Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Visual Arts Contextualization in the Bible, Part 1

I thought it would be interesting to write a series of posts on examples of the contextualization of visual arts in the Bible itself-- not principles, but actual examples (the principles of how to contextualize the visual arts will have to wait till later).

My hope is that by pointing out some examples and examining them, we can see that contextualization isn't just a modern concept in missions, but rather a biblical idea employed by God to reveal himself to humanity.

So on that note, I'd like to start with the Tabernacle. After God led the Israelites out of Egypt, he commanded Moses to have them build a portable sanctuary where God could meet with Moses and the Israelites could worship God appropriately (Exodus 25-30). To say that God's directions for constructing the Tabernacle and its components were quite specific is an understatement! God specified the dimensions, colors, materials and iconography down to the most minute details.

What becomes interesting regarding contextualization is the similarity of the Tabernacle's layout and iconography (and later the Temple's) to other similar structures in the ancient Near East. The first one of note is the Egyptian military tent. Egyptian military tents were command centers for the Egyptian army during military campaigns, with either Pharaoh himself present inside, or an image of him. The ratio of both the Tabernacle and Egyptian military tents were the same. Both faced east and were surrounded by a wall-off area. Inside each tent there was a rectangular “reception area”, which led to a square-shaped holy of holies where the divine Pharaoh himself resided and would communicate with his generals.

In a drawing of a wall relief showing Ramses II's war tent, two winged Horus figures spread their wings protectively around a cartouche containing the Pharaoh's name, much like the two winged cherubs which adorned the lid of the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle. In both cases, this is where each “god” would speak to his people.

Speaking of cherubs, in my next post I'll briefly discuss the iconography of the symbols used in the Temple.

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