By Dr. Kim Jongerius. Professor of mathematics and department of physics and mathematics chair at Northwester College.
“Just as the Lord had commanded.”
This phrase, or one almost exactly like it, appears in nearly one-fifth of the verses in this week’s section of Exodus. The Israelites completed the construction of the tabernacle, step by step, just as the Lord had commanded Moses, and Moses blessed them for it. Moses set up the interior, piece by piece, just as the Lord commanded him.
These words jump out at me as I read, perhaps because I have always had a love-hate relationship with rules.
On the hate side stand many unwritten rules, particularly those intended to make us better fit society’s mold, the ones that we have been pressured into following nearly from birth. “Sit with your knees together,” for example, which makes perfect sense if one is wearing a skirt but is otherwise completely unnecessary. Or, “Don’t wipe your hands on your pants.” (Seriously? Isn’t that why God created Levis? And washing machines?)
Despite my aversion to meaningless rules, however, I have always been drawn to the structure of mathematics, where rules offer paths to problem-solving and the freedom to approach a given problem in a number of different ways.
“What should I do first?” a beginning algebra student asks when confronted with an equation like 3x+7=8. In the early days of algebra instruction, the teacher gives an incomplete answer: “Subtract 7 from both sides.”
This response is not exactly wrong; take the teacher’s advice, and you’re well on your way to the equation’s solution. But the truth is deeper. The truth is you don’t have to start by subtracting 7. You could start by dividing both sides by 3. Or subtracting 8. Or multiplying by 2.973. In fact, you can do almost anything you want as long as you do it to both sides of the equation. The truth is freeing and … kind of scary. What if you do something that complicates the equation? Well, yeah. That can happen. So undo it! Get back to an easier stage. Or just forge ahead. As long as you’re not making up your own rules without knowing for certain that they are valid, you’ll be on solid ground.
Children thrive, parenting experts claim, on clear expectations. They need structure, consistency, and consequences that make sense. The freedom of rules, basically. This is why math and grammar teachers usually start with rules and only later discuss which rules are firm and which may be adapted. And God, our good, good father, gives us the freedom of rules that offer structure and consistency and consequences while yet allowing us significant freedom of choice, including the choice as to whether or not we will follow the rules.
Old Testament law seems perfectly suited to those who love rules, but as the Bible shows us again and again (and as each of us, if we’re honest about it, provides ample evidence for) no human has a lock on this rule-following thing. On the Exodus journey, God’s children didn’t always follow God’s commands. Why, in building the tabernacle, were they suddenly listening so carefully? Was it the fresh memory of consequences for those who had chosen an idolatrous path (Exodus 32)? Was it the evidence on Moses’ glowing face that he had indeed been chosen to speak for God (Exodus 34)?
Like the Israelites, we tend to convince ourselves that certain rules don’t really matter, that consequences won’t really come our way, that God didn’t really mean what he seems to have said. Too often we pursue not the freedom of rules but freedom from rules as we seek to live on our terms rather than on God’s, particularly if it’s been a while since we last saw the consequences of doing so. Or if we do not see overwhelming evidence that God is speaking words that contradict our individual wills.
This is why we need the Bible, isn’t it? To provide us with overwhelming evidence that God is speaking? To remind us that God offers us the freedom of rules? To assure us that God’s son has taken on himself the ultimate consequence of our inevitable disobedience?
2 Timothy 3:16: All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.
We don’t have to build another tabernacle. But we do need to read God’s word, to study it, and to let it guide the way we live.
Just as the Lord has commanded.