One of the many fascinating events to occur in the Book of Exodus is God “leaving” the mountain of God (Mount Sinai) to travel with the Hebrews to the Promised Land in a portable sanctuary called the tabernacle.
Yahweh tells Moses: “Have the people of Israel build me a holy sanctuary so I can live among them. You must build this tabernacle and its furnishings exactly according to the pattern I will show you”
What a peculiar notion that God demands an earthly dwelling place to “reside” in—with precise materials, measurements and patterns—to journey with the Hebrews to the Promised Land. Let’s explore this intriguing voyage of God.
The Israelites are now carting around a mobile “thin place” and once they reach the Promised Land the journey of this portable thin place gets a little confusing. Moses’ tabernacle was set up in Shiloh and Nob, and eventually moved to Gibeon. The ark of the covenant—a tabernacle centrepiece that routinely demonstrated supernatural power and was a type of thin place in its own right—ended up in a small village named Kiriath-Jearim, a few miles northwest of Jerusalem. It arrived there after taking a strange and wild ride through Philistia after the Philistines captured it in a battle described in I Samuel 4-6.
Around 1000 B.C., King David constructs a new tabernacle in Jerusalem, where the ark of the covenant is relocated. This site is presumably where Solomon builds the temple shortly after David’s death. The Israelites then bring Moses’ tabernacle tent and its contents into Solomon’s temple, where the tent is “decommissioned” and stored, being replaced by the temple itself as the new “permanent” dwelling place of Yahweh.
So Yahweh’s curious journey in a tent is finally finished and I notice some obvious parallels with the earthly journey of Christ: Infinite God leaves a high place (Mount Sinai) and “lives” in a temporary “vessel” for 40 years, leading oppressed humans out of bondage through the wilderness to a place of promise and freedom, and then returns to a high place (the Temple Mount). Yahweh’s journey in Exodus is a puzzling yet prophetic paradox to contemplate.
From this point on, the temple in Jerusalem was regarded by the Israelites as the ultimate thin place. It was the dwelling place of almighty God. Of course, the Israelites did not believe God exclusively lived in the Temple. The Israelites believed God was infinite and omnipresent, and could not be contained within space and time. Their view of sacred sites, especially the temple, was that God—or supernatural power—was especially or uniquely present there. In other words, they believed the temple was a thin place.
There are thin places mentioned in the New Testament as well. One example is found in John 5, where Jesus heals an invalid at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. Many ill and disabled people would congregate there because they believed the pool was anointed with supernatural healing power. In John 5:4 we read: “At certain times, an angel of the Lord would go down into the pool and stir up the water, and whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had.”
Although many scholars believe this verse was not part of the original manuscript, it is clear in John 5:7 that the invalid whom Jesus heals—and presumably the others gathered there—believed the pool of Bethesda was a thin place with miraculous power.
Of course, the primary thin place for Jews during Jesus’ ministry was still the temple. Their belief that the temple was the dwelling place of God was a thousand-year-old tradition by then. And millions of people still believe the Temple Mount is a thin place today. It is considered the most sacred place in the world for religious Jews and is regarded as the third holiest site on earth by Muslims.
So what does the Bible teach us about thin places?
- Belief in, and experiences of, thin places are evident throughout the biblical narrative.
- Thin places in the Bible include locations where God is uniquely present and locations that are anointed with spiritual significance or supernatural energy.
- Thin places in the Bible include mobile and constructed objects.
- Some thin places in the Bible are thin for other religions as well.
Of course, none of this proves thin places actually exist, but it’s clear to me the idea of thin places is very biblical.
To be continued. . . . See Part 4 of this series.
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church, Stratford, Ont.