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The Ark of the Covenant and Gender Equality: A Lesson From Exodus 25

Updated on February 10, 2019
David AZ Cohen PhD profile image

David Cohen is an Orthodox Jew, therapist and Bible Scholar, currently retired after 28 years in the civil service.


The Tabernacle and What We Can Learn From It

From the beginning of Exodus chapter 25 and until the end of the Book, the Bible describes the building of the tabernacle. The tabernacle was built while the Children of Israel were at Mount Sinai (at exactly what point is a matter of debate) and served as a place of worship until its destruction over 400 years later.

Many scholars, both Jewish and Christian, have tried to work out hidden meanings and messages which are manifest in the physical structure, layout, and individual items of the tabernacle. Don Isaac Abarbanel (Iberia, 1437-1508) concluded that the "hidden messages" (which are not so "hidden" to his thinking) are geared to teach us how to live moral, pro-social lives: the kind of lives God wants us to live. For example: The tabernacle was built using donations of money and materials from all strata of society. Donations were not actively solicited beyond the original notice of what was needed, and everyone brought what he or she could. This was meant to signify that the tabernacle was built by everyone and was for everyone, equally, and that everyone is equal in the eyes of the Lord. Men and women, rich and poor, noble and common, leaders and followers: All Equal.

The Ark, It's Cover and the Cherubim

The first item to be constructed in the building of the tabernacle was not, as one would expect, the walls or the roof, but rather the Ark of the Covenant. The ark was built of acacia wood and lined inside and outside with gold. It was carried by two permanently mounted wooden staves set into four golden rings. On its top was a very unique cover, which is described in the Bible (Exodus 25: 17-20):

And thou shalt make an ark-cover of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof. And thou shalt make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shalt thou make them, at the two ends of the ark-cover. And make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of one piece with the ark-cover shall ye make the cherubim of the two ends thereof. And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the ark-cover shall the faces of the cherubim be.

The Talmud informs us that, in addition to what is described in the Bible, the cherubim were made to represent a male and a female.
Why were there cherubim on the cover of the Ark? Why were there two? Why were they facing each other? Why were they male and female?
Don Isaac has an interesting answer- especially it we take into account that it was written at the end of the 15th century, at the end of the Dark Ages.

The Cherubim As a Sign of Equality and Brotherly Love

Cherubim, explains Don Isaac, represent angles, are the messengers of God in this world. "Angels" appeared to our forefathers, an angel "led" the Children of Israel in the desert. The wings of the cherubim were "spread on high" to show that they receive their instructions from God and cannot act without his initiative or approval, and that the world is run by God, who is the creator and the constant source of renewal.

But why facing each other and why male and female?

Abarbanel states that the cherubim were face to face "in brotherly love between one and the other". Male and female: "To imply and to teach that every man and woman from the Children of Israel are worthy from birth to persist and live to the end of their days with the Lords teachings, to pursue them day and night, be it through study or through action of fulfilling the commandments- for in this way they will attain fulfillment and happiness".

Male and female, face to face, as equals, with 'brotherly love" between, pursuing the life the Lord desires one to pursue.

In religious life, men and women have different roles and different functions. In many cases, they are required to "function" separately. In Don Isaac's world, men and women had clear gender roles and clearly defined roles in society. That doesn't mean that they aren't equal or that the function of one group was more or less important than the function of the other.

As gender roles become more and more blurred in modern society, we hear more and more about "gender inequality" or "gender exclusion", mostly to the disadvantage of women.

Don Isaac Abarbanel, from the fifteenth century, is telling us that there is no place for this in Judaism. Men and women have different roles, and sometimes they need to be separate. But they also need to face each other, as equals, with love.

Under God, Indivisible along Gender Lines

Is it possible that boundaries have blurred too much and too fast? Of course it is. It is also possible that in the long run, current trends will be reversed. This may be good, this may be not so good. I don’t know, and I'm not going to give an opinion.

What I do know, and what Don Isaac is telling us, is that to work out gender related issues in the rapidly changing world (and especially in the religious world, where change is slower and much more difficult), men and women must face each other as equals, with "brotherly love", and remember, always, to respect one another and that ultimately, they are working together to further the society in which we all live, together: "One nation, under God, indivisible"- including along lines of gender.

© 2019 David A Cohen


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