quelling attachment or feelings of being overawed by personalities than saying to myself, "Well, he puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like me." No, I was instructed, rather than imagining vats of excrement I should instead think when I look into our malfunctioning toilet (which we must flush with a pail of used bath water) about what a miracle it is that the human body can sort out the nutrients it needs from all the food it ingests. The junk it tosses out proves how much it does not need, and how good it is at telling the difference between the good, the bad, and the ugly. There is a beauty even to the most repulsive processes. One thinks of the Qu'ran's example of the cow, which produces pure milk in spite of slopping around in mud, dirt and grass all day. Of course modern technology has got around that miracle of nature and now with the aid of high tech milking machines and cleverly designed drugs, the milk is no longer pure, it is mixed with puss, antibiotics and other carcinogens.
I admit I had not thought of that, and the point is underlined by the number of pretty photographs I had to eject from the slide show yesterday. Our eyes are taking in images at a rate of three or four megabytes per second, and to it the brain acts as both body and toilet, rejecting far more than it takes in. And going over the photos yesterday, it was strange to see how much these piles of images miss from our experiences that weekend. Even if you add in words, masses of data can pile up and you still get what Plato called a mere imitation of imitation, a lie compounded. That same reader mentioned that she had in mind as an antidote to my polluted way of thinking about people the contents of the following eponymous quote from Tabernacle, which I promised to talk about this time anyway. I suppose she was referring to the general dictum in it asserting that whatever increases knowledge or decreases ignorance is acceptable before God. Anyway, here is the quote:
"The incomparable Friend saith: The path to freedom hath been outstretched; hasten ye thereunto. The wellspring of wisdom is overflowing: quaff ye therefrom. Say: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Verily I say, whatsoever leadeth to the decline of ignorance and the increase of knowledge hath been, and will ever remain, approved in the sight of the Lord of creation. Say: O people! Walk ye neath the shadow of justice and truthfulness and seek ye shelter within the tabernacle of unity." (Paragraph 15, Tabernacle, p. 9)
So it seems that at the core of this statement -- protected as it were underneath the tent or tabernacle of unity -- is a re-definition of holiness. According to this, holiness has two aspects, oneness and knowledge.
The first aspect of holiness involves recognition of human oneness, "Ye are the fruits of one tree, and leaves of one branch." (Not to quibble but the translator should have lost the comma in this sentence.) This may well be, as the editors imply in their promotional material, the first use in Baha'u'llah's opus of the phrase, "Ye are the fruits of one tree," Baha'u'llah's most famous and characteristic aphorism.
However, as we have noted many times before on this Badi' Blog, this appears to be in its turn a reference to a passage in the Bab's Kitab-i-Asma (Selections, 129). Briefly, here the Bab re-interprets the Golden Rule and places it under the concept of human oneness, consummating in the dictum, "It behooveth you all to be one indivisible people; thus should ye return unto Him Whom God shall make manifest." In other words, unity in religion puts us into a Catch 22. We must be unified in order to understand the value of unity, but we need to understand unity in order to unify. So to enter unity's tent and be qualified to sit down and learn the lessons of the tabernacle of unity, we must first already in heart, mind and deed, be unified as "one indivisible people." In this manner God always creates Ex Nihilo, by a primordial act of will: "Be thou," and it is.
The second aspect of holiness is knowledge. The Lord of creation approves "whatsoever leadeth to the decline of ignorance and the increase of knowledge." At first blush this does not appear to be saying much. Of course, every rational person approves what increases knowledge or decreases ignorance. The operative word here seems to be "and." God, speaking through Baha'u'llah, is establishing that if something does both, increases knowledge and decreases ignorance, then it is to be regarded as holy, untouchable, automatically approved of God.
Science is not separate from or, worse, opposed to revelatory knowledge. This was already hinted at but not made explicit in earlier revelations. The strongest hints, of course, are in the Qu'ran. The discoveries made by scientific research are the unfoldment of the same process as divine knowledge. If any discovery, sacred or profane, furthers the overall increase of knowledge or decreases ignorance, and preferably both, it is holy. That is what Baha'u'llah is establishing here. Thus knowledge of science and religion are holiest, most reliable, when combined into one common process, like the flight of a bird, making full use of two healthy wings. Taken apart, they are fallible, potentially harmful.
A few weeks ago an ambitious non-Baha'i scholar startlingly compared the Babi and Baha'i Faiths to Protestantism in Christianity. That is, he said that they are nothing but a protestant form of Islam. While it is true that the Babi Faith in particular acted as a protest movement, on the whole this is a deceptive comparison. Both Protestants and the Catholic Reformation utterly changed their doctrinal world view in response to rapid revolutions in scientific knowledge of the time. And even afterwards, Protestant leaders still found themselves un-reconciled with the claims of science, and continue to do so today.
But further East in Islam there was and is no need for such a tortuous doctrinal about-face. Islam is based upon orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. The Qu'ran offers no opposition to scientific discovery and in fact uses nature as a standing parable, a reliable way to understand the operations of divine will. Think of the pure milk coming from the grungy cow. At the same time it is all too obvious that Islam is profoundly corrupt, and has been for centuries. But it is unjust to lose historical perspective and forget, as Westerners both religious and secular too often do forget, that without Islamic civilization modern science in its present form would have been inconceivable. No, the Babi protest was against a sepsis in Islam that runs far deeper than its ability merely to accomodate advances in worldly knowledge. The essence of the Babi protest is to be found in our statement from the Kitab-i-Asma,
"We have created you from one tree, that haply ye may become a source of comfort to one another. Regard ye not others save as ye regard your own selves, that no feeling of aversion may prevail amongst you, so as to shut you out from Him Whom God shall make manifest on the Day of Resurrection." (Id.)
This, as we have noted, Baha'u'llah makes into a main strut of His tabernacle of unity. This Babi' protest, then, is against the "aversion" and estrangement pandemic in Islam, its "two trees" view of the world -- with a good tree of believers and a bad tree of evildoers -- and its consequent suspicion of outsiders and general reluctance to treat members of other Faiths according to the Golden Rule, has made Muslim communities into seedbeds of resentment and terrorism, into standing dangers rather than aids to world unity. This is what the Bab protested, and what Baha'u'llah later actually implemented.
The proof is hinted at in His choice of the word "tabernacle" in our featured paragraph for today. Baha'u'llah twice mentions the word, bookending the twin definitions of holiness that we just discussed. Before it He says, "The tabernacle of unity hath been raised," and then afterwards closes by saying, "seek ye shelter in the tabernacle of unity." What are we to make of this? First of all, the word "tabernacle" or tent has a special meaning in the history of religion. Consider this, from the Jewish translation of the Bible,
"And they ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of the LORD in Jerusalem; and they took their station at their service according to their order." (1 Ch. 6:17)
The tabernacle, then, was the tent in which Moses met personally with the tribal elders, and after his passing the law of the covenant prescribed that the tent of meeting became the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies. Here the ark of the covenant was stored, a box holding in it the stone tablets on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments. As a mobile construction, the tent of meeting was carried from place to place on the journey to the promised land. Later, under Solomon, the revelation came to full flower and the permanent temple, the "house of the Lord," was erected. Tabernacle also signifies the "song" or spirit, the joy and happiness gained from divine law, as opposed to the dead letter, the stultifying, alienating bureaucratic regulations that characterize secular ways of governance.
"How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul yearneth, yea, even pineth for the courts of the Lord; My heart and my flesh sing for joy unto the living God." (Ps 84:2-3)
The tent of meeting then would be in the first place the location of personal meeting with the Manifestation of God and after His passing it would be His Writings, and especially His Law. In the Baha'i Order, what would be the parallel to the tabernacle or tent of meeting, living on as the final fruit of Baha'u'llah's Mission? The Kitab-i-Iqan, written at the dawn of His revelation, offers an answer. It starts off in its first paragraph by saying:
"No man shall attain the shores of the ocean of true understanding except he be detached from all that is in heaven and on earth. Sanctify your souls, O ye peoples of the world, that haply ye may attain that station which God hath destined for you and enter thus the tabernacle which, according to the dispensations of Providence, hath been raised in the firmament of the Bayan." (Iqan, p. i)
Shoghi Effendi's answer to what the tabernacle raised in the sky of the Bayan is the Kitab-i-Aqdas. He wrote in God Passes By,
"Unique and stupendous as was this Proclamation (to the Kings), it proved to be but a prelude to a still mightier revelation of the creative power of its Author, and to what may well rank as the most signal act of His ministry -- the promulgation of the Kitab-i-Aqdas. Alluded to in the Kitab-i-Iqan; the principal repository of that Law which the Prophet Isaiah had anticipated, and which the writer of the Apocalypse had described as the "new heaven" and the "new earth," as "the Tabernacle of God," as the "Holy City," as the "Bride," the "New Jerusalem coming down from God," this "Most Holy Book," whose provisions must remain inviolate for no less than a thousand years, and whose system will embrace the entire planet, may well be regarded as the brightest emanation of the mind of Baha'u'llah, as the Mother Book of His Dispensation, and the Charter of His New World Order." (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 213)
Revealed not earlier than 1873, the Aqdas was written probably only a couple of years before the Tablet to Manikchi Sahib. So we may assume that this paragraph and its reference to the "tabernacle of unity" is part of the "promulgation," the public announcement that a new law is in effect, of the Aqdas. The opening three paragraphs of the Aqdas, with their emphasis on the Law as not a mere set of rules but a "choice sealed wine" is highlighted and prophesied in the above psalm, "How lovely are thy tabernacles." The Aqdas itself defines "tabernacle" as the physical body of Baha'u'llah.
"Be not dismayed, O peoples of the world, when the day-star of My beauty is set, and the heaven of My tabernacle is concealed from your eyes." (Aqdas, 32)
But entry into the tent of meeting is also a station that it is possible for the likes of you and me to attain, though never see with physical eyes. It abides in an invisible realm, one that rests behind things, and is only revealed after life is over and all our deeds are done. The Bible speaks of it like this:
"...the word of the LORD came unto Nathan, saying: `Go and tell My servant David: Thus saith the LORD: Shalt thou build Me a house for Me to dwell in? for I have not dwelt in a house since the day that I brought up the children of Israel out of Egypt, even to this day, but have walked in a tent and in a tabernacle." (2 Samuel 7:4-6)
This station of unfolding, mystically derived virtue, negative and positive, is also upheld in the Aqdas.
"They who eschew iniquity and error, who adhere to virtue, are, in the sight of the one true God, among the choicest of His creatures; their names are extolled by the Concourse of the realms above, and by those who dwell in this Tabernacle which hath been raised in the name of God." (Aqdas, 45)
One is reminded of Baha'u'llah's assertion elsewhere that the tent of existence is held up by two pillars, reward and punishment. So here the behavior praised by those living in the tabernacle is portrayed as a twofold process, as eschewing iniquity and holding to virtue. Reward and punishment, in another guise. In the next paragraph Baha'u'llah forbids contention, again using the imagery of the Ten Commandments being kept in the tabernacle of meeting.
"Let none contend with another, and let no soul slay another; this, verily, is that which was forbidden you in a Book that hath lain concealed within the Tabernacle of glory. What! Would ye kill him whom God hath quickened, whom He hath endowed with spirit through a breath from Him? Grievous then would be your trespass before His throne!" (Aqdas, 45)
The intent of this passage seems to be to extend the Decalogue’s law "thou shalt not kill" even further. Now contention is considered an insipient form of murder. Now the law sets its against even to those who verbally or otherwise enter into opposition. This is why in the commonwealth of Baha'u'llah there can be no "loyal opposition." Contending with or backbiting another soul is as serious a breach of the law as murder, if not more so. If you want to contend with this interpretation, go ahead. I dare you. No, we all take refuge in the Law which now forbids anything of the kind.
Let us end with this tabernacle prayer, from Baha'u'llah's Tablet to the Shah; it is one of the few prayers by and for Baha’u’llah himself, and that alone indicates how close one is to Him when under the roof of the Tabernacle of Unity.
"I implore Thee, O My Lord, by that most exalted Word which hath struck terror into the hearts of all who are in the heavens and on the earth, save only those who have taken fast hold of Thy Sure Handle, not to abandon Me amidst Thy creatures. Lift Me up, then, unto Thyself, cause Me to enter beneath the shadow of Thy mercy, and give Me to drink of the pure wine of Thy providence, that I may dwell within the tabernacle of Thy majesty and beneath the canopy of Thy favour. Potent art Thou to do what pleaseth Thee. Thou, verily, art the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting." (Summons, 1.251, 126-127)